Jacob Heilbrunn

The Peculiar Case of Paul Wolfowitz

Jacob Heilbrunn

Look who's back: Paul Wolfowitz, who was deputy secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, resurfaced yesterday on NBC to declare that not only was he not an architect of the Iraq War, as Chuck Todd had introduced him, but that, in any case, it was time to let bygones be bygones when it comes to Iraq and look to the future, and, heck, that if President Obama rescued Iraq from itself, why, then, he could claim lots of credit for being a fine leader. That statement sounds lofty but was, of course, self-serving since it is Wolfowitz and Co. who created the disaster when they insisted that it was necessary to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, who championed what George F. Will correctly refers to as the  "ruinous grandiosity" of Bush's "freedom agenda" in today's Washington Post.

But as Andrew Sullivan observed, perhaps Wolfowitz's most remarkable statement came a bit further into the interview. Wolfowitz contended that it was preposterous to try and make distinctions about the Middle East to the American people:


We should say al Qaeda. ISIS sounds like some obscure thing; it’s even more obscure when you say Shia and Sunni … It means nothing to Americans whereas al Qaeda means everything to Americans … My point is that these are the same people, they are affiliated with the same people, who attacked the United States on 9/11 and still have an intention of attacking the United States and attacking Europe …

Well. At least Wolfowitz is remaining consistent. The core of the problem in the run-up to the Iraq War was that Wolfowitz and his chums consistently claimed that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Osama bin-Laden. Any distinction between the two, we were told, was otiose. Saddam was preparing, or had already prepared, suitcase bombs for al-Qaeda to smuggle into the U.S. And so on.

But there is even more to Wolfowitz's statement than that. The crowning irony of his remarks is the deep contempt that they display for the American public and democracy. Again and again, Wolfowitz made it plain that he doesn't believe it has the capacity to comprehend the Sunni-Shia division. An incredulous Todd pointed out that it's been at the heart of Muslim disputes for a thousand years. Wolfowitz waved it away. Too abstruse for the rubes, he indicated. The neocons purport to want to export democracy to the rest of the world. But Wolfowitz's comments indicate a dismissive attitude toward it at home.

Overall, however, Wolfowitz's appearance had a tired feeling. The neocons are ginning up the war machine once more, but their tactics have become threadbare. It has the feel of an old rerun. As I note in Politico, the public that Wolfowitz apparently scorns isn't tuning in.

Anyway, as Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted before the Senate yesterday, the notion, which the neocons, among others, are promoting, that a U.S. troop presence would have saved Iraq from its current predicament is bogus. The problem isn't America. It's Iraq. Maybe America could have delayed the process of Iraq succumbing to its fissiparous tendencies. But Washington could not have prevented it indefinitely. Wolfowitz mentioned South Korea as a model for Iraq, but do we really want to have troops stationed there indefinitely? A recent Pew poll indicates that a record 53 percent of the American public believes that the U.S. should "mind its own business" internationally. Perhaps they are wiser than Wolfowitz and the other self-anointed strategic experts whose wisdom decreed that the U.S. not only enmesh itself in intractable conflicts abroad, but also exacerbate them.

Image Credit: Wikimedia. 

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

Good Riddance to Eric Cantor

Jacob Heilbrunn

There must be something in the water at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. Two professors from that institution will square off to fight for Rep. Eric Cantor's seat--David Brat, who polished off Cantor in the primary, and Jack Trammel. Each is an author. Brat has published such works as God and Advanced Mammon – Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” Trammel is the author of Down on the Chickahominy: The Life and Times of a Vanishing Virginia River. The institution's president has voiced his pride at their accomplishments: "“Randolph-Macon College is blessed to have remarkable faculty and staff members who are passionate about their students and about making significant contributions to our society. We are proud of both Dr. Brat and Dr. Trammell for their desire to serve our country and we wish them both the best of luck in November.”

Cantor, as of this writing, does not appear to share that magnanimous sentiment--word is that he has not deigned to call and congratulate Brat for playing David to his Goliath. Perhaps Cantor, who managed to rack up $168,367 in bills at steak houses (only slightly less than Brat spent on his entire campaign), is busy enjoying a last meal with his staffers. Brat deserves kudos for a stunning victory. He had only two paid staffers on his campaign and his manager is 23-years-old. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Ultimately, the second-most-powerful Republican in the House and potential speaker-in-waiting lost to a campaign run by political novice armed only with a Wal-Mart flip phone."

