Heads in the Sand: The Actual Review

Five days after it landed Chez Matthews, I finally finished Matt Yglesias’ foreign policy opus, Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats. So what’s the verdict? Well, it’s good. Very, very good. But I’m not the ideal reader. That’d be that very special person you know who always gets an earful about the blogs you read, about the funny quip Ezra Klein made or the insightful long post Kevin Drum did, and has no idea what you’re talking about. Heads in the Sand is their guide to the world of my RSS reader. It explains concepts only blog readers would have any reason to know; the opening chapter demonstrates what Friedman Units are, the third relates the Yglesias-discovered Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics, and the eighth dissects over liberal hawks’ “Incompetence Dodge” (Klein’s blurb, dubbing the book “a very serious, thoughtful argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care”, is left unexplained but absolutely hilarious). More importantly, though, it presents a compelling synthesis of the blogosphere’s disparate critiques of the Bush administration’s foreign policy and, in even more detail, the liberal hawk phenomenon.
Bookended by discussion of doctrine and larger theory, the greater part of the book is a history of the Bush administration from a liberal perspective. Bush gets his due criticism, no doubt, but he and his administration are treated less as serious intellectual competition than as a pathology, a disease with which American government is saddled. He is engaged on the merits occasionally – most notably, in Matt’s discussions of Bush’s “democracy agenda” and of the surge – but for the most part, it’s assumed that Bush, and his policies, are unfortunate failures. No, the real enemies in Heads in the Sand are those liberals who tagged along with Bush for the war and for his other foreign policy misadventures. The quotes and examples used will be familiar to many – Thomas Friedman’s various inanities, The Threatening Storm, and Pete Beinart’s “A Fighting Faith” all get their fair share of criticism – as will the substantive argument, that these forces were carrying water for an administration that had no intention of waging the cautious, multilateral, carefully planned humanitarian intervention or (in the case of Ken Pollack) national security endeavor that they thought they were supporting. But it’s a critique that’s been mostly ghettoized to the liberal blogosphere, and Matt is doing a great public service in putting it in a mass-market book. It doesn’t hurt that he articulates it damn well, either. Take the single most devastating section in the book, wherein Matt responds to Beinart’s thoughts on Bush’s “democracy agenda”:

The president’s claim was that democracy both could and should be effectively promoted through the unilateral military invasion and subsequent occupation of that country by U.S. forces. This, of course, was something that a certain kind of liberal hawk had been endorsing before the war. It was not, however, a policy that had any genuine precedent in the liberal foreign policy tradition.
No Democratic president – no Republican president, for that matter – had ever done any such thing.
What happened instead was that liberal hawks devised the gunpoint-democratization doctrine on their own before the Iraq War, only to find the Bush administration embracing it after the fact. To acknowledge that they and the administration had hit upon a similar innovation would, however, put liberal hawks in an awkward position in terms of intraparty fights. Thus, the hawks wanted to claim that they were the true exponents of the liberal tradition, that Bush had embraced the rhetoric of this tradition, and then the hawks would explain away the evident failures of Bush’s policies by questioning his sincerity in embracing it. (143)

As good as Matt is in articulating the left flank of the Democratic Party’s position in its disputes with liberal hawks, he’s at his best when making an argument I haven’t seen comprehensively leveled before: that the main political attraction of liberal hawkishness, the idea that projecting “toughness” will bring electoral fruit to bear, is bullshit. He does this first in his analysis of the 2002 midterms, in which he shows, using the excellent example of Jeanne Shaheen, that Democratic candidates who sided with the administration on Iraq got no credit for it from either the administration nor the hawkish voters they were courting, and, moreover, that the Democrats’ overall inclination to concede national security issues to Republicans and focus on the economy in a national security-dominant election cycle was bound to fail. His account of Dean’s rise and fall borders on Greek tragedy, a story of a man who was preaching the 2007 Democratic consensus in 2003 and got pilloried by the media and party establishment for his troubles. The book’s very best chapter, “Evasive Action”, details how the eventual nominee, Kerry, was undone by the inherent contradiction between his need to mount a strategic critique of the Bush administration and his, and his team’s, unwillingness to acknowledge that his vote for the war had been a mistake. It was a problem I observed again and again at the time, and fear over which made me determined to vote for an against-the-war-from-the-start candidate in 2008 for political reasons alone. But Matt is the first major voice to describe it completely and convincingly. If you’re ever inclined to forgive hawkishness on the part of Democratic leaders for reasons of political expediency, read “Evasive Action” and think again.
The more theoretical portions of the book are great as well. His diagnosis of the ideological source of the Bush administration’s foreign policy – a belligerent nationalism born less out of Wilsonianism than out of jingoism – is certainly contested, and I’m not sure I agree fully, but he makes a good case for it. His brief for liberal internationalism is Yglesias at top form; his refusal to personally rebrand it is endearingly humble (he even gets in digs at Fukuyama, Wright, Hulsman & Lieven, and others who think up new labels for the exact same doctrine). He does run into some internal contradictions here, though. In the last chapter, “In With the Old”, he goes into a several-page critique of “Global NATO” or “Concert of Democracies” proposals similar to the one he’s made several times on his blog (196-201). But earlier in the book, he approvingly contrasts Bush’s version of democracy promotion with Wilson’s attempted “construction of a rule-governed liberal world order that would safeguard the world’s liberal states in a manner consistent with their own liberalism” (144). Matt never differentiates convincingly between this proposal from Wilson and those of Ivo Daalder, James Goldgeier and others to create a Concert of Democracies.
But that was my only major objection in the entire book. It’s a great, quick read, and a winning condensation of six years of blogospheric wisdom, no small part of which Matt’s own. You owe it to yourself to pick up a copy. More importantly, though, you owe it to that blog-ignorant friend who is in the dark whenever you talk about the arguments of bloggers like Matt. They’ll emerge from a whole lot less confused, and a whole lot more enlightened.

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