Blaming war on both parties

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Special to The Times

Heads in the Sand

How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats

Matthew Yglesias

John Wiley & Sons: 272 pp., $25.95


IN June 2002, nine months after the attacks of Sept. 11, George W. Bush went before West Point’s graduating class and declared that the world had fundamentally changed -- and that to confront it, American foreign policy would have to fundamentally change as well. “In the world we have entered,” Bush said, “the only path to safety is the path of action.” The traditional staples of U.S. national security strategy -- containment and deterrence -- were no longer viable. We were facing “a threat with no precedent,” and “new threats . . . require new thinking.”

In “Heads in the Sand,” Matthew Yglesias contends that this assumption lies at root of the United States’ subsequent failings in the world -- the Iraq war chief among them. “[T]he destruction of the World Trade Center,” he writes, “did not signal an important change in the objective security environment faced by the United States.” The notion that it did -- that “9/11 changed everything,” as the cliche had it -- led to a massive strategic misstep. The “path of action,” the product of “new thinking,” was a preventive war against a government that had nothing to do with the attacks.

Yglesias, a prominent liberal blogger now affiliated with the Atlantic, has plenty of scorn for the Republican leaders who carried out the Iraq war and the other policies (on Iran and North Korea, nuclear proliferation and democracy promotion) he associates with the Bush Doctrine. He may have even more scorn, however, for the Democratic politicians and thinkers who abetted them, whether out of political skittishness, careerist opportunism or (worst of all, in Yglesias’ view) “liberal hawk” principles that led them to believe that the war was a good idea. Indeed, the primary purpose of “Heads in the Sand” is not to recount the errors of the Bush administration or to lay out a new Democratic foreign-policy platform. It is to lambaste Democrats for failing to stand up for the perfectly good liberal principles that are, Yglesias argues persuasively, as applicable after Sept. 11 as they were in the decades leading up to it. As “George W. Bush and his allies in and out of government began an effort to use the sense of crisis created by the attacks to begin implementing a radically unsound approach to world affairs,” he writes, the Democratic Party was like “Charlie Brown perennially falling down as Lucy yanks away the football, swearing not to be fooled again, and then doing the same thing over and over.”


Yglesias occasionally assumes the bloggerish pose of an outsider screaming at the Establishment, but in its substance his preferred foreign policy is as Establishment as could be. What he offers is a livelier version of the sort of “liberal internationalist” platform that might be found in, say, a task-force report put out by a center-left think tank. The “liberal alternative,” he explains, “does not consist of ‘new ideas’ or a search for new glib slogans. It is rather an age-old doctrine that has been developed over time [and] was working well in the 1990s.” It is “the professional consensus,” sensible but stale -- or, as he characterizes the liberal approach to nuclear nonproliferation policy, “frankly, dull.”

After Sept. 11, as Americans rallied around the president and his approval ratings shot up, Democrats sold out those principles and assumed a “defensive crouch”: “The purpose of all this was to weather the political storm resulting from 9/11 and to position Democrats for the electoral battles to come.” Instead, Bush and his Republican allies not only won the major fights over foreign policy but also achieved historic political gains. “Like ostriches with their heads in the sand,” Yglesias writes, the Democratic Party leaders “believed they could make the security issue go away by ignoring it, but instead they only made it easier for their adversaries to devour them.” Their “short-sighted opportunism and inattention to basic principles would harm the party’s long-term fortunes.” The policy cost came with a war of choice that continues today. (Yglesias, like the Democrats he chastises, backed the war, and some of the ire he directs at pro-war Democratic politicians and policy experts seems to stem from a sense that they misled his more naive self.)

As a Democratic political strategist, Yglesias is shrewd, and his critique of the Bush administration’s foreign policies is trenchant. He tends to overstate, however, the effect his recommended course of action would have had on those policies at the outset. More forthright argumentation, more intellectual courage, more faith that voters would recognize the wisdom of calm and caution -- all this, he suggests, would have allowed Democrats to reshape the debate about foreign policy in the months and years after Sept. 11. But, as he concedes, “9/11 marked the beginning of an enormous psychological change on the part of the American people,” and “[f]rightened, anxious, and justly outraged people are not eager for self-examination or the message that patience is needed.” The Bush administration had something it wanted to do, and Americans wanted something done. Prudence and restraint stood little chance against the shock and awe of the new.

Yglesias’ analysis mostly remains within the territory of contemporary political debate, but ideological or partisan battles cannot fully account for the recent failings of U.S. policy. Those failings run deeper, raising unsettling questions about American power itself. One of the best explanations of why the Iraq war happened was published more than 50 years before it began. “A nation with an inordinate degree of political power,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1952 in “The Irony of American History,” “is doubly tempted to exceed the bounds of historical possibilities, if it is informed by an idealism which does not understand the limits of man’s wisdom and volition in history.” As Niebuhr saw it, America’s great power and idealistic self-image, especially when combined with anger and fear, would almost inevitably lead to great folly. “We might be tempted,” he warned, “to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations.”

Half a century before Operation Iraqi Freedom, Niebuhr had a clear idea of what this act might look like. “The political term for such an effort,” he wrote, “is ‘preventive war.’ ”


Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs magazine.