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

A “center” has emerged on foreign policy, including Republicans and Democrats rarely seen on the same side of any Washington food fight.

U.S. President Barack Obama smiles during a news conference in Pittsburgh on Sept. 25, 2009. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

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.