Politics & Policy

Blogger Extended

Matthew Yglesias's Heads in the Sand is a mixed success.

‘Blogger books everywhere!” trumpeted Instapundit Glenn Reynolds about two weeks ago. Indeed, publishing houses have offered many web writers the chance to turn their thoughts, typically dashed off in three-paragraph bursts, into full-length hardcovers.

The latest of these tomes is Matthew Yglesias’s Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats. Yglesias is one of the Left’s most logical, insightful, and independent thinkers, but he struggles, with only mixed success, to mold his ideas into a detailed, forceful argument.

The blogger bites off quite a bit, putting forth a number of ideas that deserve thorough exploration. He claims that Republican foreign policy has been disastrous, and that the Democrats have gone along with it. In the future, Democrats should instead promote “liberal internationalism” — an international stage governed by cooperative institutions like the U.N. This is not only a superior policy, but one that will improve the party’s electoral chances.

Yglesias begins with a lengthy history lesson, coming to focus on the last decade. Primarily, his accusation is that post-9/11, Democrats have failed to fight the Republicans effectively on foreign policy. “Democratic hawks” endorsed the Iraq invasion, and when things went wrong, they claimed the problem wasn’t the war but Bush’s execution of it. Because Democrats didn’t provide a clear alternative — and even fought within themselves, with the centrists spending too much energy denouncing the hippies — voters sided with Republicans.

It’s true enough that Democrats helped Bush get us into Iraq. But it’s far less clear that this hurt them politically: Yglesias makes the assumption that every election is winnable, and therefore, every Democratic loss is due to poor Democratic strategy. This is most striking in his analysis of the 2002 elections, the first after 9/11, when the Republicans won big — the Democrats must have chosen their strategy “poorly. Very poorly.”

Yet he admits that 9/11 put security issues at the top of the national agenda, and that voters have typically given the edge to Republicans in this area. One could reasonably expect the kind of voting Americans saw in the 2002 and 2004 elections, regardless of what Democrats did. It’s debatable whether Democrats should imitate popular Republican strategies or forge their own identity, but when the party chooses the former and loses, it’s not proof that the latter would have created a win. In fact, if we all hopped into a time machine and got the Democrats to adopt Yglesias’s 2002 strategy — “[taking] Bush down a peg” during the country’s rash of 9/11-inspired love for the leader – the resulting loss may have been worse.

And today the party’s strategy — go along with Bush when he’s popular, criticize his execution of the policies it approved when he’s not, and capitalize on whatever popular frustration is available during elections — seems to be working just fine. Once the effects of 9/11 and the initial success of the Iraq war wore off, Democrats came back. The 2006 elections were an undeniable success, and the Intrade prediction market puts the odds of a Democrat capturing the White House at 60 percent. Democrats will almost certainly control Congress next year — 92 percent chance in the House, 93 percent in the Senate — and there’s serious doubt as to whether Republicans will even have a reliable filibuster power.

But what about policy, as opposed to politics? Yglesias does a terrific job in painting three traditions in this area. Neoconservatives want a big military, unencumbered by international law, to shape world events; liberals want to work through international institutions, even if that means making concessions; isolationists would prefer to leave the rest of the world to its own devices.

Yglesias similarly succeeds in outlining the challenges of the neoconservative approach, particularly when it comes to democracy promotion through war: Even the best-intentioned invasion angers part of the target country’s population, and this anger breeds terrorism — studies indicate that political goals, not jealousy or poverty, drive most terrorists. Therefore, any such intervention poses the very real danger of making America less safe. What’s more, over the last several centuries the world has tended to democratize on its own, so absent immediate threats to our safety, by and large we should let this trend run its course.

That’s all well and good — once the absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction became clear, even many on the Right came to see the overzealousness of the Iraq invasion. And in principle, few would object to some form of Yglesias’s “liberal internationalism”; we all prefer diplomacy to war, and on the international stage, it’s good to cooperate in the advancement of mutual interests.

But as for using this worldview as an alternative to neoconservatism, there are lots of questions about details, and the biggest is this: How would the Iraq War have played out differently under an internationalist regime? Yglesias presents his theory as the opposite of “Bushism,” but even he concedes that when international institutions fail, sometimes individual countries have to step up. See especially this defense of Clinton’s U.N.-defiant Kosovo invasion:

That Kosovo presented a mixture of humanitarian and interest-based reasons for intervention was precisely what strengthened the case for playing fast and loose with the UN rules, making intervention a reasonable option.

In the days before the Iraq war — when the case for attack hinged mainly on WMDs and the U.N. was refusing to enforce its very own resolutions — how would this argument not have held up? Yglesias denounces the invasion in hindsight, and argues it’s the result of an overall unworkable outlook, but his own outlook might not have prevented the war given what we knew at the time.

And when it comes to managing the war today, Yglesias’s big idea is to tell Iraqis to stop killing each other:

For Iraq itself, the main thrust of a diplomacy-centric approach would be to convince all the relevant actors that a relatively peaceful Iraq serves their interests better than a relatively bloody act, irrespective of the precise details of who’s up and who’s down inside the country. Similarly, within Iraq, both the United States and partners in the region would endeavor to convince Iraqi factions that the costs of conflict exceed the costs of compromise.

Heads in the Sand is a short book, and for the most part a fast read. It has a number of worthwhile insights. Unfortunately, Yglesias’s blog has a higher hit-to-miss ratio, and it’s free.

 – Robert VerBruggen is an NR associate editor.

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