Bret Stephens Dishes Candidly about Jews, Israel, and Withdrawal

by Eli Clifton

The Wall Street Journal’s “Global View” columnist Bret Stephens is a reliable advocate for U.S. military intervention in Syria/Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan and an outspoken defender of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the George W. Bush administration’s war of choice in Iraq. Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a skillful polemicist and, like Charles Krauthammer, often tries to hide his core neo-conservative views behind a veneer of reasonableness and logic. But, when addressing an audience that shares his hardline, Israel-centric worldview, he feels less constrained.

In March 2014, Stephens addressed a small audience at the Tikvah Fund, a “philanthropic foundation and ideas institution committed to supporting the intellectual, religious, and political leaders of the Jewish people and the Jewish State.” Key influencers of the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policy—including Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and Project for a New American Century founder Bill Kristol—sit on Tikvah’s board.

In a video recorded and posted on YouTube, Stephens offered the audience three key insights into his foreign policy views:

  • Withdrawal is like salted peanuts. Once you experience it, it’s hard to know when to stop.
  • Biblical prophecy predicting the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is an important argument against territorial concessions by Israel to a future Palestinian state.
  • Jewish Americans must do everything they can to ensure Israel’s security.

Withdrawal Is Like Salted Peanuts

Justifying his opposition to any form of military retreat—ever—Stephens told the audience:

Henry Kissinger once had a wonderful line about retreat from Vietnam. He said, ‘It’s like salted peanuts.’ Y’know, if you eat a single salted peanut from a packet on an airliner, you’re going to eat the whole packet. I assure you, there’s not a single person here who has ever left half a packet of salted peanuts on the plane. And so once you embark on the process of retreat, it’s hard to know where to stop.

Stephens employs this “wonderful line about retreat from Vietnam” to criticize the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw from Iraq and focus on Afghanistan. This, he warns, is a slippery slope that leads inevitably to the conclusion that “’We can live with a nuclear Iran’ [and] we will soon be saying to ourselves, ‘we’ll live with a nuclear Saudi Arabia and a nuclear Turkey.’”

To drive his point home, Stephens told his audience:

There’s no such thing as being a little bit pregnant. There’s no such thing as a little bit of inflation. And perhaps there’s no such thing as little bit of retreat.

Of course, Stephens has been one of the main exponents of the notion that Obama has pursued a policy of retreat and indeed, several months after his Tikvah appearance, published an entire book devoted to the theme: America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Order.

(Ironically, Washington’s “retreat” from Indochina 40 years ago created a new dynamic within Southeast Asia, resulting, among other things, in a brief war between a reunified Vietnam and China in 1979 and a major realignment in the balance of power that has arguably strengthened Washington’s position there at far less human and military cost.)

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he championed as editor of The Jerusalem Post, Stephens has openly promoted the idea of attacking Iran, which virtually all military and Iran experts believe would make the Iraq intervention look like a cakewalk. And his notion that Obama’s policies of “retreat” will lead inevitably to a nuclear-armed Iran ignores the fact that most of these same experts, including at least two former top Israeli security chiefs, have warned that attacking Iran, as proposed by Stephens, would make a nuclear-armed Iran far more likely.

The Bible Should Serve As A Basis For Israel’s Borders

In his columns, Stephens regularly takes the side of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Obama. And his agreement with Netanyahu appears to go beyond promoting U.S. invasions of Middle Eastern countries hostile to Israel.

As to why Israel should resist making any territorial compromises with Palestinians in the interests of concluding a peace agreement, for example, Stephens offers an unusual explanation:

A Christian pastor [speaking at an AIPAC event] said, “The land was promised to Israel, therefore, I’m for it.” That’s a consideration, by the way, when Israel considers the cost-benefit analysis of ceding land for so-called peace, remembering that one of the reasons that millions of Americans love Israel is because it has the land, not because it’s prepared to give it up.

Indeed, Christian Zionists constitute a core voting bloc for the Republican Party and have proved a staunch ally of neoconservatives such as Stephens. But Stephens’ opposition to trading land for peace runs counter to the policies of U.S. presidents dating back to Lyndon Johnson, including neoconservative darling George W. Bush, the first president to come out explicitly in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state. And any viable two-state solution necessarily implies the dismantlement of at least some Israeli settlements.

