The problem with a moral vocabulary about politics and policy is that it not only makes politicians and policymakers feel bold, it also demands that they act bold. Eloquence creates expectations; and so in Washington, even for America’s first black, Jewish, and gay president, the goal is often to separate the high ground from its practical imperatives, so that an aura of rectitude may be acquired without recourse to significant action. Washington is the capital of idle talk about justice. In Washington now almost everybody wants Bashar Al Assad to fall and almost nobody wants Barack Obama to bring him down. This discrepancy is called realism, though it is less a philosophy than a mood, the on dit of the geopolitical swells, who wish that statesmen would behave like bankers. The banker’s view of economic policy, after all, is the one that strips it of moral considerations. (I remember Paul Desmond’s sublime joke: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a whim but a banker.”) In Obama’s Washington it is bad form to say that American foreign policy should be driven by moral ideals, except of course when the president says so and suddenly idealism is admirable again. But it passes, it passes. In recent weeks I have been conducting a local and anecdotal study of the likelihood that the United States will take decisive action in Syria—which would serve not only our tenderhearted values but also our hard-hearted interests—and I have concluded that the likelihood is close to zero. What follows are some observations on the alibis for the inconsequential action—some nonlethal aid is getting through!—and the absence of alacrity that is our policy.
COMPLEXITY. This is what one hears all the time: it is complicated. Tough talk, designed to sober moralists up. The very mention of complication can make a special assistant feel like Talleyrand. The appeal to complexity is intended to inhibit the appeal to freedom, and make it seem crude and unworldly. But I have yet to meet a single critic of our policy in Syria who believes that the situation in Syria is simple. Simplicity is almost never the case, in the Middle East or in health care, which means that the appeal to complexity is almost always selective, tendentious, driven by prior assumptions and preferences. I yield to nobody in my affection for nuance, but the paralyzing effect of nuance, its exploitation as a warrant for passivity, is a kind of decadence. It is certainly the enemy of historical ambition.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of The New Republic magazine and was published in tnr.com on May 18th, 2012.