The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are the central event of the contemporary politics of national security, and the sense that traditional internationalism is somehow inadequate to the challenges in this area has been the crux of its eclipse.
Nevertheless, this perception, no matter how widely held, is essentially false.
Liberals seek reciprocal reductions in national sovereignty wherein every nation commits to abide by certain standards in the fields of human rights, proliferation, environmental protection, and so on. An isolationist would let each country go its own way. The Bush model, in contrast to these, but in echo of the imperialist tradition, seeks an asymmetrical sovereignty wherein the United States is unencumbered by rules, while seeking to impose them on others.
Somewhere between the two extremes of Ron Paul/Charles Lindbergh brand of isolationism and the neoconservative dream of militant American imperialism lies the sweet spot of responsible engagement with the world, and blogger wunderkind Matthew Yglesias sets out to find it and define it in Heads in the Sand. While the subtitle faults both political parties for screwing up the journey to that magical foreign policy mecca, the book itself is forward-looking, more addressed to recently empowered (and future empowered) Democrats, even as it takes the obligatory swipes at the disasters of Republican foreign policy over the past eight years. Been there, done that ... the author moves us on to examining why the opposition party has refused to be oppositional and why, exactly, it has failed to advance a strong argument for what Yglesias calls "liberal internationalism"--the credo that served America well for decades before 9/11 came along and everyone in power seemed to lose their minds, their perspective and their sense of history.
Yglesias traces the lineage of modern-day liberal internationalism from its father, Woodrow Wilson, down through the ages to today, with a long stop at Truman--for Truman, it seems, is often the lodestone that the neocons point to when they claim to be the true heirs to America's role of leadership in the world. While it's true that Truman's willingness to drop the bomb lends itself well to the fever dreams of Perle & Company quite conveniently, there was a lot more than a big, big bomb and decisiveness to Truman's actions. Yglesias rightly argues that lifting actions out of the contexts of their times is a poor way to use any sort of guide at all, and that America's most enlightened presidents have managed to keep the nation safe. After all, even before "terrorism" got its sleek new creds and name as the bogeyman of the new century, it's been hanging around in the form of non-state actors "terrorizing" states and their agents for a couple of centuries. Somehow, we managed to muddle along with a wide-angle view of the world and scads more respect from other countries without resorting, as Yglesias notes, to a one-trick-pony paranoia:
Internationalists were able, moreover, to make counterterrorism a high-level security policy without making a "war on terror" the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. Rather, the main goal remained what it long had been: to continue to extend the effort launched by Roosevelt and Truman to bring Wilson's vision of a liberal world order closer and closer to reality.
In such a world, citizens of different countries would meet each other through commerce, tourism, and the global communications network, not as soldiers on the fields of battle. Governments would interact through diplomacy, arbitration, and international institutions, rather than through threats of force. Fighting terrorism, the visible and immediately deadly threat to this vision, was a necessary and vital task but not, itself, the animating idea of national policy.
In Yglesias's telling, while the neocons seized the opportunity to impose the views of military imperialism upon the nation, in hindsight, one can spot the trail leading up to having such a view of America take hold, despite previous vigorous public rejections of such a role. Liberal war hawks have been with us for half a century, urging a muscular spread of democracy for reputedly humanitarian reasons (indeed, Yglesias calls Clinton's intervention in Somalia and Yugoslavia "humanitarian militarism"). The author rightly notes that to those not paying attention--or those keeping score of action and not rhetoric--the end results can look the same, whether one is arguing from a a stance of neocon American exceptionalism or from the liberal humanitarian model:
To act in the manner suggested by the most committed interventionists would require the United States to essentially proclaim itself above the rules of the international system--free to attack any country that we deemed unworthy. The advocates of such policies fancied their commitment to humanitarian ends a crucial distinguishing factor from the unilateral nationalists of the right, but from a structural perspective their claims were essentially identical.
No less odd than the bed-sharing of left-wing humanitarian interventionists and right-wing imperialists is the bunking up together of conservative isolationists and lefty pacifists; non-intervention, Yglesias points out, has the same result on the subject country whether one is Pat Buchanan or the Dalia Lama. But there is a world of difference in the political philosophy that takes such circuituous routes to the same destination (a distinction lost on supposed liberal Ron Paul supporters to this day). Similarly, the world's largest military under Clinton is still the world's largest military under Bush, with the twist, as Yglesias notes, that "Bush simply wants a powerful military but wants it to do less humanitarian work."
