It is everyone’s right to present themselves as The Great Moral Arbiter. And the rest of us are within our rights to laugh at them. That’s what first came to mind after I finished reading Leon Wieseltier’s 2,000-plus-word jeremiad against the Iran nuclear deal in The Atlantic.
But wait: Is it okay to laugh? Sometimes not: “There was something grotesque about the chumminess, the jolly camaraderie, of the American negotiators and the Iranian negotiators,” Wieseltier writes. “Why is Mohammad Javad Zarif laughing?”
I’m guessing something was funny; that’s why people usually laugh. And would it be so strange for enemies gathered in small rooms for hours on end to establish a rapport where, despite their enmity, they just might share a joke? Of course it isn’t: prisoner accounts from Japanese captivity during World War II and Vietnamese POW camps are long on anecdotes of detainees and guards yucking it up. Must diplomats be constantly posturing in their moral rectitude as if they were… well, as if they were Leon Wieseltier? The answer is Yes, always Yes.
That Wieseltier is apparently against laughing is but a small matter. But it stands in nicely for the larger flaws in his critique of the nuclear deal. Namely, Wieseltier has taken his normal stance of hawkishness without a thought to the context or even the greater questions. It’s the same “moral clarity” that got him into trouble a dozen years ago when he joined hands with American neoconservatives in pursuit of doing The Moral Thing in Iraq. His arguments today, however, are hollow. Rife with inconsistencies, they refute themselves. And, with a careful look, they reveal the bankruptcy of Wieseltier’s liberal interventionism.
Refuting the Rut
Wieseltier begins and ends with admonishments of the Obama administration’s rhetoric about “step(ping) out of the rut of history”—an artful phrasing whose meaning completely escapes this purported man of letters’ imagination. It is not, as Wieseltier reads it, “a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture,” but rather an acknowledgement that the old path—the one we’ve been on for three and a half decades—has led nowhere but closer to a major confrontation. When you drive in ruts, you’re not only going to have difficulty turning, but you’re liable to break wheels. Wieseltier’s evocation of Cuba is instructive: the policy of strictly isolating Cuba wasn’t set aside because Obama has “an appetite for change,” but because, after more than half a century, it wasn’t working.
From there the essay runs for some 800 words about how horrible the Iranian government is, implying throughout that we should not make a deal with These People. “Not a relationship with a new Iran, but a new relationship with this Iran, as it is presently—that is to say, theocratically, oppressively, xenophobically, aggressively, anti-Semitically, misogynistically, homophobically—constituted,” Wieseltier writes, adverbally reciting all of the Iranian regime’s very many and very real flaws.
Then he takes a curious turn: “If I could believe that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action marked the end of Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon,” Wieseltier writes, “I would support it.” Say what? You’ve just given all these reasons why it’s so bad to deal with Iran but you’re okay with dealing with them if you get what you want? I dare say this is the same posture struck by all the liberals supporting the deal that Wieseltier looks down his nose at.
And this is to say nothing of the substance of his critique of the deal. Spoiler: Wieseltier doesn’t think that the accord will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. There’s something to that—the deal, despite what many of its proponents claim, isn’t, as Wieseltier puts it, a “guarantee” that Iran will never get the bomb. Instead, it puts in place a mechanism to make it more difficult for Iran to do so, coupled with incentives for Iran not to do so. In that sense it accomplishes what the sanctions could not, what a military strike cannot, and certainly what pushing for regime change will not do. And yet this latter choice is exactly what Wieseltier seems to be intoning throughout his piece.
Wieseltier is no doubt sure about “Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon” as he was about the Iraqi WMD program, which spurred the then-literary editor of The New Republic into supporting the Iraq invasion alongside the neoconservative hawks of the Project for a New American Century and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Wieseltier quickly came to regret his support for the war based on the false assertions about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs: “I was deceived,” he wrote. “Strategic thinking must have an empirical foundation.” And yet there were plenty of doubts to be heard about the war rationale for anyone who didn’t close their ears to them. That, however, won’t stop Wieseltier from failing to heed the experts this time around, where the nuclear non-proliferation and foreign policy establishments are lined up in near consensus behind a deal.
Most of those experts recognize what Wieseltier refuses to: that moral preening can be satisfying, but that one must also consider policies in terms of the alternatives. Yet Wieseltier refuses even considering alternatives. He writes: “But what is the alternative? This is the question that is supposed to silence all objections. It is, for a start, a demagogic question.” Considering the figures Wieseltier’s anti-deal stance puts him in league with, the accusation of demagoguery is hilarious. But who can blame him? For all the pompous prose, the moralizing about the evil Iranian regime, and the professed love for the Iranian people, this is the best Wieseltier can come up with for an actual plan of action:
This accord will strengthen a contemptible regime. And so I propose—futilely, I know—that now, in the aftermath of the accord, America proceed to weaken it. The conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action should be accompanied by a resumption of our hostility to the Iranian regime and its various forces.
Freedom Agenda Repackaged
This means, first and foremost, restoring George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. It means calling for Iran to release political dissidents and the Americans it holds under house arrest or in prison. It means aiding Iran’s political opposition (which has ruled out American aid in the past). And it means proxy war: “We need to arm the enemies of Iran in Syria and Iraq, and for many reasons,” Wieseltier writes. Does he know who Iran’s enemies in Iraq are? Let me give some hints: they don’t care much about the Freedom Agenda or the Iranian people—they like beheading Shiites.
After all his pompous prose, Wieseltier ends his list of recommendations with this one: “We need to explore, with diplomatic daring, an American-sponsored alliance between Israel and the Sunni states, which are now experiencing an unprecedented convergence of interests.”
Nothing screams Freedom Agenda and democracy promotion like helping one country that holds millions in stateless subjugation (with US funding) and another that doesn’t exactly have a reputation for Jeffersonian democracy—or any democracy at all, really—to be better buddies because they both fear Iranian influence. Now that makes me want to laugh.
Wieseltier knows his advice will—thankfully, for the rest of us—fall on deaf ears. He concludes: “We will instead persist in letting the fire spread and letting time tell, which we call realism. Wanting not to fight wars, we refuse to join struggles. Sometimes, I guess, history really is a rut.” Yes, and so, too, does bankrupt, ideological moralizing. Thank goodness our country won’t again join Wieseltier’s struggle.