Friday, February 25, 2011

Wieseltier in Wonderland

Most often bad writing is indistinguishable from bad thinking. Sometimes, though, strong writing obscures and may even contribute to weak thinking. Case in point: today’s biting and eloquent attack by the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier on what he considers to be Obama’s empty if not fatuous demand—unaccompanied by any serious US actions-- that Qaddafi’s violence against the Libyan people “must stop.”

What does Wieseltier think Obama should actually do? Well, maybe the U.S. should deploy “the small number of troops that would be required” to end Qaddafi’s rule; and if we are really prevented from doing so by our past history, then “let a multilateral expeditionary force be raised and a humanitarian intervention be launched….Europeans, Africans, even Egyptians may join the campaign.” At the least, there should be a no-fly zone: “let NATO planes fly over Tripoli to shoot down any Libyan aircraft that make war on the Libyan population.”

Where has Wieseltier been in the last twenty years or so? Hasn’t he heard about the fate of “the small number of troops” that supposedly was going to end the civil war in Somalia in 1993? Hasn’t it occurred to Wieseltier that Obama already has his hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan? What is the likelihood that Europeans, Africans or Egyptians would actually agree to form a multilateral military force to intervene in Libya if so requested—demanded?—by Obama? One percent? If they did, what are the chances that they would get there in time—say, in the next few days-- to make a real difference in the outcome in Libya?

As for a NATO no-fly zone, it doesn’t appear that it would have a significant impact, for there have been very few Libyan airforce attacks on the rebels, and today’s New York Times coverage of the fighting mentions none. In any case, if “NATO” was willing to shoot down Libyan planes, why wouldn’t it have acted on its own by now? Is it waiting for a U.S. demand, which would then embarrass the Europeans into a military intervention? Bear in mind that in neither NATO nor the U.S. were willing to intervene militarily in Bosnia, right on the doorstep of Europe, until over a year after the Serbs had begun their campaign of ethnic cleansing if not outright genocide in the spring of 1992.

Not content with castigating Obama for his caution in Libya, Wieseltier adds Cairo and even “Tehran two years ago” to his list of Obama’s “diffidence about humanitarian emergencies” and popular uprisings that we “disappointed.” I don’t recall any U.S. verbal diffidence towards the anti-regime uprising in Iran in 2009; on the contrary, we supported it wholeheartedly. Of course, we didn’t intervene militarily, but I don’t recall Wieseltier or any other minimally sane observer suggesting that we should.

Finally, Wieseltier is quite confident that there would be no anger in the Middle East over yet another U.S military intervention in the region; on the contrary, he writes, “the complaint has been…that the United States has not intervened.” He does not name any states or political leaders who are so complaining.


pabelmont said...

Yes, Obama is indeed weak in saying "stop" to Qadafi without acting. How much better, stronger, more resolute, honorable, wiser, etc., he was to REFUSE to accord to Israel's violations of international law the name "violations of international law". After all, had he said "crime", would the predictable next step not have been a demand that he act to stop the crime? And does the wise and honorable USA ever act when its own ox is not being gored (apologies to a climate change advocate) (and let's not talk about REALLY serious matters like climate change).

Gene Schulman said...

Wieseltier is full of crap. In the first place, the movement doesn't want to the US or anyone else to intervene. This is their party, and have so stated.

It would be more useful if Wieseltier would suggest to Obama to stand up and say the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq must stop! Maybe then, "they wouldn't hate us so."

fuster said...

Weiseltier wasn't exactly in wonderland, was he?

He understood well why Obama was waiting.

Seems that Obama is doing about what Leon wished to have done and that Obama is doing it under the conditions that Obama hoped to have happen.

Perhaps you and Belmont and Schulman might follow up on your original remarks, Mr Slater.

Jerome Slater said...

I'm not sure I know where you are going with this observation. That Obama did what Leon wanted him to do has nothing to do with whether that was the right reason.

