Heads in the Sand How Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats

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Heads in the Sand How Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats

Matthew Yglesias Hoboken, N. J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2008, 229 pp.

Credit where credit is due: At 229 pages, Matthew Yglesias has written the world's longest blog post. The first of a generation of journalists who came to prominence through their personal weblogs, Yglesias now blogs professionally for the Center for American Progress. Heads in the Sand has all the virtues and flaws of the medium Yglesias helped pioneer. It tends toward bite-sized arguments and pith over substance, which leaves some of the chapters with a stapled-together feel. Heads in the Sand gives the impression of a Web journal read straight through, with an extremely thin set of footnotes substituting for links. Nevertheless, the book is by and large excellent. It is full of wit and erudition, stringing together a series of incisive arguments about polities and foreign policy.

The book focuses on a vital subject: how the American body politic blundered so catastrophically into Iraq. Yglesias finds the root of this error in a Democratic Party whose ignorance and fecklessness prevented it from providing coherent opposition to the president's war schemes, both initially and over the first years of the war. This allowed Republicans to do what Yglesias's Republicans do: screw up foreign policy.

Heads in the Sand contains two primary arguments. First, it outlines a typology of foreign policy traditions in American history: isolationism, liberal internationalism, and a nationalist conservatism. Second, it posits an ideational taproot of politics--it was the Democrats' confusion over their own liberal internationalist tradition that led to such limp-wristed opposition to the Iraq war. Yglesias concludes that if the Democrats do not return to the true faith in their public arguments, they are likely to produce bad foreign policy as well. Although Heads in the Sand provides a plausible--and depressing--account of the politics of American foreign policy, its main arguments are not quite right.

Yglesias believes the heart of the real liberal tradition is international cooperation. Liberal internationalists create and expand international institutions to create a reasonably just rule-based order. Rather than ignorant armies clashing in the night of international anarchy, liberal internationalists look to trade and tourism as the principal forms of international interaction. Rules will help states achieve their common interests, while producing the trust and legitimacy necessary to solve tough problems and defend the system. International politics will become a positive-sum game.

In this view, liberal internationalism became the hegemonic tradition in American foreign policy after the Second World War. Harry Truman and his successors built a rule-governed order in the West, improving on Woodrow Wilson's universalism with an incrementalist approach. The Bretton-Woods institutions, NATO, the European Economic Community, and later the U.N. all represent the gradual advance of a cooperative Leviathan. Foreign policy after the Cold War is to be understood as part of the same project, from Kuwait to Kosovo. These were all missions blessed by international organizations and surfeited with legitimacy, which served to enforce the rules and expand their scope.

Yglesias deserves credit for stating fully and forthrightly the institutionalist position, which is often obscured in contemporary discussions of foreign policy. It represents a cogent vision that ought to serve as a pole in the debate. But Yglesias's account of the position is unconvincing. Worse, it undermines his account of the politics of the Iraq war, which is the real strength of Heads in the Sand.

Yglesias's view of liberal internationalism during the Cold War is, shall we say, generous to the liberal view. Whatever it became later, NATO during the Cold War was a security alliance, not a rule-based institution. …