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Bipartisan Spring

Washington may be deeply polarized on domestic matters, but when it comes to foreign affairs, a remarkable consensus is taking shape.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Unnoticed amid the sniping inWashington over health care and the wailing about "broken government," a broad and durable bipartisan consensus has begun falling into place in one unlikely area: foreign policy. Consider the fact that on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran -- the most difficult, expensive, and potentially dangerous foreign challenges facing the United States -- precious little now separates Barack Obama from most Republican leaders in and out of Congress. 

Unnoticed amid the sniping inWashington over health care and the wailing about "broken government," a broad and durable bipartisan consensus has begun falling into place in one unlikely area: foreign policy. Consider the fact that on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran — the most difficult, expensive, and potentially dangerous foreign challenges facing the United States — precious little now separates Barack Obama from most Republican leaders in and out of Congress. 

Compared with recent decades, this much bipartisan agreement is remarkable. Never mind the last divisive years of George W. Bush’s administration, or the Bill Clinton years, when Republicans attacked the president even when he was bombing suspected terrorist sites in Sudan. Democrats now wax nostalgic for the days of George H.W. Bush, forgetting that they attacked his administration across the board — for coddling China, fiddling while the Balkans burned, paying too much attention to foreign policy, and spending too much on defense. And on the most important question of war and peace, they voted overwhelmingly against the first Gulf War. 

Today, by contrast, a substantial majority of Republicans have supported President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan. Both the administration and the Republican opposition are committed to a stable, increasingly democratic Iraq. Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent remarks claiming Iraq as Obama’s success may have annoyed Republicans, but it is good news: the most divisive issue since the Vietnam War has become politically uncontroversial. On Iran, differences are rapidly narrowing now that engagement is giving way to pressure. Republicans may complain, along with many Democrats, that the administration has been too slow to support the Iranian opposition and took too long to pivot to sanctions. Yet some also realize that Obama’s prolonged effort at engagement accomplished what George W. Bush never could: convincing most of the world, and most Democrats, that Iran is uninterested in any deal that threatens its nuclear weapons program. As a result, France, Britain, and even Germany appear more determined than at any time in the past decade to impose meaningful sanctions. A majority of Republicans, along with most Democrats, will support the administration as it toughens its approach to what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now calls the "military dictatorship" in Tehran. Partisan divisiveness will return only if the administration backs down from its own stated objectives.

These are pretty substantial areas of agreement. There will still be plenty of carping by Republicans, of course, especially on terrorism and homeland security. Perfect bipartisanship on foreign and defense policy is a lot to ask in an election year. It isn’t even desirable because all administrations benefit to some degree from opposition critiques. But by any reasonable reckoning, foreign policy is one area where the government is working — in the sense that the administration and opposition have been able to join together in common purpose on some of the day’s most pressing issues. 

How to explain this surprising if well-concealed comity? Some is due to the inevitable transformation that every party goes through when it moves from the opposition to the White House. Being in power tends to breed responsibility, just as being out of power breeds irresponsibility. Many Republicans during the Clinton years turned toward quasi-isolationism and opposed Clinton’s policies — even his hawkish policies — simply because they hated Clinton. Many Democrats  showed great solidarity with Bush after September 11, 2001 — a bipartisan moment that Bush helped squander. But they soon came to oppose almost everything Bush did, even policies traditionally associated with the Democratic Party, such as democracy promotion and nation-building, and even when, as in the case of the surge in Iraq, the most likely beneficiary of success would be a Democratic president.

The Obama administration took office guided by the philosophy that whatever Bush did, it should do the opposite, and this policy of "un-Bush" dominated the first months, just as the policy of "un-Clinton" persisted even longer in the Bush administration. But in both cases, "un-" policies eventually proved ineffective and no substitute for serious thinking. On most issues, the Obama administration is now pursuing approaches closer to those of both Clinton and Bush than to those favored by the virulently anti-Bush partisans. This is only natural because neither U.S. interests nor those of other countries change with the American electoral cycle. The Democratic left, which seized the commanding heights of the public discourse during the party’s period of irresponsibility, has predictably been relegated to the sidelines now that the Democrats control the White House and actually have responsibility for the country’s well-being in a difficult world. 

