Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review (#8 of 2011)

(I won't post a review for Book #7, but I did read a Book #7).
Matt Yglesias' Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.

Yglesias turns 30 this week, which means this book was written when he was 26-27. How could a 26 year old know anything? There's a reason that Yglesias' blog is widely read and widely praised on right and left-- he's got a very good sponge for a brain. He mostly posts on economic and (domestic) public policy, but this book is entirely foreign policy-- namely, Iraq. Fiasco (my review) is still the must-read book on the Iraq disaster from the inside, but Heads in the Sand is great on a look at the public politics of the time.

Yglesias is bemoaning the neoconservatives' march to Iraq invasion, and how "liberal hawks" changed their ideology to go along. How a Left who had lost its moorings on foreign policy got trounced politically in 2004.

The author doesn't spend much time examining the roots of neoconservatism, only really examining how liberals adopted similar stances to it after the Persian Gulf War (1991), Bosnia/Kosovo (1999), and, more dramatically, 9/11. His citations read like my RSS reader, looking mostly at the arguments being made via influential print media and working papers by think tanks. He examines speeches by various liberal politicians to show their lack of coherent opposition to neoconservative doctrine of American hegemony. How Howard Dean was ostracized as a left-wing nut, when he was right all along about the Iraq war. John Kerry and other candidates in 2004 were feckless in how to respond to Bush on Iraq and got roundly trounced. Leading candidates in 2007 were making similar errors, but I think Obama has basically fulfilled much of what Yglesias prescribes for the next POTUS.

I think the krux of his book is found on Pg. 187:
"Bush looked at the accumulation of agreements, treaties and institutions that had built up during the Cold War and the Clinton years and saw a United States that had unduly constrained itself...acting from the beginning to...shed international obligations in the belief that U.S. military supremacy could...remake the world. Simply put, it didn't work... [Bush's] embrace of militaristic nationalism has not brought democracy to the Middle East and has not frightened Iran or North Korea out of conducting nuclear research [, etc.]... [T]he United States...cannot effectively tackle large problems except in cooperation with others and cannot secure that cooperation unless it acts in ways that other nations recognize as compatible with their own interests. A foreign policy that accepts more constraints on what we may try to do is likely to broaden the range of things we can actually do."

I lived in a Muslim country in 2003 and remember the run-up to war, listening to Colin Powell's UN speech over a worldband radio and thinking "These guys really believe Iraq is a threat, so I guess I have to trust them. They have more information than anyone else." I also read Tom Friedman's Longitudes and Attitudes, written around that time. Friedman was a liberal hawk who just wanted the Bush Administration to be forthright about invading Iraq to set up a democracy rather than using WMD as the excuse. Yglesias never mentions Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy, which President Bush and Condie Rice were publicly pushing at the time, and basically argues that non-democracies should be confronted with force.

Neocons today argue that Iraq the Model helped spawn the Arab Spring-- seeing Iraqis go to the polls and have great democratic freedoms inspired Tarhir Square, for example. Yglesias responded recently in this post:
"Trying to achieve this by invading Iraq and getting hundreds of thousands of people killed and displaced, rather than just using our financial leverage over Egypt to press for fair elections, was nuts. But here we are."
I think Yglesias might support an argument (mine) that already-observing existing democracy and secularism in an economically expanding Islamic Turkey along with greater interconnectedness through social media combined with certain key events, like Wikileaks' exposing how corrupt and comical people like Hosni Mubarak were to the general public, helped push change along--not the multi-trillion dollar Iraq fiasco. The U.S. abandoning its pursuit of Bin Laden and invading Iraq did little but solidify Muslim suspicions of U.S. intentions and probably fueled their own nationalism. Perhaps the U.S.-led invasion helped solidify the peoples of Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain against their governments, but in a very unintended way.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. I think Yglesias' neglect of Sharansky's obvious influence was glaring, as well as the rise of Blue Dog Democrats in Red states that pandered to the religious base-- the Christian Right was overwhelmingly pro-war-- which deserves mention in the politics. But Yglesias' elucidation of what a liberal foreign policy should be was very helpful to someone like myself. I am pretty squarely in line with Yglesias' outline.

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