Leon Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of the New Republic, is a noted writer on politics, religion, and culture. Although frequently characterized as a liberal intellectual, Wieseltier's views on foreign policy—especially with respect to Israel and the Middle East—often veer toward the hawkish right. Wieseltier does not consider himself a neoconservative, but he has supported the work of various neoconservative-led advocacy groups, including the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
Wieseltier, who once described the New Republic as "the cops" policing beltway discourse on Israel, is well known for using his media perch to issue controversial diatribes against critics of Israel and excoriate the purported weakness of liberals. One notorious early attack was Wieseltier's review of Edward Said's book Orientalism, a highly regarded opus on Western study of the East, which appeared in the New Republic in 1979. Wieseltier called Said's analysis "little more than the abject canards of Arab propaganda." On other occasions, he has disparaged critics of Israel like conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan as "Jew baiters."
On the other hand, Wieseltier favors the establishment of a Palestinian state in order to preserve Israel as a Jewish democracy. To this end, he has become increasingly outspoken in his own criticism of the Israeli government for its apparent hostility to Palestinian statehood. After accepting a prestigious literary prize in Tel Aviv in June 2013, Wieseltier told an interviewer, "Unless there is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will not be a Jewish state for very long. … One of the most shameful aspects of the Netanyahu government has been to succeed in taking the Palestinian question off the table."
Wieseltier elaborated on these views in a December 2012 essay for The New Republic, despairing that "I no longer believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will occur in my lifetime." Although he placed some blame on "the Palestinians and their inability to recognize the historical grandeur of compromise," Wieseltier also excoriated Netanyahu for allying himself with "anti-democratic maniacs" like former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, dampening prospects for a negotiated peace. "People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it," he concluded, "but I do not detect the political will. So what if the two-state solution is the only solution, when nobody is desperate to solve the problem?"
An avowed interventionist, Wieseltier has written that he "regard[s] America's influence as generally a blessing for the world" and criticized the Obama administration for what he considers its "light-footprint" approach toward foreign conflicts.
Wieseltier particularly lamented Obama's appointment of Chuck Hagel—a former Republican senator and Vietnam veteran whose skeptical approach to U.S. overseas intervention has been praised by many realist foreign affairs analysts—to head the Department of Defense. "The most egregious aspect of the celebration of Hagel is the belief that his Purple Hearts validate his withdrawalist inclinations," Wieseltier complained, citing "Hagel's optimism about diplomacy with Iran and Hamas, his opposition to sanctions, [and] his recoil from humanitarian interventions" as key grievances. "We have elected to wane," he concluded. "One day history will surprise us, and shame on us for being surprised."
Wieseltier has also been a vocal critic of the Barack Obama administration's response to the uprisings of the "Arab Spring." During a New Republic symposium in February 2012, Wieseltier argued that the administration had adopted a double standard in its various responses to the social turmoil in the region. "How can the president dine out on Libya if he is not prepared to do the same for Syria? Assad is perpetrating in Homs, Hama, Dara'a, and elsewhere what Qaddafi only threatened to perpetrate in Benghazi." Arguing that an important "strategic prize" that could result from Assad's downfall was the weakening of Iran's regional position, Wieseltier said that Washington "should aid and arm the Free Syrian Army."
In opposition to observers who warned that U.S. intervention could worsen the conflict, Wieseltier retorted in May 2013 that "we often engage with what we cannot master. No outcomes are assured, except perhaps when we do nothing. We do not need to control the realm in which we need to take action; we need only to have strong and defensible reasons and strong and defensible means, and to keep our wits, our analytical abilities, about us."
Earlier, in January 2011, Wieseltier attacked the Obama administration's approach to the revolution in Egypt. Ignoring decades of U.S. policymaking in the region as well as the unhappy legacy of neoconservative-inspired "democracy" projects, Wieseltier wrote that "the bizarre irony of Obama's global multiculturalism is that it has had the effect of aligning America with regimes and against peoples." He also excoriated "liberals" for their "wholesale repudiation of Bush's foreign policy includ[ing] the rejection of anything resembling his 'freedom agenda,'" and claimed that President Obama's multiculturalism amounted to little more than an "acceptance agenda." He added, "[W]hatever one's views of the Iraq war, it really does not seem too much to ask of American liberals that they think a little less crudely about democratization—not only about its moral significance but also about its strategic significance."
Though often a critic of the George W. Bush administration, Wieseltier endorsed many of the Bush administration's goals in the Middle East. He was a signatory to a Project for the New American Century letter to Bush that laid out an aggressive series of proposed interventions as part of the "war on terror" just nine days after the 9/11 attacks. The letter named three key targets: Osama bin Laden, Hezbollah, and Iraq, stating that even if Baghdad was found not to be involved in the attacks, the war "must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq." In 2002, Wieseltier signed on as a member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an organization set up to push for the invasion.
Although Wieseltier eventually expressed regret over his initial support for the war, he continued to support it. In a signed editorial for the New Republic, Wieseltier wrote that "an absence of regrets and recrimination on the part of a supporter of this war now amounts to an absence of intellectual honesty" because there were no weapons of mass destruction. Like many of the war's initial boosters, Wieseltier also took exception to the way the war was conducted, writing in the same editorial that he had "come to despise some of the people who are directing it."
