Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Guest Blogger: "Heads in the Sand"

Matthew Yglesias, Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats. Wiley 2008. 272 pp. Available at River City Books.

Reviewed by Clara Shaw Hardy

I bought Heads in the Sand—or HITS as we in the bloggy world call it—because I read Matt Yglesias' blog regularly and like it. He used to blog at the Atlantic, but has since moved over to Think Progress; he's a sensible voice, interesting on foreign policy but also on urban planning, transit, media analysis and much else of interest. His spelling is really lousy—I considered volunteering to proofread for him when I first started reading his blog—but remarkably I've been able to get past that (hopefully none of my students are reading this). I also thought my mother, a liberal internationalist if there ever was one, might like the book, and I was looking for a birthday present for her.

The subtitle of the book is How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats. The bulk of the book recounts, in depressing detail, the various reasons for which Democrats failed to mount any coherent opposition to the principles of Bush foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. This of course takes the reader through the fraught period in 2002 as it became increasingly clear that war with Iraq was on Bush's agenda and the way in which opposing voices were marginalized; through the 2004 presidential campaign, and Kerry's inability to articulate a competing vision for American foreign policy; through the Democratic victories in the 2006 election, followed by Bush's 2007 decision to escalate, rather than draw down, forces in Iraq. It is painful to relive these periods, and perhaps even more acutely painful to relive them just now, as another campaign is heating up. (In an epilogue he points out the dispiriting fact that even in the Democratic primary, ongoing as he was finishing the book, little substantive debate over foreign policy principles took place. The general election campaign hasn't been much better.) But the analysis is interesting and provocative. The book's basic accusation against Democrats is that they tended either to embrace the invasion (the "liberal hawks" like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman or Senator Joe Biden) or to try to duck questions of foreign policy altogether, and redirect debate to more traditional Democratic domestic issues. While many of the initial supporters of the war have since criticized the way in which it has been executed, none have tackled the philosophical issue of preventive war itself.

What Matt—I can't help it, I just think of him as Matt; he can call me Clara if he likes—supports is a return to liberal internationalist principles: strong international institutions supporting robust nonproliferation policies and careful diplomacy. What his book shows, almost in spite of itself, is how hard it is to sell this to the American people. He is clearly frustrated with Democrats who have run from the argument, but he offers no politically sexy terms in which to sell it. He admits that the "technical details that would lie at the heart of a liberal nonproliferation campaign are, frankly, dull—a political problem that must be admitted squarely." Yet he denies that liberal internationalism is a necessarily losing political proposition, and he's right that it hasn't really been tried since 2001. But my own memories of Bush's "permission slip" formulation in the 2004 debates—the way he seized on Kerry's point about needing international backing and turned it into the evidently damaging notion of a "global test"—leads me to think that these ideas are not easy to formulate in a politically attractive way.

I never read the Lakoff book on framing, but have just, in another context, revisited a 2000 New Yorker article on Frank Luntz's "word lab." Luntz is the Republican pollster who used focus groups to determine which words and phrases had the desired emotional effect (i.e. "death tax" rather than "estate tax"). The New Yorker piece (not available, unfortunately, in their online archive) reveals the delightful fact that words beginning with R ("resolve!" "robust!") or ending with "-ity" are particularly effective ("accountability" is good, but "responsibility" is a two-fer). Maybe we could get some Democratic pollsters running focus groups on new phrases to sell liberal internationalist foreign policy. Suggestions welcomed in the comments section. Points for words or phrases beginning with R and ending with "-ity."


enaj said...

Thanks, Clara, for this good summary.

I've been depressed all day. Apparently, the best the campaigns can do is hurl lipstick invectives. If Obama doesn't have his "Head in the Sand," and would like to talk about foreign policy- shame on him for being sidetracked by the McCain/Republican campaign framers.

Christopher Tassava said...

Agreed - that's a great summary of what sounds like a fascinating book. R-ity words that - in my humble opinion - could swing the election for the Dems: resolvability, resolutability, rilly, and reality.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .