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The Moral Amnesia of Leon Wieseltier

by Jim Sleeper

Mar 12, 2014 | Foreign Policy, Politics


photo: Haaretz

“There is the question of how to respond practically to Putin’s aggression and there is the question of how to respond intellectually,” writes Leon Wieseltier, of The New Republic, in his most recent column. “The latter is no less important than the former, because the Ukrainian crisis is not a transient event but a lasting circumstance with which we will be wrestling for a long time.”

Already I’m swaying gently in anticipation of this week’s rendering of the liturgy. Wieseltier, a celebrant of other people’s courage in Baghdad, Teheran, Hamza, Beijing, and Kiev, rocks himself regularly into supplications for strong American leadership, with rhythmic incantations that aren’t practical or even intellectual but are clearly self-pleasuring. Sometimes they even arouse readers like me:

“Having deceived the country into believing that almost everything may be accomplished, [Obama] is deceiving it into believing that almost nothing may be accomplished. He is not raising the country up, he is tutoring it in ruefulness and futility. In our foreign policy, we are abandoning the world to its chaos and its cruelty, and disqualifying ourselves from acting on behalf of the largest and the most liberating ideals.”

That was Wieseltier two weeks ago, admonishing the President to respond somehow to Xi Jinping’s vicious crackdown on brave Chinese dissenters such as Xu Zhiyong, who is now a political prisoner following a trial at which he was stopped from reading a statement of liberal-democratic aspirations as eloquent as any that might have come from Wieseltier himself.

But what would Wieseltier have Obama do? “We must mentally arm ourselves against a reality about which we only recently disarmed ourselves: the reality of protracted conflict,” he advises, this time apropos of Russia’s encroachment upon Ukraine. “The lack of preparedness at the White House was not merely a weakness of policy but also a weakness of worldview,” he explains. “The president is too often caught off guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things. There really is no excuse for being surprised by evil.”

So we must get better at recognizing evil when we see it.

Wieseltier anticipated and applauded the preparedness and strong worldview of George W. Bush who, although surprised on 9/11, was never again caught off guard by enmity or evil.

In fact, even as Ground Zero lay smoking only days after 9/11, Wieseltier joined 42 other armchair warriors in delivering prescient strategic and moral advice to Bush in a letter sent Sept. 20, 2001 on the letterhead of William Kristol’s neoconservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC): “[E]ven if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”

That’s preparedness for you! As I noted several years ago in a longer assessment of Wieseltier’s literary and political modus, this formidable editor and closet neoconservative foreign-policy activist had even prepared himself for preparedness by joining the advisory board of The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a spawn of Kristol’s PNAC and the American Enterprise Institute.

Like all such committees, this one passed into history after the glorious liberation of Iraq. But Wieseltier hasb redeployed his foreign-policy prescience, cautioning Obama now against “projecting one’s good intentions, one’s commitment to reason, one’s optimism about history, upon other individuals and other societies and other countries: narcissism is the enemy of empiricism, and we must perceive differences and threats empirically, lucidly, not with disbelief but with resolve.”

In other words, Obama must resolve to re-set us and re-arm us against harsh realities from which he only recently disarmed us. Perhaps he should emulate Bush, who perceived the threats in Iraq as empirically and lucidly as Wieseltier urged him to do.

But didn’t Bush also project a little too much optimism about history into that venture and into a meeting with Vladimir Putin, after which he announced, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy … I was able to get a sense of his soul”?

I can’t find any evidence of Wieseltier rebuking such Bushian narcissism, but I do find him writing that Obama should have seen danger in Putin’s comment that “our opinions do not coincide” after their meeting last year. “The sentence reverberates and is now a fact of enormous geopolitical significance,” Wieseltier advises. He notes that Angela Merkel found Putin to be living “in another world,” and he responds, “But the world is composed of all the worlds, and reality of all the realities. Our minds must make room for them all, not least for purposes of resistance.”

Resistance! Yes, for “The economic notion of rationality should sometimes yield to the anthropological notion of rationality,” and “Putin is acting on the basis of a belief system” borne of “traditions of Great Russian nationalism … and of the civilizational difference between Russia and the West: those are Putin’s Slavophile reasons, along with the ‘logic’ of power that all tyrants enact.” Not only that: “The wild homophobia of Putin’s regime is his shorthand for his civilizational war. He gives masculinity a bad name.”

Apparently George W. Bush gave masculinity a good name, and Wieseltier is leaving no button un-pressed in his effort to teach the feckless Obama to become a strong Decider:

“Rather like Jimmy Carter in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it is time for Barack Obama to consider revisions and corrections—a reset—of some of his assumptions about history and human behavior, insofar as any assumptions can be clearly imputed to him after these years of lurching from idealism to realism and back.”

