Last week Bret Stephens, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page, was at Temple Emanuel in Newton to deliver the David Wolf Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and Temple Emanuel’s Israel Action Committee. Stephens presented his insights about U.S. policies with regard to the Middle East—many of them familiar to readers of his weekly Global View column—through a witty grouping of rules inspired by popular culture and modern history.
At the outset of his talk, Stephens praised CAMERA as “an extraordinary resource” for journalists and others. “CAMERA,” he said, “is born out of a sense of outrage at the way Israel is routinely depicted in major metropolitan newspapers. It refuses to tone down the outrage. A columnist is in a similar conundrum. It takes a certain kind of moral clarity and intellectual stamina to know how important it is that the message keep coming across.”
Stephens’ first observations of the evening were packaged in what he called the “Larry David or ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Rule.” Up to this point in history Stephens observed that, “United States foreign policy in the Middle East has mainly been about trying to help our needs in the region come true.” The last three presidents had a less-than-perfect approach when it came to the Middle East: President Clinton tried “a talking cure” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Bush hoped that deposing a dictator would lead to a democratic government and President Obama, perhaps the most optimistic, simply hoped for a positive result from the Arab Spring. “President-elect Trump—curb your enthusiasm,” warned Stephens. “Foreign policy in the Middle East ought not to be about making your dreams come true. It ought to be about keeping your nightmares at bay.”
Underscoring Stephens’ remarks was his view that the Iran nuclear deal “is most likely a vehicle for Iran to acquire a robust nuclear weapons capability.” Throughout his talk, Stephens was critical of the deal, which he said to applause, “was shoved down the throats of the people of this country and the Senate.”
A movie buff, Stephens cited another rule that he called the “Jim Malone Rule.” Malone, a character in 1987’s “The Untouchables,” played by Sean Connery, explains to Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness that capturing Al Capone must be done “the Chicago way.” If your enemy has a knife, you pull out a gun. If your opponent sends your man to the hospital, you send his to the morgue. “You don’t use disproportionate force to be cruel,” said Stephens, “but to end wars decisively and memorably in the sense that the children of the vanquished will remember never to take up arms against you ever again. That was the result of World War II.”
According to Stephens, examples of the ineffectual use of proportionate force include Israel’s battle with Hamas in Gaza where the Israelis use just enough force so that Hamas stops shooting its rockets in a given moment. He also noted that the United States’ use of proportionate force against ISIS is unsuccessful.
Perhaps Stephens’ most hopeful commentary was contained in his “Scoop Jackson Rule.” Henry “Scoop” Jackson was a senator who represented Washington state for over 30 years until his death in 1983. Jackson was proud of his union roots and FDR heritage, and according to Stephens was an “emblem of a genuinely bipartisan politics.” Throughout the Cold War, Jackson was also a champion of a hawkish foreign policy. Using the Scoop Jackson Rule would bring the country to “more common agreement about what our foreign policy aims are.” Stephens further pointed out that the Scoop Jackson Rule was an especially important one to follow for a “polarizing, divisive figure” like our president-elect.
Perhaps Stephens’ most amusing observation was inspired by his Wall Street Journal colleague Holman Jenkins’ observation that “certain ideas vanish in the presence of thought.” For example, for years Middle East peace has been synonymous with Arab-Israeli peace. But that’s an idea that vanishes in the presence of thought. According to Stephens, even if Israel resolves every outstanding issue with the Palestinians tomorrow, it will not resolve other conflicts in the region. “Middle East peace and the Arab-Israeli peace process have the most remote connection,” Stephens said. “[There is this notion] if Israel got out of the settlements tomorrow everything would be fine. I wish it were true.”
Stephens further added: “I wish it were a territorial conflict. But it is not about 1967; it is about 1948. It’s not about territory; it is about existence. It is about the persistent refusal of many Palestinians to accept a Jewish state within any borders whatsoever. What has to change isn’t the border, but what Palestinians are teaching their children about who the Jews are and what are the rights of the Jewish people to a Jewish state.”
The evening ended on a hopeful note. Stephens told his audience about his impressions of the late Shimon Peres during a chance encounter on an airplane. Even as an elder statesman, the former prime minister and one of Israel’s founding fathers “never once grandstanded. Here was a man who did nothing but look forward.”