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Monday, January 31, 2011

Pyramid Scheming

Having no special understanding of Egypt, I can't offer much fresh on the extraordinary events of the last week. But I can comment on some of the commentary. Maybe the least surprising aspect of the uprising has been the aggressive jockeying of one and all on this side of the pond to claim the foreign policy high ground. Leon Wieseltier at New Republic caught my eye today, and as always the question is whether his eloquence outstrips his intellectual vanity or vice versa.

For all his insight, alternately prescient and pompous, Wieseltier fears nothing so much as losing a war for moralistic nuance. Obama drives him crazy. People seem to think that this mere whelp of a pol is an eloquent and nuanced intellectual, not having seen the real item. So whenever LW writes on Obama it reads like the desperate grasping of an overshadowed older brother. What provoked the Salieri complex this time? Obama's famed Cairo speech of 2009, where the new president addressed the Muslim world and called for a new beginning based on mutual respect, democracy, human rights, and shared interests in peace. Here's LW's take:

There is nothing wrong with crisis management in a crisis, but the problem that the Obama administration now confronts is precisely that it has not been a cornerstone of American policy toward Egypt to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people. It has preferred cronyism with the regime occasionally punctuated by some stirring remarks. What we are witnessing, in the confusion and the dread of the administration, are the consequences of its demotion of democratization as one of the central purposes of American foreign policy, particularly toward the Muslim world. There were two reasons for the new liberal diffidence about human rights. The first was the Bush doctrine, the second was the Obama doctrine. The wholesale repudiation of Bush’s foreign policy included the rejection of anything resembling his “freedom agenda,” which looked mainly like an excuse for war. But whatever one’s views of the Iraq war, it really does not seem too much to ask of American liberals that they think a little less crudely about democratization—not only about its moral significance but also about its strategic significance. One of the early lessons of the rebellion against Mubarak is that American support for democratic dissidents is indeed a strategic matter, and that the absence of such American support can lead to a strategic disaster. Such are the wages of realism. It is a common error that prudence is thought about the short-term; the proper temporal horizon for prudential thinking is distant and long. Realism does not equip one for an adequate appreciation of the historical force of the democratic longing. In this sense, realism is singularly unrealistic. It seems smart only as long as the dictators remain undisturbed by their people, and then suddenly it seems incredibly stupid.

LW goes on to complain that Obama has practiced foreign policy in a "vigorously multicultural spirit" that has "the effect of aligning America with regimes and against peoples," as if academic gripes from two decades ago somehow haunt the American left's (i.e., Obama's) inability to call a dictator a dictator. A straightforward reading of Obama's speech reveals no such relativistic shibboleths, however. I'm not sure where LW finds the specter of autocratic "acceptance" in a speech that trumpets American exceptionalism so unapologetically. Surely the breach that Obama sought to heal in that speech was NOT the one between the US government and an Egyptian dictator who already liked us (and our $2B/year) just fine thanks. Obama was repairing our relations with the fabled "Arab street," relations which had been sorely tested by eight years of Bushian neo-conservatism. That speech could only have encouraged democracy to the Arab world, and if, as LW says, it threatened Mubarak not one whit, well it should have, whether we intended it to or not.

If, in the aftermath of Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution," we have had trouble sufficiently distancing ourselves from Mubarak, it has little if anything to do with Obama's overconfident rhetoric, multiculturalism, or supposed fears of democracy promotion. Indeed, our failures have one simple source that somehow LW never found the nuance (or the moral courage) to acknowledge: Israel. Full Stop.

We like "Democracy." We also like Israel. But in countries like Egypt the former has been a mere abstraction since, well, forever, while support for Israel is a cold, hard fact, and one of the few such facts in the region that has prevented our constant headaches from turning full-on migraine for the last 30+ years. There's no real blame here. These facts just are what they are, and no matter how much we would like to pretend otherwise there is no coherent or magical foreign policy that somehow threads this needle. I do not say this to disparage our support for Israel, which, as you know, I share, but to recognize the complex and tragic nature of all political action. TNR used to have such a Niebuhrian sense. Now I have to find it elsewhere--who would have guessed Douthat!? There are, indeed, "wages of realism." Wieseltier just refuses to pay them.


At 10:12 AM, Blogger Number Three said...

Douthat's column would make a whole lot more sense if I didn't know that in six months to a year, he will be defending whatever partisan nonsense folks on his side of the aisle are saying about Obama's (in)action in the crisis!


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