Cantor tried to depict Brat as a liberal professor--all that was missing was an ad denouncing him as a member of the "cultural elite"--but that dog wouldn't hunt. Virginians, suspicious of Cantor's bona fides when it came to immigration reform, went for the Tea Party candidate. It was Brat who said that Cantor was in "cahoots" with Democrats for suggesting that the children of illegal immigrants should be able to obtain legal status. In the end, for all the handwringing about the role of money in elections, it didn't do much for Cantor to spend millions. Instead, the conservative activists such as L. Brent Bozell who backed Brat emerged victorious. Other Tea Party candidates are drawing sustenance, including in Tennessee and Kansas.

Who are the national winners and losers of this Cantor's ouster besides the hapless candidate himself?

One winner is Sen. Rand Paul. The upset victory is only upsetting for the GOP establishment. It demonstrates that the Tea Party remains a powerful and effective grassroots force that party leaders ignore at their peril. Paul can draw upon its adherents for the presidential primary--though Sen. Ted Cruz may also feel emboldened. But Paul can also present himself as the most reasonable member of the Tea Party faction. The wilder things become in the House, the more seasoned he may look nationally.

The loser--other than House speaker John Boehner--has to be former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Bush has taken proleptic steps at trying to reshape the GOP into projecting a more moderate image on issues such as immigration. Now he may well conclude that the party is too riven by internal fissures to be welded back into a whole, prompting him to abandon the idea of running for the party nomination. The question the party itself faces is whether it will head toward civil war. For the ouster of Cantor is also bad news for what have become known as the "reformicons"--the reform conservatives at National Review and National Affairs magazine, who hope to reinvigorate the GOP nationally.

For now, Brat can bask in his victory and enjoy debating his colleague and political rival professor Trammel about fiscal responsibility, immigration, and perhaps even the future of the 87-mile-long Chickahominy river.

Image: Wikicommons. 


TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Obama's Dangerous Scandal At the VA

Jacob Heilbrunn

The surprising thing isn't that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki resigned today but that he didn't do so sooner. Like Kathleen Sebelius, he is another Obama administration appointee who simply lacked the management skills to run a large organization. He charitably described himself as "too trusting."  But his resignation itself won't shield President Obama himself from the political fallout of what appears to be a real scandal at the VA as opposed to the manufactured one of Benghazi. With 42 VA hospitals under investigation for falsifying patient records, Democrats are rightly worried that this debacle, which signals a lack of accountability and big government running amok, will severely damage their electoral fortunes in November.

For Shinseki himself it is a poignant end to what was a distinguished career that began in the jungles of Vietnam, where he was twice-wounded, and ended in the almost equally dangerous environment of Washington. He garnered attention in 2003 when he flatly dismissed the notion before Congress that postwar Iraq would be a cakewalk to govern. His remarks sent the Bush administration into overdrive to debunk him. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a news conference, "The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces I think is far off the mark," In one of his most notorious appearances on Capitol Hill, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz declared that Shinseki had it all wrong. According to Wolfowitz,


We have no idea what we will need until we get there on the ground. Every time we get a briefing on the war plan, it immediately goes down six different branches to see what the scenarios look like. If we costed each and every one, the costs would range from $10 billion to $100 billion.


To his credit, Shinseki did not back down from his remarks. He was essentially frozen out for them by the Bush administration. Shinseki became a hero to the left. Obama sought to rehabilitate and reward him for the mettle he had displayed by appointing him head of the VA. It was an imprudent choice. Shinseki didn't turn out to be a bad man but an incompetent one.

The real question that lingers on is why Obama named him in the first place, apart from trying to settle a score with the Bush administration. Perhaps there was more to it than that. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank observed, "If Obama wants to resolve this VA debacle, he’ll need a less passive secretary." But that passivity is itself of a piece with much of Obama's presidency. Obama, who denounced the Bush administration as a senator for its failures to run the VA properly, appears to have ignored its mounting problems as president.

