FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK JUNE 8, 2012
WHAT A SPELL of cultural miseries. Oprah Winfrey commended “Pierre de Chardin” to the graduates of Spelman College and exhorted them to “let excellence be your brand.” Yale University elected to have its commencement addressed by Barbara Walters. Al Sharpton appeared in the pages of The New York Times Book Review, which warmly noted that its reviewer has lost a lot of weight and eats fish twice a week and many vegetables. And Daniel Bell was made responsible for the Iraq war. The latter comedy took place in the wastes of Salon, where it would have stayed if The New York Times had not seen fit to circulate, without challenge, the description of that great American liberal as having “essentially invented the neoconservative movement that would inspire George W. Bush in his disastrous invasion of Iraq.” Must error also be stupid? This howler first appeared in an overheated piece about some trivial connections between The Paris Review and the Congress of Cultural Freedom, which was of course supported in part by the CIA and therefore was an instrument of evil. The revelation of a friendship between The Paris Review and the Congress for Cultural Freedom is the best news I have heard about that flavorful journal since the announcement of its current editor. The solidarity of beauty and democracy has always been one of my fondest dreams.
THERE IS MORE, BUT it is in no way amusing. “Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations,” wrote Jo Becker and Scott Shane in The New York Times, in a riveting investigation of the president’s personal campaign of drone warfare. “A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.” And so the president, alone at the top, in the isolation of his exquisiteness, decides who to kill. The president’s sense of his accountability is laudable, but— I say this as a supporter of the president’s ruthlessness against terrorists—Becker and Shane otherwise paint a portrait of casuistry, hypocrisy, and an almost unfathomable arrogance. Whose faith in Obama can survive the spectacle of his faith in himself? The flattering reference to the medieval philosophers was obviously provided by sources in the White House, and it suggests that the president has been qualified for the power of life and death by his reading. Perhaps he once taught the texts and their arguments; but the Oval Office is not a seminar room. This raises an interesting scruple about the relation of ideas to power. It is that the relation should never be unmediated by experience. No president can govern well without taking ideas seriously; but the mechanical application of ideas to circumstances can be dangerous, and historically amateurish, and lacking in wisdom. It is fanatical, or professorial, to move from a book to a trigger. The case of Abu Yahya al-Libi did not call for a memo about Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 64. But I do not believe for a moment that Obama reviews the old churchmen before giving the order, or that his drone war is motivated chiefly by philosophy. That is more of the Obama legend—the highbrow spin. If the president were really moved by the theory of just war, the massacre of the children of Houla would not have left our Syrian policy unmodified. What is the difference, really, between a man who cares but does nothing and a man who does not care? I refer the bystander president to Augustine: “The death of an unjust aggressor is a lesser evil than that of a man who is only defending himself. It is much more horrible that a human being should be violated against his will than that a violent attacker should be killed by his intended victim.”
HENRY KISSINGER responded to the massacre of the children with a hissing reiteration of his contempt for humane intentions in foreign policy. American action against Assad, he frigidly lectured in The Washington Post, would be a betrayal of “the modern concept of world order [that] arose in 1648 from the Treaty of Westphalia,” which was designed to put an end to the “seventeenth-century version of regime change [that] killed perhaps a third of the population of Central Europe”—note the implication that democratic rebellion, and the support of it, is a variety of religious war—and replace it with “the preservation of equilibrium” as the controlling principle of international affairs. “Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system?” Kissinger does not explain why the Assad regime is a Westphalian necessity, when there is no longer any equilibrium in Syria to preserve. The stability of tyrants is an artificial and passing stability. (Augustine: “Peace vied with war in cruelty and surpassed it: for while war overthrew armed hosts, peace slew the defenseless.”) Kissinger acknowledges that the fall of Assad is an American interest, but “not every strategic interest rises to a cause for war; were it otherwise, no room would be left for diplomacy”—as if diplomacy is the end, and not the means, of foreign policy. Moreover, infringements of sovereignty are a regular feature of the global state system, legally, economically, politically. Kissinger himself was a master infringer of sovereignty, not least militarily, when he was in power: he has no compunctions about interfering in the domestic affairs of another country for reasons of state. He merely cannot abide reasons of conscience. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union,” he remarked to Richard Nixon in 1973, “it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Yeah, maybe.
IT IS NOT ONLY because of Houla that an intervention against Assad would be justified. But Kissinger and the other elders who know better than to be stirred by the sight of children with their faces blown away will carry the day. We will arrange no intervention in Syria. Instead we will wager on the moral sense of Vladimir Putin, whose memories of Beslan do not seem to have affected his thoughts about Houla. Russia is the key: that is the smart, brandy-soaked opinion now. Why is it less fanciful than more active measures? The really shocking thing is not that a massacre of children occurred. The really shocking thing is that a massacre of children hardly mattered. They died for Westphalia.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.