Bret Stephens: Our Broken-Windows World
Wall Street Journal columnist offers solutions for an increasingly disordered and violent world at the Freedom Center's Texas Weekend.
Editor’s note: Below are the video and transcript to Bret Stephens’ speech at the Freedom Center’s Texas Weekend, held June 17 - 18, 2015 at the Ritz-Carlton in Dallas, Texas.
Bret Stephens: You know, I think when I wake up every day to the daily terror of finding out just what went wrong in the preceding six to eight hours that I’ve been sleeping, the thought that comes to my mind again and again, thinking about the world, is – what happened? What happened in our world in just the past two or three years?
And if you cast your mind back to, let’s say, the summer of 2012, when the ideas for this book began to percolate, Mitt Romney was running for the presidency. And the Obama Administration was touting its smart diplomacy. It was touting its record of achievement, success, reset throughout the world.
You remember that pungent line during the 2012 campaign, where various noteworthies like Madeline Albright and other all-stars of American foreign policy would joke that the 1980s had called and it wanted its foreign policy back. Actually, I’d like to call the 1980s and borrow its foreign policy, if you want the short version of my speech.
But what’s amazing is that this was an argument that actually carried the day with a majority of the American people. Most American people gave the Obama Administration high marks when it came to foreign policy. And at least when you think of their own advertisements for themselves, they deserved those high marks. I mean, after all, they had reset relations with Russia, after they’d been brought to a bad state by George W. Bush.
Al-Qaeda, core al-Qaeda, was on a path to defeat. And if you talked about noncore al-Qaeda – say, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Qaeda in Iraq – they were, we were reassuringly told, the JV team of international terrorism.
The tide of war was receding. We heard that from the President again and again and again, including in his second inaugural address. We had beaten a responsible retreat and withdrawal from Iraq. And Joe Biden and some of his closest advisors – including Tony Blinken, later Deputy Secretary of State – were telling us that Iraq would be remembered as the Administration’s – possibly the Administration’s greatest achievement. They actually said this. They said that Iran was contained, that the problem was effectively solved, that the Administration had a handle on that problem.
We were told again and again that Bashar Assad’s days in Damascus and in Syria were numbered, his time was in the past. Looking at Egypt, you had the President of the United States and the administration celebrating the arrival of meaningful electoral democracy on the banks of the Nile. We were undertaking a momentous pivot to Asia. And this was another big achievement for the administration. We were putting our strategic weight in East Asia, the region of the future. ISIS didn’t even exist in this moment of time in the summer of 2012.
And so all in all, the administration was busy patting itself on the back very loudly. And the Americans were patting the administration on the back as well. So that was just three years ago. It’s incredible when you think about it, just the pace of events since then.
Back then, that summer, I was uneasy with that consensus for a variety of reasons. I mean, take something like the Arab Spring. You know, Americans tend to think of revolutions through the prism of our own Revolution. So they think that revolutions are good things. You know, we had a revolution in 1775, 1781, that resulted in the Constitution and the creation of the greatest republic in human history.
But if you actually thought about the way revolutions tended to work out, they usually began like the French Revolution with the oath at the tennis court, the meeting of the three estates, Declaration of the Rights of Man. And pretty soon, heads are rolling in the Place de la Révolution and the guillotine is being used again and again and again.
The Russian Revolution – people forget – the Russian Revolution did not begin with Vladimir Lenin; it began with a nice social democrat by the name of Alexander Kerensky, who ended his days where all social democrats do, which is the Bay Area of California.
This happens to be true – Kerensky ended up in Berkeley. Go figure.
So revolutions didn’t go well, and revolutions in the Arab world in particular didn’t go well. I mean, Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence, was involved in the overthrow of the dreadful Ottoman Empire. That was replaced by colonial states, and then they were overthrown. And then they were overthrown and you had kingdoms in places like Iraq and Libya and Egypt, and they were overthrown.
And what you learn from the course of Arab history over the last century is that every 30, 40 years, there’s a giant upheaval. And whatever comes after is actually somewhat worse than what came before. So that was the story of the Arab world.
If you looked at something like a country like Russia . You know, I often am amused when liberals say, oh, you know, George W. Bush, what a simpleton, he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw peace and sincerity in his soul, and all the rest of it. Well yes, and that was foolish of Bush to have said it. But Bush at least has the excuse that that was in 2001, when Putin had been in office barely a year; hadn’t yet invaded Georgia, hadn’t yet cut off gas pipelines to Ukraine in the middle of winter. We didn’t have a situation where dissident journalists like Anna Politkovskaya were meeting terrible ends or people were meeting nuclear terrorism in the streets of London, as Alexander Litvinenko was.