Already conservatives are pointing to the numerous inconsistencies in his statements as a Senator and President. Now Obama's insouciance means that he faces what may be the gravest peril to his presidency and his party's political fortunes. Obama said he "reluctantly" accepted Shinseki's resignation, but the reluctance is misplaced. Reform--and an examination of what went wrong--is overdue. Though Shinseki may be gone, the administration's woes have just started.

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Why Is Netanyahu Praising Obama?

Jacob Heilbrunn

In a revealing interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jeffrey Goldberg extracts some unusual praise from him for President Obama. Despite the frosty relationship between the two leaders, Netanyahu apparently thinks that Obama has had some real success in Syria. He tells Goldberg:


It’s not complete yet. We are concerned that they may not have declared all of their capacity. But what has been removed has been removed. We’re talking about 90 percent. We appreciate the effort that has been made and the results that have been achieved.

He's right. The fact remains that the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria was a good thing. And it provides a reminder that Israel remains a true practitioner of realpolitik--less concerned about the kind of humanitarian intervention that Obama had been contemplating than the effect of events in Syria on its own security.

But how realistic is Netanyahu being about the Palestinian conundrum? Goldberg rather deftly pins Netanyahu down, asking him why he doesn't announce a settlement freeze to put the "onus" for peace on the Palestinians. Netanyahu responds with a mixture of bluff and bombast. For one thing, he claims that "No new settlements have been built since the time I was first prime minister, which was 1996." But existing ones keep getting expanded, encroaching on more Palestinian territory so as to make the establishment of a contiguous state a geographic nonstarter.

There's more. Netanyahu reiterates to Goldberg a point that he and others have made ad nauseam:  "The real issue was and remains opposition to the Jewish state. That’s the demon that they have to confront, just as we’ve confronted the demon of a greater Israel. Not easy, but we did it." But once again, the question is where did they do it? All evidence suggests that the dream of a greater Israel remains alive and well, particularly now that the peace process, such as it was, appears to be in a permanent state of suspended animation.

Netanyahu notes that he doesn't want a binational state. It would seem that unilateral Israeli moves are the most likely prospect. By the end of the interview, Netanyahu tries to display something of a ho-hum attitude to the whole issue, emphasizing Israel's growing relations with China and Japan. It sounds as though he wants to make his own pivot to Asia. The coming years may be a test of how successfully Israel can derogate the Palestinian issue to the back burner of international relations. Now that Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts have gone nowhere, it will be up to the Israelis and Palestinians to decide whether or not they want to attempt to reach an accommodation or whether each side actually prefers the status quo.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister - Israel.

TopicsIsrael RegionsMiddle East

Putin's Audacious $400 Billion Gas Deal

Jacob Heilbrunn

There will be plenty of hyperventilating about the gas deal between China and Russia. It signals the end of the old geopolitical order. A new cold war has begun with Russia and China allied, once more, against Washington. And so on. Not so fast.

Start with the deal itself. It remains unclear what China and Russia agreed to when it comes to specific terms. Alexei Miller, the head of Gazprom, says the price of the gas is a "commercial secret." Did the Chinese take an eager Russian president to the cleaners? Or will they simply defer on the issue of price, with the Chinese figuring that Russia will become even more eager to lower the price if it comes under increased western sanctions?

Still, the deal does mark something, which is to say that it signals another shift on the road to a new geopolitical constellation--one in which the U.S. figures as the target of joint Russian and Chinese ire. It's another move away from the triumphalist spirit that flourished in America after 1989. Then it seemed, or was supposed to seem, as though Washington could do whatever it wanted wherever it chose. No longer. What realists predicted would occur is indeed occurring. American preeminence is triggering a balancing coalition.

The deal allows Putin to conduct his own pivot toward Asia. It allows him to ameliorate the economic damage caused by sanctions. It allows him to thumb his nose at Europe and President Obama. And it allows him to further restore national pride in Russia as an independent actor rather than the supplicant of the West, as it was during the Yeltsin era.

