Cries for American military preparedness are growing louder and louder by the day, rising, circling, and echoing one another in a frenzy that even the awfulness of events in Ukraine and many other places doesn’t quite explain. The reason, according to Leon Wieseltier, David Brooks, and other prophets of American Destiny, is that (as I quoted Wieseltier here on March 10) President Obama “is not raising the country up, he is tutoring it in ruefulness and futility…”
You might think that there would be other, better explanations for the foreign-policy disappointments of a behemoth such as the United States, and the conservative outcry has prompted a long New York Times editorial mentioning some of them and a column by Tom Friedman reminding us that Obama had predecessors who really, truly damaged American credibility and power.
But there’s another dimension of our foreign-policy problems that almost everyone but me has been too polite to mention: A small chorus of critics who are themselves damaged – gnarled, frightened, and waving Salome-like veils of erudition and idealism to disguise their obsession with a world they seem driven to remind us is colder, darker, and harder than Obama and feckless liberals ever imagined.
Wieseltier and Brooks are members of this “blame the feckless liberals” chorus, and they put themselves on display last week in a manner so predictable and annoying that it begs a little deconstruction.
Because of Obama, Wieseltier explained then and again last week, 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.”
What none of the prophets has noticed is that we no longer have an army with a large pool of fit recruits, or an adequate budget, or even a national will, owing partly and inescapably to stances that these blowhards of American Destiny have urged us to take since before 9/11 and owing to the associations and compromises they’ve made.
“The weakness with any democratic foreign policy is the problem of motivation,” Brooks frets. “How do you get the electorate to support the constant burden of defending the liberal system?”
How, indeed, when ”Americans Want to Pull Back From World Stage,” as the Wall Street Journal reports, citing a WSJ/NBC poll showing that 47% of Americans “called for a less-active role in world affairs,… a much larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997, and 1995.”
How, indeed, to motivate the electorate when, as the poll also reports, Americans are “disenchanted with a U.S. economic system that many believe is stacked against them.”?
How can Brooks and Wieseltier motivate anyone after spending years serving a movement and powerful interests that can’t reconcile their supposed commitment to republican-ordered liberty with their knee-jerk service to a casino-financed, predatory-marketing juggernaut that’s dissolving republican virtues, morale, and even sovereignty? Nationalist nostalgia and scapegoating are their timeless resorts.
It was bad enough that, as I noted here, Wieseltier’s March 7 column recalled “the glory of the cold war, the courage and the justice of the struggle against the Soviet Union” adding that now, too “the borderlands of Russia, and some places beyond, are looking increasingly like black squares and white squares to me.” But his latest supplications for aggressive American leadership reach a new crescendo in Wieseltier’s threnody for history’s – and, in effect, America’s — new victims:
“The Ukranians, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Moldovans, the Poles, the Czechs, the Japanese, the Taiwanese, the Baltic populations; they are all living with the jitters, and some of them on the cusp of despair, because the United States seems no longer reliable in emergencies.”
I can only try to imagine what must have been Wieseltier’s contempt for Dwight Eisenhower, who abandoned Hungarians revolting against Moscow in 1956; for Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who abandoned Czechoslovakia in 1968; for Ronald Reagan, who sat on his hands throughout the long travails of Polish Solidarity in 1981, leaving them to the Pope; and for George H. W. Bush, who aroused and then betrayed the Kurds in 1992.
I can’t find any of Wieseltier’s remonstrances against these American betrayals of peoples on the cusp of despair. Perhaps he was too busy hymning the glories of Eisenhower’s installation of the Shah of Iran, Kennedy’s invasion of the Bay of Pigs, Johnson’s waging of the Vietnam War, Reagan’s propping up the Argentine junta and empowering the Afghan mujahideen and Nicaraguan and Salvadorean “freedom fighters.”
Only now has Wieseltier decided that, under Obama, “the United States… responds to oppressed and threatened people by making them more lonely and afraid.” Apparently he wants us to respond to them as we did those just mentioned, back when no Obama or Jimmy Carter was in office.
