Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

Rescuing Rescue


“Pax Americana” always struck me as a somewhat misleading description of the postwar dispensation that the United States brought to the world, for two reasons. The first is its implied equivalence with earlier empires. It seems to me that the special fascination, and special benefit to the world, of American internationalism is precisely that it is not imperial. The British were in India for two hundred years; but we are rattled by overseas entanglements that last two hundred months, and even two hundred days. The United States has been a global power, an intrusive global power, but it has not been an empire; which is to say, it has been a new kind of global power, its commercial interests notwithstanding. The taxonomy needs a new term. American activism abroad has often been owed more to ideas than to interests, which is why our foreign policy regularly frightens the “realists” among us, who would in fact prefer that we behave more like a corporation with an army.

The second flaw in the metaphor of “Pax Americana” is that the American dispensation has not always been characterized by pax. We must be clear about this. Often the peace has come after war, and often the war has been a just war, which established more decent political conditions for the peace. This does not mean that we are “the cops of the world”. We have never been anything remotely like that. We intervene fitfully, infrequently, and less than our principles and the welfare of oppressed people demand. But sometimes we do use military force for purposes of democratization and rescue, and this should be a source of American pride. Among the least noticed facts of our era is that almost all of these interventions of democratization and rescue have been undertaken for the sake of Muslims, in southern Europe and the Middle East and Central Asia. We have not been making war on Muslims, we have been making war for Muslims.

In the Obama years, however, we have been content – more precisely, he has been content – to let Muslims languish in dictatorial and even genocidal circumstances, even as he piously proclaims his friendship for Muslim peoples. Rescue has fallen, or been banished, from the inventory of American purposes abroad. “Never again” are now the phoniest words this President utters. The Syrian catastrophe, in which Assad has perpetrated atrocities that dwarf many times over anything that Qaddafi was preparing to perpetrate in Libya, has exposed the heartlessness of Obama’s foreign policy. His contribution to the American record in this new age of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity is a stronger American stomach, a thicker American skin. We must be, he believes, less easily moved. But of course the reasons for the United States to intervene on behalf of the Syrian opposition have very little to do with emotionalism. There are huge principles and huge interests at stake in the question of Syrian rescue. Heartlessness in this case is not only unsentimental, it is also unintelligent.

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The American Abdication


One of the most tiresome clichés about the Middle East is that it never changes. In the old days, this notion of stasis was called essentialism. It is certainly true that there are significant historical changes – the ones that we cluster together in the term “modernization” – that have not yet come to the Arab societies of the region; and it is also true that there are powerful forces arrayed against the prospect of these changes. But the last few years have exposed the idea of the undying fixity of Arab life – so convenient for native theocrats and foreign corporations – as a myth. There is no region in the world where the winds of change are blowing more ferociously. The Arab Spring is one of the most momentous convulsions of modern history. Yet it is important to note that the some of the changes now affecting the Middle East are not indigenous, or of its own making. I have in mind one such change in particular. It is the bewildering but undeniable withdrawal of the United States from any really consequential role in helping to determine the outcomes of the various Arab revolutions.

This shrinkage of America’s conception of its place in the Middle East, and more generally of its place in the world, is the work of Barack Obama, his unspoken doctrine; and so his reelection does not bode well for the region. Or rather, it bodes well for its reactionary forces, who will encounter no formidable American obstacle to the pursuit of their interests and their ambitions. The president of the United States has been bizarrely content to be a spectator – in the front row, but still a spectator – of these hugely repercussive events. His passivity about Syria is of course the most egregious example. In Syria we now lag, morally and strategically, behind France, as we once did in Libya. Click to read more.


These are the most vexing questions of this historical moment, and I deny that anybody has the answers to them yet. Looking backward, I think that two observations can be made with some confidence. The first is that the only emancipated Arab country that did not elect an Islamist was the one Arab country in which the United States and its allies robustly intervened. I refer, of course, to Libya. Whether this is correlation or causation, it is certainly not coincidence. In Egypt and in Syria, by contrast, we have almost no levers of influence as regards the political direction of the change. President Obama’s assumption that American intrusion upon these events can only be for ill is a tremendous mistake. The second is that the rise of the Islamist parties in Egypt is owed in part to the disgraceful abdication of the political sphere by the liberal Twitterers who made the revolution. These fools pride themselves on their “leaderlessness” (they are abetted in this by any number of ideologues of the Internet who erroneously teach that “the network” is an appropriate metaphor for political life) while the authoritarians, religious and secular, the mullahs and the generals, have their leaders and seek resolutely to lead. The techies of Tahrir overthrew the dictator and left the field. They do not wish to live fiercely; but liberalism, too, must be fierce.

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The Other Side of the COIN

The origins of a war do not always illuminate its outcome. The Iraq war began in what I now regard (but did not regard at the time, since I was persuaded that there were nuclear in the hands of a tyrant who had already used chemical weapons) as a scandal of misunderstanding and misjudgment, but Iraq is now the better for having begun its arduous experiment in self-government. The beginnings of the Afghan war, by contrast, seemed unimpeachable to me — the extirpation of Al Qaeda and the collateral blessing of the Taliban’s rout; but I lost faith in the Afghan war a few years ago. The reason was that I lost faith in Afghanistan, in its determination to transform itself into the sort of society that would no longer provide a basis in social and political reality for the Taliban and other theocratic enemies of decency and prosperity. After all, what makes the Taliban frightening is not its military power, but its social and cultural plausibility. Its sources of legitimacy have not been destroyed. The problem is that the task of delegitimating the Taliban is not a military one. To paraphrase Burke, the sword has done all that the sword can do. (Would one more “fighting season” really change the country?). We have decimated Al Qaeda, and our enemies now operate in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. But we have not changed Afghanistan, at least not significantly enough to justify the further expense of American blood and money.

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