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Why bipartisan foreign policy is a myth

By Pat M. Holt / November 3, 2005



WASHINGTON

Bipartisanship is an icon of American foreign policy.

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Politics, it is said, stops at the water's edge. The Council on Foreign Relations has even appointed a study group to consider how this nirvana might be reached again.

The trouble is that bipartisanship in foreign policy is a myth. Like many hopes for a better future, it was born in the rubble of two world wars. The refusal of a Republican Senate after World War I to approve United States participation in the League of Nations led to the Roosevelt administration's determination that Republicans would be a part of the US approach to settling World War II. Thus began the celebrated collaboration between Sens. Arthur Vamdenberg (R) of Michigan and Tom Connally (D) of Texas.

The Senate gave its advice and consent to ratification of the United Nations Charter by a vote of 89 to 2. There followed the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty. That was the end of effective bipartisanship.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy's infamous career profited from the bitter partisan debate that followed the Communist victory in China in 1949. President Truman's intervention in Korea in 1950 brought a complaint from Sen. Robert Taft (R) of Ohio that the president had acted without authority and "with no pretense of consulting the Congress." The war became an issue in the 1952 presidential election. Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower promised, "I shall go to Korea," and go he did. A tenuous truce was negotiated in 1953. It is still in effect more than half a century later.

Controversy extended to Europe. In September 1950, less than three months after the start of the Korean War, President Truman announced "a substantial increase" in American troops in Europe in order to bolster NATO forces. This provoked a great debate in the Senate over the president's authority to send troops without congressional approval. Congress made no clear decision and Truman did it anyway. The troops, or their "grandchildren," are still there.

The seed of the Vietnam War was planted when the US supported reestablishment of French colonial control in Vietnam after World War II. This was part of the price the US paid to ensure French support of NATO in Europe. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, a conference in Geneva divided Vietnam North and South, and the Eisenhower administration sent a small military training mission to help the South Vietnamese. Under President Johnson, this grew into a full-scale war in the late 1960s with 500,000 American troops in the country. It became the most divisive issue in American life since the Civil War a hundred years before. But the division was not along party lines though it had a bipartisan basis: Members of both parties joined in opposing the war policy of two presidents - Democrat Johnson and Republican Nixon.

An in-depth poll, reported by Daniel Yankelovich in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, found that broad differences about foreign policy have coagulated around the two parties; 64 percent of Republicans think the US "is generally doing the right thing with plenty to be proud of" compared to 21 percent of Democrats. This bodes ill for bipartisanship.

The country needs a debate on foreign policy, whether or not along party lines. Out of this, we should not expect agreement on a statement of policy or principles. What we could reasonably hope for would be a broad consensus. What kind of a country do we want the US to be? What are our national interests in the rest of the world? Which policies advance those interests, which do not, and at what cost in lives and resources? What unintended consequences should we allow for?

But we should not be surprised if there is no consensus. Senators as diverse as Taft during the Korean War and Fulbright during the Vietnam War argued cogently that it was the Senate's constitutional duty to debate and even to criticize a president's policies. This put the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches above bipartisanship.

It was through bipartisanship that Senator Vandenberg contributed so mightily to a foreign policy that served American interests well in the 1940s. But Vandenberg himself frequently said that he preferred a "nonpartisan" policy, that is, one in which policymakers approached their task without seeking partisan advantage.

The atmosphere in Washington today is not conducive to either bi- or nonpartisanship. That leaves the Taft-Fulbright approach based on the separation of powers. But for that to happen, senators have to rekindle their interest in the Senate as an institution.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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