A bipartisan moment on foreign policy

April 09, 2009|By Doyle McManus

Don't look now, but the U.S. is experiencing something unusual in its recent history: a moment of bipartisan consensus on foreign policy.

Over the last month, President Barack Obama has launched initiatives in areas that were flash points of contention only a year ago: winding down the war in Iraq, escalating the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, negotiating with Iran, renewing efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and seeking warmer relations with Russia and China.

All those issues drew heated debate in the 2008 presidential campaign. But this spring, the prevailing Republican response to Mr. Obama's announcements has been silence - even support.

Last year, John McCain called Mr. Obama too naive to be commander in chief. Last week, Mr. McCain expressed support for the president's decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, saying he was "confident that it can and will work."

Equally remarkable, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that the new administration was dumping the Bush-era label of a "global war on terror" and sent super-envoy Richard C. Holbrooke to chat up Iran's deputy foreign minister, the response from the once-lusty right was almost imperceptible.

Some critics are still out there, of course. Former Vice President Dick Cheney charged that Mr. Obama's policies were making the nation vulnerable to terrorists, and paleoconservative scold John R. Bolton accused Mrs. Clinton of "bumper sticker diplomacy." But neither of them found any echoes in the ranks of practicing politicians.

Why the sudden reticence on the part of conservatives who, only a year ago, delighted in shellacking Mr. Obama as soft on national security?

Part of it is simple distraction. The economic crisis, the federal budget and the battle over health care have crowded foreign policy off center stage, at least for a while. On those domestic issues, old-fashioned partisanship is alive and well.

But the biggest reason for bipartisan comity is that there isn't all that much for the Republicans to take issue with. Mr. Obama, the presidential candidate with the most liberal voting record in the Senate, has turned out to be a determined centrist when it comes to foreign policy.

Despite his multinational upbringing, his political agenda has always been primarily domestic. He didn't develop positions on many foreign policy issues until he arrived in the Senate in 2004 - and promptly recruited a conservative Republican apostle of bipartisanship, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, as a mentor. For a president whose central goal is an ambitious and, yes, liberal reshaping of the federal government's domestic role, disarming the opposition on foreign policy serves a useful purpose.

But that bipartisan centrism has not been universally acclaimed. A vocal challenge on foreign policy has risen from the leftmost wing of his party, where leaders of the anti-war movement have reacted to his actions with distress. To them, the escalation in Afghanistan looks distressingly like the "surge" of troops into Iraq that Mr. Obama joined them in opposing only two years ago.

Last week, Mr. McCain warned Mr. Obama that his biggest trouble was likely to come from the left. With no apparent irony, he urged the president to consult closely with the Democratic leadership in Congress "to prevent ... a resurgence of anti-war activity."

The Arizona senator offered the president an offhand but chilling warning from history. Mr. Obama's decision to postpone his decision on sending an additional 10,000 troops to Afghanistan, Mr. McCain warned, smacked of "Lyndon Johnson-style incrementalism."

Only two months in office, and Mr. Obama already faces LBJ's dilemma: a war policy that divides his own party. Maybe bipartisanship isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Doyle McManus writes for the Los Angeles Times. His e-mail is doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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