Posts About the Book Will Continue Until Every American Owns a Copy

My initial plan had been to say no more about James Kirchick’s review of Heads in the Sand, thinking that it might be too petty. But it’s been suggested to me that a response would be a good way to explain a little bit more to you, the reader, what Heads in the Sand is all about, rather than merely hectoring you about your deep moral obligation to buy a copy so here goes.

It’s a bit of a difficult review to wrestle with, because Kirchick likes to attributes views to me that I don’t hold. For example, he writes that “Yglesias cites careerism as the sole motive for liberals’ support for the Iraq War.” As Ezra Klein and some others who got early copies kindly pointed out, I argue no such thing. Instead, I say that three different kinds of ideas motivated liberal support for the war — there was genuine concern about the security threat allegedly posed by Iraq, there was genuine enthusiasm about the alleged humanitarian benefits of war, and there was political opportunism — with all three in play to various extents with regard to different people. I don’t really see this as a controversial view. More controversially (I suppose) the book then goes on to argue that the war has not, in fact, enhanced American security or brought about humanitarian benefits. And I further argue that the alleged political upside of indulging Bush’s premises on national security has been vastly overstated and that to prosper over the long run Democrats need to do the work of really challenging the post-9/11 conceptual framework he’s tried to foist on the country.

Another example. Kirchick writes:

He asserts that this brand of foreign policy — a “liberal internationalism” that places its hopes in multilateralism, international institutions, and a restrained role for the United States in international affairs — “was working well in the 1990s.” Never mind that NATO’s war against Serbia (which Yglesias says he supported) had to be undertaken without the blessing of the United Nations, or that most Democrats in Congress opposed the Persian Gulf War despite the large international coalition that waged it.

I think that you, the reader, are supposed to draw the conclusion that my book somehow misses the point that the Kosovo War, though garnering the support of 12 out of the 15 UN Security Council members could not secure UNSC approval due to Russian and Chinese vetoes. That would have been a been gaffe had I actually made it, but in fact I do discuss the legally questionable nature of Kosovo and its implications for the internationalist project. Similarly, I do write about congressional Democratic opposition to the Gulf War. In particular, I write that the political problems faced by Gulf War opponents helped bolster the idea that one ought, politically speaking, to always vote for war. I put forward the alternative view that voting for a smart war can be politically helpful, but that voting for a dumb war isn’t really so helpful and that the whole situation illustrates the impossibility of really looking at the politics of a war and peace question in isolation from the merits of the issue.


Eventually, though, Kirchick does come to a “never mind” on something I really do neglect in the book, namely “Nor does Yglesias mention the Rwandan genocide, a 100-day slaughter of nearly a million people that the U.N. did nothing to prevent.”

This, to me, is a perverse exercise in U.N.-blaming. You might as well say it was a 100 day slaughter that Brazil did nothing to prevent and therefore we should get rid of Brazil. The policy failure here happened in the national capitals of the relevant governments and there’s not one shed of evidence that undue deference to the U.N. was the cause of the failure. This does, however, illustrate one of the themes of the book, namely the habit of many on the right of offering up examples of international institutions’ shortcomings in bad faith. Did something bad happen in the world? Well, the U.N. should have stopped it! But it didn’t! So let’s get rid of the U.N.! The sensible liberal alternative, of course, is to keep doing the work of trying to improve institutions’ capacities to accomplish the kind of things we want to see accomplished. A broad international framework like the U.N. is the only one in which humanitarian interventions can have any real legitimacy and viability over the long term.

But then soon enough we get back to the distortions. Kirchick writes: “ He applauds the ridiculous Dennis Kucinich, who ‘was admirable in his ability to articulate a clear and coherent theory of foreign affairs” during the 2004 presidential election.’” In fact, I applaud Kucinich for articulating a clear theory and then attack him for having a bad theory in order to make the point that Democrats looking for a far-left foreign policy in 2004 had a candidate available to them, but in fact most chose Howard Dean, a man of much more sensible views.

It’s too bad Kirchick wasted so much time on this kind of nonsense (and there’s more nonsense I haven’t even mentioned) because near the end he gets to a real disaagreement saying “the trifecta of allegedly radical principle of the Bush Doctrine — preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony — are all, as historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, traditional elements in American foreign policy.” There’s something to this. The book argues that there have long been liberal and imperialist strains in America’s engagement with the world and that, precisely as Kirchick says, the Bush approach isn’t really all that new. What Bush has done, I think, is taken a set of ideas with a long track record of failure (from the Philippines to the Arbenz and Mossadegh coups to “rollback” fantasies of the 1950s to Vietnam, etc.) and raised them to a level of centrality they haven’t had in a long time. Worse, he’s done so at a time when the objective developments in the world (end of the Cold War, rise of transnational and untraditional threats) have made the internationalist project more vital and important than ever.