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Leon Wieseltier

Where Are the Americans?

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.


In foreign policy, the remedial efforts of the new administration, the post-Caligula administration may come down to this: the position of the United States in the world must be restored, but not too much. Sometimes, when people speak of all the damage that Biden must undo, they talk about giving us a fresh start by getting us back to zero. But zero is zero; and nobody in their right mind, in the terrifying social and economic crisis in which we have been living, would propose zero, a return to 2016, as the proper objective of domestic policy. In social and economic policy we must be ambitious, monumental, transformative, and finally translate the humaneness that we profess into laws and programs and institutions; we must assist and even rescue the weak and wounded millions in our midst. But the Rooseveltian moment is to be confined to our shores. Abroad, I fear, we will rescue nobody. We will be only national humanitarians. We are resolved to “repair our repaired alliances,” as we should — but this leaves the larger question of what we are to accomplish with our alliances, what we and our allies are to do in the world together. We are similarly resolved to “restore American leadership,” but we are also haunted by the prospect of genuine American leadership, grand leadership, leadership with power as well as politesse, unpopular but persuasive leadership, not least because we have distorted the modern history of American leadership into an ugly story, a sordid and simple tale of imperialism and exploitation, which is a calumny that will cripple us for the conflicts that are on their way, and are already here.

One of the reasons that a return to 2016 will not suffice to recuperate our foreign policy is that the wayward course of the United States, its choice to abdicate global preeminence and to withdraw from decisive historical action, did not begin in 2016. We have been living contentedly in our shrunken version, in an increasingly Hobbesian world, in this springtime for Hitlers, for a dozen years. When historians record the history of American foreign policy in this century, they will be struck by the continuities between the Obama administration and the Trump administration, and thereby discomfit (I hope) many people. There are some differences, of course. Obama’s diplomatic diffidence was sold suavely, like everything he sells: an emotionally exquisite realism, a tender-hearted hard-heartedness, Brent Scowcroft’s policies with Elie Wiesel’s words. It was not, as in the case of Trump, animated by anything as coarse and candidly indifferent as America First, but in practice the callousness was the same. In the Obama era, no country, no ally, no democratic rebellion or dissident movement, no cleansed or genocidally attacked population, could count on America. (There was another difference: Trump, a swindler who hated to be swindled, at least got China right. The good news is that Biden appears to have noticed.) In 2016, in a radio interview, David Remnick, a wholly owned subsidiary of Obama, remarked to Ben Rhodes, another wholly owned subsidiary of Obama, that the president was “asking the American people to accept a tragic view of foreign policy and its limitations, and of life itself.” And he added, unforgettably: “Sometimes a catastrophe is what we have to accept.” What sagacity! But which catastrophes are the acceptable ones? So many atrocities, so little time. It takes a special kind of smugness, and politics, to be stoical about the sufferings of other people.  

Insofar as the new Biden foreign policy apparatus is the old Obama foreign policy apparatus — are they now the Blob? — there is reason to worry that their former leader’s aversion to conflict, and his soulful patience with the anguish of others, will live on in a busy cosmopolitanism that mistakes itself for a robust internationalism — a genial, worldly, multi-lingual era of good feelings and recovered sanities that will still offer no serious impediment to the designs of rivals and villains. We will soon see how far the return of truth to government will reverse the isolationist foreign policy that was developed during government’s recent adventures with falsehood. Returning from Trump to Obama will not suffice. They knew the truth in the Obama White House, they knew the facts, but it set nobody free.

Those who are pleased by the reduction of America’s position in the world like to say that America should lead not by power but by example. It is a clever argument, in that it imposes no obligations upon us other than to be ourselves, which is always the laziest imperative of all. Unfortunately for those who recommend this historical leisure, this self-congratulatory lethargy, the City on the Hill is presently in ruins. Who on earth would want to be us now? I exaggerate, of course: we never were Weimar America, and we sent our orange strongman packing, and our Constitution held; but we are miserable. Even in the good times, there was nothing terribly helpful, it was even a little insulting, to say to the wretched of the earth, be like us. The only way any of them could be like us was to fight their own fights, in their own communities and in their own cultures, for the opening of their societies, ideally with the expectation that the United States would be there to assist them in their struggle for their particular inflection of the universal value of freedom. There was also another way in which they could be like us: they could come here and join their democratic and economic appetites with ours, which is why we should regard immigration as the definitive way of taking America’s promise seriously; but on immigration, too, we lost our footing years ago, and are a haven no more. 

