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Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens Makes The Case For Intervention In Syria

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HH: New York Times reporting today that Great Britain is going to hold off on bringing a resolution before the House of Commons authorizing the use of military force until next week, even as they publish an intelligence report today concluding that Assad was behind last week’s chemical attacks, this week’s chemical attacks. I’m joined by Bret Stephens, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal opinion page and great columnist there. Bret wrote an extraordinarily important piece which is linked over at, Target Assad, two days ago. Bret, welcome back, good to have you.

BS: Good to be on the show, Hugh.

HH: In your piece, you argued President Obama ought to kill Bashar Assad and his brother and principal henchman, Maher, also everyone else in the Assad family with a claim on political power, also all of the political symbols of the Assad’s family power, including their official and unofficial residences. And you make this argument based upon the barbarity of the attack that we know to have occurred. How’s the response been to this piece?

BS: It’s been a curious response, because it’s made for some strange bedfellows. I mean, I find people like Hussein Ibish, whose views on, say, Palestinian issues, don’t always square with mine, to say the least, agreeing with me. I see now that the cover of The Economist, whose foreign policy views also don’t square with mine, is aimed squarely at Assad. And at the same time, a lot of Republicans or conservatives who I used to travel with on a lot of foreign policy topics are very squeamish about any military action, sometimes for reasons which I fully understand, other times for reasons which I think are partisan and lamentable.

HH: Yeah, there is one argument out there, the one that gives me the greatest amount of pause, is that we have World War I tinderbox kind of situation here, and we do not have an administration capable of managing it, and I want to come back to that. But it seems to me that Max Boot has said light, medium and heavy are the three kinds of options. But he didn’t put in this option, which is sort of light-heavy option.

BS: Well look, I mean, my point, and my column sort of took it as a given that Obama was going to go for a short strike, that we’re not talking about any sort of long term operation, any really substantive efforts to provide material aid to rebels who we can trust. He wants a two, three day strike. And the argument I want to make is if it’s going to be a two or three day strike, to make it unmistakably clear how the United States feels about the use of chemical weapons, and how we can deter not only the Assad regime, but other nasty regimes from ever using these kinds of weapons. You have to make the people who ordered the strike, Bashar Assad and his brother, pay for it with their lives. Look, you know, Hugh, years ago, I found myself stuck in a republican, in a Syrian Republican Guard encampment right on the Lebanese border. I essentially stumbled into this place, and I was detained there for a little while. And I was looking at these soldiers. I mean, these were guys who were thin and tired and dirty and poor-looking soldiers. And I’m not quite sure where the morality is of lobbing Cruise missiles that kill these guys, but give Bashar and his brother all the time they need to hide and wait out the American attack, and potentially order another one. These guys have crossed a civilizational line, and the United States, as presumably the keeper of world order, has to punish it. If we don’t do it, it’s an invitation for further acts of this kind. And you know, the analogy, you mentioned World War I. The analogy is Benito Mussolini going into Ethiopia using chemical weapons against, as they were then known, the Abyssinians, and getting away with it. And what people like Mussolini and Hitler and Stalin learned from the weakness and fecklessness of the West in the 1930s is that it was open season, and that’s the scenario we’re inviting again by not punishing Assad.

HH: Actually, I called my colleague, Ben Shapiro, this morning, who’s ordinarily right. And I wanted to know who had kidnapped Ben Shapiro, because I pointed out that if you allow the red line to fade, the mullahs in Tehran are going to be the ones who take the greatest note of that red line fading, and that there is a realpolitik as well as a moral issue to be made here. Now let’s, the trouble is there’s this strange coalition of bedfellows. You’ve got the left that is always hostile to military action, you’ve got the propaganda left that doesn’t want Obama to look anything like W. when it comes to preemptive action, or WMD concerns. Then, you’ve got the isolationists in the Republican Party, and then you have the Constitutionalists and the originalists, and I want to go there, because yesterday, Speaker Boehner, I think, sent a letter that opened the door to President Obama relying on the Authorization of Use of Military Force in 2001 as his legal basis for striking, Bret Stephens. Did you read it that way?

BS: Look, I would put to them this question. Did Ronald Reagan go to Tip O’Neill and ask for permission to bomb Libya in 1986? Of course, he did not. Did he go to Congress and ask for permission to invade Grenada in 1983? So this kind of newfound Constitutionalism is frankly pure and old-fashioned partisanship. Now is there a case to be made, and Boehner made this case in a press release I saw a couple of days ago, that the President should go before the American people and lay out exactly what he’s doing? Absolutely. And part of, I think, the Republicans’ suspicion of a potential American strike is have we ever had a president so ambivalent about the kind of military strike he seems to be about to order? I mean, this is a guy who says he wants to take a shot across the bow. Now so this is a president of the United States saying I want to miss my target. Has it ever happened in U.S. history?

