Monday, November 22, 2010

What Water’s Edge?

Recently, I made a non-attributed appearance on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish.  Sullivan had noted that Rep. Eric Cantor, soon to become the Republican House Majority leader in the new Congress, had told Israeli Prime Minister that Congressional Republicans intended to “serve as a check on the Administration” and that “the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other.”

Cantor’s clear implication is that President Obama does not understand that relationship and that Congressional Republicans would stand with the Israeli prime minister rather than the American president.  Sullivan incredulously said: “There are no parallels with this kind of direct undermining of the president on foreign policy that I can think of. Am I wrong?”  (You can read my response here.)

Sullivan’s reaction to Cantor’s statement exposes how widespread is the notion that it is unusual, even unheard of, for foreign policy to become so openly partisan.  This, however, is one of the great American myths: that politics stops at the water’s edge.

As a student of diplomatic history and American politics, I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.  Foreign policy played a large part in forming the first political parties.  As my reply to Sullivan states, Alexander Hamilton was so committed to the idea that good relations with Great Britain were essential to American national security that he undermined other members of the Washington administration who he feared were not nearly pro-British enough for his liking.

American history is filled with examples of Congressional opposition to foreign policy—even wartime is no guarantee of national unity: witness the lack of support for the War of 1812 on the part of Federalist New Englanders, or the Whig opposition to the Mexican war.

So where does this myth come from?  It is, I suspect, rooted in two things.  One is simply ignorance of American diplomatic history in general.  When I teach my diplomatic history survey, I usually find that the knowledge base on American foreign is particularly thin.  That, I think, is a cultural/educational manifestation of the reflexive American disinterest in (and sometimes disdain for) the rest of the world that goes back to colonial days.

The second is a more recent phenomenon.  In the modern American imagination, World War II was the “good war.”  It was when Americans put aside their differences for the common good.  What was an aberration historically has, for many people, become the expected norm.  So powerful is that illusion that it tends to purge our collective memory of many of the partisan disputes that have often accompanied foreign policy.

Vietnam, of course, is the exception.  Everyone knows that the country divided over the war.  But Vietnam is also considered the “bad war” (exactly why it was “bad” differs depending on one’s interpretation of the war).  The political divisiveness of that war, however, is undeniably part of what made it “bad,” making it the object lesson in why politics should stop at the water’s edge.

But the reality is that Vietnam was far closer to the norm than most people realize, and that World War II itself was preceded by incredibly deep, acrimonious and often partisan divisions over foreign policy.  It took the shock of the attack on Pearl Harbor to create the unusual degree of national unity that people look back on so fondly.

Recent days have brought yet another example of the political opposition trying to undermine the sitting president: the decision by Senate Republicans to block ratification of the START arms control treaty with Russia.  Despite the fact that exhaustive hearings were held last spring, and that votes on the treaty have been delayed repeatedly to alleviate all Republican concerns, “Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who voted for the treaty in committee, said Tuesday he now questions whether it’s ‘even practical for the administration to rush passage of the Start treaty during this lame-duck session.’” 

Sen. Richard Lugar, the most respected Republican on foreign policy and arms control issues, thought that a vote should have been held in August.  Three months later, other Republicans now say it would be a “rush” to vote.  As this fact-checking by Salon makes clear, the objections to this treaty are about politics, not national security.

The transparent partisanship behind this ploy is truly breathtaking.  Take for example this article.  The author, who has no argument other than his blind hatred of President Obama, opposes ratification:

This is all about Obama's effort to take America down to size and to show the rest of the world that we are no longer the big bad evil aggressor we were before he took office.

He says this AFTER noting that Defense Secretary Robert Gates (who was appointed by George W. Bush) as well as former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, and Republican Senator Lugar all support ratification.  Does this deranged argument mean that these prominent Republicans are also determined to “take America down to size,” or that they are too stupid to see how Obama is using them?

Yes, American like to think that politics ends at the water's edge.  but as today's Republicans in Congress seem determined to prove, it just isn't the case.


  1. Mark, didn't Sec. of State Jefferson himself, while in Washington's cabinet, undermine the President's foreign policy with backdoor assurances to France? Maybe I'm just saying the obverse of what you are saying about Treas. Sec. Hamilton. But I thought the pro-British foreign policy was endorsed by Pres. Washington.

  2. I'm not sure what your Jefferson reference is to, but I see a difference between the actions of the official charged with conducting foreign policy and one who is not. And in the case of Jay's mission, Hamilton clearly undermined the mission that Washington sent Jay to accomplish. Jay was unable to get much of anything from the Brits because Hamilton let them know that the US was determined to get a treaty at almost any cost.