What about the Republicans, now that they are back in opposition? The desire to discredit and destroy Obama certainly fires Republican passions, and this desire has manifested itself on some national security issues, notably Obama’s approach to the treatment of captured terrorists. Republicans think that the administration’s mishandling of the Christmas Day bomber helped Republican Scott Brown win the U.S. senate race in Massachusetts and that painting Obama as soft on terrorism will give them an advantage in coming elections. 

But this partisan strategy has not bled over into other big foreign-policy issues. On Afghanistan, Iraq, and increasingly on Iran, Republicans have held their fire and offered public support for the president’s decisions. This is partly because Obama has moved closer to their positions. But it is also because Republicans are committed to success in Iraq and Afghanistan, genuinely fear a nuclear Iran, and for the most part are willing to abjure playing politics with those issues. They are so far proving a more loyal opposition in this regard than were many Democrats during Bush’s second term. 

There are also larger forces at work shoring up this bipartisan consensus. Above all there are the lingering effects of the September 11 attacks on the American psyche. The continuing national anxiety about what most Americans still perceive as a dangerous world puts distinct limits on how far the administration and its opposition can depart from a stance that is both hawkish and internationalist. Republicans understand this instinctively because they were in power for the first seven years after the September 11 attacks. The Obama administration has now learned it, too. 

As part of their initial "un-Bush" approach, Obama officials celebrated their abandonment of the "war on terror," seen as a Bush-era mistake, and rhetorically at least, allowed the perception to develop that they placed more emphasis on righting legal wrongs done to captured terrorist suspects than on stopping terrorist attacks. This gave Republicans a big target, and they have been dutifully firing away and scoring some direct hits on the proposed trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, the unclear plans for the Guantánamo Bay prison, and the administration’s mishandling of the Christmas Day bomber. 

The irony is that in some ways Obama has been fighting the war on terror at least as vigorously as his predecessor. He escalated the war in Afghanistan. He greatly increased drone attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan. Indeed, the Obama administration carried out more drone strikes in its first year than the Bush administration carried out in the previous five years combined, producing a record number of enemy casualties. Although the Obama administration may be more generous in providing legal defense to captured terrorists than the Bush administration, it also makes a greater effort to assassinate them, thus obviating the need for trials. 

For a while, this tough record was obscured by the administration’s own soft rhetoric and softer policies toward captured terrorists. But the administration has been compelled — by criticism from both parties — to shift toward a tougher public line. Guantánamo remains open, and might stay open for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will probably not be tried in New York. After the attempted Christmas Day bombing, citizens from certain Muslim countries have been put on a watch list. The USA Patriot Act has been renewed. And we are likely to see more terrorists tried in military courts. 

No president, no matter how liberal, can allow himself to be perceived as trading any degree of U.S. security to better protect the rights of suspected terrorists. Even Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most progressive U.S. presidents, far more egregiously impinged on individual rights — of German-Americans and anti-war socialists during World War I, and of Japanese-Americans during World War II — when perceived security interests were at stake. One suspects Obama will not knowingly give the Republicans any more ammunition on this issue, which means that a bipartisan consensus even on the handling of suspected terrorists might be closer than many imagine. 

But the president also cannot afford to appear weak on broader foreign and defense policies in an international environment that a majority of Americans consider threatening. This has had ramifications not only for how he approaches the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also for how he deals with Iran, and indeed, how he deals with any country deemed hostile or challenging to the United States, including, at times, China and Russia. For the first year of his presidency, Obama generally placed improved relations with Moscow and Beijing ahead of most other considerations, including tending to nervous allies in Europe and India. But it will be interesting to see what happens if these efforts to engage Russia and China don’t bear fruit. Here, too, a course adjustment might not be far off. 

