The typical citizen, Joseph Schumpeter once observed, drops to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he starts thinking about politics. The typical pundit, one could add, drops to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he starts thinking about foreign policy. In domestic affairs, the height of sophistication is to eschew labels, transcend ideology, and admit that diverse problems call for diverse solutions. In foreign policy, by contrast, unifying ideologies are not just tolerated but de rigeur.The way of the distinguished commentator on foreign affairs is to reduce all problems to a single solution—realism, neoconservatism, internationalism, isolationism—while assuming that one’s opponents do the same.

Matthew Yglesias has more native intelligence than the typical pundit. Nonetheless, his first book, Heads in the Sand, is not a sound guide. Yglesias urges “liberal internationalism”—defined as a policy of “strengthening, expanding and deepening international institutions in order to foster cooperation against common problems and to bring the globe closer to the long held liberal ideal of a world governed by a reasonably just, well-enforced set of rules”—as the cure for our woes abroad. Unfortunately, he barely finds time in this slim volume to argue for this approach or to answer the most obvious objections.

To start, the United States flouts international norms and institutions with some regularity. Ygelsias credits the American-led defense of Kuwait in 1990 with establishing “a new, long-dreamed-of norm—the principle that aggressive war would actually be repulsed by concerted international action.” Not 14 years later, the United States violated this norm by launching an aggressive war of its own. (Bush apologists prefer to call the Iraq invasion a “preventive” war, but as all wars of aggression prevent some possible threat or other, preventive war cannot be distinguished from outright aggression.) Meanwhile, as Yglesias takes care to establish, policymakers in both major American political parties support aggressive wars under some circumstances even when opposed by international bodies. Neither the United States nor any other nation is likely to rely upon norms or institutions that do not actually constrain the most powerful international actors.

In confessing his faith in norms and institutions, Yglesias seems to assume that nations will act on knowledge that they do not actually have. Presumably—although Yglesias does not say so—the mechanism whereby international norms arise has something to do with an expectation of reciprocity: if the United States demonstrates that it will respect the wishes of other nations, then other nations will respect the wishes of the United States. Yet even if the United States did begin to behave in the way that Yglesias recommends, ages would pass before other nations began to expect the United States to act nonaggressively. By the time the U.S. created an expectation of nonaggression, it may have already lost its international pre-eminence.


Nor will other states necessarily recognize an impeccable record of deference when they see it. Foreign statesmen may be deceived. Even when they agree on the facts, they may still disagree on their proper interpretation. Yglesias labors, for example, to fit the 1999 Kosovo War into his internationalist framework, even though the United States initiated the intervention without UN approval. It was not the United States, you see, that bombed Serbia but the “international” institution of NATO. Fine, but for liberal internationalism to work, other nations must accept this interpretation of the Kosovo War as obviously correct, when just as obviously it is not. By Yglesias’s logic, one could also describe the invasion of Iraq as “internationalist” because the United States cobbled together a “coalition of the willing.” Coalition members other than Britain contributed almost nothing to the U.S. effort, but non-U.S. NATO members contributed equally little to the 1999 Kosovo War. In the end, it is unclear whether Yglesias seeks anything more than an internationalist fig leaf for the policies he happens to prefer.

Yglesias offers the survival of NATO, even in the absence of a common Soviet threat, as proof of the durability of international institutions. Contrary to his claims, however, realists can and do explain NATO’s survival and expansion since the Cold War. Non-U.S. NATO members have no other place to turn for their security, for no other alliance in Europe could rival the power of NATO. Realist theory predicts such “bandwagoning” behavior. As for the United States, it admittedly does not realize any strategic benefit from alliances with the likes of Slovakia or Slovenia. At the same time, no NATO member currently faces a great power threat. For all we know, NATO in its present form is no more effective a security arrangement than the League of Nations. Derision of NATO has indeed become rather commonplace. The institution’s survival may prove nothing more than the law of bureaucratic longevity.

In short, Heads in the Sand does not make a convincing defense of liberal internationalism. No matter: Yglesias also wants to show that his fellow Democrats hurt themselves politically by abandoning liberal internationalism during the Bush years. He excoriates them for endorsing Bush’s invasion of Iraq in the vain hope of neutralizing Republicans’ advantage on national-security issues. In Yglesias’s view, Democrats might have had a better chance of winning in 2002 and 2004 had they tried to stop the drive to war. Having voted to authorize the Iraq invasion, Democrats like John Kerry, for example, lacked the standing to blame Bush for the occupation after it turned sour.

