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Book Review: Heads in the Sand

January 13, 2010

It is mid-July in liberal Boston, where we lay our scene. On the main floor of the city’s Fleet Center, figures within the Democratic Party deliver speeches on John Kerry’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Al Gore remarks that Kerry showed “uncommon heroism on the battlefield,” while Bill Clinton praises the candidate for choosing to serve his country, despite coming from a privileged background (“He could have avoided going, too, but instead he said: ‘Send me’”). Meanwhile, journalists and activists mingle with each other and with talk radio hosts in the hallway, where a photo essay depicts John Kerry sitting in a boat, gun in hands.

Yes, of course, I am talking about the 2004 Democratic National Convention. For Matthew Yglesias, this event epitomizes a flaw fatal to the Democratic Party throughout the Bush years: the tendency of liberals, politicians and pundits alike, to bury their Heads in the Sand with regard to foreign policy. To paraphrase Yglesias’ subtitle, these were the years in which the Republicans screwed up foreign policy, and foreign policy screwed up the Democrats.

Everyone – presumably, even Sarah Palin — now knows what is meant by the Bush doctrine: pre-emptive warfare; unilateral military action; attempting to transform the Middle East into a liberal democracy; and so on. What the Kerry campaign ought to have done, Yglesias argues, is challenge the Bush doctrine directly. Instead, the Kerry campaign focused on how Bush mismanaged the war, while refusing to take the position that we never should have invaded Iraq in the first place. At the same time, Kerry wanted to seem tough, so as to avoid the criticism that he wasn’t fit to be commander-in-chief. That is why the focus of the photo essay on display at the DNC was not “John Kerry, antiwar activist, or even John Kerry, politician,” but rather “John Kerry, macho man.”

Following the November election, political analyst Peter Beinart chalked up Kerry’s defeat to an insufficiently tough national security message — or, what Beinhart referred to more generally as “The Kerry Compromise.” A muddle, Kerry’s message most certainly was, but it was not, Yglesias tells us, the result of a compromise between a “clear-cut liberal hawk alternative and an antiwar position.” The muddle was, rather, simply the “liberal hawk view itself, which tried to combine sharp criticism of the Bush administration’s conduct of foreign policy with endorsement of both its signature initiative and its basic underlying theoretical premises.”

Who were these liberal hawks, anyways? Yglesias lumps them into three groups. First, there were liberals who favored the invasion of Iraq for national security reasons, notably Kenneth Pollack. In his book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, Pollack argued that Saddam Hussein had the potential to build nuclear weapons in the near future. Once he obtained nukes, Saddam would no longer fear U.S. retaliation, allowing him to invade Kuwait and re-assert control over Persian Gulf oil supplies. Rather than let that happen, Pollack argued, the United States ought to wage pre-emptive war against Iraq.

The second group of liberal hawks were those who accepted the use of military force as a means to achieve humanitarian ends. The chief proponent of this view was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who argued that regime change in Iraq might inspire “democratization and modernization” throughout the Muslim world. Friedman and other humanitarian hawks imagined – wrongly in Yglesias’ view – that war in Iraq would follow the pattern established by Clinton’s invasion of Bosnia. Just as the United States had used force to curtail Serbian ethnic aggression, so too would invading Iraq end genocide against the Kurds. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, the humanitarian hawks believed that “if we come and blow it up, they will build a democracy.”

Finally, there were the political opportunists who wanted to “project ‘strength’” in order to “stay politically viable in red states or for a presidential campaign.” These are the John Kerrys, Hillary Clintons, and John Edwardses – Democratic politicians who voted to pass the October 2002 resolution pre-approving the invasion of Iraq. At the time, grassroots opposition to the war put Democrats in a political bind between projecting strength and placating the base. The compromise, for many Democrats, was to support the war with caveats. One proposed resolution would authorize the war only if it had backing from the UN Security Council; another would have the United States seek Security Council approval, but reserve the right to invade Iraq unilaterally. Due to political pressures, Democrats ultimately rejected both, instead casting their votes for the more robust Bush resolution.

The hawks, it is well known, were wrong. Even in 2002, CIA analysts accepted the finding of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Saddam Hussein was not building nuclear weapons – the claims of The Threatening Storm ran contrary to the very best intelligence available at the time. As for the hope of humanitarian hawks that Iraq would be another Bosnia, Yglesias makes an important distinction: whereas the “war that had led to Srebrenica was still ongoing” at the time of the NATO intervention, the massacre of Kurds at Halabja happened in 1988, and there was “nothing in particular that could be done about it” by 2003. Finally, Yglesias takes to task the opportunist hawks in congress who voted to pass the resolution despite having serious reservations or when they should have known otherwise.

All of this is, more or less, history. Few would argue today that the hawks, whether liberal or conservative, were right about Iraq. Heads in the Sand is, however, more than a trip down bad memory lane (itself useful, lest we forget the lessons of history); rather, Yglesias urges that the Democratic Party return to its tradition of liberal internationalism. Tracing its lineage back to Woodrow Wilson, liberal internationalism rejects isolationism on the one hand, and a foreign policy “perpetually dominated by amoral power struggles between heavily armed adversaries” on the other. While Wilson’s aspirations for the League of Nations proved “too vague and out of touch with the realities on the ground,” Yglesias contends that Wilson’s vision of an international order governed by “reciprocity, rules, institutions, and cooperation” remains a worthy ideal.

