Parties meet in middle on foreign policy

January 08, 2002|By Frank J. Gruber

SANTA MONICA, Calif. - This town, known for its beaches and its left-wing politics, was far from the events in New York and Washington on Sept. 11. But not untouched. Two residents died on the hijacked planes, and our hotels dismissed hundreds of low-wage workers in response to the collapse in tourism.

Like everyone else, I am trying to be optimistic.

At year's end, I tried to focus on those good and joyful things that happen regardless of what's going on in the world, to find something to be happy about. Such as the exotic smoked fish I discovered at the new Ukrainian deli on Wilshire Boulevard, or that, finally, someone got around to making a movie of The Lord of the Rings just when my son turns 12. Or my son's first middle school band concert. That was great. Noisy, but great.

But it's hard to be 100 percent joyful these days.

I did enjoy, however, the Christmas card I received from a film industry acquaintance. The message inside: "[We] have made a donation in your name to the Armed Forces Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union."

Although my views about corporate power vs. the role of government never stopped me from considering myself a super-patriot inside, I never felt so comfortable with blatant manifestations of patriotism on the outside.

But there have been seismic shifts in attitudes since Sept. 11. For the first time in three decades, Americans have a politically unified foreign policy. To achieve this, both parties have given ground - the Republicans in terms of policy, the Democrats in terms of culture.

Not to discount the skill of President Bush's team, but this Republican administration has borrowed foreign policy from Al Gore.

Before Sept. 11, the administration was becoming more neo-isolationist. Now Mr. Bush has embraced nation-building - at least the rhetoric - and engagement in some of the hard problems of the world that he and his advisers previously scorned.

The administration seems to appreciate that long-term victory in the war on terrorism - and a successful foreign policy - will depend on the social, political and economic development of peoples we have not cared about before.

In turn, the Democrats' near-unanimous support for the administration has not been driven merely by agreement with its policies or "politics stops at the water's edge." Instead, a major cultural shift has occurred in the party's influential left wing, which has not only rallied 'round the flag, literally, but also has come to acknowledge that America need not blame itself for every evil in the world.

This cultural shift among the mainstream left not only to accept patriotic symbols without embarrassment but also, and more importantly, to acknowledge that not everything the United States does in the world is suspect is just as dramatic as the Republicans' turn away from neo-isolationism.

If today's new bipartisan foreign policy survives, it will be a good thing, not only for what the policy is but also because of its broader impact on political discourse.

Since Vietnam and its aftermath destroyed mainstream consensus about foreign policy, Americans have made assumptions about each other's love of country based on their politics.

These assumptions go both ways.

It is wrong for the right automatically to characterize someone who questions the value of a "Star Wars" missile defense as unpatriotic. And it is wrong for the left automatically to characterize someone with an American flag lapel pin as a mindless jingo.

Democrats and Republicans have enough to argue about at home. If we can get beyond the stereotypes we created about ourselves during the Cold War, that would be a silver lining to the events of Sept. 11. And something to be happy about.

Frank J. Gruber is a columnist for The Lookout, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based cyber news site.

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