September 18, 2006


Reinie and Woody (Leon Wieseltier, 09.13.06, New Republic)

Democratic realism, progressive realism, ethical realism--the pageant of the paradoxes goes on. The adjectives betray a bad conscience about the noun, they cleanse the noun of its brutality, and raise it up, so that it may be possible to be edifying without being stupid. The war in Iraq, and its plenitude of unanticipated consequences, has raised a suspicion that idealism might be stupid; and there is no denying the hallucinatory quality of a large part of the administration's analysis of the war. These days realism can mean nothing more than lucidity. And there is nothing really paradoxical about any of the above coinages: realism is not always the servant of cynicism, and more people have died at the hands of idealists than at the hands of realists. Moreover, there is no justification of power that cannot become a justification of evil. These are all commonplaces, but they were not always so: they were introduced into the American understanding largely by Reinhold Niebuhr, the greatest thinker about morality and power in the modern era. Niebuhr is the new god of Bush-era liberals. They could do worse, though I wish they would stop skipping all the religious stuff. (He was a professor at the Union Theological Seminary, not a fellow at the Center for American Progress.) It was not until very recently that I was made to appreciate the deep affinities between the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and the thought of Brent Scowcroft.

The children of light are being sloppy. They treat all that is useful to their argument against the war, all the anti-Bush authorities, as essentially the same. I am confident that Niebuhr would have opposed the war in Iraq, but I am confident also that he would have despised Scowcroft, who is the most eminent representative of unethical realism in America. Niebuhr's opposition to the war would have been based, I think, on his principled distaste for Bush's style of nationalism, which he would have regarded as auto-idolatry, and on his insistence that the legitimacy of such an enterprise must be conferred by international institutions.

Presumably such opposition to nationalism and deference to transnationalism would likewise have forced Niebuhr to aggree that, as the UN said, "Zionism is racism?" No, the idea that George W. Bush's universalist crusade for democracy in the Middle East is nationalist is nearly as insipid as the notion that Niebuhr would have allowed a UN vote to determine whether a war was just.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 18, 2006 7:36 AM
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