“LET’S PUT IDEOLOGY aside; that’s so yesterday.” Those memorable words were uttered by Hillary Clinton in Santo Domingo, on her way to the Summit of the Americas. I wish to parse them. They may be read charitably and uncharitably. I will begin with charity, since in this case it goes against my grain. There are two ways in which the abdication of ideology by the Secretary of State seems understandable. If, by ideology, she means an inflexible and doctrinaire state of mind, so that prior convictions interfere with the elementary exercises in empiricism that must be a foundation of foreign policy, then she is right. We cannot respond properly to what we do not perceive properly. A world misdescribed will be a world mishandled. And if she was referring to the unprecedented agility that is now required by American foreign policy, to the crush of contemporary history, which requires an extraordinary number of practical decisions to be made without the time or the tranquility for reflection, then she also had a point. For a long time now, the conduct of American foreign policy seems to consist mainly in crisis management. The reasons are historical and technological. The world is now curiously uninhibited by our power. It is also, for a “globalized” world, singularly unsynchronized and disordered. The job of American diplomacy is increasingly to catch up with the contingencies. And it is now possible, owing to the wonders of communication and transportation, for American diplomats to be everywhere, or almost everywhere, at the same time, or almost at the same time. This is true also of the journalists who trail them. History has never before been experienced so simultaneously. And so foreign policy is often frantic, and too busy for theory.

Here ends my charity. I do not believe that Clinton was saying anything so reasonable. I think that she was announcing, or rather acknowledging, the demotion of moral analysis, of high principle, in the articulation of foreign policy by the Obama administration. It appears to be the view of many Democrats that talk about evil is itself evil; that what got us into all our crises abroad was an inordinate infatuation with our values; that there is a correlation between idealism and incompetence. The president is certainly a man of principle, but mainly he is a man of preternatural competence, and we are now going to get things done. I have no quarrel with efficacy, but it is a contentless ideal. The United States needs to be represented in the world by more than best practices. After all, bad ideas can be brilliantly executed. So I am less stirred by implementation than by the reasons for implementation; and our reasons beyond our borders are still somewhat indistinct. We seem to be inventing a new kind of realpolitik, distinguished not by toughness but by niceness. As regards certain countries and movements, moreover, the renunciation of an ideological vocabulary has the effect of misrepresenting them. The omission of beliefs from our account of the causes of Iranian, Venezuelan, Cuban, and some Palestinian behavior transgresses precisely against the empiricist imperative: the assertion that states act only on interests is as dogmatic as the assertion that states act only on values. “So yesterday”: with this high-school locution Clinton again gave more evidence of her own celebrated pragmatism. A year or so ago she was righteously obliterating Iran! The question of the relation of our principles to our policies cannot be settled by the results of an election, at least not in its substance. Yesterday is not an argument against anything. And there is a wide range of American action between going abroad in search of monsters to destroy and being the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

When we warm up to a country, are we warming up to its rulers or to its people? This is the perplexity posed by the new American abertura. Is an opening to Ahmadinejad an opening to the mullahs or to the masses? I fear that Obama’s desire to engage the Iranian people will end up engaging only the Iranian leadership. I agree that the nuclear danger justifies such an engagement, at least initially, but the president portrays his approach as something much grander than a policy on proliferation. I understand also that (as a formidable friend at State likes to remind me) it is the ordinary business of diplomats to work with actually existing governments. But that is not the end of the matter. In our enthusiasm not to change regimes, we may strengthen regimes. That, too, is an American intervention. It may be said that the strengthening of a regime that was democratically elected is unobjectionable, but then we avert our eyes from one of the most troublesome paradoxes in the world, which is that undemocratic governments often enjoy democratic legitimacy. The representativeness of a government is not the same as what it represents. A vote democratically cast against democracy is a pseudo-democratic act. Ahmadinejad wins elections, and so does Chavez, and yet the genuinely democratic elements in their societies oppose them, often heroically. It is impossible, therefore, to edify ourselves with Putumayo-like generalities about peoples: when we open up to a government, we give heart to some of its citizens but not to all of them. When Obama, in his Nowruz address, referred to the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is of course its name, I heard people share their delight that an American president finally accepted the Islamic character of the Iranian state. But what of the many Iranians who do not accept the Islamic nature of the Iranian state? I imagine that they felt rather excluded from the ever-expanding circle of Obama’s empathy. So we must consider that Obama’s sensitivity may be also insensitive. His smooth resort to the Armenian language—“the Meds Yeghern must live on in our memories”—in the context of his refusal to call the Armenian genocide a genocide was creepy and insulting. The president seems to care less that America be understood than to show that it understands. But does it, really? It cannot have been a true understanding of the situation in Venezuela that prompted Obama’s bounding over to Chavez, smile flashing and handshake forming. Forgive me, but I thought that those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent had to unclench their fist before we will extend a hand.

Leon Wieseltier is The New Republic’s literary editor. This article appeared in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.