If the deal is good for Russia, it may even be better for China. Beijing won't ally itself firmly with Moscow. Instead, it will likely seek to play the role of honest broker, manuevering between the Moscow and Washington. Right now, the U.S. has a lot more to offer. But playing the Russia card gives China increased flexibility.

For the U.S., the deal, coming right after Attorney General Eric Holder announced charges against members of the Chinese military for cyberspying, is a reminder that its influence abroad is waning. This is not a result of pusillanimity by President Obama. It is a consequence of the failure of Washington to recognize that the hubris--epitomized most recently in Senator John McCain's comment that Russia is a "gas station masquerading as a country"--that took hold after 1989 continues to vitiate rather than strengthen American power.

Image: The Kremlin.

TopicsGas RegionsRussia

Why Germany Admires Putin

Jacob Heilbrunn

Is there a new Berlin-Moscow axis developing? A few weeks ago Gerhard Schroeder, the former German chancellor who serves on the board of Gazprom, was photographed giving Russian president Vladimir Putin a bear hug. Another former Social Democratic chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, declared in the weekly Die Zeit that the uproar over Putin’s expropriation of the Crimea was so much piffle. It was, he said, “entirely understandable.” And the German public itself has no appetite for confrontation over Ukraine.

All this is creating some consternation inside and outside Germany among foreign policy elites. In today’s New York Times, for example, Clemens Wergin, who is an editor at the conservative daily Die Welt in Berlin, reports that a love affair is developing between Germany and Russia. A few days earlier, John Vinocur, writing in the Wall Street Journal, came to similar conclusions: "we have a chancellor who—regardless of Germany's participation in new sanctions, or German officers being held captive by pro-Russian separatists—has spent much of her time since Russia's annexation of Crimea waiting on the phone to Moscow for positive signals from Mr. Putin."

The gist of their argument seems to be that Germany is reverting to type. Now that the cold war is over, it's looking east rather than west, much as it did during the 1920s, when it signed the Rapallo pact. Vinocur notes that the historian Heinrich August Winkler recently wrote an essay in Der Spiegel deploring Germany’s drift. He sees “new doubts about Germany’s calculability.” Wergin would seem to agree. He says, “We have come to think of Germany as a Western European country, but that is largely a product of the Cold War. Before then it occupied a precarious middle between east and west. Now Germany may well be drifting away form the West again.”

He has a point. The roots of this antipathy toward Washington are largely based in a left-wing, pacifist tradition in Germany that emerged full flower during the cold war. With the Vietnam War, America came to be seen as the bad guy in Germany. The student left revolted as much against America as against its parents. America was seen as the patron of nasty regimes such as the Shah’s Iran. It was, so the thinking went, conducting genocidal warfare in Vietnam, much as it had against the Indians. Then came peace movement of the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was seen as the real threat to peace in Europe. Germany, which aspired to become a new Switzerland, rebelled against the notion that it would become the battleground for a confrontation between the two superpowers. Schroeder, on the eve of the Iraq War, and himself a graduate of the peace school of the 1980s, was able to act upon those impulses by withholding German support for the war, thereby ensuring his reelection in the fall of 2002.

Today such sentiments have been given a boost, ironically enough, by President Obama’s policies. The candidate who was hailed near the Brandenburg Gate by rapturous German crowds and the president who was supposed to usher in a new era of global peace? Gone. He’s been replaced by the image of a Predator missile happy president who authorizes extensive spying on the German public, including its current chancellor. America’s name, by and large, is mud in Germany, at least when it comes to foreign policy.

Many of these sentiments are quite nicely summed up by the 87-year-old veteran peace activist Erhard Eppler, who was a cabinet minister under Willy Brandt. Writing in Der Spiegel, he pours scorn on the notion that Putin is the only one who has violated international law in Crimea: “What does international law say about the death drones that are also steered from German soil? Isn’t the sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Germany and thus international law damaged? Who would ever come up with the idea to ban America because of the Iraq War—which Gerhard Schroeder spared us Germans from—from the community of civilized peoples?” Eppler also voiced understanding for Putin. In his view, Putin had little choice but to act. In Kiev what was presented as a temporary government was, in fact, “a rigidly anti-Russian team that had to be taught that it couldn’t immediately abolish Russian as an official language and immediately join NATO. A Russian president who simply looked on would have been hunted down sooner or later by Russian voters.”