How can we lead by example if we are not exceptional? But it is the people who despise the idea of American exceptionalism who insist that our example is our only claim to global authority. Their implication is that until we have justice at home, we cannot take an interest in justice abroad. We may as well inform the Uighurs and the Syrians and the Rohingya and the astonishing citizens of Hong Kong that they must wait forever. The worst example of such reasoning — it is one of the most outrageous sentences I have ever read — was Simone Weil’s observation that as long as France had colonies it had no moral authority to fight Hitler. As if ethical action is the duty only of saints. But the struggle for justice, at home and abroad, is always the work of sinners, whose introspection is supposed to catalyze, not paralyze, them. No, there is only one way to win the friendship of people beyond our borders, and it is to help people beyond our borders. We can be big in the world by doing good in the world. Lacking bigness or goodness, we (and not only we) are doomed. 

I will be accused, at the very least, of a lack of irony. Don’t I know about the innocent blood spilled in the just wars? What about the interventions that went wrong? What about the infringements of sovereignty, that most hallowed of Westphalian principles? And the cocky way I am using that word “good” — good according to whom? These are fine and urgent questions. Naivete is especially unpardonable in discussions of power. Idealists have a special obligation to attend to considerations of costs and benefits; otherwise, as the Latin adage about doing justice warns, the world may perish for their stubbornness. Moreover, the rhetoric of political virtue, of enlightenment and liberation and democracy, was long ago appropriated by modernity’s monsters: they, too, use moral language, words like “good.” 

But there are no perfect Westphalians: interests of state have regularly over-ruled the inviolability of states, often for shabby reasons. There is something grotesque about living with immoral and amoral transgressions against the state system but drawing the line at the moral ones. All these historical and philosophical complications persuade me only that we should be intellectually scrupulous, not that we should be practically feckless. The shoals of relativism, the taunts of epistemology, the consistencies of pacifism, pale before the sufferings of individuals and peoples. Their pain is overwhelmingly actual. Its facticity is almost stupefying. I have been reading a beautiful old essay by Ignazio Silone called “The Choice of Comrades,” where I find this: “It is a matter of personal honor to keep faith with those who are being persecuted for their love of freedom and justice. This keeping faith is a better rule than any abstract program or formula.  In this age of ours, it is the real touchstone.” Pretty unsophisticated, no? 

It is now a terrible anniversary. It has been ten years since the beginning of the first great disgrace of the twenty-first century. I am referring to the Syrian catastrophe. Except for the dead and the raped and the tortured and the exiled, except for the refugees and the survivors, the dust seems to have settled for everyone else, and so it seems time for Americans to do what Americans do best: move on. Anyway, what can we do? The democratic rebellion in Syria that began in Dara’a in April, 2011 was defeated. It was successfully transformed into an ethnic and religious conflict, the direst kind of contemporary war, by the tyrant Bashar al-Assad, who proceeded to destroy his own country and bomb his own people and, when his weakness was showing, deliver his state to the aggressions of the Iranians and their Hezbollah allies under the protection of the Russians, who rushed in where America feared to tread. This was a moral and strategic (look again at the map) failure of staggering proportions. It was a genocide and an invasion and a conquest. We chose to stand idly by, feeling bad and watching it. And the effects of our passivity were not confined to the borders of the ravaged land. As a consequence of the West having done nothing, so that the murderers met no resistance from outside, no force that could obstruct them, the stability of Lebanon and Jordan has been threatened, Turkey has embarked on a dark path, Russia has become a semi-demi-hemi-superpower, Iran has become a regional hegemon, the position of the United States in the world has plummeted, and fascists are coming to power in Europe. Not bad for nothing.