But my own view was that Russia had not been reset and Putin had not changed. And what Putin did – Putin’s expertise from his days in the KGB was to spot and exploit the weakness of his adversaries. And in Barack Obama, I sensed that a man like Vladimir Putin would see his easiest mark yet. And so I was worried about this reset of relations with Russia.
You looked at places like China and East Asia. You know, about 2009, 2010, I had a Japanese diplomat call me up and said – tell me that he urgently needed to meet me because he felt that The Wall Street Journal hadn’t been accurate in naming the – or accurate in representing sovereignty over two little spits of rock in the East China Sea, sort of the southern end of the Japanese islands, just a little north of Taiwan – these little islands called the Senkaku Islands, totally uninhabited since there had been a cannery there in the 1920s. And I kept thinking, why on earth is a senior Japanese diplomat becoming so exorcised over a couple of spits of rock in the middle of the East China Sea with no apparent value?
Well, it began to become clear to me that China was aggressing on the Senkaku Islands on Japanese sovereignty, just as they were aggressing on Philippine sovereignty in the South China Sea, Indonesian and Vietnamese sovereignty, and so on. And this jogged something in my memory. If you look at Winston Churchill’s wonderful history of the First World War, and if you have a good year on your hands of nothing else to do, I commend it very highly. It’s wonderfully – he’s the – he won the Nobel Prize in literature for a very good reason.
But you read Churchill’s history of the First World War, you see that it practically begins with an account of a crisis in a little bay on the shores of Southern Morocco called Agadir. And Agadir is this place that no one in Europe has heard of. And suddenly, the German navy, the Kaiser’s navy, sends a small gunship into the harbor of Agadir. And as Churchill puts it in his memoirs, all the alarm bells around Europe began to quiver. And it was a reminder that sometimes the crises at the center begin at the very outstretched fingertips, at the periphery of the world.
So what happened between Agadir and Europe between 1911 and 1914 – perhaps that might happen between a little forgotten island like Senkaku and the superpower and its rising contender in East Asia. This made me uneasy as well.
I looked at Europe, where I’ve lived on and off on a few occasions, in London and in Brussels. And it seemed to me that Europe’s crisis wasn’t nearing a midpoint, wasn’t nearing a resolution. Europe’s crisis was only at the beginning. The crisis of the social democratic state was becoming manifest.
And what was interesting to me about that crisis was that the response of European politicians faced with the absolutely categorical, undeniable evidence of the failure of their welfare state didn’t reform their welfare state; they doubled down. And that suggested things that might happen in the United States. And that suggested that we might be on the verge of a broader crisis in the West which our enemies would be able to exploit.
So this collection of evidence, these sort of disparate signals, this kind of distant early warning coming from various corners of the globe, calls me to write an article in Commentary magazine in the fall of 2012 called “The Coming Global Disorder.” And an editor at Penguin, I’m happy to say, read the article, liked it very much, and suggested that maybe I should turn it into a book. And idiotically, I agreed to take him up on that offer.
But there was a point here that was missing. And as I started writing the book, I said – well, you know, okay, so what am I going do? I’m going to write a book that says, you know, chapter one, this area of the globe is in turmoil and getting worse. This area of the globe is even worse than that, and so forth and so on.
And I was struck that perhaps there was in fact a unifying thread to all of these stories. And that unifying thread, it seemed to me – and it took me a few months to realize this, but it was very simple – President Obama, since coming to office, had put the United States willfully, deliberately and quite openly, into retreat. We were getting out of Iraq completely. He wanted to get us out of Afghanistan completely. He wanted to shrink America’s strategic footprint, just as he wanted to shrink our carbon footprint.
In fact, if you want to say that the mantra of the environmental movement is reduce, reuse, recycle – you cannot avoid these idiotic signs at every garbage bin turning the exercise of throwing garbage out into a theological virtue, but don’t get me – that’s a whole other speech.
If the environmentalists were reduce, reuse, recycle, the mantra of the Obama Administration was rebalance, resize and retreat. And that stemmed from a view that the President had that the best foreign policy was to have less foreign policy, that whatever America did abroad was probably going to be bad, that the worst thing that the United States could do was meddle.
Remember that moment in the summer or the late spring, June of 2009, six years ago, where suddenly Iranians united in rising up against their tyrannical regime, just as Hungarians had in 1956 or Czechs had in 1968, or Poles in 1980. Right? Holding up signs in English, not because English is their native language – maybe this was not a known fact in certain precincts of the State Department – but because they were calling out to us in the United States: Help us.
