Between Iraq and a Soft Place

Democrats counter with a kinder, gentler interventionism


Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats, by Matthew Yglesias, New York: Wiley, 272 pages, $25.95

When Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination in early June, newspaper analysts and campaign consultants couldn't figure out how a freshman African-American senator beat Hillary Clinton, who spent most of 2007 as the Inevitable Nominee because of name recognition, pedigree, and the loyalty of liberal women. They cited everything from Clinton fatigue to the Obama campaign's 21st-century organization, but mostly ignored the impact of the issue that created an opening for Obama. Barack Obama opposed the Iraq war in 2002, and he presented his opposition as an asset. Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the use of military force against Iraq, and she refused to disown her vote afterward. That party hacks and insider journalists couldn't recognize the importance of Iraq to Obama's success demonstrated that they, like Clinton herself, were captive to an outdated perspective on the politics of war and peace.

Heads in the Sand is a sharp, punchy challenge to that perspective. Matthew Yglesias, who has written about politics and foreign policy for The American Prospect and The Atlantic, asserts that the Republican Party's approach to U.S. foreign policy is ruinous to America's real interests. This is a familiar argument from Democrats. But he also argues that the Democrats' own inability or unwillingness to offer a clear-throated alternative to the GOP's "aggressive nationalism" has been ruinous to the Democratic Party's electoral prospects.

Time and again, Democratic strategists have tried to say just enough about foreign policy to make the issue go away and let the party fight elections on economic issues. Time and again, the issue has failed to go away. The "liberal hawks" who have controlled the Democratic foreign policy establishment for most of the years since the 1995 Dayton Accords argue that the key to electoral success is for Democratic candidates to project images of "strength" by assenting to the nationalist program. Yglesias, a blogger for the left-liberal Center for American Progress, argues that public perception of Democratic weakness stems less from the party's reluctance to use force against designated foreign enemies than from its evident fear of forthrightly opposing Republican positions. In other words, giving the Republican leadership what it wants on war, torture, sanctions, and surveillance makes Democrats look servile, not strong.

As a broad-brush history of hawkish Republicanism during the Bush years, Heads in the Sand is first-rate. And Yglesias has a plausible critique of what the civil liberties blogger Glenn Greenwald has called the Democrats' program of "strength through bowing." But while his own preferred alternative, a rule-based international order he calls "liberal internationalism," is coherent, it leads him to understate the Bush administration's continuity with the broad sweep of American foreign policy since World War II. (Disclosure: Yglesias has been a friend of mine for several years, and I read a version of his book in manuscript.)

Yglesias sets the record straight on whether George W. Bush's foreign policy ever, even during his first presidential campaign, merited the label isolationist (it didn't). He recapitulates the bizarre social psychology of late 2001 and 2002, when everyone "serious" agreed that it was far more important to denounce fringe figures with little power, from the obscure academic Ward Churchill to the Falstaffian filmmaker Michael Moore, than to scrutinize the actions of the people actually running the U.S. government. He explains the concept of the "Friedman Unit," the satirical term (named after New York Times columnist and Iraq war booster Thomas Friedman) for the crucial, ever-renewing "next six months" in Iraq that were, at any point from 2004 to 2007, supposed to determine whether "things will work out."

The book's most counterintuitive thesis may be that 9/11 changed nothing. Yglesias is right that on the plane of ideas, all that the Al Qaeda massacres in New York and Washington did was make the contending parties, to paraphrase Robert Frost, only more sure of all they thought was true. In the days following 9/11, anti-interventionist libertarians, hawkish neoconservatives, and anti-militarist leftists all argued that events had proven their pre-existing beliefs correct. John Montoya of the now-defunct wrote an early satire of the phenomenon, titled "Why the Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics."

On the plane of social psychology and practical politics, however, 9/11 was profoundly unsettling. Most Americans, probably even most elites, have weak or nonexistent attachments to any one particular view of foreign policy, and in the days and months after 9/11 they felt not vindication but shock, grief, fear, and rage. "The right," Yglesias writes, "seized advantage of the opportunity to frame issues in a way that was highly favorable to its existing policy preferences but spectacularly unsuited to the actual situation."

Yglesias labels the mind-set of conservative hawks as "The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics," after the superhero comic about a corps of interstellar policemen whose power rings are limited only by the will and imagination of their wielders. The Bush hawks' totem word was resolve. For the first time, Yglesias argues, the aggressive nationalists who were always a force in Republican politics gained full control of American foreign policy. Their conviction was that enough resolve would render the rest of the world plastic, to be reshaped as America dared to dream.

