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A Commentator Lost in Washington's House of Columns

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"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, literary editor of The New Republic, in his most recent "Washington Diarist" 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 what has become a liturgy. Wieseltier, a celebrant of other people's courage in Baghdad, Teheran, Hamza, Beijing, and Kiev, rocks himself repeatedly into soaring supplications for strong American leadership, with rhythmic incantations that aren't very practical or even intellectual but are pretty evidently self-pleasuring. Sometimes they're even arousing to 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."

So wrote Wieseltier two weeks ago in admonishing the President to crack down somehow on Xi Jinping's vicious crackdown on brave, noble Chinese dissenters such as Xu Zhiyong, who is now a political prisoner following a trial in which he was prevented from reading a statement of liberal-democratic aspirations as clear and 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 week apropos 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."

Well, then, we'd better get busy recognizing evil when we see it! Wieseltier energetically anticipated and applauded the preparedness, the strong worldview, and the empiricism of George W. Bush who, although surprised on 9/11, was never again caught off guard by enmity or evil.

Bush's preparedness owed something to the preparedness of Wieseltier, who, even as Ground Zero still lay smoking, joined 42 other armchair warriors in a letter to Bush on Sept. 20, 2001, on the letter head of William Kristol's neoconservative Project for the New American Century.

The letter offered Bush the prescient strategic and moral advice that ''even 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.''

There's preparedness for you, and, as I noted several years ago in a more substantial assessment of Wieseltier's modus, this formidable editor and closet activist had prepared himself for preparedness by joining The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a spawn of Kristol's PNAC and the American Enterprise Institute, whose incorporation papers list as its board members Wieseltier, "Richard Bruce (Dick) Cheney," and "Carl Christian Rove."

This committee passed into history's glory after its liberation of Iraq, but now Wieseltier is redeploying his foreign-policy prescience. He cautions Obama 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 that "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'd cite Wieseltier's eloquent protests against such Buschian narcissism, if only I could find those protests. But now he's telling us how foolish Obama was not to take more seriously 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, adding that Angela Merkel found Putin to be living "in another world." "But the world is composed of all the worlds, and reality of all the realities," Wieseltier instructs us. "Our minds must make room for them all, not least for purposes of resistance."

Resistance! "The economic notion of rationality should sometimes yield to the anthropological notion of rationality," Wieseltier explains. "Putin is acting on the basis of a belief system" borne of "the 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. The wild homophobia of Putin's regime is his shorthand for his civilizational war. He gives masculinity a bad name."

George Bush gave masculinity a good name, we must suppose, and Wieseltier is leaving no button un-pressed in his eagerness to teach Obama to become a stronger 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. As long as Cold Warlike assumptions that the world is harsh, dark, and often evil reigned in the post-Carter, Reagan and Bush White Houses, Wieseltier sat tall in his columnist's chair. And now 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 -- and even Wieseltier acknowledges that "[a]ll historical analogies are imprecise...." Yet 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 Leon Wieseltier is humming or playing while he's rocking back and forth 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 Eisenhower and the nervous Democrats Kennedy and Johnson kowtowed with gratuitous brinkmanship and battlefield 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, stupidly, and at irreversible costs in lives, wealth, and public trust, what sanctions and market forces have done or are doing far more effectively. Noticing the other day that the label inside a T-shirt reads "Made in Vietnam," I wondered again what those 50,000 American deaths and countless Vietnamese deaths had accomplished when, even though we lost 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).

Outside the Union League Club on Park Avenue 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 the children of the Project for the New American Century and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.

So are rising numbers of military suicides and of veterans whose disorientation I read about just this morning in a review by the former New York Times Baghdad correspondent Dexter Filkins of a book by one of them, Phil Klay.

It must be easier not to think about this if you're living in another 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."

After his Iraq follies, you might think that Wieseltier would return to this truth. But no. His columns seem borne of 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], Wieseltier 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 at sea.

There are indeed times when liberals must fight to defend liberalism, sometimes to defeat enemies who've arisen, as did fascism and much of Communism, from within the interstices and contradictions of liberal capitalism itself. But Leon Wieseltier lives for those times. Somewhat like Robert Kagan, who exulted, "The world has become normal again" in 2007 when the New World Order's 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 for the rest of us, 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.