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April 27, 2008

My Head on the Sand
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Headsinthesandmattyglesiasthumbna_2 I’m lucky enough to be on vacation for the next few days, which means that I was able to sit in the sand today and devour Matt Yglesias’ excellent new book Heads in the Sand.  Go buy a copy!  It’s should be required reading for Democracy Arsenal readers.

Matt’s greatest contribution is his explanation of the politics of foreign policy since 9/11.  I would say that this is the definitive work on how the Democratic Party has reacted to security issues in the last six years.  There are very few people who actually sit at the nexus of foreign policy and politics and who can understand and explain the interplay.  Most are either too wonky or too political to do the topic justice, but Matt manages to do it and that is what makes the book so good.  I’m going to do a few posts on the book over the next week or so, especially since we here at NSN are all about the interplay of politics and foreign policy (And because I have the time since I'm on vacation.  Partially this will depend on how understanding my wife decides to be.) 

I wanted to start with Matt’s observation that Democrats are just too uncomfortable talking about foreign policy and instinctively fall back to other issues.  Democrats haven’t won a Presidential foreign policy election since 1964.  As a result, most Democratic political operatives have honed their skills winning elections based on domestic policy and don’t feel comfortable talking about foreign policy.  Whenever they can, they try to change the topic.  Matt lays out how Democrats tried to essentially take foreign policy off the table in 2002 and 2004 and how this approach blew up in their faces.  (You can’t take an issue off the table unless your opponent also wants to take it off the table.) By 2006, Democrats had mastered the art of attacking Republicans on the incompetent execution of Iraq, but they still hadn’t figured out how to articulate a coherent alternative. 

Enter 2008 and we are at it again.  The economy is in the tank and there is a real temptation to just ignore national security or use Iraq to emphasize the costs at home.  There is a debate right now within the progressive community and the Democratic Party about whether to focus on the costs of war or a broader national security critique. 

The problem with the cost of war message is that it lays out no vision of American foreign policy.  It in essence says:  “We’re not interested in foreign policy.  This costs too much and is hurting us at home.”  This is a classic Democratic attempt to shift a foreign policy issue back into a domestic issue.  The problem is that it doesn’t help you when the Administration shifts the conversation to Iran or begins tossing out accusations towards North Korea and Syria.  “It costs too much” is just not a very useful answer to “How do we keep the evildoers at bay?”

On the other hand, a comprehensive critique that focuses on how Iraq has undermined our security across the world and how a less reckless policy that involves focusing on the threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan, negotiating with adversaries such as Iran or Syria, working with others in the international community on common challenges such as our dependence on oil, and rebuilding our reputation, is a much clearer vision.  And guess what.  In this election, the polling seems to show that it actually works better

The economy will undoubtedly play a major role in the election, and there is nothing wrong with making the cost of war argument within the context of the domestic economic debate.   But it cannot define the Democratic foreign policy message.

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Comments

Well, then, why don't we here on DA endeavor to "articulate a coherent alternative?" Shadi tried to do it on the ME. Where's Shadi? I hope he's not in Gitmo.

I bought Matt's book Sunday night, and I am now just about finished. It's a brisk read, but frankly it is a bit lightweight. The book is mainly a brief, readable journalistic narrative of some of the the Democratic Party's post-9/11 foibles related to the electoral politics of national security. There doesn't seem to be any significant amount of independent research underpinning the account. Most Democrats will find the narrative already very familiar in its broad outlines, and there are no new revelations or unusual insights, although the story is told with Matt's characteristic lucidity and judicious wit.

The narrative is framed by a very brief introductory account of the history of liberal internationalism from Wilson to Clinton, and a concluding appeal to Democrats to eschew interesting new ideas and return to that tried and true approach. There is, however, little discussion of the diversity of thinking and competing agendas that comprise the internationalist tradition, and only passing reference to the moral and intellectual conflicts that have beset it for centuries. Liberal internationalism is defended sub specie aeternitatis as a sound generic approach, but little attempt is made to connect vital debates about different forms of internationalism to the specific practical challenges of the present era. The one exception to this rule is Matt's useful, critical discussion of various proposals for an alliance or concert of democracies.

Few foreign policy topics not directly related to the Iraq War and its immediate Middle East context are dealt with in any depth, or even discussed. One worries, then, that the recommendations are afflicted with tunnel vision born of an obsession with recent events, particularly those events most in the forefront of public consciousness. Matt also rather scrupulously avoids extended discussion or controversial statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, apparently in an attempt to produce a "suitable-for-all-liberals" position that avoids unpleasant areas of intra-Democratic division and conflict.

While Matt seems quite interested in the practice of US foreign policy as an issue for US electoral politics, his writing expresses an odd lack of curiosity or real intrinsic concern with global affairs for their own sake. There is no sense that when he looks out at the world, he finds in the spectacle anything sufficiently exciting, terrifying, inspiring, or infuriating to merit extended discussion for its own sake. He seems animated by no revolutionary or evolutionary cause, driven by no great outrage, gripped by any great crisis or danger, or captivated by any notion that he lives in epochal, pivotal or otherwise remarkable times. Like a true Washingtonian, no events seem significant in any way that does not derive from their bearing on US politics.

For an internationalist, then, Matt's interests seem quite parochial, and even provincial. The gently ironic writing adds only some subdued color to a somewhat passionless complacency and conservatism that are a bit offputting in such a young author. He seems to be struggling against boredom. The book seems in that sense to be a further expression of the blank, but modest and unimpressed optimism, and end-of-history intellectual doldrums, that afflict many of our young contemporaries. Think Nick Calloway as political commentator.

The account is really too breezy and subjective to count as history, and too superficial to count as a contribution to political thought or national security analysis. It fits instead into the overly large genre of "what the Democrats should say about ..." writing.

I get the impression from the shallow writing of many contemporary thinkers that they ought to get out more. Concentrate less on wordsmithing and more on actual policy. I've been fortunate to have lived in eight foreign countries and have visited a dozen or two more, and I continue to travel. That helps me to avoid a beltway outlook. Some of these writers should try it. That's one reason I enjoyed Shadi. I wonder where he is.

Ilan's on the right track, above. It would be most helpful if we had less meaningless gossip, less re-hashing of past stupidity, and more emphasis on intelligent, coherent policy alternatives for the future. I hope Shadi's okay.

One main problem the US has is not with policy at all, but with the current structural problem of the presidential Decider who dictates US foreign policy, while the people and their Congress sit idly by. In this sense, democracy is a dead duck. The current presidential tragicomedy includes, for example, continual speculation on how a new president will decide, and that's wrong. It's not supposed to work that way, and it looks like Matt didn't cover that particular problem.

One main problem the US has is not with policy at all, but with the current structural problem of the presidential Decider who dictates US foreign policy, while the people and their Congress sit idly by. In this sense, democracy is a dead duck. The current presidential tragicomedy includes, for example, continual speculation on how a new president will decide, and that's wrong. It's not supposed to work that way, and it looks like Matt didn't cover that particular problem.

One main problem the US has is not with policy at all, but with the current structural problem of the presidential Decider who dictates US foreign policy, while the people and their Congress sit idly by. In this sense, democracy is a dead duck. The current presidential tragicomedy includes, for example, continual speculation on how a new president will decide, and that's wrong. It's not supposed to work that way, and it looks like Matt didn't cover that particular problem.

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