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Necessary Changes of Mind

This post is from our new In-House Critics blog. Click here to read more about it.

Sometimes, Leon Wieseltier’s eloquence disguises a murky argument. “Political conviction cannot be indifferent to events,” he writes in his last Washington Diarist, “but not every event is an occasion for new thinking.” The Iraq war turned certain liberals (unnamed) who once believed “in the responsibility of American power to do good in the world” into Obama-admiring realists. They would be wiser, he counsels, to stick to their “fundamental beliefs.” And to grasp those, “The study of history should suffice. It is a better guide for moral and political understanding than experience.”

This is a puzzling way to draw instruction from the past. How can we attain liberal objectives unless both policymakers and ordinary citizens learn from the experience of idealistic ventures that went wrong? Liberals could not remain unabashed Wilsonians after the Great War made the world safer for fascists and Communists than for democracy. Few could retain their faith in the beneficence of American power after the Indochina debacle caused three million deaths. And when Paul Wolfowitz’s sanguine vow that the invasion of Iraq would be “a war for liberation, a war for peace and freedom” was broken by bloody reality, should liberals have kept sending the same message while condemning the messenger?

It is a fine and necessary thing to speak out for “democracy and human rights” in the making of our foreign policy. Without such rhetoric, America’s unrivaled power would stand for nothing but the desire to remain without rivals. But attention must also be paid to the always sad, often outrageous tales of policymakers whose convictions blinded them to the baleful consequences of their actions.

That is just what contemporary liberals–whether they work in the White House or happen to be a former editor of this very magazine–are struggling to do. In 2002, Barack Obama famously said he didn’t “oppose all wars. …What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” Now, as president, he and his Secretary of State seem to be opposed to making dumb promises. They hail the democratic insurgents in Iran but do not propose an intervention that would destroy their movement and many of their lives. They have augmented the military commitment in Afghanistan but realize a stable peace is more likely to occur through humbling and co-opting the Taliban than by exterminating them.

Of course, each of these policies may turn out to be as mistaken as the more idealistic alternatives. As the 1938 Munich Conference demonstrated before it became a misused metaphor, caution can be the very opposite of pragmatism. But the wisest policy is seldom merely to stand up for one’s beliefs, regardless of the exigencies of the time. Neville Chamberlain believed Hitler was a politician with whom he could bargain, unlike Stalin who was purging his party and armed forces of anyone he accused of disloyalty. Winston Churchill was just as stalwart an anti-Communist as Chamberlain, but that principle did not stop him from allying with the Soviet tyrant in the face of their common enemy. An earlier alliance with the Soviet dictator might have prevented what became the most terrible war in history.

Five years ago, Wieseltier warned against the temptations of messianic thinking. In a festschrift for Daniel Bell, he asserted that “liberalism is, among other things, a philosophy of patience. It is the great modern adversary of eschatology; and the great liberal thinkers must therefore be numbered among the great critics of the messianic hunger.” By then, Wieseltier conceded that he would not have supported the war in Iraq if he had known that Saddam possessed no WMDs But now, he believes, citing no evidence, that the same war was not a “catastrophe for Iraq” after all. History may be too vast and varied to impart any enduring lessons. But it is always the study of change–including, one hopes, the capacity to learn from the failure of messianic adventures.

Click here to read Leon Wieseltier's response.