As Yglesias admits, however, we cannot know whether opposition to Bush’s policies would have improved Democratic electoral prospects. For all we know, complaisance on Iraq may have minimized Democratic losses in 2002 and 2004. At heart, Yglesias seems to believe —or simply assume—that candidates do better when they advance arguments recognizable to highly informed observers such as himself. But elections are decided by voters, not pundits. The architects and supporters of the Iraq invasion may never have agreed among themselves on the rationale—Saddam Hussein is a grave threat; no, he’s vulnerable “low hanging fruit”—but the public suffered from no such confusion. Six months after the invasion, 70 percent of Americans believed that Saddam was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. This belief, though false, furnished a perfectly sensible, patriotic rationale for the Iraq invasion.

In the face of such massive public ignorance, the Democrats probably could not have opposed the Iraq invasion and won. Voters do not pay close enough attention to politics to grasp the counterintuitive conclusion that the president wanted to invade a country that had not attacked us. Indeed, at the highest levels of wisdom, perhaps we should be grateful that the public never quite got it. Greater public awareness of the reasons, or lack thereof, behind the invasion could have sparked a crisis of legitimacy. It may be better to continue to waste lives and treasure in Iraq than to allow our institutions to come under fundamental attack. The people must not know the truth. This anti-Dreyfusardist argument may at least subconsciously drive those opinion-makers who continue to support the occupation.

Although Yglesias never completely repents of his faith in the Democratic Party, he otherwise takes a jaundiced view of post-9/11 America. He accurately observes that opinion-mongers of all stripes became obsessed after 9/11 with the threat of an anti-American far Left. Movement conservatives instinctively pounce on any evidence that confirms their conviction that liberals, leftists, and traditional conservatives hate America. But it wasn’t just movement conservatives aggravating the panic. The New Republic ran an “idiocy watch” feature quoting anti-American figures who, as Ygelsias says, were “completely irrelevant to actual U.S. policy debates.” Andrew Sullivan named a mock award for anti-Americanism in Susan Sontag’s honor. Sontag’s offense? Expressing the plausible if not accurate view that the 9/11 terrorists attacked America for its policies rather than its ideology. In the end, the anti-leftist panic failed to uncover more than a handful of pro-terrorist cranks—fewer, indeed, than one might have expected in a country of 300 million people.

Yglesias also bravely resuscitates the reputation of Howard Dean. In Yglesias’s telling, Dean vaulted ahead of his rivals in the polls not because of his leftism—Dean started his campaign with a well-deserved reputation as a moderate—but because of his early skepticism about the Iraq invasion. Shortly after Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech before the United Nations, Dean stated, “I was impressed not by the vastness of the evidence presented by the Secretary, but rather by its sketchiness.” He continued, “I am not among those who say that America should never use its armed forces unilaterally. … In Iraq, I would be prepared to go ahead … if it were clear the threat posed to us by Saddam Hussein was imminent, and could neither be contained nor deterred.” These are not the words of a pacifist or an angry leftist. Especially in hindsight, they sound very much like the counsels of prudence. Dean’s candor eventually proved his undoing. “The capture of Saddam Hussein,” he remarked in December 2003, “has not made Americans safer.” This “gaffe,” as it was called, led the Democrats to pick the ambiguously pro-war John Kerry over the antiwar Dean. Whatever Dean’s flaws, he deserves credit for having the courage, almost alone among Democratic candidates in 2003, to speak the truth about Iraq.

The most disturbing irrationality after 9/11 emanated from the White House. We now know that the Bush administration rejected offers from Syria and Iran to assist in the fight against al-Qaeda. As Yglesias notes, the decision to rebuff these nations could not have made sense to administration officials unless they had already been planning regime change throughout the Middle East. The administration, in other words, was putting its dreams of regime change ahead of the fight against al-Qaeda. Now, lots of people really do believe that regime change in the Middle East will eventually cure terrorism (although no one has ever bothered to say how, exactly). Still, nobody ever hired a football coach who believed that the best way to win in the end would be to fall behind in the beginning. Measured by lives wasted, the Bush administration’s winning-by-losing strategy in response to the 9/11 attacks is more infamous than the attacks themselves.

Critics will note that Heads in the Sand reads like one long blog post. Andrew Sullivan, Jonah Goldberg, Jonathan Chait, Peter Beinart, Ryan Lizza—all the world’s leading bloggers make their way into the text as authorities or interlocutors. In some ways, Yglesias’s enthrallment to the world of his fellow young punditry whizzes is a strength. To read Heads in the Sand is to relive recent political history almost as one experienced it the first time—surfing the internet, soaking up what famous people are saying. Yglesias answers the cravings of the political junkie. Whether he achieves any lasting insight is another question. 

Austin Bramwell is a law

yer in New York City.