And Obama’s view was, it’s a bad idea for us to meddle. That was at the core of his convictions, that America more often than not is bad news when it goes abroad. It is not a liberator, it is not the country that redeemed the continent of Europe, it is not the country that saved Japan and turned it into the most prosperous democracy in East Asia, or saved South Korea, or attempted heroically, I should say, to save South Vietnam. America was bad news wherever it went. And so we had to be a smaller country.
And we had to be a smaller country for a purpose. We had to be a smaller country for the sake of building social democracy, for the sake of building a new kind of welfare system in the United States. Barack Obama wanted to be Clement Attlee. Enough with empire, enough with global responsibility. Let’s build the American equivalent of the National Health Service at home.
Now, in fairness to Clement Attlee, I might say, at least he had the excuse that Britain was totally exhausted after the Second World War and was spending 20 percent of its GDP on defense and still had commitments in India and what was then mandated Palestine and, you know, much of Africa. We didn’t have that excuse, but Obama still wanted to be Clement Attlee.
And it seemed to me that what Obama was, what Obama’s foreign policy represented wasn’t exactly a return to Jimmy Carterism – just kind of weakness, instinctive appeasement, vacillation; actually something much more fundamental, much more radical, than Jimmy Carter. President Obama was taking America back to the foreign policy that successive American Presidents had espoused in the 1920s and 1930s, although he would be the last one to admit the term, because it’s become a dirty word – President Obama was basically an isolationist.
So this got me to explore some of the ideas of isolationism. And it’s important to note that isolationism is an old and venerable tradition in American foreign policy. Peace, commerce and friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none. Do any of you know who said that?
Unidentified Speaker: (Inaudible – microphone inaccessible)
Bret Stephens: Wrong. Thomas Jefferson, first inaugural address. George Washington would never say something so foolish.
I just read, by the way, late today – this is completely aside – that they now want to take Alexander Hamilton’s face off the $10 bill and replace it with something else, which is really the most – the single most – possibly, with the exception of giving Iran a nuclear bomb – the single most outrageous thing the Obama Administration might want. This is Hamilton. They want to take the founder of American capitalism off the face of the $10 bill. Terrible. Sorry, that was off to one side.
Unidentified Speaker: (Inaudible – microphone inaccessible)
Unidentified Speaker: (Inaudible – microphone inaccessible)
Bret Stephens: I think it’s going to be Michelle’s.
So it occurred to me that what Obama was doing was actually something fairly radical. He was speaking the language of American isolation. He was speaking the language that Warren Harding spoke, when Americans retreating from the First World War and the commitments they had made a century ago decided what they wanted was normalcy. Warren Harding – not a well-remembered President, probably for mostly good reasons – his foreign policy amounted to disarmament agreements, the Washington Naval Conference.
1928, shamefully under a Republican President, the United States Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, put his name to something called the Pact of Paris, better known to historians as the Kellogg-Briand Pact. And what did the Kellogg-Briand Pact do? It outlawed war as an instrument of national policy.
In 1929, Japan signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, as did Germany, the Soviet Union and many other countries. And of course, a year after signing this pact outlawing war forever, Japan promptly invaded Manchuria and went on to the rape of Nanking and the atrocities there. Germany – or Italy was a signatory of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and in 1935 it promptly invaded what was then called Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia, using chemical weapons. There was no reaction to that, either.
1938, Germany, a third signatory, invaded parts of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. What you got there was, of course, the Munich agreement. That was followed by the compete invasion of Czechoslovakia. And then a few months after that, in September of 1939, the invasion of Poland, and the beginning of the Second World War.
So that was the experience of the Western world, the civilized liberal democratic world, when its greatest power – the only power, liberal democratic power, that had the wherewithal to police a decent world order – decided to retreat from the world, decided to adopt a policy of slogans and treaties and disarmament agreements, and basically of withdrawal.
And that was the lesson that American policymakers took with them when they emerged from the Second World War. Again, to mention Churchill – there’s a wonderful exchange that Churchill relates in his history of the Second World War. If you have a second year on your hands, you should read the whole Churchill history of World War II. Churchill is having a conversation with Franklin Roosevelt. And Franklin turns to Winston and says – what should we call this war? And Churchill looks at him and says – we should call it the Unnecessary War. Because never in history has there been a war that could so easily have been avoided if only we had acted in time.
And that was the insight that people like Harry Truman, Democrat; but also Arthur Vandenberg, Republican; Dean Atchison and so on – that’s what they understood after World War II – that you could not afford to pretend, you could not afford to wish the rest of the world away. And as Leon Trotsky, another interesting philosopher, once put it – you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. I might say, you know, some of us may not be interested in Sharia, but Sharia is interested in Irvine, Texas. Irvine. All right. You know, I’m from New York. Come on, give me a break.
