On February 17, Bret Stephens — fresh off the plane from Israel, where he will have met with senior officials — will speak at an AIPAC meeting in Teaneck.
A Wall Street Journal Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Mr. Stephens will visit Congregation Rinat Yisrael to talk about the latest developments in the Middle East and their impact on America and Israel.
The word “latest” is meant literally. The journalist, who shared with us his opinions on the turmoil plaguing that region, said, “many things could happen between now and February 17. I’ll be talking about things that are current and relevant.” Among other things, he will offer his views “on the outlook for us as we enter the new election cycle,” with particular emphasis on Middle East policy.
Now the Journal’s foreign-affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor, Stephens was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004. In 2014, he wrote “America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder,” in which he argued that “to the extent that the U.S. withdraws or says it is not interested in intervening,” we will create power vacuums likely to be filled by less savory parties — ISIS, for example, in Syria, or Russia in Ukraine.
His view, he said, has been “vindicated by events.” He cited a chapter in his book, which he wrote in 2012, “when the general view was that the world was in a pretty good place.” Bin Laden was dead, Al Qaeda appeared to be in trouble, and we had made a responsible exit from Iraq.
In that chapter, Mr. Stephens predicted world events over the next five years, foreseeing, for example, a fall in the price of oil, the likelihood that Saudi Arabia would invade a Shiite neighbor (although he thought it might be Bahrain), a third intifada, a wave of bankruptcies in China, and a successful nuclear deal with Iran.
“I’m not clairvoyant,” he said, noting that if you look at the “core realities” in a given situation, you are more likely to be successful at predicting behavior than if you were to try to imagine “crazy scenarios.”
“When the value of the dollar rises, inevitably it leads to a fall in the price of oil,” he said. Therefore, his only challenge was to predict whether the value of the dollar would go up.
“I thought it would,” he said, and it did.
Mr. Stephens said the idea of American non-intervention is present on both sides of the political spectrum. Ted Cruz, he said, has voiced the opinion that “we don’t have a dog in the fight in Syria.” And on the Democratic side, “they kind of believe the same thing, that no good could come from intervention on either side.”
Pressed for a possible solution to problems in Syria — with massive civilian casualties, both inside the country and on the journey away from it — Mr. Stephens pointed out that if Syrian civilians had safe places to go inside Syria, where they were not threatened by either Assad or ISIS, they would greatly prefer to go there, rather than fleeing to other nations. “But that would require no-fly zones and supporting groups such as the Kurds,” he said. “Syria tells us that [this kind of war] doesn’t diminish the power of jihad; it turbo-charges it.”
Israel, he said, should take a more proactive approach in the region, doing what it can do in a quiet way. For example, “it should try to take care specifically of the Yazidi Christians and other non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East targeted for genocide.”
For peace between Israel and the Palestinians to be achieved, “the Palestinians have to abandon their core conviction that Israel ought to be destroyed as a Jewish state,” he said. “They have to come to terms with its permanence as a Jewish state. It’s hard to imagine a workable, sustainable, realistic peace agreement” unless this takes place. “The Palestinians need a change of leaders or a change of mind,” he added. Although that change is not likely, “other unlikely things have happened.”
Reviewing the danger of terrorist activity in the United States, Mr. Stephens said that in 1990, “a lot of expert opinion said there was not much to fear.” In fact, during the summer of 2001, he said, the New York Times ran an op ed from a terrorism expert making that case, asserting that there was a greater chance of being struck twice by lightning than of being hurt in a terrorist attack.
And then, he said, there was 9/11, killing some 3,000 people and devastating the economy. “It changed our lives,” he said, citing, for example, new procedures instituted at airports. “The worst posture to take is to assume that this is a faraway problem. Terror is not simply another type of disaster, like a hurricane. It’s a particular kind of threat that we must address with seriousness.”
Are we doing enough? If we were, he said, “ISIS would have been defeated by now, and the Taliban wouldn’t control so much of Afghanistan. The number of foiled plots shows that the FBI is being proactive. But the important thing is to get over bureaucratic inertia or overblown fears for civil liberties in monitoring terrorist threats.”
“Google knows more about us than the NSA,” Mr. Stephens said. “We think about issues in a strange and illogical way. The NSA does not want to listen in to our phone calls. They want to stop terrorism by monitoring those who make routine calls to Pakistan.”