In a March 2013 New Republic feature on the Iraq War's 10th anniversary, Wieseltier conceded that Iraq war boosters who believed that Saddam Hussein "possessed weapons of mass destruction must forever ponder the fact that he did not possess them." However, he added, "I hope that we do not blind ourselves to the extraordinary changes that have taken place there, and to the possibility of a decent outcome. It is an outcome upon which we might have had an influence." Accusing the Obama administration of saying "goodbye and good luck" to Iraq, Wieseltier pleaded for prolonged U.S. engagement in the country, asserting that "the compromised origins of the Iraq war are not all, or even most, of what we need to know about Iraq now. Cursing George W. Bush is not a strategy. The region is convulsing, and we are pivoting."
A longtime friend of Wieseltier is I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted on charges of lying, perjury, and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame affair. Before Libby was sentenced, the judge reviewed letters from nearly 200 writers, including one from Wieseltier, who wrote, "I am in no sense a neoconservative, as many of my neoconservative adversaries will attest. I am, to the contrary, the kind of liberal who many neoconservatives like to despise, and that's fine with me." Wieseltier explained his stance later, writing, "Generally, I detest this White House for many reasons and I think Scooter is a kind of state-of-the-art fall guy in this particular plot."
On Criticizing Israel and "Anti-Semitism"
In February 2010, Wieseltier attacked popular conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, hinting that Sullivan's writings were anti-Semitic—despite categorically rejecting that Sullivan was anti-Semitic during an earlier dispute with his former New Republic colleague. Wieseltier's 2010 accusation centered on the claim that Sullivan reveals anti-Semitic tendencies in his criticism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians (in particular, the 2009 attack on Gaza), as well as in his disparaging assessments of certain American Jews (in particular, those associated with neoconservatism, or "the [Michael] Goldfarb-[Charles] Krauthammer wing" of the U.S. Jewish community).
Wrote Wieseltier: "The explanation that Sullivan adopts for almost everything that he does not like about America's foreign policy, and America's wars, and America's role in the world—that it is all the result of the clandestine and cunningly organized power of a single and small ethnic group—has a provenance that should disgust all thinking people. And this is not all that is disgusting about Sullivan's approach. His assumption, in his outburst about 'the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing,' that every thought that a Jew thinks is a Jewish thought is an anti-Semitic assumption, and a rather classical one."
Journalist Glenn Greenwald described Wieseltier's diatribe as "an amazingly ugly, reckless, and at-times-deranged screed." He added, "So shabby and incoherent are Wieseltier's accusations that they merit little real refutation, and I hope Andrew will resist the (understandable) temptation to elevate and dignify them by lavishing them with lengthy self-defenses."
Another writer, Daniel Luban, argued that Wieseltier's invective did merit assessment in that it reveals how far the discourse in Washington has shifted with respect to U.S. policy on Israel, in part due to the tendency of "pro-Israel" hardliners to make "frivolous" accusations about anti-Semitism whenever anyone criticizes Israeli policies.
Luban wrote: "The obvious absurdity of these charges has caused many observers to go back and reevaluate the entire way that the charge has been used in the past—and has only confirmed the impression that it is all-too-frequently used to stifle all dissent from Israeli policies. The result is that the tacit framework governing 'responsible' criticism of Israel is breaking down. … Wieseltier's attack on Sullivan appears motivated not by any actual belief that the latter is an anti-Semite, but by rage that he has violated these tacit rules—that a gentile dares offer unapologetic criticism of Israeli policies. More than that, we can detect in Wieseltier's piece a deep sense of panic that this framework of 'responsible' criticism is breaking down. The attack is quite obviously an attempt to intimidate Sullivan into ceasing all criticism; I join many others in hoping that Sullivan sticks to his guns."
Wieseltier has a long history of haranguing people who point to the influence of the "Israel Lobby" on U.S. foreign policy. He has written particularly venomous critiques against well-known scholars—including Tony Judt, Steve Walt, and John Mearsheimer—who have taken on this subject. When a scheduled talk by Judt in October 2006 at the Polish Consulate in New York was cancelled after the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee complained, Wieseltier wrote in the Washington Diarist in October 2006:
"The more significant point is that what Judt was prevented from delivering at the Polish consulate was a conspiracy theory about the pernicious role of the Jews in the world. That is what the idea of 'the Lobby' is. It is Mel Gibson's analysis of the Iraq war. It is not just an analysis of the impact of AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] on particular resolutions and policies: such an analysis requires a detailed knowledge of American government, specifically of Congress, that I suspect Judt does not possess and that his fellow heroes Mearsheimer and Walt have been shown to lack. It is a larger claim, a historical claim, a claim about a sinister causality, about the power of a small group to control the destiny of a large group. And it is a claim with a sordid history."
As a child, Wieseltier attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush, an ultra-Orthodox school in Brooklyn, where he was a classmate of fellow "pro-Israel" hawk Dennis Prager. He later attended Columbia and Oxford Universities before pursuing a doctorate in Jewish studies at Harvard. On the strength of work for the New York Review of Books written concurrently with his studies, he was lured away from academia by an offer from Martin Peretz, the publisher of the New Republic.
Wieseltier's books include Kaddish (1998), Against Identity (1996), and Nuclear War, Nuclear Peace (1983).