For Republicans, meanwhile, the ongoing effect of the September 11 attacks has been to check the isolationist tendencies that have periodically flared up in the party since the 1920s. Conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan had a following in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union’s collapse, when few Americans could see any overseas dangers. But isolationism has not had a viable champion in the Republican Party since 9/11. Most Americans today simply don’t believe there is safety to be found in a Fortress America. The fact that deadly attacks can be hatched in faraway places, including in failed states that many Americans can’t find on a map, has discredited even more temperate calls for a retrenchment of U.S. overseas involvement. Republicans are more interventionist today than they were a decade ago. In 2000, Condoleezza Rice, then candidate George W. Bush’s top foreign-policy advisor, spoke for many Republicans when she denigrated "nation-building" and complained that the 82nd Airborne should not be used to help Bosnian kids get to school. Today most Republicans support manpower-intensive counterinsurgency strategies that include nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. The difference is 9/11. 

U.S. foreign policy has been broadly consistent for most of the past two centuries, of course, driven on the one hand by Americans’ universalist ideology and belief in their country’s special role — "our cause is the cause of all mankind," as Benjamin Franklin put it — as well as by, on the other hand, their willingness to amass and use power. There have been times when Obama appeared to want to depart from this tradition. His early speeches and statements, in Cairo and Latin America — what conservative critics derided as his "apology tour" — did appear to disown not only the less savory aspects of America’s historical world role but perhaps even the role itself. 

By the time of his Nobel lecture in December, however, Obama was reaching again for the idiom of Democratic presidents from Harry Truman to John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, extolling the special role of the United States, and of American power, in making the world a better and safer place. He spoke of America’s central role in helping "underwrite global security" with "the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms" since World War II. He rejected the "false suggestion" that freedom and democracy "are somehow Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation’s development." And he bluntly declared that "Evil does exist in the world" and can neither be negotiated with nor appeased. 

Obama had used such language before. In the spring of 2007, candidate Obama had also employed the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, declaring, à la Kennedy, that the United States must be the "leader of the free world" and lead the way "in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good," and insisting that America’s "larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom." But then that rhetoric was dropped. Perhaps as the campaign developed and the need arose to distinguish Obama not only from Bush but also from candidate Hillary Clinton, the leftist critique was more useful, for that critique really encompassed the Clinton years as well as the Bush years. Bill Clinton, after all, actively promoted democracy, often spoke and acted in terms of American exceptionalism — the "indispensable nation," as his second-term secretary of state put it — and began the confrontation with Iraq, even bombing it. This traditional Democratic interventionist hawkishness was married to an equally enduring Democratic tradition of idealistic globalism and institution-building; it encompassed the use of force and arms control, "democratic enlargement," and combating climate change. 

Are we seeing a return to this approach now? The leftover campaign fight between the Obama and Clinton camps is the one discernible fault line in this administration and is generally thought to be strictly about personalities, not policy. But has there perhaps been some policy content in the disputes after all? It is interesting to watch Secretary Clinton now seize the role of isolating, pressuring, and even demonizing Iran’s rulers. One wonders if Obama loyalists in the administration have been reluctant to acknowledge or perhaps even permit a readjustment of the president’s foreign policy in a direction that could be interpreted as Clintonian. Now that resistance seems to be fading, at least on some issues. 

If so, we may be seeing the re-establishment of the informal and unspoken alliance between liberal interventionist Democrats and hawkish internationalist Republicans that provided working majorities throughout much of the Cold War and again during the Clinton years. This coalition supported Clinton’s policies in the Balkans, NATO enlargement, a "Europe whole and free," and the strategy of democratic enlargement more generally. It seems like ancient history now, but there was a time in the late 1990s when Republican Sen. John McCain was a Democratic administration’s most important ally — the leader, along with people like Joe Biden, of the coalition that held firm on Kosovo while many Republicans and some Democrats bolted. 