HH: Yeah (laughing), I hadn’t thought of that. No, but I do think there is some, Jack Goldsmith is not a shrinking violet, and he wrote at Law Fair Blog yesterday that we’re going to go beyond Kosovo here if this becomes more than a shot across the bow in terms of unilateralism on the part of the President. That actually has never bothered me. I always believed that there’s a political check on the president and the use of military force, and the commander-in-chief power is extreme. But it does bother some center-right people. And so to speak to them, though, I don’t think he’s without authority. I think that after 9/11, the Congress of the United States said in pretty unmistakable terms if al Qaeda is near to WMD, go kill the al Qaeda, and go get the WMD. And so Bret Stephens, I don’t see how this president doesn’t act if what we know to be true in Syria, that there are al Qaeda, and that there are masses amounts of chemical weapons, is obvious to people.

BS: It’s a very thoughtful point, Hugh, and it’s ironic given that just last May, President Obama went to the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, and called for repealing the Authorization to use Military Force from 2001, which is precisely the most clear legal authority he could, or Congressional authority he could refer to if he acts in Syria. But the fact is that this, what the President is thinking about doing in Syria falls well within classic presidential prerogatives.

HH: Yes.

BS: And Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot by essentially siding with Dennis Kucinich Democrats, and suddenly insisting on Congressional authorization, because when a Republican is president, he will rue the day when Republicans took that route.

HH: I got an email from a prominent conservative activists a couple of nights ago asking me to sign onto the Virginia Congressman’s letter about the requirement of a declaration of war, and I sent it back and I said I can’t do that. That’s just not what we do. That’s not originalist, and it’s also very, very short-sided. W. did go and get, but those were very different circumstances. And if he was going to go, Bret Stephens, to commit ground troops there over a long period of time, there’s a better argument. But offshore or Special Forces commitment of troops, this is so conventionally Constitutional that I think someone in the Republican Party has to stand up and say that. I’m glad you are. But I mean, John Boehner didn’t say that. He implied it in his letter by not demanding an alternative, meaning formal action. And there are consultations that are underway. But this debate has to be had. We can’t go back to isolationism.

BS: Well, this is, I mean, this is actually something I’m writing about at length, and this is a growing theme within the Republican Party. We are going back to the land of the Robert Taft Republicans more and more. And you know, there is this view in the Republican Party, and I mean, really, on both sides of the aisle, while both sides are bad in Syria, and you know, who knows what…first of all, it’s a basic misreading of what’s happening in Syria. Second of all, it gets our strategic interests wrong. We have a strategic interest in punishing people who use chemical weapons. We have a strategic interest in maintaining the credibility of an American president’s word. We have a strategic interest in making sure that the Syrian civil war does not become a regional civil war. And above all, we have a strategic interest in putting Hezbollah and its masters in Tehran on the back foot. This is what this war in Syria really is about, whether Iran is going to gain, or it’s going to consolidate its gains in the broader Middle East, or whether they won’t be allowed to do it. Final point, Hugh, don’t think that Israelis aren’t looking very carefully at the way the President acts toward Syria in determining whether he’s going to act in any significant way toward Israel, because he’s already demonstrated that his red lines are effectively meaningless. And we will face a real and genuinely worrisome foreign policy challenge if Israel feels it has to go it alone against Iran and their nuclear program.

HH: Bret Stephens, if I can keep you for an extra segment, I’d like to, because I want to explore, and I don’t know, I’ll check with him after the break and we’ll find out, America, when I come back.

— – – – –

HH: Bret, one of the reasons I asked you to stay over is I’ve got a good friend, Yoni. Yoni is very opposed to this, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Services, dual citizen, lives in Washington State right now, blogs at, has called the show a number of times, sent me an email detailing last night that he believes this could trigger a cataclysmic attack on Israel, and that he is concerned, as a citizen of Israel, strong supporter of Israel, that the United States is going to do just that, that missiles are going to rain down in Israel, and we’re going to have triggered that for no good reason whatsoever. How do you respond to him?

BS: I think that’s a possibility, but I think it’s unlikely, and I think it has to be weighed against the other alternatives. I mean, with respect to the views of your friend, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a fairly strong statement earlier this week saying that the use of chemical weapons simply can’t be allowed to stand. And if you talk, as I do, to leading Israeli military decision makers, or former decision makers, the view has definitely shifted from kind of a sense that you know, perhaps it would be better if Assad stays in place, to a strong feeling that it’s in Israel’s strategic interest for Assad to be evicted from power. And essentially, again, it comes down to this issue that what’s happening in Syria really is a question about whether Iran is going to gain strategically in Israel’s back yard, or is it going to be set back? Will the Syrians lob their chemical weapons at Israel in the event of what is really looking like a de minimis U.S. strike? I find that highly unlikely, because Assad would, must know, does know that that would be the immediate end of his regime. Would the Iranians attempt to do something similar? Again, I find that incredibly unlikely, because that would automatically trigger an Israeli attack, which despite the rhetoric, Iran is very eager to avoid. You know, there’s a reason Israelis are buying gas masks as they often do, but I suspect, and this is the consensus of most Israeli decision makers, that the chances than an American attack will have consequences for Israel immediately are relatively slim. On the other hand, the chances, or the risks to Israel if Assad emerges victorious are much greater.

