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:


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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. @Chet Roman
    I get your argument. Perhaps it’s a chicken-and-egg thing, as to Stephens’ “true belief.” Is it nature or nurture? Was Stephens born perverted or does he find it profitable to be so? Being a cynic, I go for #2.
    Stephens recent tweet: “Obama thinks the ayatollah is rational. My WSJ column says he’s nuts”
    This is indicative of why there is a world-wide travel caution out for Americans. Personally I think Khamenei makes eminent sense, unlike Obama. In any case I know that B.S. is paid to write what he writes, and would get fired if he didn’t write it. Perhaps as you suggest it’s the confluence of two different trajectories, but I think not. Nobody could be as wrong as he is without a monetary incentive. Cynic.
    Toss in the bum Jeffrey Goldberg, and dozens of others, and being anti-Iran in the US is a major industry. Plenty of employment, and the more radical the better. If I were advising a young writer on a profitable occupation I would say “Go anti-Iran.” Big bucks, and no down-side.
    Hell, I spent twenty years in the military, so I know it can be done. Just suck it up and play the role!

  2. Let those who make such arguments be the first to present themselves as examples instead of sending other people’s children to die in wars that benefit a few and that come at a cost to many.

  3. It’s not the craziest thing he says, but “there’s no such thing as a little bit of inflation” should not pass without notice. A little bit of inflation is in fact the normal condition.

  4. ” 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.”…..Stephens

    The ‘ Jews as a nation within the nations’ has been an accusation against Jews for 2000 years —- and members of the ‘Jewish nation within the nations” like Stephens et al are the reason why.

    To say that the purpose of American citizenship is to ensure the survival of the foreign country of Israel is too Orwellian and bizarre for words.
    The Jews, whoever that encompasses, need to wise up/rise up and fight their ‘unelected leadership –before it takes them over the cliff.

  5. Expansion and settlement so far have proved to be the best salted free peanuts not the withdrawal.
    Secular and democatic principles of self determination ,separation of religion from government institution are the yardstick by which a nation and a country is judged and not by any particular belief system or by any its’s emphasis on any particular page of any particular religious book.
    American Jews have right to support anybody it wants morally ethically . The expectation that they have to support a certain socio political views under psychological distress and moral manipulation are anathema and destructive to the socio cultural political system in which they found safety prosperity and freedom after thousands of years . It also eoses the narcissism of the neocon and the arrogant assumption that the neocons know best .
    It still ( Stepehen vies) might keep on gaining more and more victory points on the scoreboard . The extreme elements of the Zionism has succeeded from the time of Herzl . The extremes have then been normalized and mainstreamed in thought,perception,and moral foundations .
    Other day I was reading an op ed article -“The Hammer in the Holy Land” from NYT sometimes after 2001. He was excoriated for his extreme views . His views today would nicely jell with the mainstream views of the Israeli political powers and with the GOP presidential hopefuls , NYT WSJ and the democrtas .NYT has sleepwalked inside the tent occupied and habitated by these fanatics . The sheer dishonest lunacy has been mainstreamed .

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