Last month, Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic took David Bromwich to task for the latter’s front-page New York Review of Books article headlined “Stay Out of Syria!” Wieseltier, who has often written criticisms of the Obama administration’s response to Syria, hammered Bromwich for his “hysterical ratification of what is in fact the conventional wisdom” on the advisability of American intervention. As he sees it, that “conventional wisdom” of American liberalism is wholly determined by the country’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan:
All that matters to Bromwich about Syria is Iraq. I mean George W. Bush’s war there. Anybody who supported military action in Iraq must be wrong to support military action in Syria and anybody who opposed military action in Iraq must be right to oppose military action in Syria. History stopped in Baghdad. Atrocity after Bush gets an American pass. Pity the Syrians, who have the bad luck to be slaughtered post-Cheney. This analysis of the world, in other words, is not about the world. It is about us, and our a priori stain, and our quest for purity, which is grossly mistaken for conscience. We must not rescue, we must expiate. About the enormous strategic benefits of defeating Assad Bromwich has nothing to say; he is too exquisitely indignant, too ethically fastidious, for such considerations. So it is worth noting that this ethical fastidiousness, which is not his alone, is strikingly lacking in a particular moral vocabulary: The foreign policy discourse of American liberalism no longer includes an emphasis on freedom or democracy. It is saddened but not provoked by crimes against humanity. The satisfaction about quitting Iraq was undiversified by anxiety about the many reforms and reformers we were leaving behind, about the precariousness of the social and political progress that had been made. The relief at our withdrawal from Afghanistan is unaccompanied by regret for its consequences for the women of Afghanistan. What is the point of being a liberal if you are going to think like Rand Paul?
While it’d be ludicrous to claim that this last decade of war has no bearing on today’s foreign policy calculations, one would be hard pressed actually to argue that the most dominant concern for the leaders of the nation’s center-left has been an American cleansing. The parties responsible for spying on foreign citizens and diplomats alike have mostly thrown purity to the wind.
And yet, when one considers that the very concern for the well-being of citizens under Saddam Hussein that was used to justify preemptive war in Iraq in 2003 is what’s being deemed insufficient for Syrian intervention, Wieseltier’s take doesn’t lie too far off the arc scribed by the pendulum of American foreign policy sentiment. And what sent it swinging towards a concern for international human rights great enough to justify the last foreign occupations? In Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s, Barbara Keys shows that it was the Vietnam War. At its core, she argues, the human rights revolution of the 1970s was an emotional response to the trauma of the war.