Of course an emollient view of Putin rooted in German historical guilt for World War II only goes so far to explain Berlin's stance. Money plays a big role. German companies, from Siemens on down, are loath to give up their lucrative contracts with Moscow. They may be only too happy to see American companies refusing, at the behest of Obama, boycotting Putin's economic summit in St. Petersburg.

Finally, it can't be all that surprising that Germany, decades after reunification, would begin to define its interests differently from Washington's. This redefinition, you could even say, was inevitable. The suprising thing may be that it took as long as it did to occur.

Still, if Germany is drifting away from America--and it's easy to exaggerate the extent of the drift because fears about Germany have been voiced ad nauseam since the 1950s about the true depth of its commitment to the western alliance--then that drift has been taking place for awhile. But there's no denying that it's been compounded by maladroit American diplomacy and foreign policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, Germany isn't the only ally that appears to be at odds with Washington. Israel, too, appears to be cozying up to the Putin regime for a host of reasons. Soon enough, Germany, Israel, and Russia might find out that they have more in common with each other than America. It all brings to mind Lord Palmerston's adage about having neither permanent allies nor enemies.

Image: The Kremlin.

TopicsNATO RegionsGermany

The Rand Paul Threat

Jacob Heilbrunn

Sen. Rand Paul should be pleased by the wilding that conservatives have attempted against him in the past week. Paul is attracting numerous brickbats from the likes of Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, Bret Stephens, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and Rep. Peter King. The attention suggests that his opponents are worried—worried that Paul may be making friends and influencing people both inside and outside the GOP.

Lowry weighed in to accuse Paul of "dewy-eyed foolishness" and "blame America first libertarianism." Stephens complains that he might well lead the GOP to a "landslide defeat." And King says his views are "disastrous."

What's all the fuss about? 

The proximate cause of the latest fusillade against Paul are his recent comments about the possibility of the containment of Iran. To even suggest that containment might be a viable strategy is apparently heresy inside the GOP, or at least that's the way it's supposed to be. Paul himself says that he wasn't endorsing containment, in a Washington Post op-ed. He says he hasn't precluded anything. "Nuance," he says, is what he's after. Connoisseurs of the Bush presidency may recall that 43 famously declared, "I don't do nuance." Look where that got him.

Still, nuance is not what tends to win you presidential elections. A clear stance does. And the truth is that in a sense Paul's critics are right. He does represent a sharp break with the party's stands since 2001. While it's too much to dub him an isolationist—the boo word of American foreign-policy debates—he clearly is enunicating stands that are at variance with the Bush-Cheney legacy. Until now, the GOP—emblematic in Peter King's vociferous remarks—has preferred to act as though everything was hunky-dory during the Bush era. Perhaps the Iraq War could have been conducted better, but it was a noble effort. Torture is unpleasant, but only sissies would complain about it. And so on.

Now comes Paul who says it ain't so. What's more, he's actually attracting, as W. James Antle III points out on this web site, attention and adherents, offering more than just headline-grabbing statements. No doubt Paul has not spelled out his stands because he may not always know what they are. But his critics are correct to allege that he represents a direct and potent threat to the credo that the GOP has embraced for over a decade. 

But they go too far in claiming that he is espousing an edentate foreign policy. Paul's earlier and tough statements on Russia show that he is not oblivious to the need to project an aura of power and strength. In his speech last year at the Heritage Foundation, he was careful to distinguish himself from isolationists and to invoke George F. Kennan's strategy of containment—you know, the strategy that won the Cold War—as something worthy of admiration and emulation. 

It's a point worth stressing because Paul's detractors resemble the Republicans of the 1950s who embraced the rollback doctine, which never really ended up rolling back anything. They were all full of talk of confrontation and readiness to resort to nuclear war. If he plays his cards, well, right, then Paul could seek to revive a different tradition, the realist one exemplified by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.

Whether that approach can enjoy a revival, at least within the GOP, is very much an open question. Vladimir Putin's truculent actions have certainly helped revive the neocons and their compatriots. But whether their views enjoy much traction outside of Washington is another matter. For now, a good index of Paul's broader success may be the amount of derision and vitriol that is poured upon him by his detractors.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCongress RegionsUnited States

Should Gorbachev Be Tried For Treason?