That same coalition also supported confrontation and eventually war with Iraq, of course, which is what led to the coalition’s unraveling. In 2002, Senators Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, John Edwards, and John Kerry all voted for the resolution authorizing the war, along with many other Democrats. Nor did this seem at all strange at the time. Clinton and Biden, along with Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman, were leaders of a liberal interventionist wing of the Democratic Party that had supported intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as the sanctioning and bombing of Iraq. The Clinton era resurrected the hawkish Democratic liberalism of Truman and Dean Acheson, two decades after its burial in the swamp of Vietnam. But just as Vietnam broke up the Democratic anti-communist establishment, so Iraq discredited Democratic liberal interventionism. By 2005, it had become difficult if not impossible for these Democrats to survive in their party without reinventing themselves. Biden, after spending years pleading for more troops for Iraq, opposed the surge in 2007. 

But now, three years later, Biden is once again taking ownership of Iraq, a signal that the pendulum might be swinging back again. This shift is epitomized by the long, strange trip of Lieberman, Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, ejected from the party in 2006, now a critical Senate swing vote on so many issues both foreign and domestic, and central to the bipartisan coalition that has spearheaded support for the president on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. 

That bipartisan consensus can be deepened and expanded to encompass much wider swaths of U.S. foreign policy beyond fighting terrorism and confronting Iran. There is strong bipartisan support for a firmer stand toward China, for instance, a direction the Obama administration may already be taking. But there is also support for closer ties to India, which the Obama administration has neglected. In Europe, the administration needs to adjust its excessive tilt toward Russia, which has come at the expense of insecurity and feelings of abandonment in Eastern and Central Europe. Ironically, given the media’s caricature of them, it is the coalition of hawkish internationalist Republicans and Democrats that remains the most eager for close relations with America’s European allies. A Russia policy that better balanced engagement with a more visible commitment to defend the United States’ allies and partners from Russian bullying would have very wide support in both parties. It could even facilitate passage of a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which is currently hampered by, among other things, the perception of administration overeagerness. Of course, Republicans would then have an obligation to pass a new START agreement and not seize on it as an opportunity to deal the president a legislative defeat. 

Finally, there is the question of promoting democracy. The most absurd of the "un-Bush" policies of this administration has been its deliberate turn away from helping democrats against autocracies abroad. The joke is that, despite all the rhetoric, Bush did precious little of that, especially in the last few years. But there are signs of a shift here as well. Now that Secretary Clinton is condemning Iran’s "military dictatorship," she could also take a stronger stand for political reform in countries like Egypt. The administration could make support for democracy a bigger part of its policies toward Russia and China, both of which have amply demonstrated how unreliable autocracies are as international partners. Nothing would do more to cement bipartisan support for Obama’s foreign policies than a return to this old American tradition of making the world safer for democracy. 

Obama therefore has a chance to place himself at the head of a renewed foreign policy tradition that enjoys broad support. But the rebirth of the bipartisan consensus can easily be aborted by foolish or wrongheaded behavior on both sides. Obama will have to leave his party’s left wing behind, and perhaps some of his own predilections. Republicans, meanwhile, will have to restrain a tendency to see in Obama’s every action some betrayal of U.S. security, even when his policies, if not his rhetoric, move in the right direction. 

There is nothing inherently virtuous about bipartisanship, of course. Its desirability and its frequency are usually exaggerated — the most vicious partisan battles over foreign policy were fought by the founding fathers. However, there are times when it is both possible and necessary. Republican support for Harry Truman’s policies was important, if short-lived. Today, when America’s ability to lead is being questioned at home and abroad, bipartisan unity on the major issues of foreign and defense policy will strengthen America in its dealings with both friends and adversaries. Despite what the declinists believe, and thanks in part to Obama’s election and the behavior of Iran, China, and Russia, more and more people around the world are looking to the United States to play that role again.

Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing columnist for the Washington Post. From 1984 to 1988, he held various positions within the U.S. State Department, including principal speechwriter for Secretary of State George P. Shultz and deputy for policy in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs. He is the author, most recently, of The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.

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