Assessing Obama’s turn to, what seems to him, a limp-wristed containment, Wieseltier advises that “The grim fact is that Obama’s containment is not containing Putin, whose ‘green men’ and people’s republics and Big Lies and Russophilic incitement and covert operations and military deployments are undeterred by it.”
Oh, for the days when evil abroad was stopped cold by our military social workers and Green Zone republics and reports of Weapons of Mass Destruction and nationalist excitements (as in the run-up to the Iraq War) and Special Forces and military deployments!
Need one be some kind of Marxist to question this? How about just a civic republican, heartbroken at seeing the millions of Americans thrown out of their homes (and blamed by Brooks for their indiscipline), and the many thousands gunned down or wounded for life, not only abroad but, increasingly, in their own hometowns? Wieseltier and Brooks imagine that they have clean hands at home and that they have grand-strategic omniscience abroad and that other Americans need to listen to them. “All around, the fabric of peace and order is fraying,” Brooks warns us, as if he’d had nothing to do with it.
“The leaders of Russia and Ukraine escalate their apocalyptic rhetoric. The Sunni-Shiite split worsens as Syria and Iraq slide into chaos. China pushes its weight around in the Pacific.”
Luckily for Brooks’ readers:
I help teach a grand strategy course at Yale, and I asked my colleagues to make sense of what’s going on. Charles Hill, who was a legendary State Department officer before going to Yale, wrote back: ….‘when an established international system enters its phase of deterioration, many leaders nonetheless respond with insouciance, obliviousness, and self-congratulation. When the wolves of the world sense this, they, of course, will begin to make their moves to probe the ambiguities of the aging system and pick off choice pieces to devour at their leisure.”
“This is what Putin is doing [Hill continues]; “this is what China has been moving toward doing in the maritime waters of Asia; this is what in the largest sense the upheavals of the Middle East are all about: i.e., who and what politico-ideological force will emerge as hegemon over the region in the new order to come. The old order, once known as ‘the American Century,’ has been situated within ‘the modern era,’ an era which appears to be stalling out after some 300-plus years. The replacement era will not be modern and will not be a nice one.”
Brooks called Charles Hill a “legendary foreign service office” ten years ago, too, in his Times column of April 10, 2004, and there he joined Hill in trying to deflect growing American doubts about the Iraq War. Brooks told the wavering to “Get a grip” and stop being “Chicken Littles like Ted Kennedy,” who Brooks said were “ranting that Iraq is another Vietnam.” He revealed then that “leadership in the U.S. is for once cool and resolved” and that “We’re going to wait for the holy period to end and crush Sadr…. As Charles Hill… observed, ‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the boldness and resolve.’”
A quick study of the pronouncements of Hill — who left the Reagan State Department, where he had been the top aide to Secretary of State George Shultz after the Iran-Contra special prosecutor caught them dissimulating about what they’d known about that scandal and when — shows that Hill has dictated more than a few of Brooks’ columns since 1993.
In Foreign Policy magazine and in a longer column that ran originally in TPM and is on my website, I’ve shown that Hill is indeed legendary for serving whomever employs him exactly as a Foreign Service officer serves whatever administration is in power. He subtly insinuates his own Vulcan, Cromwellian worldview into the policy line of the moment. For his prevarications, the Iran-Contra special counsel’s report called him “unworthy.” I hope that anyone tempted to credit him will read these two essays.
Before Hill became Brooks’ “legendary” foreign-policy sage of the past decade, he joined Wieseltier and other armchair warriors on Sept. 20, 2001, as Ground Zero lay smoking, to send President Bush strategic and moral advice 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.”
Days later, Hill assessed President Bush’s leadership for the Yale Daily News, which asked him if he’d seen a change in Bush’s leadership since 9/11:
“[W]hat we have seen in the president’s behavior is a string of more and more able performances, more and more firm and definitive performances,” Hill told the student reporter. “And this is what you want to see. It’s a growing process, and I don’t see any limitation to this growth.”
