Opinion: Bipartisanship returns — at least on U.S. foreign policy

NEW YORK — As Washington has torn itself asunder over health care, a surprising word has crept back into foreign policymaking circles: bipartisanship.

To a surprising degree, especially on the big issues of Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan and North Korea, President Barack Obama’s administration has found allies across the policy barricades to bolster his approach to the rest of the world.

A variety of factors play into this drift toward (dare we use the term) compromise:

  • Obama’s pragmatic — “realist” view of the world;
  • the GOP’s all-engulfing jihad against health care reform;
  • the GOP old guard’s contrition over the Bush years;
  • the pause that the post-financial crisis reshuffling of global power is forcing upon the know-it-alls of the American foreign policy establishment.

Robert Kagan, a right-leaning senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, recently mused in his Washington Post column “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.”

That may be stretching things a bit (and, to be fair, he did say “may be seeing"). But the truth is more separates Obama and the left-wing of his own party on major issues than separates administration policy from the GOP’s current foreign policy consensus.

This is hardly a universal trend, of course. On Iran policy, for instance, pro-Israel hawks in both parties would like to hear more of the statements Hillary Clinton made as a presidential candidate when she said she would “totally obliterate” Iran if it ever launched an attack on Israel.

Secretary of State Clinton has, by necessity, been more circumspect and Obama has continued to pursue negotiations. This brought angry Republican condemnation during last summer’s crushing of Iran’s pro-democracy protesters.

The recent bad blood between the U.S. and Israel — storm in a teacup that it is — only raises the level of criticism. Critics of the “engagement” strategy in both parties point out that the “outstretched hand” Obama promised to extend has been decidedly slapped away, and they want to know when the president plans to re-clench his fist. Some less sober voices — Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, for instance, roll out the inevitable Munich 1938 metaphor.

Another persistent area of disagreement is what used to be called “the War on Terror.” The war itself — the drone attacks in Pakistan, covert aid to Yemen and Somalia factions fighting Islamic extremists — gets high marks from most in Congress. But the treatment (or mistreatment) of captured terrorist suspects continues to be an emotional battering ram for both sides.

There will always be dissidents on specific issues — on the left (Leave Iraq Now!) and on the right (Don’t Squander Our Iraq War Sacrifices!). Still, a “center” of sorts has emerged on foreign policy that includes Republicans and Democrats rarely seen on the same side of any Washington food fight, extending across issues as diverse as North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, immigration and trade, Iraq and Afghanistan.

On some issues, of course, a relatively strong consensus has run right through the past several administrations. The United States has, since roughly the middle of the Clinton administration, tried to forge closer ties with India, and both GOP and Democratic lawmakers have raised few objections. On Sudan’s Darfur region, bipartisan support for sanctions (though not much more) has been solid. Most elements of U.S. policy toward Russia, too, enjoy widespread support — the Bush plan to put missile defenses in eastern Europe being a short-lived exception.

Even on China, agreement has generally been the rule in Congress. During upsurges in tensions — whether over Taiwan (missile launches by China in the mid-1990s), Tibet (demonstrations crushed in 2008) or inadvertent military clashes (the U.S. destruction of China’s Belgrade consulate in 1999 and the “spy plane” incident of the summer of 2001) — Congress joins in predictable nationalistic ardor.

On U.S.-China economic policy, too, there has been mostly consensus, though here much more variation has existed in both parties. The end of the yearly political football known as “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) trade status in the mid-1990s — a ritual by which Congress had to vote to recertify China’s right to tariff-free trade with the U.S. — created the bipartisan agreement among GOP and Democratic free traders that what was good for China would ultimately be good for the U.S. (This particular consensus is fraying badly and may ultimately become an exception — more on that in a future column).

The great surprise here, really, is the speed with which the two parties have converged on some of the most volatile foreign policy questions — areas where Left and Right in America traditionally have staked out ideological positions and questioned the sanity/patriotism of their colleagues on the other side. Included in this list are the U.S.-led efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the shadow wars waged in Al Qaeda-friendly states like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan.

Iraq is emblematic here. Not long ago, Iraq policy looked as though it would be a permanent cleavage in American political discourse. To be sure, the two parties take diametrically opposite views of whether the war was just or even legal. But Republicans have been happily surprised that their predictions of “cut and run” did not come true, and the far left’s cries of betrayal notwithstanding, Democrats can claim their man kept his word — even if he has been convinced to be more flexible about the actual, final pullout date.

You may not like the consensus policy that has emerged, but at least it cuts the extremes out on both sides. Extremists, like broken clocks, occasionally find their positions converging with reality. For now, though, it makes a nice change to see these rare instances in which Americans seem to regard each other as just that, rather than “Democrats” and “Republicans.”