That said, I admit that after Obama acted I came around to the belief that, on balance, a limited intervention was legitimate, though there could be many things that could go wrong. Weiseltier, on the other hand, admitted of no need to balance anything and saw no legitimate counterarguments.

fuster said...

I don't see that it's all that obscure. There's no divergence between Obama and Weiseltier in discerning the reasons to act.

Weiseltier's critique is rather simple.

Obama, by word, has insists that Gaddafi's attack on Libyan must cease.

Leon agrees with Obama, points out that Obama was the power to cause it to cease, and finds that Obama balks at doing what Obama vocalizes as an imperative for what Weiseltier thinks to be ultimately unimportant concerns.

Weiseltier's critique is accurate, and not anything like "Wonderlandish".

His mistake lies only in underestimating Obama. He managed to work it so that the intervention would happen and the possible hostility produced by the intervention was minimized.

The US truly is handicapped by the horrific war against Iraq, as Obama realizes. That will haunt us and the world for long years and will, of necessity, alter our actions, but it does nothing but deepen our obligation to act when we can help.

CK MacLeod said...

Mmmm, I think Wieseltier's critique still comes out as wonderlandish - at the time he offered it - and by your own reasoning, fuster. For Obama to act in the way that Wieseltier wanted was at the time practically-politically wrong - politically impossible, and dubious in practical terms, in the way that JS lays out. By the time there was a coalition assembled and an imminent negative to be avoided, action was both possible and on balance justifiable.

fuster said...


maybe it's a failure of my materialistic mentation making me miss the element of fantasy in Leon's analysis.

when I compare his underestimation of Obama's resolve to Jerome's second through fourth paragraph, with it's "One percent?", I can't avoid coming up with a different calculation concerning who it is that's living Wonderfully.

way back when my tadpole was working with Weiseltier and besotten with his wisdom, I spent some time arguing against a fair many of Leon's conclusions, but ne'er noticed a failure to form a decent idea of the situation.

Jerome Slater said...

I'm tempted to base my defense of my original comment on the well-known observation that "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

But I won't. I was obviously wrong in my estimate that there was only a 1% chance that NATO would intervene, and it is true that I have changed my mind--but only just barely--about the desirability of a humanitarian military intervention in Libya: as indicated by my Buffalo News article, posted above.

Wieseltier (we might as well spell his name correctly), on the other hand, admitted of no need to balance anything and saw no legitimate counterargument. That part of my post--and it's the most important part--stands.

CK MacLeod said...

Cuz, fuster, Wieseltier was fantasizing about a campaign eventually involving a multinational expeditionary force rushing from the halls of the New Republic to the shores of Tripoli, bringing down the tyrant Qadahfi and no doubt holding a joyous celebration, Neo-Lincoln Brigadiers and Libyan Ewoks together, like at the end of Return of the Jedi - not a strictly limited "humanitarian intervention" from the air aimed at preventing a massacre and total Q-victory. Even LW's minimal demand of an NFZ was, at the time he was demanding it, only somewhat less fanciful, because it would have had to have been a totally Americanized effort with at best a few patches of French and UK cloth pinned unfashionably to the U.S. flight suits or pasted to the cruise missiles. The entire operation would have been minimal positives vs. mounting negatives, esp. for Obama/the US (all and more of the negatives of the current operation, all American-owned, opportunistically attacked by the Arab League and others, against less convincing humanitarian abstractions), unless Q had suddenly given in or had been overwhelmed by an uprising. That may have looked at least possible to LW, but events up to the present suggest it was never likely. It's conceivable that O was just better informed - hard as that may be to believe considering he has to depend on intelligence services rather than CNN - though I think his determination to work through a coalition for limited objectives under limited risks was probably controlling.

Jerome Slater said...

I wish I had said that.

fuster said...

"Sometimes, though, strong writing obscures......"

CK, that was very distinguished and very strongly written and very nice of you.