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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.

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.”