So that’s what they understood. They understood that foreign policy and domestic policy were not a zero-sum game. It was not an either-or proposition. Yes, in order to be strong abroad, you had to be strong at home. But the reverse actually was true as well – in order to be strong at home, you also had to be strong abroad. You wanted the far frontiers – you wanted the frontiers of the free world to be far away from you, not very close.
And so the United States decided in 1947, when Britain was exhausted, when no one else was left, that we would assume the role of the world’s policemen. And so we did. From the days of Harry Truman all the way into the last day of George W. Bush’s tenure in office. And these were, for the most part, extremely good years for the world.
People talk about wars like Vietnam, Korea, the Iraq war – hard wars, painful wars. But in Iraq, about two American soldiers on average died a day. In World War II, more than 400 American soldiers came back, if they came back at all, dead. People should remember that.
So then we got Barack Obama. And Barack Obama had smart ideas about foreign policy. He had a retreat doctrine. And now we’re beginning to live with the consequences. The consequences are fairly obvious. When you go around the world creating power vacuums, those vacuums are not going to be filled by civic-minded NGOs and bright technocrats from the UN and people of goodwill from all races, colors, persuasions and so on. Those vacuums are going to be filled by willful and violent men.
So we created a vacuum in Iraq, and now we have ISIS. We’ve allowed this vacuum to be created – I should say not even a vacuum; a vortex – in Syria. And what you have is not the weakening of contending jihadist forces; you have the turbocharging of contending jihadist forces, Hezbollah on one side, Jabhat al-Nusra on the second side, ISIS on the third side. That’s what you have.
We created a vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe. And that’s being filled very swiftly and very – from his point of view, very smartly – by Vladimir Putin. Why is it that the Iranians are getting tougher in their negotiating position as we approach a final agreement at the end of this month? Because again, they sense the void, the vacuum, not only in American presence but in American will. This is a President who only wants to get out. Claiming victory, claiming peace for our time, but all he wants to do is get out.
And so now we see this world of metastasizing – if I can use a medical term – metastasizing violence and metastasizing disorder. So what do we do about it? How do we go about fixing this? How do we go about – how do we even start to think about it?
Well, the first point I want to make is something you alluded to in your introduction, Michael, which is that an America that’s in retreat is not the same thing as an America that’s in decline. And you will notice, both on the left and the right, people have very slyly said – well, we can’t shoulder the burdens that we used to shoulder, you know, back in the days of the Cold War. We’re bankrupt, we have bad infrastructure, we need to do x, y and z, and all this is simply impossible. That’s of course a perfect nonsense.
The economy of the United States in the 1970s was arguably in much worse shape than it is today. We had a far deeper, more profound, more lasting recession in the late 1950s under Dwight Eisenhower than Barack Obama ever experienced, despite what he likes to claim is the deepest recession since the Great Depression, which is flatly untrue. But you know, there you go. Why should you be surprised by that?
In fact, America, despite everything – despite Obamacare, despite Dodd-Frank, despite the EPA regulatory burdens that everyone is experiencing – America is proving to be an amazingly resilient place. When you measure national power, what are you measuring it against? When you measure who’s up and who’s down, you’re measuring against your past, you’re measuring it against your peers, and you’re measuring it against your prospects.
Well, what is our past? Well, since World War II is kind of excluded, because at the end of World War II much of the world was destroyed, so we had about half of GDP – but since about 1970 or so, United States has accounted for roughly 25 percent of global GDP. It’s roughly the same today. People say – well, what about China? Well yes, China has risen. But Japan and Europe have declined. The United States still accounts for a quarter of the world’s production. So measured against our past, we’re pretty much on an even keel.
What about our peers? Are we doing worse when compared to the Europeans? Are we doing worse when compared to the Russians, the Brazilians? Are we doing worse when compared to the Japanese, the Indians? Well, there’s China. And people talk about – oh, China’s going to rise. When I was growing up, Japan was going to take over everything. And then when Michael was growing up, the Soviet Union was going to take over everything. And then, you know, when you were growing up, maybe it was Mussolini. No, that’s –
That’s a bad joke. Bad, bad joke.
So you know, declinism is an old story in the United States. We’re always about to have our lunch eaten by someone else. And then we manage to surprise ourselves. Then in dark moments, we always find that there’s a rabbit in our hat. Because this is a country that manages to find ideas and people where we least expect them.
