Huffpost Politics
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jim Sleeper Headshot

A Foreign-Policy Problem No One Talks About

Posted: Updated:

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 the Ukraine and many other places doesn't quite explain. The reason for the cries, according to New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and other dark criers of American Destiny, is that, as Wieseltier put it on March 10, President Obama "is not raising the country up, he is tutoring it in ruefulness and futility..."

You might think that they'd have broader, better explanations for America's foreign-policy disappointments. A long New York Times editorial and a column by Tom Friedman offer some of them, Friedman emphasizing that Obama has predecessors who really, truly damaged American credibility and power before he took office.

But Wieseltier and Brooks think smaller because they're captive to a little foreign-policy problem that almost everyone but me has been too polite to mention: They and a small chorus of critics like themselves are waving Salome-like veils of erudition and idealism to disguise their peculiarly gnawing obsession to get America to take on a world that's colder, darker, and harder than Obama and feckless liberals ever imagined.

In addition to Wieseltier and Brooks, the "blame the feckless liberals" chorus has included Donald Kagan, Robert Kagan, David Frum, William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and many other American neoconservatives. Some of them have been chastened, or at least been made more cautious, by their grand-strategic blunders of a few years ago. But last week Wieseltier and Brooks put themselves on display in a manner so predictable and persistent that it begs a little deconstruction.

Because of Obama, Wieseltier insists, 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." Wieseltier hasn't noticed that we no longer have an army that can win wars, or a large pool of fit recruits, or an adequate budget, or even a national will. He hasn't considered that that's due partly and inescapably to stances that he, Brooks, and other blowhards of American Destiny have been urging us to take since long before 9/11, as well as the associations and compromises that the chorus members themselves have made.

"The weakness with any democratic foreign policy is the problem of motivation," Brooks frets now. "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 percent 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, can you 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 proclamations of 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 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 demands for aggressive American leadership reach a new crescendo in this week's threnody for history's -- and, he implies, 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, or as Reagan did when he saved Grenada.

Assessing Obama's turn to what seems to him a limp-wristed containment, Wieseltier, rocking in his columnist's chair, advises, rhythmically, as always, 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 to be some kind of Marxist to note 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, as if he has 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, he tells them:

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."

But Brooks called Hill a "legendary foreign service office" 10 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. Then 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." Brooks revealed then that, with Bush and Cheney in the saddle and Rumsfeld and General Abrams in the field, "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'd 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 and has been a tutor to the "blame the feckless liberals" chorus.

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 whoever 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 for a 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 remarked, Hill would tell the student paper that he didn't know how his name had gotten on the letter 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." I heard Hill say much the same to an auditorium full of Yale students weeks before the start of the Iraq War.

If this is how Hill addresses students, why is he teaching at Yale? This isn't how a professor of liberal education should explain the world. 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, too.

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."

But who is Hill's all-seeing "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 answered such questions in the spring of 2008 when he became the Chief Foreign Policy Advisor to Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign, whose most well-known phrase was Giuliani's "The Terrorists' War on Us" and whose every sentence seemed to consist of "a verb, a noun, and '9/11,'" as Joe Biden noted sardonically.

Wieseltier, sharing Hill's "360 degrees" presumptions, complains in his own distinctively 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, the U.S. has no choice but to be everywhere and that, as Wieseltier puts it, "only small powers" would think otherwise." If the U.S. is thinking that small, it's only 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. By doing less than that, "The Obama administration abandons to their fates one people after another, who pay the price for the president's impatience with large historical struggles," and all 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.... 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, ignoring the grand misadventures he charted so credulously and vigorously, as in a column for the weekly Yale student Herald of November 8, 2002, where 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."

Brooks ponders 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 more chastened and cautious, advocates a nuanced policy of containment against Putin and other rogues: 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?"

Again, I ask, how, indeed, if you've spent years working with people and powers that have weakened it? Brooks, Wieseltier, and Hill never acknowledge -- and I hope I may be forgiven for repeating myself here, 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.

Please note that I'm not saying Brooks, and Hill are wrong to discern the rise of a thousand cuts and the unraveling of the American capacity to deter them. I'm saying that they've been fatuous as warmongers again and again and that there's something pathetic in their attempts to emulate Winston Churchill, who warned darkly of Hitler's intentions in the 1930s. Their blind spot is their willful ignorance of their own complicity in American 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.

At bottom, the chorus members' recurrent nightmares of 1938 doom them to reenact other nightmares, prompted by very similar writers in 1914, on the eve of World War I. Those writers are depicted chillingly, unforgettably, in Chapter 9, "War Fever," of Amos Elon's The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933. Elon's account of Germany's stampede into World War I chronicles painfully the warmongering hysterics of some Jewish would-be patriots of the Kaiserreich who exerted themselves blindly, romantically, to maneuver their state into the Armageddon that would produce Hitler himself.

This is the place to emphasize that few of Wilhelmine German's warmongers were Jews and that few Jews were or are warmongers. (Me, for example, although my extended-family history isn't much different from Brooks' or Wieseltier's.) My point is simply that, driven by what I recognize as understandable if almost preternatural insecurities and cravings for full liberal-nationalist belonging that was denied to Jews for centuries in Europe, some of today's American super-patriotic neo-conservatives hurled themselves into the Iraq War, and they have continued, again and again, to employ modes of public discourse and politics that echo with eerie fidelity that of the people described in Elon's book. The Americans lionized George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and many others as their predecessors lionized Kaiser Wilhelm, von Bethmann-Hollweg, and far-right nationalist associates who hated the neo-cons of that time but let them play their roles.

Here is Wieseltier, in 2007, writing one of nearly 200 letters 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 the 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, Carl 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. After Germany lost World War I, many Germans unfairly blamed their national folly on Jews, many of whom had served in it loyally but only a few of whom had been provocateurs and cheerleaders like the signatories of PNAC's letter to Bush. Now neo-cons, from Wieseltier and Brooks to Hill, are blaming Obama and all other feckless liberals. Some of them really need to take a look in Amos Elon's mirror.