HH: All right, Bret Stephens, last objection to using real force, and I think this pin prick is idiotic. It’s the dumb thing, but let’s assume real force for the moment is on the table. Is that, and it’s been made by a number of smart people, that al Qaeda takes over, extremists. Now John McCain is the biggest responder to this, saying no, no, no, there are alternatives. But John McCain’s been wrong about everything in Egypt, and like Lindsey Graham, and even Kelly Ayotte has been wrong about everything in Egypt. And people, frankly, just don’t trust his judgment on this. What do you think? Is there an alternative that isn’t al Qaeda, and isn’t named Assad?

BS: Yes, I do. And if you want to talk to someone who really knows what he’s talking about here, talk to Jack Keane, the former Vice Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and really one of the intellectual authors of the surge in Iraq, really an incredible American patriot who really knows his stuff on this subject.

HH: Yeah.

BS: And the view that al Qaeda dominates the insurgency is simply factually mistaken. Now that they are an element within the insurgency is undoubtedly true. But they only became a powerful element within the insurgency precisely because we would have no part of the insurgency when it first began. We have been fueling, we have essentially been helping al Qaeda by refusing to substantially aid and support the mainstream of the Syrian opposition, so they have resorted to desperate tactics and fighters who are willing to basically do anything. So this is, I think that’s a mistake in view. Now am I under any sort of misimpression that the, or the idea that the insurgents represent a coalition of Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians? That’s preposterous and absurd. But when it comes to the Middle East, Hugh, you’re always choosing between bad and worse, and much worse options. And right now, I think the least bad option is to support, as best as we can, insurgents we feel we have the most trust in to overturn the Assad regime, to deal a strategic setback to Iran, to deal a strategic setback to Hezbollah, because the alternative to that, Assad victorious, Khamenei victorious, Hezbollah victorious, looks very bad for the United States. It looks very bad for Israel. It looks bad every way you look at it.

HH: I would also add that people who say there’s only al Qaeda, that the Saudis are not interested in funding al Qaeda. Anyone who’s read The Looming Tower at least once, but often knows the Saudis have no interest in allowing al Qaeda to come to power. But that does bring us…

BS: And by the way, nor do the Syrians have any interest in being ruled by al Qaeda.

HH: Right.

BS: You know, one of the things we learned at Anbar is that al Qaeda wears out its welcome very quickly. And where Jabat al Nusra has been trying to consolidate civil control in pockets of Syria, they have found serious pushback from the Syrian people. So the idea that al Qaeda is going to take over this country, and it’s going to become an al Qaeda state, is pretty far-fetched. On the other hand, the idea that Assad might just win if we allow him to is realistic and threatening.

HH: Now I want to finish with our last three minutes by asking you if you can, to figure out what is the President’s strategic objective, because no matter how you look at this, the civil war in Syria has now spread into Lebanon, which explosions in the north, and explosions in the south. And in Iraq, violence has skyrocketed at an alarming level. The Iranians are marching towards their nukes. The only friend we have in Egypt is the one that the President is trying very hard to completely alienate from us.

BS: General Sisi.

HH: General al Sisi. And so what is, what’s guiding him, Bret Stephens, if you try and figure out what is his objective?

BS: I think the President’s strategic objective is to improve his golf game. I say that only somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

HH: Right. He just doesn’t care?

BS: I mean, I think we’re talking about a president who is fundamentally uninterested in what’s going on in the Middle East, whose basic view is that we want to get out of there as much as we can, that the Middle East has basically been a land of sorrows when it comes to American interests and American lives, and he wants to wash his hands of every potential dilemma. That’s why he washed his hands of Iraq, that’s what he’s doing in Afghanistan, that’s what he wants to do in Syria and in Egypt. And the fact is that there’s something that’s quite beguiling about that worldview. You know, the Middle East has not been a happy place for the United States. We have not consolidated victories the way we did in Europe after World War II or in Japan, or then in South Korea after the Korean war. But that isn’t to say that the Middle East doesn’t still engage fundamental American interests, not the least of which is making sure that a country like Iran isn’t allowed to be in a position to threaten and dominate the entire region, which still matters to us for its oil resources, and also to threaten our allies and us here in the United States by the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

HH: Yeah.

BS: Those are not trivial issues.

HH: And so at least as with regards to the world, he’s America’s Stanley Baldwin? He just doesn’t want…

BS: The great, the too easily forgotten mid-war, interwar British prime minister. That’s exactly it. And we’re looking at an America that has lost the will to enforce world order. Just as Britain and France lost the will in the 1930s, it led to a dangerous place for the world.

HH: Terrible, terrible places. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, keep working hard, and we’ll keep working this issue together.

End of interview.


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