Numerous U.S. diplomats and senior military personnel have highlighted the threats to U.S. security interests posed by the failure to reach a two-state solution that would define the borders of both states. Stephens’ advocacy of a Christian Zionist belief that no land should be given up would seem to eliminate the possibility of such a solution. And that, of course, suggests that Stephens favors a one-state solution which then begs the question of whether Palestinians should be accorded equal rights or whether they would be relegated to pseudo-autonomous Bantustans of the kind apartheid South Africa tried to impose on most of its black majority in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I’d be a raging anti-Semite”

Although Stephens clearly has little empathy for Palestinians, his greatest antipathy seems to be reserved for Jewish Americans who, by a 61-29 margin, identify as Democrats.

His scorn for his co-religionists’ attitudes is undisguised. At the Tikvah gathering, he derisively warned Jewish Americans that “There’s more to life than getting invited to the White House Hanukkah party so you can light the menorah with Mrs. Obama, or whatever, and have a picture in your office, for what?” Stephens continued:

Thank God I was born a Jew because otherwise I’d be a raging anti-Semite… [be]cause I tear my hair out all the time at my fellow Jews. But rare is it in history that we’ve been blessed to live in a country where we can say anything we want and actually get away with it. And it is a scandal, it seems to me, if we fail to live up to the promise of our American citizenship to do all we can to assure the survival of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

To be clear, Stephens isn’t just comparing his anger and frustration with Jewish liberals (who comprise the mainstream of American Jewry) to the bigotry of anti-Semites. He’s also stoking an anti-Semitic trope that Jews can never be entirely loyal to their country of citizenship because they should dedicate themselves at least as much to Israel’s security. Which of course begs the question of what U.S. Jews should do in the event that U.S. security interests (or values) conflict with those of Israel (presumably as defined by Stephens or Netanyahu).

Indeed, Stephens has plenty to be frustrated with. Jewish Americans have by and large supported the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Iran and were turned off by Netanyahu’s efforts to drive a wedge between them and a Democratic president. But when your frustration with U.S. Jews over their loyalty to their president or their own country’s interests leads you to voice some identification with “raging anti-Semite[s],” perhaps it’s time to reevaluate just how close to the fringe you’re willing to go.

The full video can be viewed below:


Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. “God promised us the land” may make sense to a minority of Americans but, to the rest of the world, it sounds a pathetic and ridiculous excuse for Israel’s behavior.

  2. “The Wall Street Journal’s “Global View” columnist Bret Stephens is a reliable advocate for U.S. military intervention in Syria/Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan and an outspoken defender of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the George W. Bush administration’s war of choice in Iraq. ”
    Well of course, he could not be a paid American “journalist” unless he followed the government/banker line. There are no choices in the matter, so Bret writes what he’s told to write or Bret becomes an ex-journalist. Remember Phil Donahue? Popular talk-host, fired in 2003 by MSNBC for opposing the Iraq fiasco. –Guys like Stephens “got it” …and then they make up s**t to justify it, like they gave it a lot of thought, and stuff.
    “But rare is it in history that we’ve been blessed to live in a country where we can say anything we want …” –Hand me my boots, it’s getting deep. You say anything you want, pal, and you’re out on your ear. You’d better say what they tell you to say at the Wall Street Journal, where money talks and truth is nonexistent.

  3. Not sure if his audience learned anything here. Is he preaching to the converted?

    A word of advice. Next time the dusty neocon trail takes him to Ukraine he should do himself a favor and change his name to McStephens or O’Stephens given the crazy happenings in Kiev’s parliament these days. S what did they do now?

    Well, they just passed a law honoring the achievements of Ukraine’s nationalist militias during WWII, including the killing of an estimated one million Ukrainian Jews across hundreds of villages when “one bullet one Jew” was the motto of the day.

    This has raised the concern of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which issued a statement condemning the passage of the law.

  4. Don Bacon,

    While I agree that any journalist that disagrees with the “party line” is likely to see their career seriously damaged or destroyed and those who tow the party line but are always wrong (Bill Kristol, Krauthammer, Wolfowitz……..) get promoted. However, in Bret Stephens’ case, he is a ture believer and knows true believers are always rewarded by the deep state.

    “And it is a scandal, it seems to me, if we fail to live up to the promise of our American citizenship to do all we can to assure the survival of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.”

    Yes, and in the case of the zionist neocons, even if it is to the severe detriment of the United States. They would be happy to thrust American into a war with Iran, waste American lives and treasure on behalf of a parasitic racist state, like we did in Iraq.

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