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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Bret Stephens

    • Wall Street Journal: Columnist
    • Commentary: Former Staff Editor

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Bret Stephens is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a former editor of the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary.[1] A promoter of aggressive "pro-Israel" U.S. foreign policies, Stephens previously worked as editor of the rightist Jerusalem Post and appears regularly on Fox News.[2]

Stephens advocates views that are largely in line with the foreign policy agenda espoused by neoconservatives, particularly with respect to U.S. Middle East policy. Not surprisingly, he takes a dim view of those who argue that many "war on terror" policies, like the invasion of Iraq, were unnecessary and driven largely by ideological actors and business elites.

Among those he has targeted for criticism in this regard is Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who combines extreme libertarian domestic policies with a cautious regard for overseas military intervention. In a bitingly sarcastic 2014 column, Stephens called on Republicans to vote for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in the next presidential primary, arguing that what Republicans needed as a "nominee in 2016 is a man of … glaring disqualifications. Someone so nakedly unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of sane Americans that only the GOP could think of nominating him." Among the issues that mark Paul as a right-wing crazy, according to Stephens, is his insistence that Vice President Dick Cheney helped manufacture a "war in Iraq" for his friends in business and politics. But, asked Stephens, "Cui bono—to whose benefit? It's the signature question of every conspiracy theorist with an unhinged mind. Cheney. Halliburton. Big Oil. The military-industrial complex. Neocons. 9/11. Soldiers electrocuted in the shower. It all makes perfect sense, doesn't it?"[3]

Stephens has also wielded allegations of anti-Semitism against those he disagrees with. In 2012, he added his voice to a chorus of neoconservative writers who decried President Barack Obama's decision to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) to be defense secretary during his second term. Stephens wrote at the time: "Prejudice—like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations—has an olfactory element. When Chuck Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska who is now a front-runner to be the next secretary of Defense, carries on about how 'the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,' the odor is especially ripe."[4]

The effort by Stephens and other "pro-Israel" figures to paint Hagel as an anti-Semite was widely panned.As Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post at the time: "I direct Stephens and others to page 426 of Anita Shapira's new book, Israel: A History. She writes that when the George H.W. Bush administration in 1992 withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir 'enlisted the help of the Jewish lobby in the U.S. Congress, but in vain.' Shapira is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. It is true, as Stephens writes, that Jews are not the only ones who support Israel, and it is likewise true that not all Jews support Israel—or at least the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu. But Stephens's real beef with Hagel is not over speech but policy."[5]

A writer for the "Open Zion" blog at The Daily Beast concurred, opining that the"ugly, facts-optional anti-Hagel campaign was never about Israel. ... Neocon attacks on President Obama—as channeled through the likes of Bill Kristol, the Emergency Committee for Israel, Jennifer Rubin, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, etc and so on—are about American power. They are about how a certain (pretty well discredited) ideology envisions the use of American power in the world, and they are about how power is shared within America's borders."[6]

Among Stephens strongly held policy views is his opposition to Palestinian statehood. In an interview with the conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, Stephens described former Israeli Prime Minister and Likud leader Ariel Sharon as "the most significant prime minister Israel has had since the founder, David Ben-Gurion." Stephens praised Sharon's often militarist policies toward the Palestinians, arguing that he had "defeated the Palestinian intifada and proved, therefore, that there is a military solution in the face of suicide terrorism, or other kinds of terrorism." Regarding the George W. Bush administration's hawkish stance on Palestinian issues, Stephens said, "I think this administration has been head and shoulders above its predecessors in being shrewd about [Yasser] Arafat, shrewd about the Palestinians, shrewd about what needs to happen, in order for the Palestinians to present some kind of realistic … for there to be some kind of realistic prospect of peace between the Palestinians and Israel."[7]

Stephens has criticized the use of rhetoric linking Israeli actions to the actions of Nazi Germany. For example, Stephens wrote that "Jose Saramago, Portugal's Nobel Laureate in Literature, observed after a visit to Ramallah that the Israeli incursion into the city 'is a crime that may be compared to Auschwitz.' Never mind that the total number of Jews 'dealt with' in the Warsaw ghetto, according to Nazi commandant Jürgen Stroop, was 56,065, whereas the number of Palestinians killed in Jenin was no more than 60."[8] Yet Stephens often employs similarly sensationalist language when describing Middle East issues. He has called Iran an "existential" threat to Israel and Iranian leader President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a "Hitlerian figure."[9]

Stephens believes that Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program must be stopped, yet unlike many other neoconservative writers, he thinks this can be done "without firing a shot." In a 2006 Journal op-ed, Stephens argued that the Bush administration's approach to the problem had failed miserably: "For three years, the administration has deferred to European and U.N. diplomacy while seeking to build consensus around the idea that a nuclear-armed Iran poses unacceptable risks to global security. The result: Seven leading Muslim states, including Pakistan and Indonesia, have joined hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to affirm his right to develop 'peaceful' nuclear technology. China and Russia have again rejected calls for U.N. sanctions."[10]