Liberals were unable to clearly articulate to the American people a broader view of foreign policy beyond "invade and kill" in the wake of 9/11 for several reasons: the reign of the war hawks within the Democratic Party, the fear of non-hawks to be seen as weak, the feeling of panic, and a general muddle-headedness about foreign policy in general on the part of Democrats, most of whom (if they're not hawks) long ago surrendered the realm of international relations to the Republican Party, preferring to focus on bread-and-butter domestic issues (obviously, this emphasis has changed in the past eight years). Additionally, the wrong lessons learned under the Clinton administration lingered. Yglesias remarks, "What the liberal hawks had learned from Bosnia was not a doctrine about the use of force or the role of human rights in foreign policy, but a kind of disdain for the aesthetics of antiwar politics." More problematically, they also naively underestimated the determination of the neocons to take control of the situation and drive it to their own ends:
The extent to which Democratic willingness to use force in the 2002 flowed from a distinctive set of principles, as opposed to being a reflection of generic "hawkishness," went unarticulated. Liberals, by not understanding where their opponents stood, wound up confusing themselves at the worst time--on the eve of a disastrous war underpinned by principles whose existence they barely understood, much less were prepared to criticize.
In the losing-our-minds phase in the latter half of 2001 and well into 2002, Democrats also seemed bound and determined to be as tough, as mean, as militaristic as Republicans, often making theatrical use of distancing themselves disdainfully from the "loony left"--and often castigating any voice of reason that called for inspection, diplomacy, or even time to think through long-term policy implications of preemptive war. This dismissal, in retrospect, is shameful, and the testeronic posing ridiculous and repellant in hindsight.
... liberal hawks continued with the tradition commenced in late 2001 of treating disagreements with people to their left as more significant than disagreements with those to their right, even though the reins of power were exclusively in the hands of the right. The motivations for taking this stance were complicated, but prominent among them was the illusion of control. Casting one's lot with the antiwar faction meant disavowing any effort to influence the course of national policy. Casting your stance as an argument for war, by contrast, kept you on the team and perhaps in a position where policymakers in positions of actual power might listen to you.
John Kerry in 2004 tried unsuccessfully to finesse his stands, and the current crop of Democratic candidates early on used each other's public statements and legislative votes to bludgeon each other with, demanding apologies, justifications, reversals, recommitments ... all pointing still, Yglesias would argue, to more attention being paid to the drama of it all than to the substance. Some hard long-term work is called for here, not just in regards to Iraq, but in rethinking America's role in the world in the coming decades. And Yglesias insists--vigorously--that we jettison the notion and the argument that this was a good war, poorly executed. He returns to this point repeatedly throughout the book: America needs to be disabused of this idea of mere bad implementation, or we are doomed to repeat it. Worse, we're doomed to listen to the same salespeople in positions of power pitch us the same lame pro-invasion stands in similar circumstances. Think of Iraq as Groundhog Day with the same talking heads and a different place on the map, over and over and over ....
At a minimum, there's ... no reason to believe that the invasion of Iraq was a good idea ruined by poor implementation, rather than an idea whose execution went badly because the underlying idea was fatally flawed. As such, it fails to provide any questions or issues that may arise. Even worse, its utility to liberal hawks is itself a major problem.
It allows the very people whose dominant position inside progressive circles helped to drive the Democratic Party off the cliff in the first place to retain their positions of influence without substantially modifying their underlying worldview.
This, of course, is an important source of its appeal. It's also the essence of the problem. The incompetence line is a dodge, a way for liberal hawks to acknowledge the grim reality of the war without rethinking any of the premises that led them to support it in the first place. From a narrowly political point of view, this may be adequate to allow Democrats to regain control over U.S. foreign policy, but it offers no assurances that doing so will actually fix any of the main problems the Bush administration has created.
Any insistence on the "good idea, badly implemented" line of thinking rules out the real places where constructive thinking and policy can take hold. "Improving our ability to execute missions abroad," says Yglesias, "is much less important than improving our strategy for when and why to intervene." And, he complains, "a significant number of people are proposing that we essentially keep doing the same thing, except with a larger army, and hope for better results."
That way, of course, lies madness. Yet pointing this out still gets one labeled as naive and foolhardy in certain circles, even liberal circles still, with devotees of humanitarian militarism still rooting for the spread of democracy. One of the best services Yglesias does in this book is really boiling down the illogic of this entire "spreading democracy at gunpoint" rubric in one succinct paragraph:
... if democracy's spread is inevitable--or even semi-inevitable--then it hardly seems reasonable for the linchpin of the global democratic community to undertake great risks and massive expense to try to spread it to one particular country. If anything, faith in democracy's appeal should encourage a policy of caution, one that takes the view--similar to the containment of the Cold War--that if the world's democracies focus on maintaining their own security, prosperity, and a reasonable degree of unity, authoritarian alternatives will eventually collapse without dramatic invasions.
This book marks what we can hope is the first of many progressive forays into discovering a new way to be in the world--which just happens to be an old way, updated to the 21st century and unapologetic about viewing military intervention as a final resort.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.