Matt Yglesias: A Case for Liberal Internationalism

INTERVIEW: "Foreign policy as part of presidential campaign coverage is mostly done by people who don't have a sophisticated understanding of the issues. The goals of U.S. policy are never questioned, just the tactics."
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His colleagues call him "Big Media Matt." That's because Matthew Yglesias is a respected voice of the liberal blogosphere. The 28 year-old Yglesias has accomplished much. He graduated magna cum laude, from Harvard, served as editor-in-chief at The Harvard Independent, and upon graduating, he became a writing fellow at The American Prospect. Yglesias began blogging in 2002, focusing on American politics, public policy, and foreign policy. Yglesias now writes for The Atlantic Monthly and blogs at the Atlantic blog.

His new book, Heads in the Sand: How Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats has just been released by Wiley Press. In the book, Yglesias offers a new approach for the Democrats, an outline of how they might restore America's integrity in conducting international affairs. He talked to OffTheBus last week.

2008-07-14-headsinsand.jpgOff the Bus: What was the driving force or spark that led you to write "Heads in the Sand?"

Matt Yglesias: It wasn't really one thing. It sort of came out of articles I was writing in 2005 for "The American Prospect." At the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005, everyone was sort of writing their version of what went wrong (after the election) and it just seemed natural to me to focus more closely on foreign policy issues. What was so maddening about his re-election is that you would think a president couldn't propose a war to eliminate weapons of mass destruction programs that didn't exist, have the war go badly, and get re-elected anyway. That seems almost natural to us all now because we know it happened. But it seemed like a big mystery to me and required some explanation. The one thing people thought before the war was, why would the Bush Administration want to invent this? They must be telling the truth to some extent (about Iraq) because it would be hugely embarrassing to them if it turns out to be wrong. But they were able to do it, even though many of the claims have been discredited.

It seems the central argument in your book is that most mainstream media pundits ignore the fact that Obama and McCain are running on the same tired foreign policy strategies Bush and Kerry did in 2004. Can you elaborate?

Right. I think there's not a lot of appreciation in the press for the more abstract, deeper questions about strategy. There tends to be an assumption that the goals of American foreign policy are uncontroversial and don't need to be examined at all; that people are arguing about tactics and there isn't a lot of sensitivity to the bigger issues at stake. What's unique to foreign policy in particular is the coverage of the campaigns. It's mostly done by people who don't necessarily have a sophisticated understanding of the issues.

How do you gauge Obama and McCain so far?

I think McCain is different from George W. Bush in various ways. But on foreign policy, (McCain) expresses a very pure version of the same kind of neo-conservative ideas that got us in some much trouble.

Obama is a very promising candidate. He opposed the Iraq War for right reasons and he's put some bold ideas on the table about nuclear proliferation and high-level diplomacy with rogue states instead of this sort of isolation strategy. He has a tendency to go vague on a lot of topics. Which I think has prevented him from having as crisp a message as he might have. Right now he's trying to win an election rather than govern the country and he's trying to keep his options open with his rhetoric as much as he can. Which is understandable but it means you don't necessarily know what he's going to do.

I get the impression from your book is that the best solution is to revert back to liberal internationalism. Why do you think this is the best approach?

I think the biggest threats to the United States don't come from other countries. The main things we want to do aren't incompatible with the interests of other major countries. The issue is, are we going to clamp down on international terrorism, avoid climate change, or nuclear proliferation? What you need is a broad based cooperation between countries to really advance on those issues. We can either try to intimidate others into going along with us, which has been the Bush approach or along mutually accepted ideas or interests.

What are some of its limitations?

One problem is it's always tempting for the strongest country to think, "if we only didn't have those pesky rules." Nobody is really strong enough from stopping the United States from doing x, y, or z. It's easy to get into the habit of mind to think "these rules are the problem." If we only got rid of them, then we can go ahead. I think that's tempting in each particular case. Because we are so strong and no one can really stop us. What you have to remember is that the things we've seen over recent years is a bit of an illusion. Trying to do things alone in this respect doesn't actually accomplish the things you're hoping to achieve.

It's always challenging for Americans to set priorities, to say "here are three or four or five things that are most important to us and that means we're going to have to give up some other things." It's difficult politically to ever say something like that. It's also difficult psychologically because everyone wants to have it all.

You tackle a very sensitive issue: The Arab-Israeli crisis. What exactly are the Republicans screwing up and the Democrats missing? What should they be doing?

