Leon Wieseltier: If Liberals Were Smarter, They’d Know What to Do About Egypt

Leon Wieseltier is doing the

two things he must do

in a moment of crisis. The first comes easily and automatically: it is the

old “deathloam” maneuver

, in which the literary editor of the New Republic disparages the people who seek to use fine language at a time like this, showing off his own command of fine language in the process:

Barack Obama is also trying to finesse things, urging Mubarak to transform “a moment of volatility” into “a moment of promise”—the eloquence is irritating: there are times when the power of language is not the power that is needed.

Yes, the eloquence sure is irritating. But what about the substance of American foreign policy? Step two, necessarily, is to blame the liberals. This is a little more strenuous:

[T]he Obama administration, and American liberals more generally, have been caught intellectually unprepared for this crisis. The administration’s predicament, it must be said, is strategically complicated: since Mubarak may fall, it cannot afford to alienate the protestors, but since the protestors may fail, it cannot afford to alienate Mubarak.

Invoking the liberal position on Hosni Mubarak is about as relevant as invoking the Wiccan position. Anwar Sadat was assassinated in the first year of the Reagan administration; 20 of Mubarak’s 30 years in office have occurred while Republicans controlled American foreign policy. Even in the other 10 years, liberals weren’t much consulted.

Mubarak’s role as our helpful strongman has been—by the sunniest possible interpretation—grandfathered into American foreign policy, transcending any changes of party or ostensible changes of policy. Before the United States decided to go into the torture business directly, Republican and Democratic presidencies alike

outsourced the work of torturing terrorism suspects

to the Mubarak administration.

American liberals, like all other kinds of Americans, were complicit in this. But it seems a bit of a leap to say that liberals were “intellectually unprepared” for Mubarak’s potential downfall—as if all that three decades of rancid policy needed to make it right were some studious attention to principles.

Wieseltier doesn’t not know this; he just doesn’t want to let it get in the way :

[T]he problem that the Obama administration now confronts is precisely that it has not been a cornerstone of American policy toward Egypt to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people.

Yes, precisely. As far as I can tell, the liberal position—which is not the same thing as the position of the Democratic executors of America’s ongoing foreign policy, or of the poor souls who have to make something coherent and uplifting out of the New Republic’s accumulated Middle Eastern policy pronouncements—is that it is a good thing when a dictatorship falls, and that the sooner Mubarak becomes an embarrassing chapter of our history, rather than an ongoing blight, the better. If that means our leaders have to look dithering or indecisive for a few weeks, that seems like an OK price to pay.

I don’t suppose that’s especially intellectual. Wieseltier would prefer a “promotion of democracy,” that is, “a policy…of taking sides with peoples against regimes.” This is not the same thing as our policy of the past decade, in which we said we were trying to promote democracy by invading to overthrow the Iraqi regime, while announcing ourselves to be on the side of the people. This time we’d be sincere and not have guns, and we would assist dissidents—not fake, scammy dissidents like Ahmed Chalabi, but “authentic” and “indigenous” ones—”because assisting them expresses our values and our interests.”

Wonderful. And how do we convince the people on the streets of Cairo—who are busy trying to overthrow the incumbent expression of American values and American interests—that next time, we will want what’s best for them?