Leon Wieseltier considers what Obama needs to learn from Putin’s aggression against Crimea. In essence, he concludes that Obama needs to stop believing his own bullshit.
Wieseltier is far too elegant a writer to put it this way. Instead, among other things, he writes:
[T]he Ukrainian crisis is not a transient event but a lasting circumstance with which we will be wrestling for a long time. We must mentally arm ourselves against a reality about which we only recently disarmed ourselves: the reality of protracted conflict.
The lack of preparedness at the White House was not merely a weakness of policy but also a weakness of worldview. The president is too often caught off guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things.
There really is no excuse for being surprised by evil. There is also no excuse for projecting one’s good intentions, one’s commitment to reason, one’s optimism about history, upon other individuals and other societies and other countries: narcissism is the enemy of empiricism, and we must perceive differences and threats empirically, lucidly, not with disbelief but with resolve. . . .
Narcissism goes a long way toward explaining Obama’s failure to grasp reality. But arrogance should not be discounted.
Putin, you might say, has a decision architecture of his own. It may offend our values and contradict our platitudes, but it is no less actual for being unacceptable to us.
Against it the administration is wanly deploying more of those platitudes—the “interdependent world,” for example. “What we see here,” a senior administration official told reporters, “are distinctly nineteenth- and twentieth-century decisions made by President Putin to address problems. … What he needs to understand is that, in terms of his economy, he lives in the twenty-first century world, an interdependent world.”
It makes no sense to run a civilizational conflict in an interdependent world, does it? But that is precisely what Putin is doing; and he is hardly alone in this allegedly impossible enterprise.
It’s not extraordinary for an American leader to forget or ignore the lessons of the past. But Obama is unique (with the possible exception of Woodrow Wilson) in that he seems willfully to dismiss those lessons.
Obama, the ambassador from the future, long ago decided that the twentieth century was over, and almost recreationally likes to dismiss its relevance to contemporary vexations. We live in a time that prefers the discontinuities of history to its continuities. We cannot get over how unprecedented we are.
It reminds of this passage from Ulysses, which I quoted last year in a post about the same phenomenon Wieseltier describes:
History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. . . .What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?
History has already given Obama several, and in my view Wieseltier’s only false note is his suggestion that this particularly back kick may cause Obama to realize the errors induced by his narcissism and arrogance.