Saturday, August 28, 2021

Politics at the Water's Edge

In 1948 Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, famously said that "politics stops at the water's edge" as he cooperated with the Truman administration in creating bipartisan support for NATO. For decades thereafter a "bipartisan foreign policy" became the American ideal - and to a considerable extent the political practice as well. 

But, just as the much romanticized (indeed idealized) domestic legislative "bipartisanship" of the post-war era was (at the very least) overrated and is in any case now no longer a reality, likewise our once much prized "bipartisan foreign policy" has also receded into the mists of history. For example, back in April, Republican Senator Josh Hawley criticized President Biden for postponing the withdrawal from Afghanistan that Trump had arranged in his deal with the Taliban. “President Biden should withdraw troops in Afghanistan by May 1, as the Trump administration planned, but better late than never. It’s time for this forever war to end,” Hawley argued. Now, however, when our originally Trump-inspired withdrawal has unsurprisingly encountered dangers and difficulties, the same Senator Hawley has said: “We must reject the falsehood peddled by a feckless president that this was the only option for withdrawal. This is the product of Joe Biden’s catastrophic failure of leadership,” he protested. “It is now painfully clear he has neither the will nor the capacity to lead. He must resign.” 

By comparison, it is worth recalling that back in the 1980s President Regan sent Marines into Lebanon. Then, after more than 200 of them were killed in a single attack, he responded by opting to withdraw them. But no one seriously demanded Regan resign. We still had the remnants of a "bipartisan foreign policy" then.


Yet, while there were undeniable benefits to the "bipartisan foreign policy" of the 1940s and 1950s in extricating the U.S. from an unrealistic and imaginary isolationism, that "bipartisan foreign policy," like the chimera of domestic legislative "bipartisanship" that politicians, the media, and many voters like to romanticize, also had its problematic aspects.

In fact, recent Republican hypocrisy notwithstanding, for decades now our bipartisan foreign policy establishment and their media fan club have repeatedly led us astray through their bias toward action - almost always understood as military action. If Kabul 2021 represents a symbolic reprise of Saigon 1975, similarly The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock's Afghanistan Papers tell a somewhat analogous tale to the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers.

Both as candidate and as president, Trump rejected (at least rhetorically) the elite consensus in favor of apparently unending military actions that our "bipartisan foreign policy" had become. His deal with the Taliban (a poorly camouflaged "surrender") was obviously flawed, and given his personal unpredictability we obviously cannot know for sure what President Trump would in fact have done when the May 1 deadline to leave actually arrived. (Whatever he would have done, we can safely assume that the Republicans who are complaining now would have mostly supported him.) In any case, Trump did, however, set the stage for a final exit. President Biden, who was once part of the foreign policy establishment consensus, seems to have learned a similar lesson and so finally followed through on withdrawal, to the consternation of so many politicians and pundits who seem incapable of imagining our ever not being militarily engaged in that part of the world. (Of course, not following through with Trump's deal would not have meant a return to the status quo ante but would likely have led to a direct armed confrontation with the further empowered Taliban.)

All political activity (apart from voting) is largely elite activity. The problem is not that there are foreign policy elites as such, but the special circumstances and mystification which increasingly insulate them from accountability.

As my one-time academic mentor Sheldon Wolin (1922-2015) wrote in his magisterial study of Alexis deTocqueville (1805-1859): "Traditionally foreign policy has been the domain most resistant to democratizing, the most remote from popular participation, the preserve of statecraft and of arcana imperii where elites could display their unique abilities in the practice of the higher politics of raison d'√©tat. Foreign policy appears as the most authentic preserve of the premodern political, of an anciennet√©, where interest is idealized into a univocal and mythical form, the national interest, and thus reclaims its archaic objectivity." [Tocqueville Between Two Worlds (Princeton U. Pr., 2001, p. 491]

Wolin highlighted how the aristocratic deTocqueville, who served as France's Foreign Minister in 1849, saw an aggressive foreign policy as a vehicle for naturally rallying citizens to subordinate their petty interests to the nation's interests. The same might be said, neither more nor less pejoratively, of our post-World War II foreign policy establishment, and the widespread bipartisan consensus it has fostered in favor of action (increasingly military action) as central to maintaining our international position and role as an "indispensable nation." (That striking expression was apparently conjured up in the mid-1990s by political journalist Sidney Blumenthal and foreign policy historian James Chace to describe what they understood to be America’s post-Cold War world role. They passed it on to then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who then made it famous.)

There was wisdom in deTocqueville's understanding. There was certainly some reality to the unique post-Cold War position of the United States and correspondingly some wisdom in attempting to deploy that position in constructing a stable world order. As Cicero said, however, historia magistra vitae ("History is the teacher of life"). We now have the life lessons from three historical eras spanning some three quarters of a century: the post-World War II era, the post-Cold War era, and the post-9/11 era. And what that history teaches is that we have all too often misread the meaning of our unique position and misused our indispensability.

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