Well, I don't want to maintain that I can solve the Arab-Israeli conflict because I have ideas (laughter). What I'm really trying to say is the United States has felt that trying to resolve the conflict is in our interests. You saw that when Clinton, Bush Sr., and Carter was president and it's remarkable how George W. Bush has just tossed that legacy aside. Obviously, no previous president has solved the problem. But almost all the ones who worked on it in a serious way, have brought things closer. It's important to keep working on it and not fall into the politics of "well, we're backing Israel blindly." It's not that it's a bad thing for Israel that past U.S. presidents have helped brokered an agreement between Israel and its neighbors. It's helped make things more secure and a reasonable peace agreement with Palestine would be a great thing for Israel. People shouldn't think that support for this country, either on a political or substantive level requires them to have this Bush-like indifference to the matter.

What could the Democrats have done better?

Well, it's difficult to try and make foreign policy. You saw that with the Democrats' failed efforts to bring the troops home from Iraq. They just couldn't do it. The president wins those kinds of standoffs. I think sometimes Congress, particularly with issues related to Israel, the Congress has usually been even more invested in symbolic "pro-Israel" posturing rather than trying to do anything constructive and you see that from both parties.

I do think you see a broad difference in the policy toward the region as a whole. The Democrats are looking to have some kind of engagement with Syria and Iran on a broad range of topics and I think that includes elements of Israel. The Republicans have gotten involved in an idea that the United States and Israel are somehow going to team up and subdue the entire Middle East and dominate it. You see this in particular over Iran's policy, where there's a pretty clear difference.

It seemed to me that human rights issues took the back burner in your book. How important is it to U.S. foreign policy and why won't the Democrats capitalize on it?

Like I said, it's difficult to set priorities. It's unfortunate. But to some extent, promoting human rights abroad can't be the top item on the American policy agenda. I'm not saying we shouldn't be concerned with it at all, but we should recognize we can influence it around the margins and we can certainly be determined not to do harm like we have in the past; by not supporting abusive regimes directly and by not committing torture and other violations ourselves. The best thing we've ever done for human rights, around the world, is end the Cold War. When we didn't have the United States and the Soviet Union backing rival factions in civil wars in the developing world, that was a boon for people who lived there in terms of peace, human security, human rights, democracy in Central America, etc. Trying to maintain a basically friendly relationship with countries like Russia and China is vitally important,even though China does not have a great human rights record. But unless China changes, it's very hard to put human rights on the forefront of the international agenda. I don't think, at this point, we have any capacity to force the Chinese to change.

I guess you would also have to include banning land mines, cluster bombs, and other lethal munitions.

Now that's the kind of thing where we can make progress. The United States is one of the main countries holding up land mine and cluster bomb bans. Those elements of humanitarianism, of promoting peace and disarmament, are vitally important. That goes for comprehensive test ban treaties for nuclear weapons as well. The U.S. can and needs to commit to those agreements.

People ask me whether blogs translate into meaningful action. Do you think blogging has been successful in generating any kind of political change?

Has it been successful compared to what exactly? It hasn't been as successful as some of the people involved would hope. I mean, I think it has made some impact on issues that don't have interest groups organized behind them. Blogs do have the capacity to make [bloggers'] voices heard... and let political leaders know there are people out there who care about this stuff. So far, that influence hasn't been totally enormous, but it does grow over time with new technology and a growing audience.

It seems the one big victory for the liberal blogosphere was helping Ned Lamont beat Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary. That seemed to make a major difference.

Well you also had Donna Edwards beating Al Wynn (in the Maryland primary). The Internet played a big role there, but you also have to see something like the recent fight over FISA in Congress. We never ultimately won that fight, but that the fight wouldn't have even happened 10 years ago. I think any movement, particularly ones that take on causes that lack champions, they're fighting uphill battles are you're going to lose a lot. But to some extent, causing a fight where people didn't think there was going to be one will make them think twice next time. Even if we lose. I think it will be an important factor coming into November and even more so in the years to come. Right now, heavy Internet use is a very age bounded phenomenon. A lot of people are just really sort of too old to be impacted but that will change over time.

How do you think this will affect rank and file organizing that's been a mainstay of organizing the vote?

Well, I think it's mostly additive. It's just that you have an additional mechanism of communication. Things still need to happen in the real world, one way or the other. It's like when telephones were invented and people started using them to get in touch with other people and do their organizing. This is just another way.

What do you think bloggers or citizen journalists need to do better in order to influence foreign policy?

To some extent, real coverage of foreign affairs is one of the things the mainstream media has a big advantage. To run a Baghdad bureau costs a lot of money. There's almost nothing you can do about it. But one thing that's interesting to blogging and citizen journalism is the diversity of voices of people from all over. You can read blogs written by Iranians and it allows potentially for more direct unmediated international conversations. If that does grow over time, I think could change the way we perceive countries and individuals and how we relate to one another.


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