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Recently read: "Heads in the Sand"

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on September 3, 2008
Tags: book_reviews

Matthew Yglesias. Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats

I enjoy reading Matthew Yglesias’s blog, so it’s hardly surprising that I also found Heads in the Sand such a pleasant read. Because I usually stick to his blog posts, I’ve tended to think of him as a master of the short form post, typically a clear, succinct line of attack against a single idea. But it turns out that he’s also got a knack for holding my attention over the length of a book. If you like reading about American foreign policy, this well-written and intelligent book is well worth your time.

Heads in the Sand reviews the Bush administration’s policies since 2001 and compares them unfavourably to Yglesias’s preferred alternative, liberal internationalism. This is the view that conflicts between states can, and should, be handled by international institutions, rather than raw zero-sum power politics. Moreover, although powerful actors within such an international system may sometimes seem better off if they ignore the shackles and restraints imposed by such a system, in fact adherence to rules agreed upon by all can in fact be very beneficial even to the powerful. The Bush administration, needless to say, has tended to take the superficial view, regarding international laws, norms, and institutions as irrelevant annoyances. The result has been, in my opinion, far less freedom of movement than it might otherwise have enjoyed. (Or perhaps, far less freedom of the kind of movement that the U.S. ought to desire. Had the Bush administration respected international norms and institutions, it would not have had the freedom to invade Iraq. But this freedom was hardly beneficial.)

Yglesias is very hard, and rightly so, on the political and substantive merits of the strategies pursued by the Democratic party’s politicians and strategists in response to the Bush administration, especially since 2001. Perpetually stuck in a “defensive crouch”, they end up conceding keys elements of Bush’s outlook, and tend to quibble about tactics (like troop numbers in Iraq, for example), rather than attempting to reconsider the wisdom of the Bush administration’s overall strategy. The result is that Democrats look weak, uncertain, and incoherent. Electorally, they were punished for this in 2002 and 2004. 2006 was much better, but Yglesias warns that the failure to be clear-headed and honest in offering a genuine alternative to Bush means that the gains are easily reversed. This seems to me absolutely correct, and I frequently found myself hoping that Yglesias’s book was making the rounds within the Obama campaign.

One criticism I’ve heard of Yglesias’s writing is that he rarely engages with positions to his left. Perhaps part of the reason for this tendency is an extremely well-justified frustration on Yglesias’s part (which I share) at the habit of some left and centrist thinkers of training an inordinate amount of attention at very left-wing positions, as though these were actually held by people in positions of power. Because attention (and column space) is finite, the attention qualified as inordinate precisely because it so often left unchallenged toxic, popular, and deeply hawkish views held by people actually in positions in power. Michael Walzer serves as an exemplar of this sort of thinking in the book, but Yglesias has some other fine examples too.

Fair enough, I say. But Walzer-style finger-wagging is hardly the only way to engage with positions to one’s left. Indeed, one might consider . . . engaging them to see if they’re actually worth adopting, or to explain why they’re not to intelligent people of good faith who hold them. In particular, I would have appreciated much more engagement with principled scepticism about the justifiability of certain uses of American power that Yglesias regards as consistent with liberal internationalism. (Yglesias’s preface thanks the wise and venerable Jim Henley for reading a complete draft of the book. And Henley must have given Yglesias shit about this too.) Yglesias, for example, seems to embrace the consensus that the first Gulf War - “a swift and lost-cost victory” - was a fine affair:
The first Bush administration, acting within the internationalist tradition, chose to seize the opportunity [to use the UN to prevent aggressive warfare]. By waging war on Iraq through the mechanism of the UN, and by fighting for the limited objectives of expelling Iraq from Kuwait and forcing it to abandon the research and development of illegal weapons, the Bush administration did more than preserve Kuwait’s independent. It established a new, long-dreamed-of-norm — the principle that aggressive war, long notionally banned by various treaties, would actually be repulsed by concerted international action. This achievement was—and is—fairly remarkable and, though it’s seldom commented on, has held up shockingly well in the intervening years.

It’s here, for example, that I think Yglesias could learn a thing or two from sterner critics of U.S. foreign policy. It’s very true that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait presented an enormous challenge to a world looking to put aggressive war behind it. And the quality of Iraq’s brief stay in Kuwait left little doubt about what lay in store for Kuwait had Iraq not been forced out. When legitimate concerns about Iraq’s weapons programs are added to the mix, the case for this war deserves a respectful hearing, even if not acceptance.

But in retrospect the case against the first Gulf War looks stronger and stronger to me. First, when Yglesias points to “a swift and lost-cost victory,” of course he means it was a swift and lost-cost victory for the U.S. and its allies. For Iraqis it was anything but. Obviously Yglesias, who tends to be fairly sensitive to these issues, doesn’t mean to imply otherwise, but I often wonder how seriously people weigh this cost when they consider the competing considerations involved in assessing the justice of the first Gulf War. The U.S. systematically destroyed Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, resulting in massive and widespread suffering and death among its civilian population. This was deliberate policy. Because, contra Yglesias, U.S. goals went beyond forcing Iraq out of Kuwait and dismantling Iraqi weapons capacity. It was quite clear throughout both the elder Bush and Clinton administrations that the sanctions imposed would not be lifted so long as Saddam Hussein remained in power, and that the purpose of the original destruction was to discredit him as thoroughly as possible in order to facilitate his overthrow. (And while Iraq was obviously seriously dysfunctional by the time of the first Gulf War, the decade of sanctions, isolation, and suffering have surely contributed to the difficulties Iraqis now face as they struggle to rebuild their country. They are recovering from far more than Saddam Hussein.)

All of this encourages the thought that the case for the war is less obvious than is often assumed. At the very least it serves as a warning that even a war responding to a serious threat to international security is likely to be waged by people with a pathological indifference to human suffering, who are willing to use techniques over an extended period of time that are vindictive, cruel, uncivilized. Yglesias’s book is not about the first Gulf War, and so I don’t want to ding him for failing to go into length about it. But if I’m right that the first Gulf War is seriously morally problematic, then I do think it’s a problem for someone who takes it as naturally flowing from the liberal internationalism that he champions.

Kosovo provides another example of this. Yglesias takes Kosovo as a difficult case for liberal internationalism, but the war at least arguably squeaks by on his telling. But I think Kosovo is problematic for all kinds of reasons. In addition to the wholesale bombing of yet another country’s civilian infrastructure, here’s one: The air war was so damn easy for Americans that it really did play a role in fostering a mentality among many influential Americans that made the Iraq War possible. I’m sorry but that is a serious cost of that war.

Now, just because these wars, which strike me as problematic, are consistent with liberal internationalism as Yglesias understands it, doesn’t necessarily mean that liberal internationalism isn’t an outlook worth adopting. It might simply be the case that liberal internationalism needs supplementing with additional principles about the uncertainty and unpredictability of war and a good helping of scepticism about the people likely to wage it.

Soon enough, with a bit of luck, we may see a return to the American tradition of liberal internationalism. That tradition makes the Bush years look very bad in comparison. But then again, what doesn’t? If we see a return to this tradition, we’re really only getting started in thinking about the proper uses of American power and influence in the world.