Foreign Politics - Oops - Policy

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This commentary from The New Republic was written by Peter Beinart.

In early May 1999, Washington Post reporter Guy Gugliotta asked conservative think-tanker Robert Kagan why the supposedly hawkish congressional GOP was so hostile to Bill Clinton's war in Kosovo. "The Republicans have two choices today," replied Kagan. "They can say they are peaceniks and isolationists, or they can say they don't trust Clinton to conduct this war. I think hatred of Clinton is huge." He was right. While at the time many commentators (myself included) denounced the Gingrich Republicans as isolationists, we were taking them too seriously. In fact, their motivation was almost entirely partisan. They did not trust Clinton to wield military power and therefore preferred that it be wielded as little as possible until a better man occupied the Oval Office.

It's worth remembering that history today, in the wake of widespread Democratic opposition to President Bush's $87 billion request to reconstruct Iraq. Conservatives are loudly calling the Democrats a party of isolationists. But that largely misses the point: It assumes the congressional Democrats have any serious foreign policy ideology at all.

In reality, there are a handful of genuine Democratic isolationists -- people like Dennis Kucinich, who opposes rebuilding Iraq, just as he opposed Clinton's war in Kosovo. (There are also a handful of genuine Republican isolationists, for instance Texas Representative Ron Paul, a libertarian who opposed the $87 billion and the Iraq war itself.) There is a slightly larger contingent of genuine hawks, who support military interventions even when launched by presidents they loathe. Joseph Lieberman is the best Democratic example, John McCain the best Republican one. Finally, there is that large group of congressional Democrats and Republicans who are hawkish when the commander-in-chief hails from their party and dovish when he does not. Ideologically, it makes no sense that Democrats -- who say keeping the United States safe requires improving the lives of people in the Muslim world -- would oppose Bush's request for grants to rebuild Iraq. And it makes no sense that Republicans -- who opposed even modest nation-building efforts in Haiti and the Balkans -- would endorse such a costly one in Iraq. But on Capitol Hill last week, intellectual consistency hardly mattered. Democrats voted against the reconstruction money for the same reason Republicans opposed the Kosovo war: They consider the president a dangerous liar and don't want to empower him in any way.

How has partisanship come to so completely dominate foreign policy debate? First, because we live in a relatively new foreign policy era, and thus politicians haven't yet developed ideological commitments that might bind them when the White House changes party. The debate over U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union stretched over five decades, and, if you had developed a reputation as a cold warrior, it wasn't easy to go soft, no matter how the partisan landscape changed. But the '90s offered a blank slate. Was the battle against Slobodan Milosevic's genocidal nationalism the logical successor to the battle against Soviet communism, or was the point of the cold war that the United States should expend blood and treasure only against a foe that directly threatened our national security? After some dithering, Clinton bombed Belgrade and defined the answer for both parties.

Similarly, there was no obvious ideological precedent for the war on terrorism. Certainly, nothing in the GOP's foreign policy tradition mandated a preemptive war aimed at transforming Iraq into a democratic state. Indeed, top officials from the first Bush administration called the war an exercise in liberal utopianism. But a strong White House pushed for war, and both Republicans and Democrats formed their foreign policy views in response.

There's a second reason partisanship dominates foreign policy today: the ascendance of political consultants. There was a time when administrations hashed out important foreign policy decisions with a few senior members of Congress who considered themselves stewards of the national interest. And those members then brought the bulk of their party along. In 1996, Robert Dole, a holdover from an earlier congressional era, supported Clinton's deployment of troops to Bosnia to enforce the newly signed Dayton accords, arguing that U.S. credibility was at stake. (Dole's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Phil Gramm, denounced him for it.) This year, Joseph Biden -- the closest thing the Senate Democrats have to a foreign policy wise man -- made a similar argument about the $87 billion, calling on his colleagues to put hostility toward Bush aside and recognize that the United States has to rebuild Iraq. But, on the crucial vote pitting loans against grants, Biden brought along only three of his Democratic colleagues.

He was drowned out by a bevy of Democratic strategists, who argued, in the words of pollster Celinda Lake, that Democrats must draw "clear distinctions" between themselves and Bush's increasingly unpopular reconstruction effort. A public memo from über-pollster Stanley Greenberg and former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta said "the $87 billion Iraq request was a shock to the country, and many voters can recite the actual number." It urged Democrats to attack Bush's request as a budget-buster, noting that "just 27 percent [of Americans] trust the Republicans on the budget and deficits, with the Democrats, remarkably, holding a 20-point advantage." A similar memo from Greenberg, James Carville, and Bob Shrum said the Democrats' "core message" should stress that Bush had "no plan for post-war Iraq." Sure enough, John Kerry justified his vote against the $87 billion by citing Bush's lack of a "real plan" to reconstruct Iraq. John Edwards, who also voted no, declared, "We don't have a plan."

In policy terms, the sound bite is almost meaningless. Whatever its earlier blunders, the Bush administration now clearly does have a plan to reconstruct Iraq. Its aid request specifies in excruciating detail how the United States will rebuild different sectors of Iraqi society. And, on the day Edwards and Kerry voted no, the United States won U.N. backing for a plan under which Iraq will write a constitution and then hold elections in 2004. But that's the whole point: On one of the key national security votes of the post-September 11 era, policy barely mattered at all. And it's not likely to anytime soon.

Peter Beinart is the editor of TNR.

By Peter Beinart