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.