In the event, the world—and the Middle East in particular—proved to be stubborn material. The brief, ballyhooed "Arab Spring" that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a false one. Token electoral reforms in Egypt and Saudi Arabia went nowhere, and the United States has since cleaved to some of the region's most authoritarian regimes in its effort to build a coalition against Iran, the biggest regional beneficiary of the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, violence unleashed in Iraq by the American invasion has resulted in tens to hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed Iraqis, millions of internal or external exiles, and thousands of dead and maimed American troops. Victory has been tacitly redefined as getting violence down to a level that the American public doesn't much notice and getting an Iraqi government that, however corrupt and unrepresentative, assents to a long-term U.S. military presence.

While the Republicans were squandering all those lives and upward of $1 trillion, what was the country's nominal opposition party doing? Mostly, Yglesias contends, wishing the whole thing would go away. In 2002 the Democrats' House and Senate leadership urged Democratic lawmakers to ratify the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which gave President Bush the authority to attack Iraq at a time and in the circumstances of his choosing. That, they reasoned, would take the war "off the table" for the midterm elections. The Democrats lost seats anyway, rare for midterms when the other party holds the White House.

Throughout 2003 and into 2004 the party carped about aspects of the conflict's conduct but never questioned the wisdom of the war itself. Democrats treated body armor and vehicle plating as crucial issues but seemed to think the prudence and justice of maintaining the occupation of a hostile Middle Eastern nation were not worth bringing up.

The occasional Democratic politician who stuck his neck out found an intraparty rival ready to chop it, as when Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean correctly declared that Saddam Hussein's capture at the end of 2003 didn't make the U.S. any safer. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut—at that point still a Democrat—declared that Dean was "in a spider-hole of denial." The phrase rhetorically blurred the distinction between war critic and national enemy before Republicans themselves got around to doing the same.

The party nominated the ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards on the theory that their support for the 2002 war resolution would provide the party with "credibility." Then, once again, the Democrats could "take the war off the table" and let the economy decide the election. As the war went badly during 2004, the Kerry-Edwards ticket was unable to take full political advantage. Unwilling to say they were wrong to support starting the war or determined to end it, the best Kerry and Edwards could argue was that they would, somehow or other, prosecute it more competently by "internationalizing" the occupation.

It wasn't until the 2006 midterm elections that, almost despite themselves, the Democrats took real advantage of public dismay with the war, running forthright anti-war candidates such as Jim Webb, now a senator from Virginia. Even this success came in the face of the usual intraparty counsel to avoid losing "credibility on national security" by opposing what almost everyone but GOP die-hards was coming to regard as a failed war.

In the wake of a fantastically successful election campaign, the newly empowered Democratic majority immediately ceded the initiative on national security to the White House and the Republican Party. Whether the issue was withdrawal timelines, surveillance powers, detainee provisions, or groundwork for possible new wars against Iran or Syria, the Democratic leadership's general approach was to acquiesce in Republican rhetoric and priorities. The excuse offered to the party's increasingly anti-war base, that it was all the fault of Senate cloture rules or conservative "blue dog" Democrats, rang hollow: When the leadership wanted to stop changes to Social Security in 2005, it was able to make the issue a matter of party discipline. At no point since the new Congress took its seats has the leadership been willing to crack heads and enforce order on anything touching the socalled War on Terror.

Whence this timidity? Yglesias traces Democratic skittishness on what passes for national security to the 1990s. (I would trace it to the 1970s and '80s, when the Reagan-era Republican Party clobbered Democrats at the presidential level by, among other things, projecting "strength" on national security.) Despite fears of a quagmire in 1991, the war to evict Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait was a spectacular (if short-term) success. The United States won its 1999 air war against Serbia, aimed at stopping the conflict between Serbians and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, without a single American casualty. By 2002 elected officials were reluctant to bet against the success of the American military. But in 2002 legislators were being asked to bac  a much more grandiose scheme than the limited objectives of the first Gulf War and the war to hand Kosovo to the Kosovo Liberation Army.

This brings us to the book's biggest flaw: its handling of the Clinton years. Yglesias presents the Clinton administration as the apotheosis of the liberal internationalism he favors, which seeks to expand rule-based international institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court, on the assumption that, as the world's premier power, the U.S. will benefit from a stable global order over the long term. For Yglesias, Kosovo was a borderline case where the U.S. played on the fringes of the international order in a good cause. By his account, the Clinton White House recognized the threat of Al Qaeda and had begun taking steps against the organization, handing off a plan of action to its successor that the Bush administration ignored.

