Matthew Yglesias: Heads in the Sand

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heads in the sand.JPG Last night I went to see two heroes of the progressive blogosphere, Josh Marshall and Matt Yglesias, promoting Yglesias’s new foreign policy book, Heads in the Sand at the Strand bookstore in New York City.

The book is a critique of the gutless, ineffective reaction of the Democratic Party to executive branch overreach, unprovoked war, and demonization of the “other,” all policies the GOP has used effectively to consolidate political power since 9/11. 

Well, “had used effectively” may be more accurate in 2008.  Yglesias, with some satisfaction, predicted last night that the GOP would be “wiped out” in Congressional elections this fall due to their failure to distance themselves from the Bush fiasco in Iraq after the 2006 elections when they had the chance. 

I’ve only just now started the book, but I’ve already learned that the movie Groundhog Day has much in common with the writing of Nietzsche (I see that I’m not the first to make this connection, though it seemed novel to me on the train ride home).  The book looks promising, and Yglesias continues to cogently argue for a return to sanity in U.S. foreign policy, something that can only be achieved if Democrats support a coherent alternative to the failed policies of the last eight years. 

The core of Yglesias’s argument is that the U.S. had a good thing going back in the ‘90s supporting the liberal international institutions that Roosevelt and Truman had built and that the U.S. had supported throughout the Cold War.  Then Bush and the neoconservative opportunists he enabled saw an opening after 9/11 to push forward their vision of a hyperpowerful U.S. that was strong enough to cast aside the shackles of multilateralism.  That promptly led to disaster, but the center-left foreign policy establishment has been too deeply invested in the flawed assumptions Bush was working from to engage in any effective pushback.

But would bringing back the ‘90s really be a return to sanity?  

Here are a few data points to consider about Bill Clinton’s foreign policy achievements:

  • He signed perhaps the most restrictive immigration law this country has ever known.
  • He helped lay the groundwork for Bush to prosecute the war in Iraq by illegally bombing Sudan and Iraq in an apparent attempt to distract Congress from the Lewinsky scandal.  (The target in Sudan seems to have been a complete mistake.)  His hardline rhetoric against Iraq during the ‘90s was handily adopted by Bush after 9/11 and lingered in the public consciousness to hamstring efforts to prevent the war.

  • He failed to condemn the killings in Rwanda until it was too late and failed to support the UN operation there when it could have done some good. (A U.S. official reportedly told the head of the UN mission in Rwanda in 1994, “We are doing our calculations back here, and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.”)

  • Kyoto was a dead letter in the U.S. well before Bush renounced it.  (This is more due to the perfidy of “centrist” Democrats in Congress than to Clinton.)

That’s a rather unhealthy version of sanity. 

In many ways, Bush’s foreign policy was not such a radical break from the policies of the past.  He went further than most people expected, and his policies led to more mayhem than Clinton’s had, but Yglesias’s claim that the Bush White House changed the fundamental assumptions of U.S. foreign policy is not fully supported by the evidence. 

Yglesias made an insightful point at the reading last night.  If I remember correctly, he essentially said that the fact that there’s no clear foreign policy interest group on the left leads to disarray on foreign policy among liberals.  Conservatives sound passionate when they frame foreign policy as a matter of safety, security, and protection.  Liberals have had a hard time replicating that level of conviction.

This made me think that the left may be at a fundamental rhetorical disadvantage when discussing foreign policy.  The “interest group” that conservatives defend is the American public.  When conservatives frame the conversation in terms of “us” (U.S. citizens) vs. “them” (everyone else), they make a very simple, facially persuasive argument.  “We” have to stand firm against “them,” prioritizing our interests and doing whatever it takes to protect Americans, whatever it costs anybody else.

This is the logical outcome of an anarchic international system of sovereign states only accountable to their internal constituencies.  But in a world of incredible power differentials between rich and poor states, it also leads to the “1 American = 85,000 Rwandans” calculus. 

Ultimately, that is not a sustainable perspective, even on the terms of the current anarchic system.  Inevitably, when one state becomes too powerful, a coalition of weaker states will act to reduce that state’s relative power. 

The liberal model that Truman envisioned contemplates building international institutions to restrain powerful states and provide a measure of security to weak states, thereby stabilizing international relations and transcending the old framework of vulgar power politics.  The American public could easily see the benefits of this model in the wake of WWII after a too-strong Germany nearly swamped the existing system.  Realism reasserted itself during the Cold War, but still the U.S. saw that working through international institutions put it at an advantage vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

After the Cold War, conservatives had little use for the institutions that had come out of WWII and had worked well enough for the U.S. for the succeeding 45 years.  Then the 9/11 attacks made the “us vs. them” mentality almost inevitable.  But this approach led us too far, and people in other countries are getting increasingly alarmed and annoyed at the U.S.’s decision to pursue its own perceived interests no matter the cost to others.  Such an approach is not actually in the long-term interests of the American people, which is what I take one of Yglesias’s arguments to be. 

However, U.S. foreign policymakers will continue to fail to see the full picture and make informed decisions until they acknowledge that what is in the U.S.’s perceived interest is not always in the interest of everybody else.  U.S. leaders including Truman (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Korea), JFK (Cuba), LBJ (Vietnam), and Clinton (Sudan, Rwanda, Iraq) have been blind to this distinction. 

Yglesias’s arguments help bring us partway down the road to sanity, but acknowledging that we’ve never really been there before will help us get there at some point in the future.

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kyledeb said:


That's my thing. Everyone talks about how horrible Bush has been since he was elected, but talking that way is a refusal to admit the horrible things Clinton did, like bombing Sudan. Democrats have the same policy of war that Republicans do, and we can see that with Obama who's liberal policy is to pull out of Iraq and still focus on the war in Afghanistan. Where's the candidate of peace, of lower defense spending?

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