You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Washington Diarist: Unmending Wall

The absence of Barack Obama from Berlin on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall may be explained in many ways, and one of the explanations may be his view of the world. He is kein Berliner. No, he is not soft on communism, not least because there is no longer any communism, at least of the classical kind, to be soft on. In the video message that was broadcast to the commemoration--it allowed him once again to have the stage to himself, and to describe his own election as a climactic event in “human destiny”--Obama spoke all the right words for all the right sentiments. But his portrait of the Atlantic alliance was curiously passive, as if it defeated totalitarianism by example, by believing what it believes, and not also by challenging the Soviet Union, and blocking it, and deploying missiles, and supporting dissenters, in ways that many progressives found “destabilizing.” Obama declared that “the work of freedom is never finished,” which is true enough, but the urgent question is what he means by “work.” Consider an example. A few days before the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the wall in Berlin, there occurred the thirtieth anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The dictators’ commemoration of that happy day in the history of their dictatorship was ruined by rallies of democrats and dissidents. Obama’s response was to intone wanly that “the world continues to bear witness to their powerful calls for justice.” So does “witness” count as “work”? Was the Soviet Union brought down by “witness”? We did not, on our own, bring the Soviet Union down--it collapsed, pathetically, on itself; but we assisted keenly in its collapse. Are we assisting in the mullahs’ collapse? I think not. Our Iran policy seems not to have discovered the connection between Iranian nuclearization and Iranian liberalization. The only sure solution to the former is the latter. It is no longer a fantasy to contemplate a new Iran. For this reason, American support for the democracy movement in Iran (he sounds like Bush! and he calls himself a liberal!) is not only a moral duty, it is also a strategic duty. Such support might indeed be “destabilizing,” but there is no stability in Iran anymore, there is only a vicious tyranny fighting for its life against a popular uprising that explains itself with principles that we, too, espouse. It makes sense that the man who takes no side in that fight did not make it to Berlin.

There are two ways of regarding the cold war. The first is to view it admiringly as a struggle between philosophies as they were embodied in states, so that the victory of the American idea over the Soviet idea was a victory of good (not innocence) over evil--a time of anxiety and grandeur, in which reason and courage defeated the most murderous political system in history and averted the greatest danger in history. The second is to view it condescendingly as a contest between two states swollen with power imposing their interests on a world that needed instead to be fed and clothed, each with its ideological excuses for its global ambitions, both on the verge of obsolescence of one sort or another--an era made mercifully archaic by globalization and hybridity and interdependence and connectivity, a low and useless era. I expect that Obama would concur with bits of both views. But his absence in Berlin makes me wonder whether a word need not be said for the pertinence of the legacy of anti-communism to the foundations of American foreign policy. Anti-communism, after all, was a doctrine of human rights. When it negotiated about nuclear weapons, it negotiated also about human rights. It was not embarrassed by the moral analysis of governments and movements, and it insisted that such an analysis has strategic implications. It preferred dissidents to regimes, even when it engaged with regimes. How can any of this be immaterial to our quandaries in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and elsewhere? How can the totalitarians and authoritarians, religious and secular, in those crucial and hazardous regions be understood without a moral vocabulary? To be sure, a moral vocabulary may easily justify abuses; but not as easily as an amoral or an immoral one. Liberals no longer remember that anti-communism was once a glory of liberalism. The president is so busy breaking new ground in foreign policy that he may not see that the ground of his foreign policy is broken. His renunciation of idealism has brought none of the rewards of realism. Conflicts that were supposed to be transformed by his magic are immune to his magic. He has no magic. There is no magic. His trip to China, where the subject of human rights was “raised,” has shown this again. When he gets back, perhaps he will meet with the Dalai Lama, but not for the purpose of “strategic reassurance.” That blessing is reserved for Hu Jintao. It makes sense that the man who refused to meet with the Dalai Lama did not make it to Berlin.

If democracy had holy days, November 9 would be one of them. But on the morning of that day I awoke to find that the editors of the op-ed page of The New York Times, in their ceaseless quest for mental refreshment, had decided to correct the one-sided favorable press that 1989 has enjoyed for decades and invited a Leninist to explain the meaning of the occasion to their readers, who were hotly instructed by Slavoj Žižek not to fall for the illusion of progress, because capitalism does not provide the “life of sincerity and simplicity” that the rebels of 1989 sought, and that “socialism with a human face,” which was what they really desired, “deserves a second chance.” I ended the day watching Hillary Clinton, who represented us in Berlin, reflect for Charlie Rose on the “new walls” of our age, not “the visible of the concrete and the barbed wire,” but the “walls of ignorance and extremism,” of “oppression and impoverishment.” She was not wrong, but she was vaporous. Some of the ills that she noted are the result of walls, but some of them are the result of the lack of walls. When she mentioned “the walls that exist in the mindsets” of suicide bombers, I recalled the undeniably hideous but undeniably life-saving wall in Israel. Sometimes the only response to a mental wall is a physical wall. Walls protect. Walls confine and walls define. Walls exclude and walls include. In one of his notebooks, Frost scribbled a little epitome of his great poem about the versatility of such hindrances:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

Something there is that does and after all

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.