It's entirely too rosy a picture. Far from being a borderline case, Kosovo represented an outright flouting of not just international but domestic legitimacy. Late in the book, Yglesias properly cautions against the enthusiasm among both liberal interventionists and John McCain's advisers for "venue shopping," including the creation of new international organizations such as a "League of Democracies" to have one more forum that could potentially endorse American uses of force. But forum shopping was precisely what Bill Clinton did to launch the Kosovo war. When the U.N. Security Council refused to authorize an attack on Serbia, the White House secured the (grudging) approval of NATO instead.

What's more, Clinton launched the war not just without congressional authorization but in defiance of outright congressional disapproval, since Congress voted to refuse him the authority for war. To gin up public enthusiasm his administration engaged in the same "worse than Hitler" rhetoric that hawks have used ever since, well, Hitler. The continuities between Iraq in 2002–03 and Kosovo in 1999 are more striking than the differences. No wonder most of the architects of the Balkan war, including Bill Clinton himself, spoke initially in favor of war with Iraq.

Whatever stock you put in the Clinton administration's claim that the war was necessary to prevent the genocide of ethnic Albanians, as opposed to merely ensuring the victory of one side in a vicious civil war, the Iraq war has to count as a direct cost of the 1999 intervention. It set a precedent for forum shopping, validated the use of humanitarian rhetoric in advocating foreign war, and filled prominent liberals' heads with hubris about using violence as a tool of global reform, fostering the very "liberal hawks" Yglesias sets himself against.

In the Middle East, too, the striking feature of the Bush-to-Clinton-to-Bush period is the continuity of real-world policy, not the difference. While Yglesias rebuts the crude version of the GOP's attempt to blame the September 11 attacks on Clintonian inaction, he never grapples with the responsibility the Clinton administration does bear. In explaining the aspects of America's terrorism problem that hawks willfully scanted in the aftermath of 9/11, he adduces the landmark work of political scientist Robert Pape on the origins of suicide terror in resistance to foreign occupation. Neither Pape nor Yglesias thinks suicide terror is admirable only that its relationship to interventionism can't be wished away. But American intervention in the Middle East didn't begin with the inauguration of the younger George Bush or go on hiatus after the reign of Bush the Elder. Clinton maintained America's bases in Saudi Arabia, continued unbroken support for autocrats from Riyadh to Cairo, and used America's veto power at the U.N. Security Council to twist disarmament-oriented sanctions into a tool for Iraqi regime change. Meanwhile, Barack Obama forswears "permanent bases" in Iraq but also, according to his website, promises that a "residual force" will remain to conduct "targeted counter-terrorism missions"—presumably, given the lack of "permanent bases," from friends' couches.

With the advent of the so-called netroots, of which Yglesias is a charter member, the Democratic Party has its most vibrant anti-war constituency since the 1970s. But even the netroots still have a weakness for "humanitarian" intervention, one that is shared at the top of the ticket by Obama's call for "no-fly zones" (he is ambiguous on which countries should enforce them) in Darfur. On balance, though, a Democratic Party that took the principles of Heads in the Sand seriously would do less damage abroad (through war) and at home (to civil liberties) than any recent administration. (Yglesias himself is a Darfur-intervention skeptic.) It would be a far cry from the more sweeping anti-interventionism of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), but given the concentrated benefits of militarism to contractors and politicians alike, liberal internationalism is the closest thing to a peace platform American politics is likely to see in the short to medium term.

How much will Obama embrace Yglesias' flawed but more optimal foreign policy approach? Partially at best. Obama has called for expanding the size of the U.S. military, already by far the most potent on the planet, and he has made conflicting but ultimately threatening statements about Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. And Obama is at bottom a practical politician. Just as liberal internationalism is an equivocal peace program, Barack Obama is an equivocal liberal internationalist. Nevertheless, because he has spoken unflinchingly of the need not just to end the Iraq war but to "change the mind-set" that led to it, his election would constitute at least a mild rebuke to the people and ideological assumptions behind the invasion.

Of course, even if the liberal internationalist approach works out as its enthusiasts envision, it will come bundled with a progressive economics anathema to libertarians. Whether you consider less war a worthwhile tradeoff for higher taxes and more sweeping social programs is between you, your wallet, and your conscience.

Jim Henley blogs at and