Waking Up

Daydream Believers
How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power
Fred Kaplan
Wiley, $25.95, 256 pp.

Heads in the Sand
How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats
Matthew Yglesias
Wiley, $25.95, 272 pp.


Just as the impending departure of the Bush administration threatens to make the “Iraq book” superfluous, along come Fred Kaplan’s Daydream Believers and Matthew Yglesias’s Heads in the Sand to reframe the debate. Mercifully, both Yglesias (formerly a blogger for the Atlantic, now at the Center for American Progress) and Kaplan (military correspondent for Slate) stay off the well-worn track of cataloguing specific Bush administration failures. Instead, their remarkably complementary books expose basic flaws in the administration’s geopolitical assumptions, and suggest an alternative set of ideas to work with in the future—ideas that may mark the beginning of a trend in Democratic Party foreign-policy thinking.

Both books start by yanking out the linchpin of Bush-era foreign policy: the idea that “9/11 changed everything.” Again and again this theme has been used to justify the least popular elements of the administration’s national-security policy, from domestic spying to the invasion of Iraq. The new, post-9/11 world, Americans are told, demands new, post-9/11 ideas and tactics. Kaplan and Yglesias think that’s hogwash. “The destruction of the World Trade Center did not signal an important change in the objective security environment faced by the United States,” writes Yglesias. And Kaplan argues that “the way the world works—the nature of power, warfare, and politics among nations—remained essentially the same.”

Both authors regard Bush’s foreign policy as detached from reality. Yglesias repeatedly mocks what he calls the Right’s “Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics,” according to which “U.S. force can achieve essentially anything as long as the will to use it exists.” But foreign-policy doctrines lifted from comic books aren’t the only imagination-based part of the Bush administration’s worldview. Both Kaplan and Yglesias zero in on an instinct to oversimplify complicated foreign-policy issues. The rhetoric of the past seven years—the “Axis of Evil,” “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” and so on—provides black-and-white, us-versus-them, nuance-free explanations for the way the world works. But the real world is more complicated than a fairy tale, and foreign-policy success will elude those whose conceptual tool set is limited to “evildoers” and “good guys.”

Kaplan hammers this point home with particular vigor. Historically, he notes, America has interacted with rivals and even enemies—first collaborating with the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany, for example, and then opting for the U.S.S.R.’s containment during the cold war, rather than pushing back militarily against the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. And even the Bush administration, for all its righteous bluster, deals routinely with China, a human-rights pariah that just happens to possess one of the world’s largest economies. But elsewhere, Yglesias and Kaplan argue, Bush & Co. have utterly divorced themselves from the world as it is. The administration has combined a tendentious misunderstanding of 9/11 with a serious overestimation of America’s capabilities, while examining major foreign-policy decisions in an overly simple moral framework. Indeed, the real divide in foreign policy today, Kaplan writes, lies not between liberals and neoconservatives, but between “realists...and fantasists.” The foreign-policy argument isn’t so much about right and wrong as it is about the way the world is. “Moral clarity,” he writes, “is a distorting view of the world.”

Such dismal errors would seem to augur well for the opposition. But the problem for Democrats, as both authors emphasize, is that they have spent most of their time agreeing with the basic thrust of Bush’s post-9/11 agenda. Instead of questioning the administration’s goals, Democrats have focused on its methods—in effect, affirming the Bush program by claiming they could execute it better. This posture failed for congressional Democrats in 2002 and again for John Kerry in 2004. And while voters did turn to the Democrats in 2006, Yglesias argues convincingly that the lack of an overarching foreign policy is a losing strategy in the long term. If Bush’s principles have gotten us in trouble, why try to follow them more closely still? And what’s the use of criticizing the Bush administration’s understanding of the world if you don’t offer an alternative?

An alternative is precisely what Kaplan and Yglesias call for. Casting aside isolationism and Kissingerian realism, both authors eventually embrace a version of old-school liberal internationalism. This doesn’t mean uncritically embracing the UN or other international institutions. But it does mean acknowledging that existing institutions, however flawed, are better than no institutions. More important, as Kaplan emphasizes, it means a qualified embrace of multilateralism and the recognition that America is not omnipotent. That’s how the first Gulf War was fought and won, and how a fragile peace was kept during forty years of superpower rivalry. Liberal internationalism served us well in the past, and it can serve us well again if the Democrats have the good sense to embrace it.

The Democratic presidential nominee seems to be willing to do just that. Kaplan and Yglesias’s calls for a nuanced global perspective mesh so well with the foreign-policy proposals of Sen. Barack Obama that they reflect an early version of what policy wonks are already calling “The Obama Doctrine.” Like Kaplan and Yglesias, but unlike Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Obama argues that the Iraq war is fundamentally a failure in strategy, not in tactics. That is one reason why his initial opposition to the war remains so central to his campaign.

Echoing Kaplan and Yglesias, Obama asserts that the faulty ideas that got us into the war still guide the foreign-policy conversation today. He elaborated on this point in a little-noticed speech on Iraq in late March: “What [McCain] and the administration have failed to present is an overarching strategy: how the war in Iraq enhances our long-term security, or will in the future.... So when I am commander-in-chief, I will set a new goal on day one: I will end this war. Not because politics compels it. Not because our troops cannot bear the burden—as heavy as it is. But because it is the right thing to do for our national security, and it will ultimately make us safer.”

Calling for a fundamental change in America’s global strategy, Obama is a dream candidate for those who share the views embraced by these two books. He discards the worst Old-Left arguments that promote pacifism without regard for American interests, and emphasizes instead that ending the war in Iraq will make Americans safer. That kind of foreign policy—one that replaces the overreaction of the Bush years with a rational assessment of how best to keep America safe—is exactly what Kaplan and Yglesias are calling for in these two timely and important books.

Published in the 2008-09-12 issue: 
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Nick Baumann is senior enterprise editor at The Huffington Post.

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