There are primal historical scenes that leave an indelible imprint upon one’s sense of the world — one’s expectations of it and one’s obligations in it. When I was growing up, there were two such primal scenes, and they generated antithetical views of history and politics. The first was World War II, the second was Vietnam. All I needed to know about an individual was his or her primal scene, and the rest was easily filled in. There was post-war and there was anti-war. People who were postwar, who were imprinted by the effects of American power against fascism in Europe and Asia, and by the testimonies of the victims of totalitarianism who regarded American soldiers as saviors, had a large and admiring view of America’s role in the world, and a verified confidence that American power could be used justly and for justice. Post-war was not pro-war, but it was prepared to use American force in the name of certain values and certain interests — and did, with good, bad, and mixed results. Vietnam, the subsequent primal scene, was supposed to have shattered that confidence, and anti-war people deplored American intentions and interventions, which they viewed as cynical projections of power for power’s sake, and for money’s sake too, and as nothing other than imperialism. These different outlooks were to some extent generationally determined, but not entirely; they were applied not only to the uses of American military power but also more generally to the level of American activism around the world and to the level of American preeminence in the world; and they may be described, if labels be needed, as liberalism and progressivism. (Biden is a post-war become an anti-war, I think.)

Now there are two new primal scenes, from which two corollaries of historical and strategic understanding similarly flow. The first is Iraq, the second is Syria. Iraq is Vietnam’s successor in the foreign policy of progressives, the transgression from which there is no recovery, the obscene noun that silences all talk of American action. As Obama remarks in his memoir, “of course, I considered the invasion [of Iraq] to be as big a strategic blunder as the slide into Vietnam had been decades earlier.” Iraq was the reason that we did not go into Syria. The poor Syrians had the misfortune of being exterminated after 2003. Their horrors came too late, when the United States was sunk in historical memory. I am not suggesting, of course, that American forgetfulness would have been preferable; only that the infamous lessons of Iraq are not as obvious as every person on every street corner in Washington seems to think. 

I should confess immediately that I supported the Iraq war. I believed, on what I (and almost everybody except Scott Ritter) regarded as good authority, that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons, and since he had already used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988, the question of his willingness to employ weapons of mass destruction was not a theoretical one. The use of such weapons, I continue to believe, and the threat of their use, constitutes a global moral emergency. When I realized that the assumption behind the invasion was wrong, that the dictator in Baghdad was bluffing his way to his own destruction, I promptly retracted my support, but I did so in a way that did not please the anti-wars. I wrote that the United States had been taken by its leaders into a major war on the basis of a mistake or a lie, and that this was a great historical scandal — but I expressed no regret about the overthrow of Saddam, and I continued to hope, not without evidence, that democratic progress could be made in the political openings that we — perhaps not by right, but in fact — were creating and supporting. I ardently hoped to see democracy in an Arab country. I was not surprised by the sectarian strife that was released by the collapse of the dictatorship, but this was a problem that Iraq, and other Muslim countries, would sooner or later have to face. In heterogeneous societies, tyranny is, among other things, a stop-gap measure, a deferment of the inevitable confrontation with the political challenges of difference and disharmony.

I certainly did not come away from the partial debacle in Iraq with the conviction that the United States was henceforth disqualified from international interventions. There were a number of reasons for this. For a start, there is no single event that explains everything, that is all we will ever need to know. Paradigms, and primal scenes too, enslave our thinking, and historical analogies are never precise. (During the Trump years, for example, we never had our Reichstag fire.) Those who forget history are sometimes condemned to repeat it and sometimes not; and those who remember history will know that it never slows down or stops, it offers no ellipses or time-outs, there is no interregnum between crisis and crisis in which we may calmly reflect and attend conferences before we act again. If ever we needed a respite from history, it was in 1945; but events in Europe and elsewhere did not allow it. (The isolationism of the 1930s, and America’s unconscionably slow start in the defense of England and the other democracies, was owed to a similar exhaustion, and to vivid memories of a recent war.) It makes no sense, at least to me, to say that we could have halted the genocide and the occupation of Syria if only we had not intervened in Iraq. The relentlessness of history, and the eruption of evil, is always inconvenient. We are never adequately prepared for it, intellectually and materially, but there it is. If we should have intervened in Syria, we should have intervened in Syria.