Stephens laid out four nonviolent ways the United States can deal with Iran: 1) Undertake a "diplomatic offensive" aimed at exploiting divisions among Iranian political elites, for example by having Bush write an open letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei about conditions for negotiations, thereby bypassing and theoretically humiliating Ahmadinejad; 2) target financial interests by applying U.S. terrorism-financing laws on transactions between Iran and foreign banks; 3) support the creation of an independent labor movement that could challenge government policies; and 4) "threaten Iran's gasoline supply" by quarantining imports into the country. Regarding the last suggestion, Stephens raises a potential problem: "One objection: A gas quarantine may require the naval blockade of Iranian ports, which is legally tantamount to an act of war. Not a problem, says [Rep. Rob] Andrews [D-NJ]: 'I think the development of a nuclear weapon in violation of an international treaty is an act of war, too.'"[11]

Stephens has targeted those who question the close U.S.-Israel relationship. In a May 2006 speech, titled "Meet the Israel Lobby," at his alma mater the University of Chicago, Stephens took aim at noted international relations scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer for their controversial 2006 paper, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," which argued that lobbyists who worked on Israel-related issues in the United States had undue influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East, to the detriment of the United States. Stephens said: "Let's be clear: What professors Walt and Mearsheimer have produced under the guise of disinterested scholarship is a demagogic, disingenuous, distorted, bigoted, factually inaccurate, analytically flawed, and intellectually wretched piece of work."[12]

According to Stephens, intellectuals who criticize Israel are not necessarily antisemitic but do help "pave the way" for growing antisemitism. He cites the case of Walt and Mearsheimer: "Professors Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, whose paper on 'The Israel Lobby' is now being turned into a book, have complained that 'anyone who criticizes Israel's actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle Eastern policy ... stands a good chance of being labeled an anti-semite.' Maybe. But earlier this week, former Klansman David Duke took the opportunity to tell CNN that he does not hate Jews but merely opposes Israel and Israel's influence in U.S. politics. He even cited Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer in his defense. Would they exonerate him of being an anti-Semite?"[13]

According to Stephens, while it might be the case that some writers are unfairly tagged as antisemitic merely because they are critical of Israel, this does not mean their positions are defensible. He writes: "So let's also concede that it is not anti-Semitic to oppose Zionism. … Yet simply because opposition to Zionism ideologically or Israel politically isn't necessarily anti-Semitic, it doesn't therefore follow that being anti-Zionist or anti-Israel are morally acceptable positions."[14]


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[1] Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens, http://topics.wsj.com/person/S/bret-stephens/5463.

[2] Wall Street Journal, "Press Room: Bret Stephens Will Speak at Symposium VI," National Homeland Defense Foundation, March 5, 2008; Wall Street Journal, "Bret Stephens," "Who We Are: Bret Stephens," http://topics.wsj.com/person/S/bret-stephens/5463.

[3] Bret Stephens, "Rand Paul for President," Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303663604579501441901549788.

[4] Bret Stephens, "Chuck Hagel's Jewish Problem," Wall Street Journal, December 167, 2012.

[5] Richard Cohen, "The Tarring of Chuck Hagel," Washington Post, January 7, 2013.

[6] Emily Hauser, The Anti-Hagel Campaign Was Never About Israel," Daily Beast, January 7, 2013, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/07/the-anti-hagel-campaign-was-never-about-israel.html.

[7] "Hugh Hewitt interviews Bret Stephens about Ariel Sharon," transcript posted on Kesher Talk, http://www.keshertalk.com/archives/2006/01/hugh_hewitt_int.php.

[8] Bret Stephens, "The Road to Tehran," Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2006.

[9] "Hugh Hewitt interviews Bret Stephens about Ariel Sharon," transcript posted on Kesher Talk.

[10] Bret Stephens, "How to Stop Iran (Without Firing a Shot)," Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2006.

[11] Bret Stephens, "How to Stop Iran (Without Firing a Shot)," Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2006.

[12] Bret Stephens, "Meet the Israel Lobby," University of Chicago, May 3, 2006, http://israel.uchicago.edu/bret_stephens_speech.pdf.

[13] Bret Stephens, "The Road to Tehran: Polite Society Helped Pave the Way for Iran's Holocaust Conference," Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2006.

[14] Bret Stephens, "The Road to Tehran: Polite Society Helped Pave the Way for Iran's Holocaust Conference," Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2006.

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Bret Stephens Résumé


    • Wall Street Journal: Columnist; Member, Editorial Board
    • Jerusalem Post: Editor (2002-2004)
    • World Economic Forum: Media Fellow
    • Commentary: Former Staff Editor


    • University of Chicago
    • London School of Economics


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