Years later, when the PNAC letter to Bush urging war on Iraq became widely known, Hill would tell the student paper that he didn’t know how his name had gotten on the document and that he’d tried to get it removed. A response posted on the newspaper’s website by PNAC executive director Gary Schmitt discredited him decisively, closing with, “Sorry, Charlie.”
In 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Hill told the PBS News Hour:
“It will be a war that will not do great damage to Iraq, to its installations, to its infrastructure, or to its people.” Asked if the war would be worth an estimated cost of $2 trillion, he replied, “I think that’s nothing in terms of what we’re going to see in 15 years… The benefits will be the restoration of American credibility and decisiveness. We’ll see an Iraq that is freed from oppression. This situation will also do a lot to transform the Israeli-Palestinian situation.”
Brooks’ foreign-policy mentor once described his own early and abiding understanding of “world order” as resembling a painting by Hieronymus Bosch in its perversity and precariousness. That’s pretty much how Brooks and Wieseltier see it, and Hill urges future grand strategists to become omniscient about it by taking “a 360-degree perspective.” Your approach can’t be just military and diplomatic, it also has to involve such things as economics, personnel, rhetoric, and morale. And you can’t just look outward, because somewhere in some basement something is going wrong. You can’t neglect anything.”
Who is Hill’s all-seeing, decisive “You,” if not the American administration of his, Brooks’, and Wieseltier’s dreams? What if there are 359 other players and perspectives? What if economics, personnel, rhetoric, and morale can’t be harnessed and driven by Hill’s “You” toward determined ends? What if, instead, such things have been set loose, degraded and dissolved by the very alliances, compromises, and strategies that “You” have chosen and served?
Hill’s answer was clear enough in the spring of 2008, when he was named the Chief Foreign Policy Advisor to Rudy Giuliani, whose presidential campaign is best remembered for turns of phrase like “The Terrorists’ War on Us,”, and for every pronouncement having consisted of “A verb, a noun, and ‘9/11,’” as Joe Biden put it mockingly.
Sharing Hill’s “360 degrees” presumptions, Wieseltier complains, in his own perverse and backhanded way, that Obama “has been trying to escape the Middle East… and ‘pivot’ to Asia, as if the United States can ever not be almost everywhere, leading and influencing, supporting or opposing, in one fashion or another….” In other words, Wieseltier thinks that the U.S. has no choice but to be everywhere and that, as he puts it, “only small powers” would think otherwise.”
If the U.S. is thinking that small, he tells us, it’s thanks to “the tiresome futurism of Obama,” who “feels inconvenienced by history,” which… regularly exasperates him and regularly disappoints him. It flows when he wants it to ebb and it ebbs when he wants it to flow….”
But if Obama is captive to a tiresome futurism, Wieseltier is the prisoner of equally tiresome pastism. He doesn’t feel inconvenienced by history; he’s obsessed with it, and he demands to be delivered from it by a president who’ll make it ebb when the United States wants it to ebb and flow when it wants it to flow. As to do anything less, he tells us, would be to betray history’s victims:
“The Obama administration abandons to their fates one people after another, who pay the price for the president’s impatience with large historical struggles“ because Obama “is flummoxed that the world won’t stay saved, or agree to be saved at all. After all, he came to save it. And so the world has only itself to blame if Obama is sick of it and going home.”
How Wieseltier knows this is unclear, but, rocking back and forth in his columnist’s chair, he keeps repeating it liturgically, as he did in his column of March 7:
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 wrote then. “He is not raising the country up, he is tutoring it in ruefulness and futility… The president is too often caught off guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things.
Wieseltier is determined not to be caught off guard by the nastiness of things. So is Brooks, although chastened by the grand misadventures he supported so credulously and vigorously: In a column for the weekly Yale student Herald of Nov. 8 2002, he admonished campus critics of the coming war that:
There seems to be a pervasive micromania afoot: We have to think small because grand visions never work, and if we try to champion democracy in Iraq we will only screw it up…. [Y]ou hear pseudo-sophisticates say the interest in Iraqi regime change is all about oil—a concept so detached from the realities of the world petroleum markets that it doesn’t bear a minute’s scrutiny.