There were many, of course, who did not agree that an intervention in Syria would have been justified. Obama never said so explicitly, but my obsessive study of his foreign policy led me to the conclusion that it was his belief that the United States has no right to make itself in any way responsible, directly or indirectly, for a significant change in another country. (In accordance with the anti-war account of American foreign policy, however, there were three exceptions to this quietism, three countries about which American guilt demanded American action: Vietnam, Cuba, and Iran.) There are many objections, historical and philosophical, that can be made to such a view. This debate must still be engaged. The Obama people, who in the Trump years swanned around like disappointed interventionists, argued that there was nothing, nothing, that we could have done in Syria, and eventually some of them bizarrely had algorithms made to settle the matter. But the important point is that we tried it their way, and it failed. Whereas we do not know what the outcome of American intervention in Syria would have been, we do know what the outcome of American non-intervention in Syria has been. Was sitting on our hands really worth it? We were disgusting. In the Obama years I had the honor of many visits from many Syrian friends who wanted to talk with me on their way to an appointment at the White House. I advised them all the same thing: tell the officials what you know about the situation on the ground, be useful to them, speak as eloquently as you can, appeal to American ideals and American interests, and expect nothing. 

If Iraq is now one primal scene, Syria is now the other. Syria is the cautionary tale about the stupendous consequences of inaction. Here is another heresy: I have no doubt that the costs of American action in Iraq have been much less than the costs of American inaction in Syria. Governments and peoples everywhere were watching. The governments learned that they can do whatever they wish to their peoples, and the peoples learned that America will not try hard, or at all, to stop their governments. The governments also learned that they could send their troops across borders with impunity, in campaigns of aggression that seize territory and disrupt states, as Iran did in Syria and elsewhere, and Russia did in Ukraine, and China is likely to do in Taiwan and the South China Sea. It is true that we do not have the power to determine the policies of other countries, but we do have the power to inhibit them and complicate them and thwart them. We have the power, if we want it. Anyway, we know all about the limits of American power: it is the foreign policy cliché of our era, our diplomatic catechism. The question before us is which limits to accept, and why. A limit is not a fate. In domestic policy, certainly, we are correctly enjoined to “go big,” and never mind the warnings about what the economy will bear.

But how does the dispatch of American troops to another country differ from the Russian dispatch of troops to another country? Are our actions acceptable because they are ours? Of course not. All interventions are not the same. We have sometimes abused our power abroad, and we have experienced legal and political and cultural reckonings with those abuses. What makes the difference, plainly, is the purpose. When, in the first Gulf War, we and our allies expelled Iraq’s troops from Kuwait, we were upholding international law and coming to the assistance of an invaded country — but when James Baker, who was asked about the reasons for the war, said “jobs, jobs, jobs,” he put a bit of a dent in its legitimacy. There is a commonly held view that an American presence is no longer welcome in the Muslim world after Iraq. I do not speak or read Arabic, and my evidence is journalistic and anecdotal, but I wonder. It cannot have been lost on many Muslims that most of America’s military campaigns in recent decades were designed partly or wholly to assist Muslims — in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Kuwait, in Afghanistan, in Libya, even in Iraq. (The Libyan campaign, though, was a model of how anti-interventionists intervene: the objective of the mission almost immediately became to end the mission, and we hastily left Libya to its hell.) Syrians, certainly, were desperate for American intervention; and the one night in ten years that I saw my Syrian friends happy was the night that Trump fired fifty-nine cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s sarin attack on the village of Khan Sheykhoun. When I asked H.R. McMaster whether the American operation represented a new policy of engagement or a Tweet with missiles, I angered him; but alas, it was a Tweet with missiles.

