Highly recommended as a summary of what's gone wrong with American foreign policy in the past 15 years or so.
Little of it should be new to anyone who reads (say) Drum / Atrios / Yglesias / Ezra / Kleiman / Benin blogs, but rather than focusing primarily on the Bushies (as Robert Kaplan does in his book), Yglesias paints a vivid 'broad brush' canvas which highlights Dem fecklessness. Knowing what's wrong with the Dems is arguably more useful at this stage of the game than knowing what's wrong with the GOP.
In Yglesias' telling, and I think he's right, the individual and collective fecklessness of Dem legislators and intellectuals allowed Dubya to drive the foreign policy train into the ditch with hardly a word said in objection. Strategeric uncertainty and ungroundedness likewise cost Kerry the election.
Yglesias also covers the intellectual origins of unilateral intervention in the 90's.. according to Yglesias, an invention not only of the neo-cons but also of the liberal humanitarians.
The 'surface' argument is that (having been on the defensive on foreign policy since VietNam) the Dems don't have a story line ("vision statement") on foreign policy. They aren't comfortable with foreign policy, so they tend to avoid it, which of course means that they tend to fumble when they are forced to deal with it.. and worse, when foreign policy issues are uppermost (think "9/11"), this avoidance allows the GOP to set the political agenda.
The argument goes a long way towards explaining why Kerry lost - Yglesias mentions Kerry making headway by briefly attacking Dubya on the war, and as soon as the attacks began to have an effect, "pivoting" from the war to domestic issues. (Yglesias has a quote from Mark Penn on what a great idea this is! Great catch!) I hadn't realized that Kerry's foreign policy advisors were from the "liberal hawk" contingent, so of course they weren't hot to have Kerry separate himself from the war. But this wasn't necessarily CYA: presumably they (and maybe Kerry) thought that the Iraq War was good policy poorly executed, rather than Very Bad Policy Indeed(tm).
The Big Picture story (according to Yglesias) is that both parties have lost their intellectual moorings v-a-v foreign policy. The pre-Dubya post-WWII consensus may have had its problems, but mostly it worked pretty well, so you'd think that the post-WWII consensus would have been an easy default vision statement for the Dems. But not so (according to Yglesias) because the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War left many Dems willing to leverage America's unchallenged supremacy for unilateral humanitarian intervention.. not so clearly different from the neo-con unilateral interventions - another reason that the Dems weren't more hostile to invading Iraq.
Of the sitting Dem senators in 2002, only Dodd comes off creditably in Yglesias' telling. Most of the rest voted to authorize Dubya to invade Iraq, he thinks, to change the subject.
Along these lines, another point Yglesias makes is that because of his vote to authorize war, and his reluctance to turn his back completely on that vote, Kerry's arguments against the war were always something of a muddle. "We're like them, only more competent" is not the stuff of which compelling campaigns are made. (Not an original argument, but illuminating in context.)
The book ends with the 2008 primary campaign just beginning, so there's no discussion (that I recall) of what Yglesias thinks of Obama's candidacy.
My guess is that although Obama may have come to his speech against the war by chance - his district was generally skeptical of the war, IIRC, nor has he been exactly full-throated in his opposition to the war since he's been in the Senate - he seems to be temperamentally inclined towards the long view, he's been saying sensible stuff about foreign policy, and he brings to the general election a largely uncompromised skepticism of the war.
But - "roll of the dice".
What I found most valuable - what I hadn't realized, to put it more clearly - was the intellectual complicity of the Dems in the Iraq War. I simply could not understand then, nor have I understood clearly until I read this book, why the "loyal opposition" haven't been more "opposition" and less "loyal".
The point, again, is that the post-WWII consensus came unmoored, and the interventionist hawks, both neo-con and liberals, seized the intellectual initiative. While it is of course true that intellectuals have no divisions, it is also true in a democracy that significant changes in the direction of national policy have to be sold, and the interventionist hawk intellectuals, both right and left, paved the way.
This explains a point which has baffled me: why are Pollack and O'Hanlon and the other liberal hawks still defending the war (more or less)?
If Yglesias is correct, the answer is simple: because they believe that unilateral interventionism is sensible American policy. Presumably they see the Iraq War as "good policy poorly executed", in which case, what needs to change (in their view) is the execution, not the policy.
Versus Yglesias who believes, along with a large swath of the center and center-left blogosphere, that unilateral interventionism is a prescription for long-term disaster. FWIW, AFAIAC, Yglesias has by far the better case. Paul Kennedy's circa 1988 book, the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,
has come in for a lot of criticism in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. I'm venturing onto thin ice here, but I don't see American supremacy as invalidating Kennedy's analysis. Empires overreach. Is there anyone who truly thinks that America hasn't overreached in Iraq? You can argue that America could have succeeded in Iraq by throwing more resources at the problem. Indeed, that's the nearly universal prescription for rebuilding the American military post-Iraq. I recall Yglesias or Klein saying recently "we can afford a lot more than we are spending."
The trouble is, it's a one-way street. I can't resist quoting Stephen Frug's line: "If your only tool is Maxwell's silver hammer, then a lot of problems look like heads." We should be thinking about different tools. Not exclusively, but we need a complete toolkit.
Which leads to Yglesias' preferred alternative, what he calls liberal internationalism. I'm not going to discuss this, mostly because I believe that in a world of global warming and peak oil, liberal internationalism is the only policy that makes sense. So: "what Yglesias says" on his blog. Or read the book. :-)
After writing this I ran across the following post:
(sorry, don't remember where I got the pointer)
I thought that this point was highly relevant to Yglesias' conclusions:
Despite the incredible unpopularity of the Iraq War, the hawks are in the best shape. They dominate both parties, with the difference being what the legitimate reasons for military intervention are. And even that difference has been blurred with the rise of the neocons and their “national greatness” agenda. Rhetorically, it’s light years from the liberal interventionists; practically, they’re all but identical.
Taking the second point first, this is precisely the point Yglesias makes: that there is something close to a bipartisan consensus for unilateral intervention. If that is true, then unless the near-consensus changes there will be more Iraqs no matter which party holds power
I'm not sure that Joyner is right about "dominate", but what do I know? If either McCain or HRC wins, then it seems clear (in my opinion) that he's correct. Obviously so with McCain, perhaps not so clearly with HRC, but I was shaken by "nukes in Pakistan" and "obliterate Iran".
It goes without saying that HRC is not a pacifist. Neither am I. Obama had exactly the right line: "I'm not against all wars, I'm against dumb wars." That's the right vision statement.
The problem I have with HRC is that I see no indication that she even begins to understand the long-term costs of unilateral intervention.. or the unsustainability of a policy of unilateral intervention. It's a vision problem.
If Obama wins, well.. maybe Joyner's wrong. Obama is making noises in the right direction ("change the mentality".) We'll just hafta see what he means by those words, and see how it goes.
But it's worth keeping Joyner's point in mind: a sensible / sustainable foreign policy isn't going to be a cakewalk no matter who wins. It will be a long struggle, and edication will be part of that struggle.
My two Euros, but as said: highly recommended.
Labels: Heads in the Sand, Yglesias