Jacob Heilbrunn

In the early 1990s, the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky wrote a diverting book review in the New Republic about Mikhail Gorbachev. His take was that Gorbachev, if I recall correctly, had to be an American agent. Who else would have so incompetently allowed the work of decades to crumble almost overnight?

Now Russian legislators are hoping to punish Gorby, as he used to be known in America, where he was always far more popular than back home. Flush with victory in Crimea, several Duma members apparently want to put the old boy on trial. Yevgeny Gydorov, a Duma member of the United Russia party, apparently believes that Gorbachev may have been an American spy. And the Guardian reports that Ivan Nikitchuk, a Communist Party deputy, wants him to go on trial. Lawyers, not historians, need to investigate why the USSR went poof. Nor is this all. It's time to ferret out domestic enemies. He says, "The fifth column in our country has been formed and works in the open, funded by foreign money." Maybe Gorbachev was on Ronald Reagan's secret payroll?

For his part, Gorbachev isn't taking the accusations lying down. He says that they are "absolutely unreasonable request from the historical point of view." Well, maybe. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that a trial—a real, honest and open trial—might actually not be such a bad thing. It could take place in a neutral territory—say, Switzerland. Recall that Trotsky submitted to a commission presided over in 1937 by the American philosopher John Dewey. It carried out no less than thirteen hearings in Mexico City, where Trotsky was living. The Dewey commission's mandate was to investigate the charges lodged against the old Bolshevik at the Moscow show trials. The result was a book called Not Guilty.

Instead of complaining about the prospect of charges, then, Gorbachev should welcome them. They would provide him a chance to clear the air, to show that the assertions being lodged by his detractors and enemies are nothing more than calumnies. It could be a great occasion for historians, politicians and diplomats from the era to reconvene and discuss it. New insights would be sure to emerge. Gorbachev, who loves publicity, would be back in the limelight, at least for a few weeks. He could even expect his own Not Guilty book.

The pickle for Gorbachev, who endorsed Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea, is that he would probably be forced to plead incompetency. It's not as though he actively wanted to see the Evil Empire disappear. To his credit, he realized that the old ways were over. But he was under the delusion that he could establish some kind of Swedish social democracy, headed by the Soviet Union, to hold together the Warsaw pact. But the second Hungary opened its borders, East Germany started to lose its population. Absent a Soviet willingness to use tanks, East Germany quickly dissolved and was incorporated, or, if you are a Germanophobe, annexed, by West Germany.

Still, a dispassionate inquiry is hardly what Gorbachev's adversaries are seeking. They want catharsis, a scapegoat that they can pin the blame on for the loss of the cherished empire. A state investigation into Gorbachev's role is improbable. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika will surely decide that the question of "Who lost the empire?" is above his pay grade. But it's clear that the debate over Gorbachev's legacy isn't over. It's just beginning.

ImageRIA Novosti archive, image #359290 / Yuryi Abramochkin / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsRussia

Ukraine: Russia's Weakness, Not Obama's

Jacob Heilbrunn

Sarah Palin knows what's wrong with President Obama's approach to Ukraine. In a Facebook post, she said that she had predicted that after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Obama's "moral indecision" would prompt Vladimir Putin to tackle Ukraine next: "Yes, I could see this one from Alaska. I’m usually not one to Told-Ya-So, but I did." The Washington Post editorial page also knows what's wrong.

"Mr. Obama," it says, "has been vague about the consequences of continued Russian aggression." An aggression that is taking place, we are told, in "the center of Europe." It suggests that the most forceful measure Obama could take would be to threaten to...well, to threaten to exclude Russia from our banking system.

It's time to get real. Ukraine may be about to get sundered in half. If it does, the reaction will be consternation but little more because 2014, as Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger writes in an astute column, is not 1914. Nor is the Crimea Danzig. And few in Europe were even prepared to sacrifice themselves in May 1939, the year an article appeared in Paris called, "Who Will Die For Danzig?" Contrary to Senator John McCain, who seems to adopt a new country every few months, we aren't all Ukrainians now. And Crimea is not suddenly at the "center of Europe," no matter what the geographers at the Post are now decreeing.