I mean, think of something like fracking. My favorite columnist is Paul Krugman.
Now, I’ll explain to you why I adore Krugman so much. Krugman, who writes in this tone of absolute, total assuredness that he’s 100 percent right, and that everyone who opposes him is just a complete idiot and fool – Krugman has a wonderful column from, I think, 2010 that’s all about how we’ve reached peak oil and, by the way, America will never be a significant part of the energy story again.
This happens immediately before the United States becomes the world’s leading oil and gas producer, both collectively and separately. That’s why I enjoy Paul Krugman. Because you realize, all you have to do is read him, think the opposite, and you’ll have your answer. It’s just a few years in advance.
Who expected fracking just a few years ago? Who expected the revolution in social media a few years ago, a guy in his Harvard dorm room? Who expected that you’d be able to communicate and basically do almost all of your computing, both consumption and production, from something like that, just a few years ago? All of these things were made in the United States.
There’s a reason fracking didn’t happen in China. It’s not because China lacks for shale deposits. It’s because China lacks for genuine property rights, a genuine rule of law. There’s a reason fracking didn’t happen in Europe, and again that’s not because the Europeans lack for the right geology. It’s because the Europeans have the wrong regulatory system. It’s only in this country and in this state that you have the unique combination of property rights, federalism and a wildcatting entrepreneurial spirit that makes this improbable thing and turns it into an extraordinary economic reality, whatever the price of oil may be right now.
So all that means is that the United States is not in decline. And because we are not in decline, we still have the responsibility.
You know, I think when people ask me – well, what is your big conclusion that you draw out of 250 pages of your book? I think my big conclusion is that we’re not New Zealand. What do I mean by that? It’d be so nice to just kind of retreat into some pleasant little corner in the South Pacific and be New Zealand. Nice country, lots of sheep. I’m told it’s fantastic scenery. Right? And no one – there’s no Sharia court gunning for Auckland, New Zealand of which I’m aware. No one wants to send planes into whatever the tallest building is in Wellington, or Christ Church. I’ve only seen these places on a map.
Why? It’s pleasant, it’s away. It’s essentially insignificant. Right? The United States is not insignificant, and we will not be insignificant for the rest of our lives. And if we’re not in decline, we still have to conduct a serious foreign policy equal to being the only responsible, capable, leading liberal democratic party in the world in an era of encroaching disorder.
So how do we do it? How do I do that? So you come to this point in the book. It’s an interesting story. You write this book, and then you’re like – oh, I need a solution here, okay?
And I’m sitting there, and I’m thinking, I know what the solution is. And the solution all stems from a movie that occasionally I see late at night. It’s called “Escape from New York.”
You’ve all seen this, right? You’ve all seen the same reruns.
I first saw “Escape from New York” when I was a kid in the early 1980s, and it made a tremendous impression on me. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this film, it’s a really B action, you know, B-grade action flick with Kurt Russell as its hero. And it imagines that by the year 1997 – so this movie, I think, appears in 1980 or so – by the year 1997, given then crime trends, New York would become so ungovernable, so ridden with criminality, that the federal government would simply decide to turn Manhattan into this gigantic Alcatraz, you know, burn – destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, the other bridges; block the tunnels, and Manhattan would just be this kind of criminal free-for-all. And that’s the premise of the movie.
And you know, in the early 1980s, again, if you looked on current trend, it was not an inconceivable thought that that’s kind of where we were headed in terms of our cities. Now that we have Mayor De Blasio, that possibility arises –
-- once again. But I’m going to – it’s nice to be in Texas, where I don’t have to think about Mayor de Blasio.
But you know – so this was a real prospect. And suddenly, this miracle happened throughout American cities – you know, this incredible reduction in crime, starting around the time that Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York City in 1994 – and continued almost – I should say, and continuing, interestingly, until about the summer of 2014. And the press are – why did that happen?
Well again, maybe this goes to what the Freedom Center is all about. Because we realize that the war for freedom is always fundamentally a war of ideas. And in the war against crime, the war for freedom to walk safely in our cities, what won it, again, were a couple of ideas.
There were two great political scientists – James Q. Wilson was one, George Kelling – still alive – another. And they wrote an interesting article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. You should look it up, Google it. If you’ve never read it, Mayor, it’s wonderful. It’s called “Broken Windows.” 1982, Atlantic Monthly, “Broken Windows.”
And what was “Broken Windows” about? “Broken Windows” took aim at the common belief at the time that the causes of crime were “root causes.” They were broken homes, bad schools, economic inequality, absence of economic opportunity, racism. You choose conservative root causes, liberal root causes. Everyone has some kind of root cause for why the world is going to hell. And they said actually, this doesn’t account for any of it. The root cause of crime is the evidence of disorder, the visible evidence of disorder.