Yglesias’ depiction of liberal internationalism owes much, surprising to say, to Bush’s foreign policy agenda. (It could almost be said that, by “liberal internationalism,” Yglesias means the answer to W.W.B.D., or what wouldn’t Bush do?) If liberal internationalists admired the United Nations for undertaking global charity work and preventing aggressive warfare, Bush and his fellow conservatives found international institutions “positively malign.” As Charles Krauthammer explained at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner in 2004, “the whole point of the multilateral enterprise . . . is to reduce American freedom of action by making it subservient to, dependent on, constricted by the will – and interests – of other nations.”

This desire to free the United States from international constraints is not, according to Yglesias, due to isolationism (the desire to “let each country go its own way”). Pat Buchanan and other isolationists do not represent the mainstream of the Republican Party, as liberals have often supposed; rather, the underlying goal of conservative foreign policy, especially under Bush, is global hegemony. Bush, for example, preferred using “force or regime change to keep nukes out of the hands of rogue states” over upholding international antiproliferation agreements. Liberal internationalists, by contrast, want to create rules that apply to everyone – whether those rules pertain to nuclear weapons, the environment, or human rights.

So what’s not to like about fairness and rules? Whatever the virtues of liberal internationalism, Yglesias’ optimism about the ability of the U.N to bring about order and peace is – it seems to me — as groundless as the vision of Pax Americana to which it is opposed. The Iraq war was premised on a denial of limitations: limitations to the size of the American military; limitations to what could be accomplished through force; limitations to the appeal of liberal democracy in the Middle East. Iraq was therefore destined to flounder — Yglesias is right about that part. Yet, rather than urge for decentralization, Yglesias heads in the opposite direction, proposing one-world government as a means of ending nationalistic warfare. My lingering question is whether or not that goal is realistic.

Yglesias himself acknowledges that skeptics were right about the League of Nations: “fundamental aspects of the human condition simply can’t be radically revised overnight,” he writes, adding that “insofar as the nations of the world were unwilling to abandon imperialism and militarism as policies,” formal changes in institutional structure were “not going to accomplish anything.” Little seems to have changed since 1919, however, raising the question: how likely is it that “fundamental aspects of the human condition” will ever be reversed? Yglesias adds a caveat to his argument to the effect of “these things take time,” which helps; at the same time, he fails to remember that gradualism is precisely what has kept the United States in Iraq for the better part of a decade. In the preface, Yglesias ridicules Thomas Friedman as a gradualist who, since 2003, has been endlessly predicting that Iraq will stabilize within six months. Nine years after the invasion of Iraq, the whole world concurs that Bush’s aims for making that nation a liberal democracy were unrealistic; ninety years after Wilson devised the League of Nations, liberal internationalists are still claiming that we ought not create an artificial timetable for the world’s progress toward an enlightened, rule-based government under the U.N.

The truth is this: if we all could “just get along,” the world wouldn’t need a United Nations.

It seems to me that there is as much peril in ceding too much authority to the U.N. — in letting the U.N. decide whose wars are just and whose debts will be forgiven — as there is in rejecting constraints on U.S. power. By no means do I wish to insinuate that the U.N. is destined for failure, or that the U.S. should avoid international agreements — clearly, climate change, humanitarian aid, and any number of other concerns must be addressed at the global level. The point is, rather, that there is no particular reason to assume that Yglesias’ vision for an international order governed by “reciprocity, rules, institutions, and cooperation” is destined for success (just as we needn’t assume it will fail miserably). We must, I am afraid, blunder on in the absence of certainty or fixed principles. International institutions are neither inherently benevolent nor inherently benign; they are not inherently anything.

My view of the matter approximates that of Andrew Sullivan, as expressed in a recent blog post (“The Tragedy of Hope”). Here is Sullivan’s comparison of Bush and Obama:

The problem with Bush’s foreign policy was that it was based on a “doctrine” which is never a good thing to base any politics on; that it was far too sanguine about the power of good in the world; far too crude about the role of culture and history in limiting the universal appeal of Western freedom; far too reckless in deploying resources without any concern for their limits; and so convinced of its own righteousness that it could even authorize the absolute evil of torture in pursuit of the absolute good of freedom. Bush was riddled with all the hubris, arrogance, rationalism and utopianism of the worst kind of liberalism.

I couldn’t agree more with Sullivan’s view that Obama is, on matters of foreign policy, “far more conservative than his predecessor”: liberal internationalism, in the final analysis, shares a number of premises with Bush’s foreign policy, premises that Yglesias skillfully elides, but never manages to fully evade. Whatever the shortcomings of Heads in the Sand and its vision for world, the blogging community (along with everybody else) owes a great debt to Matthew Yglesias, a first-rate intellect who continues to forcefully make the case for the very best liberal internationalism has to offer.

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