People who need help usually welcome help. They do not ask to see the ideological credentials of those who have come to save their lives. The credentials game is the sanctimonious pastime of those who are not in need of rescue — the American left, for example, which had nothing at all to offer the Syrians, or the Ukrainians. The journals of the American left have established a strange intellectual ritual about human-rights emergencies: they report on them in plangent detail and then deplore any suggestion that we might actually do something to alleviate them. They deify dissidents and their hearts break for the women and the children, and then the ideological prohibitions kick in. In this planet of horrors nothing horrifies them more than the prospect of an American soldier somewhere. It suits many Americans to believe that for the rest of the world we are still the ugly Americans, since the subject of intervention is moot if we are not wanted. 

We certainly should not go anywhere as conquerors or occupiers, but there may be justifications for an American military presence that have nothing to do with conquest or occupation. We must always be respectful of the “local dynamics,” though there will be occasions when the “local dynamics” are precisely what bring us to a faraway place. But when there is an earthquake in Haiti or a nuclear accident in Japan or an invasion in Ukraine or a genocide in the Balkans or a plague in Liberia, the broken countries generally, and correctly, look to us. We are not the cops of the world, but we do not turn our backs, at least not always. Right now we are hardly in danger of doing too much. This has been a golden age of too little. Soon, if we do not recover our sense of our historical role, the imperiled of the world, and the prudent, will start looking to China. (They will discover the original meaning of attached strings.) During the Obama years, when friends would return from trips abroad and offer reports over drinks, a pattern began to emerge from their observations. Wherever they went, to Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, Japan, or Latin America, in meetings with officials and journalists and politicians and bankers, they were asked the same question — a question there was no need to ask during the Trump years because its answer was repulsively self-evident. The question that hounded them everywhere was, Where are the Americans?

“O to be discussing this face à face (or mano a mano, in this case) outside Kramer books with a stiff drink. Our last conversation there was really memorable.” So wrote a cherished friend not long ago, a man of strong intellect and immense learning, a steadfast liberal. He was right: we needed a long and rigorous conversation. The situation called for a café. We had been corresponding about the question of interventionism, about Syria and Iraq, about what the new administration’s foreign policy should be. We disagreed. Our moral and philosophical premises were the same, but he was shaken by my stubborn confidence that American force could still be used in service to those premises. “Are you not at all chastened by the damage such confidence has caused over the past two decades?” In fact I believe that the “damage” is not remotely the whole story, that the results have been decidedly mixed; and in this vale  of tears I cannot scant mixed results. “We and the Syrians,”  my friend wrote, not at all complacently or triumphantly,  “are paying the price for the Iraq folly.” As a factual matter,  he was right.

And then he expressed another objection, an exceedingly interesting one. “This is not a moral disagreement,” he explained. “What I object to is the reflex to transform political problems into moments of moral self-revelation and self-definition — Malraux moments. ‘Here I stand” — yes, yes, I know, but sometimes you need to stand over there and pipe down.” About not piping down, I plead guilty as charged, though I fail to see why the other side should not also stifle its ringing certainties. But in these debates I do not really mind the noise: the stakes justify some heat, which hopefully will be generated by some light. “For Zion’s sake I will not hold my peace,” the prophet Isaiah proclaimed. Elsewhere in his letter my friend had indeed impugned me for speaking not liberally but prophetically. And Isaiah’s proclamation may indeed be described as a Malraux moment.

I understood what my friend meant by this notion. André Malraux was many things, but one of them was a grand self-mythologizer who, from the 1920s to the 1940s, valiantly but also narcissistically, hopped from world-historical crisis to world-historical crisis — China, Cambodia, Spain, Nazi-occupied France — an intellectual who dreamed of being a man of action, turning his participation in those cataclysms into an epic of self-description, and into novels. If he was a hero, it was not least in his own eyes. I had noticed long ago, in others as well as in myself, the grandiloquence that sometimes results from high moral arguments, the way that impassioned participation in a war of ideas can be confused with another variety of historical participation, the inflation of the self that comes from a certain intensity of commitment. (In 2002, during the debates about al-Qaeda and Iraq, Christopher Hitchens, with whom I stood shoulder to shoulder at least on these questions, declared: “You want to be a martyr? I’m here to help.” I remember thinking that his self-conception had crossed the line.) The prophetic feeling is a nice feeling, especially in a land where prophets pay no price.