So effective were Brooks, Wieseltier, Kristol, Hill and their ilk in marginalizing critics of the war that they helped stampede the United States into destroying Iraqi hopes and American interests in the Middle East in the grandest strategic foreign-policy blunder in our history.
Now Brooks tells us, with no sense of his own responsibility, that:
The U.S. faces a death by a thousand cuts dilemma…. It’s not worth it to spend huge amounts of treasure to establish stability in Syria or defend a Western-oriented Ukraine. But, collectively, all the little problems can undermine the modern system. No individual ailment is worth the expense of treating it, but, collectively, they can kill you.
What to do? Brooks considers a model of containment offered by, John Gaddis, another of his “grand strategy” colleagues at Yale and a biographer of George Kennan. Gaddis wrapped himself so tightly around George W. Bush during the last decade that he was brought to the White House in 2005 to help draft the Second Inaugural Address and was invited back to receive a National Medal of the Humanities.
Now Gaddis, like Brooks, is more chastened and cautious, advocates a nuanced policy of containment against Putin and other rogues in what Brooks calls “a corrective to the death-by-a thousand cuts mentality. [Gaddis] argues that we should contain these menaces until they collapse internally…. “By not behaving stupidly, by not overextending ourselves” –as Bush did in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example?—“we can, Gaddis argues, ‘make sure Putin’s seeds of self-destruction are more deeply rooted than our own.”
Maybe that’s one way to “champion democracy” this time without screwing it up. But Brooks doubts that “time is on our side,” and, having labored so mightily in 2002 to stampede the American public into Iraq, he worries even more now than he did then that ”The weakness with any democratic foreign policy is the problem of motivation. How do you get the electorate to support the constant burden of defending the liberal system?”
How, indeed, if you’ve spent years working with people and powers that have weakened it? Brooks, Wieseltier, and Hill never acknowledge – and here I hope I may be forgiven for repeating myself for once, since they do it so often – that they can’t square their yearning for republican-ordered liberty with their active service to the whims and riptides of a casino-financed, predatory-marketing juggernaut that’s dissolving republican virtues, morale, and even sovereignty.
Fatuous though they’ve been as warmongers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pathetic though they look next to Winston Churchill, who warned darkly of Hitler’s intentions in the 1930s, Wieseltier, Brooks, and Hill aren’t wrong to discern the rise of a thousand cuts and the unraveling of the American capacity to deter them. Their blind spot is willful ignorance of their own complicity in that deterioration and their over-compensatory, almost pre-adolescent faith in the benevolence of a statist and militarist power they still hope to mobilize against the seductions and terrors rising all around them.
Small wonder that they fell into the arms of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. In 2007 Wieseltier wrote one of nearly 200 letters that were sent to a federal judge urging clemency for I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, who’d been convicted on charges of lying, perjury, and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame affair.
In his letter, Wieseltier digresses from his testimony for Libby to assure the judge, “I am in no sense a neoconservative, as many of my neoconservative adversaries will attest. I am, to the contrary, the kind of liberal who many neoconservatives like to despise, and that’s fine with me.”
It would have been fine with the court, too, surely, had Wieseltier forgone such stylized bleating on his own behalf. But he had tracks to cover after serving with Richard Bruce (Dick) Cheney, Karl Christian Rove, and others on the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, another now-defunct neo-conservative “Committee For” and a spawn of Kristol’s PNAC and the American Enterprise Institute.
Instead of acknowledging their deepest feelings openly, or even to themselves, the writers I’ve mentioned who’ve brought so much folly and destruction upon their republic, are doubling down, more nervous and desperate than ever, looking for someone else to blame. Hence their whirling columns and rhythmic incantations.