The Judgment Thing

In a review of Matthew Yglesias’s recent book at City Journal, James Kirchick, associate editor at The New Republic, touches on several points that I’ve commented on here from time to time (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds). So, for example:

In Yglesias’s estimation, the terrorist attacks of September 11 have not changed the world scene appreciably; thus, the U.S. should return to the foreign policy approach it took during the Clinton years. He asserts that this brand of foreign policy—a “liberal internationalism” that places its hopes in multilateralism, international institutions, and a restrained role for the United States in international affairs —“was working well in the 1990s.”

This is a vew of the world in which actions do not have reactions nor do failures to act constitute a provocation. There is no causality. Things just happen without rhyme or reason.

I guess I don’t remember the Clinton Years quite the way Matt does. What I remember is that

  1. The most significant foreign policy accomplishment of the Clinton President was NAFTA which is now being condemned by both Democratic presidential contenders, one of whom is President Clinton’s wife.
  2. Another signature foreign policy accomplishment of the Clinton Presidency was bringing Serbia to its knees on behalf of the Kosovar Albanians. To accomplish this President Clinton had to go venue shopping and make an end-run around the UN. If there are enough international institutions I guess you can find one that will support whatever it is you want to do. I don’t think the other shoe has fallen on this accomplishment yet. Didn’t the Albanian Kosovars just declare independence from Yugoslavia?
  3. During the entire Clinton Presidency we maintained no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. These actions never had explicit UN authorization. The pretext for the no-fly zones was precisely identical to one of those offered by supporters of the invasion of Iraq i.e. that Saddam Hussein had never complied with the terms of the cease-fire that ended the Gulf War.
  4. During the entire Clinton Presidency we maintained troops in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia without international authorization solely by the bilateral agreement of the two countries. These troops were cited by Osama bin Laden as a primary reason for the attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

But in a world in which events happen without rhyme, reason, or consequences you couldn’t possibly take OBL at his word now could you?

My point is not that the Clinton Administration was all bad. My point is that any liberal internationalism on the part of the Administration was a sham, merely expediency by another name.


Yglesias cites careerism as the sole motive for liberals’ support for the Iraq War. Democrats in Congress, he writes, supported the invasion because “it was useful from a careerist perspective,” in light of President Bush’s high approval ratings at the time. As for liberal commentators, they got in line behind Bush for the simple reason that “the writer’s life is more interesting and more important if the challenge of al-Qaeda is world-historical in scale.”

While I agree with the notion that advancing their careers was a prime reason that every Democratic Senator in the U. S. Senate in 2002 who sought the presidency in 2008 voted for the Authorization to Use Military Force, I have no reason to believe that “liberal commentators” are any more immune from a desire to advance their careers than Democratic Senators are. There will always be jobs at any number of newspapers, magazines, and progressive mouthpieces for bright young Harvard graduates who follow the straight Democratic Party line. Or they can have their books published by prestigious publishers when they’ve seen the error of their ways (still, oddly, following the straight Democratic Party line). No doubt for the same pure reasons as motivated their previous unrepentant selves.

But I want to repeat the question I asked not long ago. If the principle is “once wrong, always wrong”, why do progressive bloggers like Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, and Josh Marshall, all of whom supported the invasion of Iraq when the Democratic leadership did so continue to have a following among their fellow partisans? Perhaps it’s not the singer but the song.

I, on the other hand, continue to believe that I was right in 2003 and that I’m right now. In 2003 I thought that the invasion of Iraq was imprudent and opposed it. Now I think that withdrawing from Iraq until the country is more stable than it is now would be imprudent, contrary to U. S. interests, and morally reprehensible.

Fortunately, none of the likely candidates for the presidency is running on withdrawing our troops completely from Iraq for the foreseeable future however much they’d might like to give the impression otherwise. It gives them plenty of wiggle room to appease their immediate withdrawalnik supporters while immunizing them against future charges of having gone back on their word.

I think that James Kirchick has a pretty good handle on what motivates a lot of the liberal internationalists. Isolationism has been a linchpin of American Jeffersonianism for more than 200 years (I should know—I’m a Jeffersonian myself) but in the modern day it’s much harder to find an intellectual justification for it. Just like their equivalents in the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, when you’ve placed yourself into a position in which you can’t do anything you’ll have little problem in convincing yourself that nothing can be done.

Mr. Kirchick impishly characterizes that position as “passivism” and, indeed, doing nothing is a pretty darned good strategy if there’s nothing to do. Unfortunately, the world has a way of asserting itself and the direction that the world takes will be in the hands of those who are willing to act to pursue their views of a good and just world.

7 comments… add one
  • I think you forgot a couple of Clinton’s accomplishments: his Administration negotiated a treaty whose terms for the US were so disastorous that the Senate rejected it out of hand, and he also helped craft a plan for permanent peace in the Mid-East that created more war and terrorism.

  • I was being gentle.

  • Why “do progressive bloggers like Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, and Josh Marshall, all of whom supported the invasion of Iraq when the Democratic leadership did so continue to have a following among their fellow partisans?”

    It’s more than the song, though I get your point. Root and branch, these folks can’t stand America, which is to them an irredeemably evil enormity.

    Keep it up!!

  • Jack Link

    It’s worth nothing that Kirchick doesn’t seem to have read the book. As such, attacking Yglesias based on Kirchick’s review seems like a mistake.

Leave a Comment