Nor is Obama displaying a pusillanimity dating back to his refusal to intervene in Syria. The blunt fact is that he has few tools at his disposal to compel a change in Russian behavior. Refuse to attend the G-8 summit? America needs Russian cooperation in Aghanistan and elsewhere. Europe needs Russian natural gas.

No, the main constraint on Putin's freedom of movement in Ukraine will be that it's dangerous for him to enmesh himself in a prolonged war in Ukraine. If he seeks to occupy the eastern Ukraine, all bets are off--Ukraine is not Georgia. It has 200,000 troops--ten times, Elke Windisch notes, as many as Tbilisi did. And it is calling up a million reservists. Still, Ukraine would be unlikely to be able to withstand a full-scale Russian invasion. Its tanks, for example, consist mostly of fifty-year-old Soviet era T-64s. The real trouble would come in occupying Ukraine. It would likely become not only a geopolitical but also a military nightmare for Putin, on the order of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Rather than threatening Putin, Obama should continue to seek to offer him an exit strategy--just as Putin offered him one out of Syria. By all accounts, this is what Obama is seeking to do. Such a course won't satisfy the nostalgic cold warriors in Washington, but it would defuse a conflict that should not be allowed to jeopardize the West's relations with Moscow. The truly dangerous course isn't if Obama seeks to treat with Putin. It's if he doesn't. Then the cold war that neoconservatives and liberal hawks have been dreaming about for decades would be reconstituted, with America and Europe facing off against an emboldened and truculent Russia and China.

It is more likely that Russia carves up Ukraine. This will be hailed by Putin as a triumph. In fact, it will serve as further testimony, not to Russia's strength, but rather its weakness. Russia was once an empire that stretched all the way to Berlin. Now the best it can do is to divide Ukraine, thereby creating a permanent wound in its relations with Kiev. The Crimean Peninsula would become a new Kashmir. Putin has embarked upon a course that is probably more dangerous for himself than for the West.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

The Assault On John Judis

Jacob Heilbrunn

John Judis, whose new book Genesis is critically and soberly reviewed by the eminent historian Bernard Wasserstein in the new National Interest, has been coming under fire from a number of conservative outlets for allegedly displaying hostility toward Israel. He was also disinvited and then reinvited to speak about his work at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Now a new and perhaps more unusual denunication has surfaced in the form of a letter to the historian Ron Radosh that has appeared in the neoconservative organ the Washington Beacon. In it, New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier alternately mocks and dismisses his colleague, a vocation he specializes in. Though the letter was sent privately by email, it was clearly intended to go public.

Wieseltier complains that Judis' book is  "shallow, derivative, tendentious, imprecise, and sometimes risibly inaccurate—he is a tourist in this subject. Like most tourists, he sees what he came to see. There is more to be said also about the utter shabbiness of discovering a Jewish identity in—and for the purpose of—criticizing the Jews: it is not only ignorant but also insulting." This, of course, amounts to a psychoanalysis of Judis rather than an actual refutation of his main contentions. Their contentiousness rests in Judis' depiction of American Jewish organizations as muscling over Harry S Truman to win American recognition of the fledgling Jewish state. It is possible to dispute Judis' arguments—to maintain that he is right for the wrong reasons—as Wasserstein does quite eloquently without resorting to character assassination.

Wieseltier adds,

my favorite bit of self-congratulation on Judis’ part is his belief that he is heroically defying the Zionist thought-police at the New Republic. For three decades and more we—by which I emphatically mean Marty [Peretz] too—have been publishing criticisms, even bitter ones, of Israeli policies by myself, Michael Walzer, and many others. True, we have not published pieces rejecting the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism or wishing away the Jewish state, and we have published pieces defending Israel against states and non-state actors (and intellectuals arguing on their behalf) who have denied the right of Israel to exist and have used violence in the name of that idea—and all this, I know, makes us highly unsatisfactory as progressives. Israel was indeed a house obsession here—but not any single idea or image of Israel. There has been no conformity of opinion in this office about this subject or any other subject in the two hundred years I have worked here. And now comes Judis’s nasty little book to prove this definitively! By jumping on a bandwagon he has rescued our reputation for freedom of thought!