And what did they mean by that? Well, there’d been, in the 1960s, an interesting social science experiment at Stanford by this guy named Philip Zimbardo, social scientist. And he’d done something interesting. He’d taken a car, and he parked it with the hood open in a very bad neighborhood of the Bronx, and left it there, and just observed what would happen. And very quickly, within the space of 24 hours, the car was basically picked clean of its valuables.
Then he took the same car, or similar car, and parked it again with the hood open, in Palo Alto – then, as now, a very wealthy community. Nothing happens to the car. Few days go by. Nothing happens, nothing happens. Gets an idea. He takes a sledgehammer, and he breaks the windshield of the car. And then, after one window in that car is broken, then the car is trashed. And everything – same story as what happened in the Bronx.
And the observation was that the reason it got – the reason you had what happened in Palo Alto is because once someone sees that there is some kind of disorder, that nobody cares, that nobody’s in charge, that there are no consequences to doing it, you’re going to trash the car. You’re going to steal as much as you want. It’s fun to break windows, after all.
And as with the cars, so with the cities. If there are kids jumping turnstiles in subway cars, or vagrants peeing in the streets, or prostitutes walking the streets, or drug dealers in city parks – if there are broken windows in one neighborhood that go unrepaired, pretty soon all the windows get broken. Pretty soon, people – the criminals, or those tempted to be criminals, respond to the social cues. And you have this explosion of criminality.
What was their answer? Their answer was get the cops out of their squad cars, get the cops out of the precinct houses, put them on the street corner. Not to catch the bad guys, but to send a signal to anyone, bad or good or in between, that there is a policeman there, and he’s looking out. And he cares. And it’s a signal of order. So little old ladies living in their apartments can walk down the street to the bodega, and they look out of the corner of their eye, and they say – oh, there’s a police officer, I feel good. I’m going to go shopping. And hoodlums, who might be tempted to mug that little old lady think – there’s a cop there, I’m going to go somewhere else.
And that was “Broken Windows.” It was the insight that disorder is a function of environment.
Now, think about the world in which we live today. President Obama puts the credibility and the prestige of the presidency of the United States on the line when he tells Bashar Assad – red line on chemical weapons. That changes my equation. That changes my calculus. Bashar Assad ambles over the red line; there are no consequences.
What does that do? That sends a signal to Vladimir Putin several thousand miles to the north saying – you know what? I think I want to seize Crimea, as he did just six months after that red line was crossed. No consequences for that, either. Huh. Maybe I’m going to try to get a little more of Ukraine. I’m going to invade Donetsk, Lugansk; use ambiguous warfare. No real consequences for that –
Unidentified Speaker: (Inaudible – microphone inaccessible)
Bret Stephens: I agree completely – for that, either. Some [of the] Iranians become more recalcitrant. They start sending arms to the [Hutus]. The Hutus take over [Sanah]. We have no real position. The Chinese are building islands throughout the South China Sea; we are hesitating to send ships within a 12-mile radius of these islands whose Chinese sovereignty we supposedly don’t recognize.
And so, the signals are being sent that we’re living in a broken-windows world, that President Obama is presiding over an international version of Baltimore today. And that’s where we are today.
How do you restore it? You apply broken-windows policing throughout the world. Not to invade every country you dislike, but to send a signal that the United States is serious – that we will deploy troops, that we do care, that when our allies are being endangered – as Israel is being endangered today by Iran and its other enemies – that we are unequivocally on its side. You want a two-sentence critique of the Obama Administration that sums his entire presidency up – it’s that he coddles our enemies, and he scolds our friends. And that’s a dreadful signal.
So that is the challenge for the next President of the United States – to make America relevant again, to make the little countries of the world know that when we say we have their backs, it’s not a figure of speech – we mean it; and to make our enemies know that when we say there is a red line, when we say something is unacceptable, we mean it as well. That’s the essential foreign policy.
But there’s something more to that that I want to say. And I think this maybe goes – I’ll end with this. But this goes to the heart of everything I believe in as a commentator, everything I believe in as an American and, I might add, everything I believe in, in a more personal vein, as a Jew.
I was reading a wonderful memoir. And again, I recommend this to you after you’ve read all of Churchill’s –
-- First World War, Second World War. The Marlborough biography is quite good as well.
But I was reading a wonderful memoir by a German thinker and writer who died a few years ago by the name of Joachim Fest. And he was one of the sort of leading and highly reputable postwar German intellectuals. He’d been born in 1926, Prussian Catholic family.
