No one is particularly surprised by conservative accusations that Barack Obama (in the domestic context treated as a sneering, law-breaking tyrant) exhibits in foreign relations a persistent “weakness” that somehow responsible for the misbehavior or Russia or other countries. But the occasional voices from self-identified liberals saying the same thing are jarring. One of those has been The New Republic‘s Leon Wieseltier, and in a web-exclusive at Ten Miles Square today, distinguished journalist and Yale lecturer Jim Sleeper responds to Wieseltier, whose constant warnings that anything less than a warlike U.S. posture invites catastrophe have led him before into the ranks of those advocating actual war, notably in Iraq:
[W]hat 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!
Sleeper thinks Wieseltier’s position on Iraq was no aberration, and neither is his current fear of “weakness” towards Putin:
“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.
You should read Wiesltier alongside Sleeper, and judge for yourself. And when evaluating Sleeper’s harsh judgment towards the long-time TNR literary editor, you might want to keep in mind Wieseltier’s recent attacks on his TNR colleague John Judis for a book on the origins of U.S. policy towards Israel.