Never mind how our support for the Afghan mujahideen against Russia’s occupation came back to bite us. When Cold War assumptions that the world is harsh, dark, and often evil reigned in the Reagan and Bush White Houses, Wieseltier sat tall in his columnist’s chair. And now he insists that Russia’s intimidation and likely invasion of Ukraine revive similar Cold War assumptions.

I can think of a few reasons why it hasn’t—we’re not fighting world communism anymore, for one. Wieseltier acknowledges that “[a]ll historical analogies are imprecise,” but he frets that the historical analogy “that most rattles Obama is with the cold war. ‘Our approach…’ [Obama] said last month, ‘is not to see this as some cold war chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.’

To which Wieseltier retorts, “I leave aside the glory of the cold war, the courage and the justice of the struggle against the Soviet Union. I note only that the borderlands of Russia, and some places beyond, are looking increasingly like black squares and white squares to me.”

But no matter what liturgy or game Wieseltier is humming or playing while rocking in his chair, the true glory, courage, and justice of struggle against the Soviet Union was nowhere nearly as evident in the United States of my youth as it was in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

Far more evident here were the dynamism of the military-industrial complex and of McCarthyite hysteria, to which even presidents kowtowed with gratuitous folly, installing the Shah of Iran, invading the Bay of Pigs, waging the Vietnam War, propping up the Argentine junta, and, under Reagan, allowing the Iran-Contra scandal to fund counterinsurgencies in Central America.

All this to try brutally—and at irreversible costs in lives, wealth, and public trust—what economic sanctions and market forces themselves have done far more effectively. Noticing the other day that the label inside a T-shirt reads “Made in Vietnam,” I wondered again what 50,000 American deaths and countless Vietnamese deaths had accomplished if, despite our losing the war, Vietnam has been absorbed into le doux commerce—a problem in itself, if you ask me, but that’s another story for another time.

In Manhattan two summers ago I saw 40 or 50 otherwise fit young men who lacked only legs or arms wheeling or peddling themselves around on a tour of New York City arranged for them by the Veterans Administration and philanthropists. They’re not Vietnam War veterans but children of the Project for the New American Century and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. So, too, are rising numbers of military suicides and veterans whose disorientation I read about most recently New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins’ review of a book by one of them, Phil Klay.

It must be easier not to think about this if, like Wieseltier, you’re living “in another world,” Putin’s world, that of Munich in 1938 or of the Cold War in, say, 1957. “The past is not dead, it is merely forgotten,” warns Wieseltier, a child of Holocaust survivors, “and this forgetfulness … poorly equips us to confront challenges that have been experienced before, and not too long ago. The Russian outrage in Ukraine is a state-of-the-art twentieth-century crisis.”

Yet not too long ago, in the 1980s, Wieseltier cautioned, practically and thoughtfully, against remembering too much:

“The memory of oppression is a pillar and strut of the identity of every people oppressed …. [It] imparts an isolating sense of apartness…. Don’t be fooled, it teaches, there is only repetition…. In the memory of oppression, oppression outlives itself. The scar does the work of the wound. That is the real tragedy: that injustice retains the power to distort long after it has ceased to be real. …. This is the unfairly difficult dilemma of the newly emancipated…: an honorable life is not possible if they remember too little and an honorable life is not possible if they remember too much.”

You might hope that Wieseltier would return to this truth now. Instead, his columns seem driven by an almost-incapacitating pain that, remembering too much, keeps him ever on guard against eruptions of other people’s suppressed or misdirected pain and against still others’ (such as Obama’s) efforts to forestall, deflect, or relieve such eruptions.

“History is playing another trick on [Obama],” he warns. “It is testing, and hopefully thwarting, his centripetal inclinations. He may yet have to lead an alliance, I mean strongly. He may yet have to talk about freedom, I mean ringingly.” The Coalition of the Willing, perhaps, followed by a “Mission Accomplished” speech on an aircraft carrier at sea.

There are indeed times when liberals must fight to defend liberalism, to defeat enemies who’ve arisen, as did fascism and much of communism, from within the interstices and contradictions of liberal capitalism itself. But Wieseltier lives for those times. Somewhat like Robert Kagan, who exulted, “The world has become normal again” in 2007 when the neoliberal global village started to resemble a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, Wieseltier finds his most reliable coordinates in imagining American face-offs with Iraq, with Iran, with Syria, with Russia—anything to dispel the specters of Munich, 1938 and Yalta, 1945.

Fortunately, not much is at stake in Wieseltier’s contributions to the House of Columns that passes for commentary in Washington. Singing of scars still doing the work of wounds, he might as well be intoning an epitaph for himself:

I am so wise,
That my wisdom makes me weary.
It’s all I can do
To share my wisdom with you.

Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism. He wrote this for Washington Monthly.

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