Party and Country
Ppartisan politics no longer stops at the water's edge. This is a bad sign for the Republic.
Mitch McConnell’s candid admission that partisan politics is playing some role in Republican opposition to the war in Libya is refreshing. The fact that partisan politics no longer stops at the water’s edge, however, is a bad sign for the Republic.
McConnell was speaking theoretically, not tactically. Asked about the notion that Republicans are suddenly showing an isolationist streak, the Senate Republican leader observed, “I’m not sure that these kind of differences might not have been there in a more latent form when you had a Republican president. But I do think there is more of a tendency to pull together when the guy in the White House is on your side.” He added, “a lot of our members, not having a Republican in the White House, feel more free to express their reservations which might have been somewhat muted during the previous administration.”
While some are condemning this as naked partisanship, it’s simply the truth. The United States has been involved in more overseas military operations over the last 20 years than I can recount off the top of my head. During the administration of Democrat Bill Clinton, most of the opposition came from Republicans. When Republican George W. Bush took office, suddenly it was Democrats who wondered about the wisdom of intervention in other people’s civil wars. With Barack Obama, the shoe is back on the other foot.
Given that none of the interventions aside from the initial punitive strike against Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks have been slam dunks, it’s not only natural but good that there has been substantial concern in Congress. And it’s only natural, if not necessarily good, that members of a president’s party are less likely to speak out in the marginal cases. Not only do they have an interest in maximizing their guy’s power but attacks on his positions by the other party tends to spark a defensive rallying by members of his “team.”
So long as it doesn’t go beyond this and into either dutiful cheerleading for wars that Members strongly oppose or partisan sabotage of wars they strongly believe in the nation’s interests, I’m not particularly troubled by it.
For some, however, war is an extension of politics by other means rather than vice versa. Earlier in the week, I made light about former UN Ambassador John Bolton’s declaration that he wouldn’t serve in the Obama administration. I had intended a more serious follow-up post but events intervened. I’m deeply troubled by Bolton’s assertion, clearly directed at dark horse contender Jon Huntsman, a conservative Republican who served as Obama’s ambassador to China: “There is no patriotic obligation to help advance the career of a politician who is otherwise pursuing interests that are fundamentally antithetical to your values. That’s not the call of patriotism,” he says. “I don’t understand it. This is not like World War II, when we are facing an existential threat to the country as a whole, and you do put partisanship aside.”
Even leaving aside that Bolton spent the last administration arguing that Islamic extremism was indeed an existential threat, this is a dangerous notion.
As with Bolton, my chances of being asked to serve in Obama’s administration are remote, indeed. And, certainly, I would turn down an offer to serve on his domestic policy team were one inexplicably made; I oppose much of this president’s domestic policy agenda and principle would preclude my either helping to advance it or pledging him my loyalty and not giving it. But I would have no compunction against taking an appointment in a defense, intelligence, or foreign policy capacity.
While there are some partisan differences on America’s relations with China, all sensible people agree that strong trade and diplomatic relations with the world’s most populous nation is crucial. Huntsman was extraordinarily well qualified to be our ambassador, having not only served as a state governor but also stints as ambassador to Singapore and as deputy US Trade Representative. And he speaks fluent Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien to boot. Why wouldn’t he agree to serve his country and his president in this capacity?
American foreign policy should be and generally has been remarkably stable from administration to administration, regardless of party. Two days after the 2008 election I predicted, echoing Paul Heutching, that “Obama is an American politician, and he will govern like an American president.” I assumed then and believe I’ve proven correct that Obama’s policies on war, diplomacy, and trade would be very similar to Bush’s because, at the end of the day, they would be based on America’s interests as seen through the lens of American diplomats, soldiers, and intelligence analysts. And, as Harold Macmillan famously cautioned, “Events, dear boy, events.”
I’m reminded of the old aphorism “For God, for country, and for Yale.” We all have loyalties and rooting interests. But they should be hierarchical and distinct. Bolton’s willingness to serve on Obama’s foreign policy team should be only slightly more influenced by the fact that Obama is a Democrat and he a Republican than by the fact that Obama went to Harvard and he went to Yale. Country trumps both party and school rivalry.
Given that I am outside of government, I will happily continue to oppose the foreign policy decisions of presidents of both parties when I disagree–a frequent occurrence these past two decades. But the differences are based on my assessment of what’s in the American interest, not whether the president is wearing a blue or red jersey.