But Joachim Fest had a father who, despite his Prussianism and his Catholicism – not in spite of it, but in some ways quite because of it – was an adamant, adamant opponent of the Nazis. And he wrote a memoir, really, which was an homage to his father, who could’ve so easily bent to the Nazis, because he wasn’t Jewish, because he wasn’t in a category targeted by the Nazis for destruction. He refused to yield. And so it’s a very moving memoir of a man’s – of one man’s extraordinary moral courage in the face of a totalitarian society.
But there’s a passage in the book that is very brief, and I want to read it to you. Because his father, beginning in the early 1930s, was trying to tell all of his Jewish friends – you have to get out of Germany. You’ve got to leave, you’ve got to go. And he describes how one educated German Jew after another said – oh, these Nazis are not serious, you know, we’ve survived worse. All these German Jews stuck around through the Nuremburg race laws, through Kristallnacht all the way until they were shipped into the concentration camps.
And Fest records his father’s observations. He says about the Jews of Germany, he says – remembering some of these Jewish friends, my father said to me after the war that in their self-discipline, their quiet civility and unsentimental brilliance, they had really been the last Prussians. In any case, he had more often encountered his idea of Prussianism among the long-established, often highly educated Berlin Jews than anywhere else. They had, he once went on, only one failing, which became their undoing – being overwhelmingly governed by their heads, they had, in tolerant Prussia, lost their instinct for danger which had preserved them through the ages.
What I would like to finish by saying is that I think the reason the Freedom Center exists, I think the reason you are in this room, is because you haven’t lost your instinct for danger. Don’t ever lose it. Thank you very much.
This is – I mean, this was – I mentioned this in the speech, but this was made so dreadfully manifest during the Iranian uprising, the so-called Green Revolution of 2009. You know, what is this word “meddle?” There are people begging us to meddle, to save them from a dictatorship that is about to pack several thousand human beings off to Evin Prison or worse. And Obama’s instinct is to say let’s not meddle.
And this is – look, I don’t subscribe to any sort of – I don’t want to say conspiracy theories, but I don’t subscribe to any of the sort of views that Obama has a secret Machiavellian plan and he has ulterior motives. Obama’s like every college liberal I ever met. All of them. If you read what Obama wrote when he was at Columbia, and he wrote an op-ed for his newspaper on nuclear disarmament, you knew these guys. You know, they were your students. Except all these guys then kind of grew up and were disabused of their sophomoric political ideas, except for Barack Obama, who became President.
So that is this notion that has been drilled into the minds of so many Americans, I think, since the late 1960s, that it’s America with a K, that this is the country that does the most harm. I mean, this is one of the many objections I have to the environmental movement, when they go – and America’s the world’s largest contributor of carbon. Now it’s China. But it’s one more indictment of the United States, the country without which we would be living in successive dark ages, whether of the Nazi, Communist or Islamist variety, or any other varieties that we’ve encountered over the years.
And so it’s this kind of stock, I think, academic liberalism, that is his worldview. That being said, you know, when people say he has this master plan, you have to – it’s worth pointing out that just because you are a closed-minded ideologue doesn’t mean you can’t also be totally incompetent in the execution of your ideology.
Ma’am, your point is fairly taken. And absolutely, he was more than capable of meddling quite aggressively when it came to the internal politics of our friends in order to do the bidding, or at least to further the interests, of our adversaries.
I mean, a good case in point is – you know, we’re now having this nuclear negotiation with Iran where we’re being told by the President that, you know, of course the moment the Iranians – should the Iranians cheat, we’re going to know it right away. One of the things that we discovered, stunningly, is that we knew, the State Department knew when Obama came to office, that the Russians were cheating on their commitments under the 1987 INF, Intermediate Nuclear Range Forces agreement, or Reagan-Gorbachev agreement. We knew they were cheating on that. And yet the State Department did not inform the Senate, when the Senate was debating the ratification of the 2010 New Start agreement.
So this administration was so – but I would argue – was so eager for a foreign policy “achievement” that it was prepared to whitewash the actual record of the Russians in order to gain that, that essentially it was political.
But look, the point you make is absolutely fair. And the way in which Obama has behaved, and has behaved towards Israel is a scandal. The way in which he may behave towards Israel in the 18 months that remain of his presidency is going to be something even worse. So I accept the points you made.
However, in fairness to me, I was merely comparing him to Warren Harding.
Look, the next 18 months kind of terrify me. Because I think this is a President who feels he has no – there’s no political harness on his back, and he’s going to do what he wants quite ruthlessly by way of executive order, by way of means that are dubiously constitutional.
