The Rut of History and Leon Wieseltier

July 30, 2015

An old friend whose devotion to Israel is very, very strong shared The Iran Deal and the Rut of History on Facebook a couple of days ago. The piece is from The Atlantic and was written by Leon Wieseltier. Mr. Wieseltier was the literary critic for The New Republic forever—well, only from 1983 until 2014—and writes now for The Atlantic. His writing has focused often on Jewish and Middle East subjects, and his parents survived the Holocaust.

The piece opens with these words: “The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” Mr. Wieseltier is quoting Ben Rhodes, a White House aide. Three sentences later—not many extra words here—Mr. Wieseltier states his thesis:

The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.

No pulling punches here!

So I have a few thoughts. First, there’s history and there’s history. The history with Iran that matters is just less than 40 years worth. And 55 years quantifies the history with Cuba that mattered in connection with re-establishing relations, another Obama Administration decision with which Mr. Wieseltier disagrees.

With both Iran and Cuba the United States had functioning relationships until breaches occurred in 1979 and 1959. We supported strongmen—the Shah of Iran and Fulgencio Batista—and all was well, sort of. (U.S. relationships that were not very balanced explain much about what ails our foreign policy today. You can’t support dictatorships that keep people down for a long time and expect them to like you … or forget you!) Change came, decades passed without any evident improvement in U.S. relations, and now we’re moving forward. Those situations do not measure up to Mr. Wieseltier’s chosen words about the rut of history.

Second, there is the matter of options. The tough talkers spout on about Iranian sanctions, tougher sanctions, toughest sanctions, etc. Meanwhile, no one has provided evidence that our allies on the Iran deal—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK—were prepared to continue sanctions, much less make them tougher. And thank you, Mr. Wieseltier, for mentioning Cuba. If we want to know what happens when we impose unilateral sanctions, Cuba informs us. For more than 50 years we have not traded with Cuba. The rest of the world has, and that’s why Fidel Castro has outlasted 10 U.S. Presidents. It’s also why we could not bargain for “political liberty as a condition for movement.”

Third, we live in a complicated world. The allies wanted to protect against a nuclear Iran. No one talks about other options, other than more sanctions or war. Iran, to give up on its dreams, wanted the coin of the realm, i.e., money. That it can use that money for bad purposes is a lousy byproduct of a deal. And the alternative?

Finally, there is real history. Sunni and Shia have been at it for centuries, and Arabs and Jews for lots longer. We made a hash of that history in 2002, when we invaded Iraq without any evident appreciation for the Sunni-Shia history, or even the difference between them. Just a bunch of people who needed some good old American shock and awe!

If we didn’t have such lousy options right now, we might be able to debate issues like “do we just give up on people who hate one another, or do we try for more?” We reached far in Northern Ireland several years ago—Catholic-Protestant hatred goes back centuries—and we achieved a measure of success. History is not a constant, and change does come.

President Obama has taken a chance. He has said nothing which suggests support for Iran, or that we have solved all of our problems, but he has faced the world in which we live, not the one we might prefer. Unfortunately, Mr. Wieseltier’s bitterness about a deal he doubts has caused him to double-down on hopeless, and more’s the pity.


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