There are figures in history who wish to leave behind what Malraux called “a scar on the map,” but it was Barack Obama’s desire to leave behind a new map, and one without scars. His promise of global transformation was outrageously genuine, underwritten by an invincible belief in his own unprecedentedness and in his own magic; and it now looks like a personal delusion enlarged by political excitement into a popular delusion. He really did think that the world would change when he summoned it to change, as if its dangerous and miserable state was the result merely of misunderstandings and the failure of an adequately illuminated leader to manifest himself. Olam keminhago noheg, the Talmud says: the world acts according to its custom. Such a view is not “conservatism” or “realism,” but something more fundamental—the condition of all responsible thinking about change, which is, after all, also a regular feature of the world; and of course a warning about counterfeit salvations. There are realms in which the character of the inherited world is even a warrant for hope. But not for Obama. “He’s been bored to death his whole life,” Valerie Jarrett told David Remnick, in one of the most unwittingly damning remarks anybody ever heard. The poor man: he should come in, the water’s fine—and it’s our water, the water we have. Jarrett added that “he’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.” So the overman, whose admirers like to disdain his predecessor for hubris, set out to start everything over. In some ways, this marked a welcome introduction of the critical spirit; in other ways, it was an expression of a kind of lack of ontological respect, of ahistorical thinking disguised as a new idea of history, of the blindness caused by a certainty of vision. We exchanged an experiment in national greatness conservatism for an experiment in personal greatness liberalism. And in the spring of 2010, Obama got his global reformation, his new map.
A momentous re-alignment is occurring abroad, and it is not the one that Obama envisaged. He came into office believing that the two most significant strategic challenges for U.S. foreign policy were China and “the Muslim world”; everything else, including human rights, seemed like survivals of an earlier era, and therefore tedious. But now there has emerged an unforeseen strategic challenge in the form of a new non-aligned movement, an informal and increasingly substantial association among Putin, Ahmadinejad, Erdogan, Lula, and Chávez. The states they lead are not weak. There are days when Karzai, too, looks like a member of this company; and such tendencies are to be found also in the Pakistani leadership. All this is the strategic equivalent of a vast oil spill. The new non-alignment is of course highly aligned. The old one, of the 1950s and 1960s, could pretend to a neutral course between the United States and the Soviet Union; but in the absence of the Soviet Union, non-alignment means only one thing, and it is alignment against the United States. These new allies are not the middle, they are the other side. The ideological objective of the new non-alignment is to keep alive the specter of the American hegemon. Its practical purpose is the thwarting of American intentions around the world. The immediate focus of the obstructionism is the American campaign to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons: to run interference for Ahmadinejad and the illegitimate regime in Tehran. But the implications of their collaboration go beyond the Iran question. The new orientation of Turkey, a member of NATO, situated at one of the world’s seams, represents a dreadful setback for the United States. (The eruption in the political culture of Turkey can hardly be imputed to the Mavi Marmara.) What we are witnessing is the anti-Americanism of the Obama era, which is the anti-Americanism that could never come to pass. The Obama turn in American foreign policy is looking more and more like what Bellow used to call the Good Intentions Paving Company.
Can hostility to American power be strongly addressed by a president who is skeptical of American power? This is not an irony, it is a problem. It is true that Obama is a war president, but he is an anti-war war president, which is either the best kind or the worst kind; and it is now clear that Obama’s loud insistence upon his timetable for de-escalation and withdrawal in Afghanistan has shaken the Afghans and prompted the ignoble Karzai to contemplate an entente with the Taliban and maybe even with Pakistan. It is in his policy toward Iran that Obama’s discomfort with American power, his haunting by the goblins of the American left, is most apparent. He, too, is worried about the American hegemon. Among the hundreds of complacent pages in Jonathan Alter’s account of Obama’s first year in office, there is a complacent page about the rebellion in Iran a year ago and the president’s frigid response to it. “He argued plausibly,” Alter writes, “that given the history of U.S. meddling in Iran, loud support for the protesters would just give Ahmadinejad and the mullahs a propaganda tool.” And “it made sense,” Alter emptily adds. Indeed, “the demonstrators seemed to agree and expressed no concern about the American president’s tardiness in speaking out.” That is false, though I expect the White House believes it. An Iranian friend recently told me about a letter he received from Tehran complaining that the most damaging American intervention in Iran since the overthrow of Mossadegh was Obama’s non-intervention against Ahmadinejad’s brutal repression. Last week the National Endowment for Democracy, may its tribe increase, gave an award to the Green Movement on the anniversary of its uprising. Obama sent a message to the ceremony in which he did not mention the Green Movement. Instead he “look[ed] forward to the day when Iranians will be able to speak freely,” rather as one looks forward to the day when the sun will come out. He even trotted out his old crap about “bend[ing] the arc of history in the direction of justice,” which was an insult both to the dissidents and to Martin Luther King Jr., whose grand image Obama has reduced to the rhetoric of abstention. Morally and strategically, for the purpose of nuclear peace and for the purpose of freedom, there is no more urgent task for the president of the United States than to place this country on the side of the Iranian resistance. It is very twentieth century, I know; but there is nothing boring about it.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.