Thursday, January 7, 2010

bipartisanship on foreign policy

A good thing, right? Well, it certainly helps when the United States can present a clear, coherent, and consistent face to the rest of the world and when long-term strategies are sustainable despite the inevitable changes in domestic politics.

But just as patriotism can be the last refuge of scoundrels, as Samuel Johnson declared, bipartisanship can be a subterfuge for indecision. Political consensus is a worthy goal, but less important than wise and effective choices.

I'm thinking about these matters because I'm reading an excellent book, Julian Zelizer's "Arsenal of Democracy." This historian of Congress, now at Princeton, has written a survey of the politics of U.S. foreign policy since 1940. His scholarship is impeccable and his writing graceful. When he writes 0f events I have also researched, he hits all the major points. When he writes of times when I served in the political trenches as a Senate staffer, his judgments are consistent with my own recollections.

For me, the drumbeat lesson from this book is how partisan most foreign policy debates of the past 70 years have been. Each administration's political opponents made sharp attacks on almost every major decision, even when they were in broad agreement with the policy. At this distance, many of those attacks now seem petty and unjustified, but they constituted the political reality each administration had to face.

We can't wish away partisan posturing; and we shouldn't want to stifle serious differences.

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