“Liberalism,” my friend continued, “should teach an art, or at least see the need for an art, of discerning when a fundamental moral issue is at stake and when it is not.” This is liberalism as a mentality, not as a doctrine. At the café I would have retorted that if intervention to stop a genocide, or to assist a democratic rebellion, is not a fundamental moral issue, I don’t know what is. But his charge of Malrauxism stays with me. He is on to something. Foreign policy must not be a form of self-expression. It must not be, as Americans like to say, about us. When we act abroad, it should not be to confirm a flattering picture of ourselves, or to furnish a sensation of our own rectitude. This is in part because statecraft should be a profoundly empirical activity, based on a sober evaluation of threats and opportunities — on an analytical disinterestedness without which our promotion of our values and our pursuit of our interests may become a menace to the world. The delusions of statesmen have murdered many millions of people. 

Yet my friend’s warning against Malrauxism provoked me to another conclusion, which he will find perverse in the context of his prescriptions for caution. It is this: that there are circumstances in which our foreign policy, if it is not to be about us, must be about others. I do not mean only that diplomacy and strategy are always to some extent reactive, in that we do not have the capacity to determine all by ourselves, in our own time, based on our own preferences and our own moods, whether a crisis represents, say, a “new cold war.” There is always the not insignificant factor of the behavior of other states, inside and outside their borders. When I say that our foreign policy must sometimes be about others, I mean also something more radical, more swift, more humanistic, more exercised by peoples than by governments: that there are times when we must take action because of the needs of others. 

The needs of others: we must agree to be distracted and quickened by their plight. They cannot be neglected because we are still discussing humility and hubris. We must be prepared to pause, to look up from the ordinary practices of international relations, for the purpose of support and rescue. People who are not citizens of a country sometimes have a legitimate claim on its power. In the case of refugees, for example, Kant recognized a “cosmopolitan right” that he called “universal hospitality,” which was eventually codified in the Refugee Convention of 1951. “We are concerned here not with philanthropy,” he sternly wrote, “but with right.” In this instance, the rights of strangers impose an obligation upon us. Do people who are being tortured, raped, thrown into concentration camps, and slaughtered so as to erase their identity from the face of the earth — do they have a right to demand that we come to their assistance and even liberate them? Maybe not, but it should not matter. They have a claim on our sympathy, and sympathy is cynical, vain, with no relation to conscience, unless one acts upon it. (There are many kinds and degrees of action: Iraq is hardly the model.) 

By what right do we help them? It is the wrong question. The right one is, by what right do we abandon them? On certain occasions humanitarian intervention will coincide with our interests, and there is of course the long-term reward of gaining the friendship of the people we help; but sometimes we should use our power only because it is the right thing to do. We had no interests that would have been served by intervening against the genocide in Rwanda, except for our interest in being able to look at ourselves in the mirror.

There are hard-boiled types who will scoff at all this, and dismiss it as altruistic, and mock it as not the way of the world. Well, so much the worse for the world. The world is the problem, not the solution. There is no shame in altruism, and when it practiced by a state, by a strong state, by a great power, it may even modify international norms. It is certainly not inconsistent with the toughness that will be demanded of our leaders by the Great Game that has already begun to define this century. And it is certainly not the whole of foreign policy, though the less sentimental problem of world order will also require a new American emboldenment. The opposite of America First is not America Second. It is America in full, unafraid of history’s pace, unembarrassed by its enthusiasm for democracy and human rights, larger than its mistakes and its crimes, comfortable with the assertion of its power in its own defense and in the defense of others, inspired by the memory of its magnitude, repelled by the rumors of its decline. Only we can bring us down and only we can lift us up, and not only us. “We fell victims to our faith in mankind,” wrote Alexander Donat, a survivor of the ghettos and the concentration camps, “our belief that humanity had set limits to the degradation and prosecution of one’s fellow man.” There are already too many people in too many places who fell victim to their faith in America.