Matthew Yglesias‘s first book arrives burdened with one of the longest subtitles in memory (“How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats”), which is a little off-putting. Of course, it also features a back-cover blurb from Ezra Klein calling it “A very serious, thoughtful argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care.” So there’s a little in-jokey blog reference to lighten the mood.

I’m not a big reader of political books– I don’t even care for excessively political SF novels– but I enjoy Matt’s blog a good deal, and met him once in DC a few years back. So I picked up a copy of this, figuring that if nothing else, it would send a buck or so in the direction of somebody whose writing I like, and I could always give it to my father when I finished it– he likes this sort of thing. And I thought it was probably worth a few bucks to see how Matt reads without a distracting typo every four lines.

The answer: Pretty darn well. The book is smart, detailed, funny in the right places but not overly cute, and lays out a clear and compelling policy argument with detail and care. Everything Ezra Klein said about it is accurate.

Sadly, those facts mean that it is probably destined to sink without a trace, drowned out by some shrieking polemic or another.

The core of the argument is a brief but detailed history of American foreign policy since about WWI, which presents a pretty compelling argument that what has always worked best for us and the world is a sort of liberal internationalism, supporting strong international institutions to promote an atmosphere in which democracy can flourish. The epitome of this is, of course, the Cold War. It then goes into a detailed discussion of the many and myriad ways in which the Bush administration foreign policy is a rejection of this principle, and how spectacularly that has gone wrong. And how and why the Democrats have failed to effectively counter the deranged vision of the neocons at every step.

He argues that there’s no need for new and dramatic ideas in the foreign policy arena– all the Democrats really need to do is make a forceful case for doing things that we already know will work. The problem is, this goes against their nature:

Democrats, simply put, tend to think of national security as a political problem that should be avoided to the greatest extent possible. At times, that means simply ducking the issue. When that’s impossible, however, it tends to mean slicing the salami as thinly as possible– focusing on “incompetence” in Iraq, the procedural management of diplomacy, or other relatively trivial disagreements. When a fundamental difference of opinion does arise– about, say, the merits of engaging with Syria or Iran– Democrats attempt to portray themselves as offering a simple common-sense suggestion, and then they express bafflement as to why the Bush administration disagrees. Nevertheless, they know perfectly well (or, at a minimum, could easily find someone to explain it to them) why the administration does what it does. The theories underlying Bush’s policies are not a closely guarded secret, nor is the neo-conservative ascendancy a conspiracy conducted in the shadows. The books, the articles, and the speeches justifying Bush’s approach are out there for the reading, the doctrine is available to anyone who wants to take an interest, and, being available, it is possible to challenge it publicly Democrats need to stop complaining about Republicans “politicizing” national security and recognize that the country’s national security policies are among the most important that we can discuss in our political system.

That’s from near the end of the book (page 171 of 229), so I’m sorry if it spoils the end. It gives you the essential flavor of the writing and the argument, though, and it’s a short enough book that you should read it anyway. It’s a very nice piece of work, and an impressive debut book for an accomplished blogger.

I’ll still give it to my father to read, now that I’m done, but it was good enough that I’ll actually ask for it back.

Comments

  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    May 16, 2008

    I gave up on reading Yglesias years ago when he made it clear he has no grasp of the religious right wing – a group I call the hyperchristians – but was blandly content to bloviate about them anyway, like any tv talking fathead.

    Any sign he’s learned any better? (And if he implies that their agenda doesn’t bear on foreign policy, the answer is plainly no.)

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    May 16, 2008

    America’s foreign policy difficulties (challenges!) are transient. Manchurian candidate John McCain pledges to resolve Iraqi unpleasantness by 2013 (or was it 2113?). Target the problem and end it – e.g., the Department of Edumacation’s 45-year flagship Head Start.

    Can we in all good conscience vote out the Party of Bad Ideas and vote in the Party of No Ideas? Don’t alter course, rotate the compass. Glue its needle and always travel toward our goal. Evolve away from insensitive foreign policy. Victory appears from mutual understanding.

  3. #3 Lassi Hippeläinen
    May 16, 2008

    “…what has always worked best for us and the world is a sort of liberal internationalism, supporting strong international institutions to promote an atmosphere in which democracy can flourish.”

    Yes, as long as the institutions take their orders from Washington DC. If they show signs of independent thinking, like the UN, the neocons try to nail them. Or that is how many here in Europe see it.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    May 16, 2008

    Pierce Butler: Any sign he’s learned any better? (And if he implies that their agenda doesn’t bear on foreign policy, the answer is plainly no.)

    I’m the wrong person to ask, as I’m not an obsessive about the issue. I don’t recall any significant mention of religion in the book at all, so I suspect that the answer you’re looking for is “no.”

    Lassi: “…what has always worked best for us and the world is a sort of liberal internationalism, supporting strong international institutions to promote an atmosphere in which democracy can flourish.”

    Yes, as long as the institutions take their orders from Washington DC. If they show signs of independent thinking, like the UN, the neocons try to nail them. Or that is how many here in Europe see it.

    Neocons as such are a relatively recent phenmenon. Ygleisas is talking about a wider range of history than this description would apply to.

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    May 16, 2008

    Yeah, it’s a fucking awesome book, and explains how liberals constantly get hosed when they try to tack with political winds instead of acting on the basis of principle.

    Sadly, those facts mean that it is probably destined to sink without a trace, drowned out by some shrieking polemic or another.

    Is “shrieking” different from “screeching”?

  6. #6 CCPhysicist
    May 16, 2008

    It does sound like a good read, and makes a valid point … particularly if you are old enough to remember Kennedy (JF, but also RF to a lesser extent) and the kind of foreign policy the Democrats used to have back when a Republican Senator (Bush was attacking a fellow R) was arguing for negotiations with Hitler. Is that what ex-Goldwater Girl Clinton is trying to channel while tossing back a shot?

    PS –
    I am extremely irritated that Uncle Al has enunciated my vision for a twisted “brainwashed veterans for truth” attack on John Simpson McCain III, painting him as a plant of the Chinese capital-communists (like the original version of the Manchurian Candidate).

  7. #7 John Novak
    May 16, 2008

    If I never see another book published with a subtitle along the lines of, “How the X are Y-ing [have Y-ed] Z, And What You Need To Know [Can Do] About It” it will be too soon.

    And this one is close enough.

  8. #8 natural cynic
    May 16, 2008

    Neocons as such are a relatively recent phen[o]menon.

    It depends on what you mean by recent. The neocons have some intellectual pretensions from the anti-communists from the 40′s onward, which actually started in the ’20′s. The current group got its start in the mid ’70 as Team B, which consistently overestimated Soviet military capabilities and economic strength. Their ideas were adopted late in the Carter admin and flourished during Reagan. They were wrong about the Cold War, and after it was over, moved into aggressive pro-Zionist and interventionist stands. Never has a group gained so much from being so wrong so often.

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