If America is Weak, Who Made it Weak?


Jim Sleeper is a lecturer at Yale. He teaches a seminar on global journalism and national identities.

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 Ukraine and many other places doesn’t quite explain. The reason, according to Leon Wieseltier, David Brooks, and other prophets of American Destiny, is that (as I quoted Wieseltier here on March 10) President Obama “is not raising the country up, he is tutoring it in ruefulness and futility…” You might think there’d  be other, better explanations for the foreign-policy disappointments of a behemoth such as the United States, and the conservative outcry has prompted a long New York Timeseditorial mentioning some of them and a column by Tom Friedman reminding us that Obama had predecessors who really, truly damaged American credibility and power. 

But there’s another dimension of our foreign-policy problems that almost everyone but me has been too polite to mention: A small chorus of critics who are themselves damaged - gnarled, frightened, and waving Salome-like veils of erudition and idealism to disguise their obsession with a world they seem driven to remind us is colder, darker, and harder than Obama and feckless liberals ever imagined. Wieseltier and Brooks are members of this “blame the feckless liberals” chorus, and they put themselves on display last week in a manner so predictable and annoying that it begs a little deconstruction. 

Because of Obama, Wieseltier explained then and again last week, 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.” What none of the prophets has noticed is that we no longer have an army with a large pool of fit recruits, or an adequate budget, or even a national will, owing partly and inescapably to stances that these blowhards of American Destiny have urged us to take since before 9/11 and owing to the associations and compromises they’ve made. “The weakness with any democratic foreign policy is the problem of motivation,” Brooks frets. “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% 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, to 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 supposed 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, as I noted here, 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 supplications for aggressive American leadership reach a new crescendo in Wieseltier’s threnody for history’s - and, in effect, 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.”...

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