A couple things that I think are worth pointing out – and the mayor kind of hinted at this in her remarks – but it is astonishing to me – maybe it shouldn’t be astonishing to me – if David were here, he’d tell me why I’m a fool to be astonished, but maybe Dan will say it – but it still ought to be astonishing to all of us that we are now negotiating with a regime that has held an American journalist hostage for close to a year. Why aren’t my colleagues in the press, why aren’t our political leaders, outraged about the treatment of Jason Rezaian?
You know, you mentioned the 1980s – we knew the names of Sokurov, we knew the leaders of solidarity. How many people are conversant with the names of leading Iranian dissidents, right, the people who are in Evin Prison now? Why isn’t there a political cause? Why aren’t the Susan Sontags of our day rising up and saying – well, hang on a second, we are about to put a regime that hangs gay people as a matter of course within a hair’s breadth of a nuclear weapon. Is that a good idea?
I mean, one of the things that astonishes me – it’s easy to make a Kissingerian case against this nuclear deal with Iran. But it ought to be even more obvious to make, you know, a kind of “progressive liberal” case against this deal. How are you empowering a regime that behaves the way this one does against gays, women, minorities, and all the other categories of human beings who are cosseted here, but somehow ignored over there? And I think that’s a point that’s, by the way, worth just, for the purposes of rhetorical power, deploying.
Look, I think the most important thing that can be done – and unfortunately, maybe Texas is not the place to do it – is ultimately, the only way we are going to recover from the debacle of an Iranian deal is if Democrats take the lesson that their support for the deal is devastating to them politically. And I don’t know how we do that. But if Democrats, Senate Democrats in the next election pay no price for supporting this deal, that will send a toxic political signal, that – oh yeah, sure, we gave Iran the bomb. Whatever. It didn’t matter. So that’s the key political challenge.
If David were here – and he’s someone who certainly knows the Left – I think he would understand. And I don’t agree that within every liberal there’s a totalitarian yearning to breathe free, or whatever the line was. But I do agree that the instinct of modern liberalism to be sharply distinguished from the classical liberalism to which all of us subscribe – the instinct ultimately is totalitarian, in the sense that the ultimate – the logical conclusion of an ever-expanding state is a total state.
And that is part of what – there’s a wonderful distinction between the American Revolution and the French Revolution – why one went well and the other did not go well. And one was that the – one point that’s made is the American Revolution believed that it was actually not a revolution, but it was an act of restoration, that we were restoring the rights that had been given – had been granted, certainly, by the glorious revolution of 1688. Whereas the French Revolution basically believed in liberation for the sake of liberation. So it was prepared to destroy the institutions of liberty to which it presumably subscribed.
And by the way, the mayor described that perfectly now – when does tolerance become a – how does tolerance end up becoming a weapon against the most tolerant society on earth? But that’s the natural trend of modern-day progressive liberalism.
I think Obama belongs to that trend. I don’t think he articulates it. I doubt he really thinks it through with any amount of depth. I mean, I’ve never subscribed to the idea that Obama is this really brilliant guy who, you know, has kind of thought through all the angles. I just – I don’t know, I’ve seen his undergraduate writing. I read undergraduate writing all the time when I hire interns. I know what smart interns are capable of, and I saw what he was capable of. But I think that even if he doesn’t think about it, this is – the reason you are seeing it is because in a sense you are seeing the logical direction of the path that he is taking the United States on.
The reason I’m optimistic, I think, can be explained in two words – bellbottoms.
Or maybe disco, I don’t know. Frilled shirts. What I mean by that is much of what we’re experiencing today we experienced in the 1970s. And we proved capable of overcoming it. Now, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. It took what amounted to the political miracle of 1980 to help make that happen.
But the country has demonstrated that it has a capacity for renewal, and we have a capacity to rethink our previous assumptions in a way that’s fundamentally healthy. And it’s what makes me an optimist.
You know, my earliest political memory – and maybe this is the way to close, and I’ll tell you something about the man who kind of made me who I am. My late father died a few years ago – this book is dedicated to him. My earliest political memory – I was growing up, we were in Mexico City. And I was six years old in the 1980 – yeah, close to seven years old – 1980 results were coming in. And our TV, this being Mexico, was not working. And so we just had a radio with which to listen to the results coming in. And I remember sitting around our kitchen table, and it was becoming clear that Reagan was winning in a total landslide.
And I remember my father looking at me and saying to me, with a very sober, somber face, he said – Bret, just maybe tonight, Western civilization is being saved. And I remember looking at him – okay.
And the rest is history. Thank you very much.