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Washington Diarist: In Which We Engage

Is it really possible that in a Democratic administration the championship of human rights and the promotion of democracy will no longer figure conspicuously in the foreign policy of the United States? It is really possible. Oh, the stirring words will be spoken; the stirring words are always spoken. But in the absence of policies one may be forgiven for not being stirred by words. And so far even the language has been wanting in ardor. Idealism in foreign policy is so 2003. After all, the opposite of everything that George W. Bush believed must be true. He overreached abroad and underreached at home, so we will underreach abroad and overreach at home. Myself, I am for overreaching and overreaching. And so I remain chilled by Hillary Clinton's froideur in Beijing, by her artful impersonation of Brent Scowcroft. "We pretty much know what they are going to say," she offered in defense of her ritualistic syllables about China's persecution of its dissidents. She is right, of course. The regime in Beijing is singularly immune to moral appeals. They do not do ethical critique. It is also true that they are our creditors, though I do not see their hoard of T-bills invoked to thwart the discussion of our other demands of them. And I hear stranger excuses for the new hard-heartedness: a friend of mine, a smart and fervent liberal, chastised me for my disappointment in Clinton by reminding me sardonically that the Chinese "have only raised a hundred million people out of poverty." Not a word about health and literacy in Cuba, though. I thought that the question of the relation between political progress and economic progress--the priority, philosophical and political, of freedom to development--was long ago settled, and not in favor of early profits.

It appears that we need to recall, in this springtime of liberal realism, a few rudimentary notions about democratization and the cause of human rights. For a start, it does not require us to go to war. Rightly or wrongly, we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq for strategic reasons, for reasons of national security; and the splendid attempt to establish democracies, which may or may not succeed, was a corollary of a strategic analysis of the causes of our insecurity. Democratization, since it proposes to replace one political culture with another, is a policy of destabilization, and so it is an evolutionary enterprise, and takes time, and can be achieved only indigenously, by the people themselves. But often they need help, which, in the real world so beloved of Democrats, means American help. This help can take many forms. The scandal of Clinton's mildness in Beijing was not that she squandered an opportunity to convert the autocracy to our way of thinking about justice. It was that she scanted the men and women in China (and in Burma too, about which she found time only to speculate on the efficacy of sanctions) who already share our way of thinking about justice. It is one of the central features of our account of justice that it is universal: the sovereignties of nations and the specificities of cultures are (mostly) wonderful, but human rights make us all into cosmopolitans. When the Chinese foreign minister told Clinton that we should "continue to hold human rights dialogues on the basis of equality and mutual respect," he was speaking sinister nonsense. In this matter China is not our equal, it is our inferior, and we cannot respect them without disrespecting ourselves. What Clinton brought the many victims of Chinese repression was a cup of despair. On what grounds can she justify the demoralization of these valiant people, or their abandonment? (Here Niebuhr will not serve.) Who really believes that the full panoply of Chinese-American relations, our sensible preference for cooperation over conflict, cannot withstand the espousal of our ideals? In China, our values are hardly about to displace our interests; and China has interests, too. Anyway, it is an axiom of Barack Obama's worldview that the moral reputation of the United States is itself a fact of strategic consequence. The wretched of the earth have been waiting for America to rediscover--what? the balance of power?

The renaissance of diplomacy has begun. We will talk with Iran. We will talk with Syria. We will talk with the Taliban, or with some of it. We will talk, sooner or later, with Hamas. If what I think has happened has happened, the Awakening in Iraq has been promoted from a military approach into a geo- political approach. The whole world is now Anbar. It is not hard to see why. The sullen rectitude of Bush and Cheney was going nowhere. There are urgencies, such as the inexorable uranium of Iran, that will not allow us to leave any means untried. And if we flip Assad, or isolate Haqqani, it will be for the good. We must be in all things empirical: a dogmatic aggregation of all our enemies may blind us to useful complexities. So probe, probe, probe; let the word go forth to the madrassas in Waziristan and Swat and Qum and Gaza that we are all God's children; and never mind that we pretty much know what they are going to say. But sooner or later we will hit the limit of what conscience can bear. There are only so many tyrants and terrorists we can engage before we stain our principles, before the politesse becomes repulsive. Also, the anti-Americanism in the world cannot all be imputed to the recent behavior of the United States. Neither the president's face nor his name will inspire movements and governments to discard their dreams. I worry that liberal realists are mentally unprepared for certain eventualities. Liberal realism is either a betrayal of liberalism or a betrayal of realism. I wish the administration luck, but I wish it also a fallback plan.

A hawk has settled somewhere in my neighborhood, and the other morning it made its kill in my garden, beneath the nandina bushes festooned with red berries like ornaments for the slaughter. It sat with a lordly calm over its ripped prey, and when I approached for a closer look it flew off, its carrion in its claws, leaving a bloodied mess of pigeon feathers in the otherwise gentrified dirt. What was so fascinating about the savagery was that it made no sense to protest it. Here was realism, and the normativity of power. There was nothing sublime about it. I paused over the unnatural character of goodness. I re-read Mill: "the duty of man is the same in respect to his own nature as in respect to the nature of all other things, namely not to follow but to amend it. " The idea of human rights is a distinction not only of our policy, but also of our species.

Leon Wieseltier is The New Republic's literary editor.

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