The old maxim "politics ends at the water's edge" has always been an exaggeration, if not a flat-out falsehood. The idea is that while Americans may quarrel among themselves about domestic politics, when it comes to foreign affairs, there is no partisanship. Americans show a united face to the rest of the world.
As a historian of American diplomacy, I can tell you that, as a rule, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there is a tendency to "rally around the president" in moments of crisis, but that usually ends as soon as the crisis does. And yes, there are some moments when it is true, as when Democratic president Harry Truman convinced the Republican Congress in 1947 to approve the Truman Doctrine aid to Greece and Turkey, as well as the economic development program known as the "Marshall Plan."
More often than not, however, foreign policy has proven divisive in American history. Even the most prominent example of bipartisan cooperation noted above, the Marshall Plan, proves that point. It was packaged by the Truman administration as Secretary of State George Marshall's plan precisely because, as a former general, Marshall was seen as a nonpartisan figure. They were afraid the "Truman Plan" would get voted down.
This all came to mind while watching the events in Tripoli last night. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a statement, part of which reads as follows:
This achievement was made possible first and foremost by the struggle and sacrifice of countless Libyans, whose courage and perseverance we applaud. We also commend our British, French, and other allies, as well as our Arab partners, especially Qatar and the UAE, for their leadership in this conflict. Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Qaddafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower.As Andrew Sullivan's Dish points out, they make a point of "Praising Everyone But The Commander In Chief." President Obama's name does not appear at all in the statement. The only reference to him is the critical dig at "the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower."
The slight is reminiscent at how many conservatives pointedly refused to credit the president for getting Osama bin Laden. Conservative billionaire David Koch, for example, said "all that Obama did was say 'yea' or 'nay,' we’re going to take him out or not. I don’t think he contributed much at all." Sarah Palin credited "all the brave men and women in our military and our intelligence services" without mentioning the president, which the Guardian called "both churlish and in character."
Current Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain all issued statements that pointedly ignored Obama. (To their credit, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich, as well as Speaker of the House John Boehner, did congratulate the president.)
It is perfectly reasonable to question the president's policy. I had my own doubts about Obama's intervention in Libya, but it was indeed "churlish," on the day the rebellion reached Tripoli, for McCain and Graham to reiterate their policy criticism. At this point, it seems that Obama's policy, which has often been ridiculed because aides used the phrase "leading from behind" to describe it, has helped produce the successful toppling of one of the world's worst (and most bizarre) dictators. At the cost of not a single American life.
You might think that, at such a moment, the president's critics could actually let politics end at the water's edge. But you'd be wrong.