While it's true that Wieseltier could write whatever he wanted about Israel, he himself is being rather slippery, to use one of his favorite words, about the state of affairs at the magazine itself. (In his own writing, for the most part, Wieseltier is a master at playing the anti-anti-Israel card.) And the blunt fact is that Peretz was unwilling to tolerate pieces that he perceived as anti-Israel, a term that has always had a rather expansive meaning. Yes, there were a few who enjoyed exemptions such as Walzer, one of Peretz's oldest friends. But it clearly reached the point where Peretz didn't have to say anything—a form of self-censorship took hold. To act as though an intellectual free-for-all took place is more than a little, to use another favorite Wieseltier term of opprobrium, risible. Which is why Judis' comment in his acknowledgment—"During the time Martin Peretz owned it, the magazine tolerated a variety of views on various subjects but not on Israel ...I suppose that having to be associated with a publication whose views on that subject I often disagree with led to a buildup of repressed indignation that fueled the years I spent on this book"—seems understandable.

Closer to the truth than Wieseltier's noisy denials, I think, is the apprehension expressed by Ron Radosh in his own review of Judis' book. Radosh writes that Judis is "a senior editor of the once pro-Israel publication, The New Republic." The blunt fact is that the ancien regime, now that TNR has a new owner in Chris Hughes, is gone. (Judis notes in his book that Hughes "doesn't impose strictures on what the magazine writes about Israel and the Middle East.") Wieseltier is its last remnant.

What Wieseltier represents, then, is something almost historic. As TNR morphs into a general interest magazine, he is a living mummy, a repository of the ancient feuds that convulsed the New York intellectuals during the 1950s and 1960s. In some ways his vituperativeness evokes a sense of nostalgia. Like the Partisan Review crowd, he specializes in intestine feuds.

For as anyone with a nodding acquaintance with Wieseltier's writings knows, he has a proclivity not only for extremism, but also for attacking his brethren. To put it more precisely, he is an expert practitioner of what is known as prolicide—in his case, the killing of one's intellectual children.

Among those who have felt the lash are Andrew Sullivan, Peter Beinart, James Wood and Louis Menand. The latter two worked directly for Wieseltier, and he championed both Sullivan and Beinart, at least initially. Some of the quotes that a brief web search excavates includes these morsels. On Menand: "Menand is the professor of littleness. He is a man in flight from the seriousness of his own vocation." Menand's offense? Not to bow sufficiently at the shrine of Lionel Trilling. In the case of Sullivan, he diagnosed "something much darker," namely, anti-Semitism: "To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left. He is the master, and the prisoner, of the technology of sickly obsession: blogging–and the divine right of bloggers to exempt themselves from the interrogations of editors–is also a method of hounding." In another piece, Wieseltier offered a twofer, criticizing (if that is not too andoyne a word) Beinart and Wood simultaneously. On Beinart: "Beinart's pseudo-courageous article is an anthology of xenophobic quotations by Israeli hawks and anguished quotations by Israeli doves: familiar stuff." Then came Wood's spanking: "So what if Wood’s authorities are Jews? Can Jews not be wrong, or anti-Semitic? Wood’s Jews are certainly anti-Zionist." Is it really an accident that, having left the New Republic, several of its editors have repudiated its long-time reflexive support for Israel?

In retrospect, much of this is actually quite comical. Andrew Sullivan has called Wieseltier a "connoisseur and cultivator of personal hatred," which is true but far from the whole story. The truth is that hysterical petulance is at the bottom of much of Wieseltier's fulgurations. The contrast between the lofty principles that intellectuals such as Wieseltier purport to espouse and the childish sniping is what emerges most conspicuously in his latest fusillade. In the end, the stakes aren't really that high and, in any case, until recent decades many Jewish intellectuals were, more often than not, indifferent to Israel (Lionel Trilling) or dubious about it. Now Judis has written a mildly critical account that is triggering a furor. That his detractors would respond so extravagantly and violently may say more about their dispositions than his.