Shadow Government

Is foreign policy bipartisanship a thing of the past?

Reading the recent spate of Democratic attacks on Republican foreign policy, particularly against the Romney foreign policy platform, I have been struck by how frequently Democrats invoke the "bipartisan" foreign policy traditions of the past, and laud previous Republican presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush for their wise statecraft. ...


Reading the recent spate of Democratic attacks on Republican foreign policy, particularly against the Romney foreign policy platform, I have been struck by how frequently Democrats invoke the "bipartisan" foreign policy traditions of the past, and laud previous Republican presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush for their wise statecraft. These sanctimonious hymns to bipartisanship are invariably accompanied by shrill denunciations of Gov. Mitt Romney and today’s Republicans as "reckless," "ideological," and "extreme."

For example, Charlie Kupchan and Bruce Jentleson lament that "the United States is today deeply polarized, bereft of the bipartisan consensus that long anchored its statecraft." Democrat columnist Michael Cohen pines (or rather feigns pining) for the bygone days when "Republicans owned the issue of national security. They radiated confidence, experience, and self-assuredness on how they would manage the responsibilities of America’s unique global role." Most recently, Democratic Senator and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry wrote here at that:

"The tragedy of the divisive remarks about Obama’s national security record we have heard recently is the missed opportunity it represents. A more bipartisan approach would be in the best interest of the nation. The irony is it was not always this way and does not have to be this way in the future. In the past, both parties have come together in common cause. For example, President George H.W. Bush and his excellent foreign-policy team of James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and Larry Eagleburger did a very good job of uniting us after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the first Gulf War and even in Central America. Even if both parties didn’t completely agree, they respected one another and held honest conversations about what was in the national interest."

Here’s the problem: this "bipartisan consensus" has rarely existed. The Republican policies that now receive Democratic praise were often in their day subject to partisan Democrat attacks. And many of the past Republican presidents now lauded by Democrats on foreign policy grounds — such as Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush 41 — were often vilified by Democrats while in office. For example, after Reagan famously called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" in 1983, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill derisively accused Reagan of "red-baiting." As Steve Hayward points out in this excellent Commentary article, the next year O’Neill’s rhetoric became downright vicious with his assertion that "the evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is [Ronald Reagan]." Likewise, reflecting the views of many Democrats at that time, Senator Alan Cranston made the reckless accusation that "Reagan is a trigger-happy president [with a] simplistic and paranoid worldview leading us toward a nuclear collision that could end us all."

Sen. Kerry’s paean of bipartisan praise for the George H. W. Bush foreign policy also reflects a selective historical memory. Bush’s signature national security initiative after the end of the Cold War was the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Bush’s request to Congress for war authorization very narrowly passed the Senate by a 52-47 vote, with the vast majority of Senate Democrats opposing it, accounting for all but two of the negative votes. These opposing votes included one Democrat who compared the war to Vietnam, called it a "mistake," and declared on the Senate floor that:

"…if we do go to war, for years people will ask why Congress gave in. They will ask why there was such a rush to so much death and destruction when it did not have to happen. It does not have to happen if we do our job. So I ask my colleagues if we are really once again so willing to have our young and our innocent bear the price of our impatience. I personally believe, and I have heard countless of my colleagues say, that they think the President made a mistake to unilaterally increase troops, set a date and make war so probable. I ask my colleagues if we are once again so willing to risk people dying from a mistake."

That Democrat was Senator John Kerry. And while he now praises Bush 41’s foreign policy for "uniting" Americans, at the time this unity did not include Kerry’s support.

Yes, partisanship and history can go both ways. The Democrat Harry Truman is rightly revered by many Republicans today for his robust anticommunism and hawkish internationalism, but during his presidency his foreign policy endured partisan attacks from Republicans such as Robert Taft — though Truman also enjoyed strong support from other Republicans such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee leader Arthur Vandenberg. In more recent years, some Congressional Republicans launched irresponsible partisan criticisms of the Clinton administration over the 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign. Yet on the other side of the ledger, many Republicans have lent bipartisan support for some of the Obama administration’s foreign policy initiatives. These include the letters organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative and signed by many Republicans (including me) endorsing the Libya intervention, or the fact that Republicans account for virtually all of the popular support for the Obama administration’s ongoing deployment of 68,000 American troops to fight the war in Afghanistan.

Of course supporting one aspect of a foreign policy does not obligate an opposition Party to support all aspects, or to give the governing administration a free pass on the failure to implement the policy faithfully. Democrats who voted for the use of force against Iraq in 2002 (such as Kerry, Biden, and Clinton) certainly felt free to criticize the war when it went poorly — and to continue criticizing it a decade later. And Republicans such as myself who supported Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya are likewise free to point out how myriad failures in implementation and execution helped contribute to the ongoing chaos and extremism there. This by no means implicates the White House in the horrific murders of American officials in Benghazi yesterday, but as with Iraq it does highlight the tragic costs of post-conflict stabilization failures.

All things considered, looking through the light of history at the recent proliferation of Democratic paeans to past "bipartisan" foreign policies and previous Republican presidents, one cannot escape a suspicion. Too often the Democratic role has entailed vocally opposing Republican policies at the time, and then later when those Republican policies have proven successful, either embracing them retrospectively (as with the recent Democratic encomia to Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush 41), or adopting them outright (as President Obama has done with many of Bush 43’s policies). All of which should at the least raise a skeptical eyebrow at the ongoing Democratic denunciations of Romney’s foreign policy.

[Full Disclosure: Like Kori Schake, I have also served as an informal advisor to the Romney campaign, though I do not speak for the campaign.]

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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