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The Passivist
Matthew Yglesias proves that doves, too, bury their heads in the sand.
3 April 2008

Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats, by Matthew Yglesias (John Wiley & Sons, 272 pp., $25. 95)

A retrospective obsession, married to an indifference to Iraq’s prospects, characterizes Heads in the Sand: How Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats, by Atlantic blogger Matthew Yglesias, one of the most popular liberal writers on the Internet. Heads in the Sand is but the latest in a barrage of books condemning the foreign policy of George W. Bush. Where Yglesias tries to distinguish himself is by attacking a class to which he once belonged, however briefly: Democratic politicians and left-of-center commentators who supported the Iraq War. Many of these “liberal hawks” have since recanted in the face of the war’s bloody aftermath. Others have claimed that it was not the war itself that was mistaken but its execution, a qualification that Yglesias condemns as the “incompetence dodge.” For Yglesias, invading Iraq—along with the broader effort to promote democracy in the Middle East through the policy of regime change—was a fool’s errand from the start.

In Yglesias’s estimation, the terrorist attacks of September 11 have not changed the world scene appreciably; thus, the U.S. should return to the foreign policy approach it took during the Clinton years. He asserts that this brand of foreign policy—a “liberal internationalism” that places its hopes in multilateralism, international institutions, and a restrained role for the United States in international affairs —“was working well in the 1990s.” Never mind that NATO’s war against Serbia (which Yglesias says he supported) had to be undertaken without the blessing of the United Nations, or that most Democrats in Congress opposed the Persian Gulf War despite the large international coalition that waged it. Nor does Yglesias mention the Rwandan genocide, a 100-day slaughter of nearly a million people that the U.N. did nothing to prevent. Moreover, Yglesias does not grapple with the problems presented by an important “liberal internationalist” institution of the nineties: the post–Gulf War sanctions regime in Iraq, which took an enormous toll on the Iraqi people while simultaneously being undermined by Saddam Hussein. Avoiding arguments that weaken his case, Yglesias alleges that those who oppose his brand of liberal internationalism wish to transform the United States into an “imperial superpower that seeks to use its national strength to dominate the world and needlessly heighten conflicts.”

If only Yglesias were as tough on America’s mortal enemies as he is with his own intellectual adversaries. While acknowledging that “many liberal hawks took note of the near-total absence of international backing for [the Iraq] war,” he attacks them for not recognizing “the reason that Bush’s position had so little support,” without bothering to consider whether liberal hawks might have had a point in assuming that China, Russia, and France were not pure of motive in their opposition to the invasion. He echoes Osama bin Laden when he argues that Islamist anger against the West is a justified response to foreign powers that “occupy Muslim land.” This is a bold assertion, and yet Yglesias doesn’t care to explore why Iran and Syria—countries where foreign soldiers haven’t set foot for decades—continue to be the two most active state sponsors of international terrorism. In fact, he urges the United States to engage Iran and Syrian in diplomatic talks about the future of Iraq so that all three can “work together to secure their common interests in that country.” What “common interest” supporters of a democratic, federal, and secular Iraq might share with the ayatollahs and Assads is left unsaid.

While charitable toward religious fascists and tyrants, Yglesias is suspicious of Western attempts to combat them. To argue against the usefulness of military force in eliminating terrorist groups, Yglesias points to Israel’s experience with organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, “which, obviously, the Jewish state had been trying to eliminate for quite some time with what one could only call limited success.” But one reason why Israel has not eradicated the threat from terrorist groups is that people like Yglesias keep demanding that Israel negotiate with, and thus legitimize, them. He writes, for instance, that Israel’s 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon in response to a series of PLO terrorist attacks represented a “policy of stubbornness.” Further, Yglesias admonishes any Democrat who refuses to rule out military action against Iranian nuclear sites. Indeed, he advocates a “grand bargain” with the mullahs in which we somehow convince them—without threatening force, of course—that constructing a nuclear bomb and making annihilationist threats against Jews are not in their interest. And while Israel was right to be worried about its security in the mid-twentieth century, when hostile neighbors surrounded it, it can now rest assured that “that threat no longer exists.” Why does Yglesias express such serenity when it comes to the malicious threats of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yet become apoplectic upon hearing the statements of Joe Lieberman? He writes as if his policy prescriptions were painfully obvious; those who believe otherwise are either bloodthirsty warmongers (conservatives) or soulless cynics (liberal hawks).

Yglesias cites careerism as the sole motive for liberals’ support for the Iraq War. Democrats in Congress, he writes, supported the invasion because “it was useful from a careerist perspective,” in light of President Bush’s high approval ratings at the time. As for liberal commentators, they got in line behind Bush for the simple reason that “the writer’s life is more interesting and more important if the challenge of al-Qaeda is world-historical in scale.” He thus ignores the raft of Democratic politicians, liberal journalists, and Clinton-administration national security officials who, throughout the nineties and well into the administration of George W. Bush, believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction programs and unhesitatingly supported military action against him in 2003.

Though Yglesias is at pains to distinguish his views from those of a hard leftist, he nonetheless ends up sounding like one. He sees no distinction between Saddam’s “aggressive warfare” against Kuwait in 1991 and America’s “aggressive warfare” against Saddam in 2003. Saddam’s campaign against the Kurds, by the way, was only “quasi-genocidal” (perhaps because Saddam did not kill every last Kurd?). He applauds the ridiculous Dennis Kucinich, who “was admirable in his ability to articulate a clear and coherent theory of foreign affairs” during the 2004 presidential election. He believes that rogue states and peaceful states should be treated the same, and lambastes the neoconservatives for adhering to a “two-tiered system of sovereignty” that deals with a country like Luxembourg differently than, say, Sudan. He also argues that no international action can be “legitimate” unless it has Russia’s and China’s support.

Ultimately, however, Yglesias is a partisan political commentator, not a foreign-policy analyst, and it is through the lens of politics that his arguments should be judged. But even on those terms he is unconvincing. His policy recommendations would not resonate with the electorate because Americans do not support the full-bore neutering of American power that he advocates. The trifecta of allegedly radical principles of the Bush Doctrine—preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony—are all, as historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, traditional elements in American foreign policy, and in some form are instinctively supported by the majority of Americans, who rightly view the alternative to American global supremacy as a frightening prospect.

Though Yglesias tries to frame his argument around the concept of national self-interest, he reveals himself as an unwitting apologist for terrorists and authoritarians. He attacks the Bush administration for supporting the Philippines and Thailand over Islamist insurgents; he defends the Islamic Courts Movement, which overthrew Somalia’s internationally recognized government; he argues that Democrats shouldn’t have held hearings with General David Petraeus last year because his “testimony would be so hostile to their political strategy.” There are many words that one might use to describe Yglesias’s political outlook. “Liberal” and “internationalist” are not among them.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.

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