Relief from Party Politics

By Colleen McCullough ’12

Party politics in America is an ad hoc amalgamation of principles. It is a historic coincidence that the party of fiscal restraint is also the party of social conservatism while the party of social welfare is also the party of social libertarianism. Politicians on each side of the aisle support their party’s platform with gusto. Congress cannot fund basic education, reform social security and Medicare, or make much-needed budget cuts without each party digging in its heels over the minutia of each proposal. Under President Bush, foreign policy also fell into this amalgamation. But following the decision to invade Iraq, America’s priorities abroad seem fairly clear-cut. This new non-partisanship is apparent in the wake of President Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya. It is a relief to see that under President Obama, important questions of foreign policy have escaped the party-bound mentality that usually plagues Washington.

Since the 2008 presidential election, the Republican Party has lost its monopoly on support for the Iraq War and the broader War on Terror. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, most analysts suggest that a hypothetical President McCain’s handling of these engagements would have been much the same as President Obama’s. Even Patrick Krey of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society argued during the campaign that there was “virtually no difference between their plans.” This prediction fell in line with the assessment of a panel of professors at the American University of Beirut who argued in November of 2008 that America’s foreign policy would remain the same no matter who won the election. On Iraq, each candidate’s proposed schedule for troop withdrawal sounded different during the campaign, but both plans amounted to the same thing. Despite emphasizing troop withdrawal, then-Senator Obama acknowledged that the process would have to be slow, and while Senator McCain emphasized the need for continued troop presence, he also planned to work toward a small, non-combat military presence by 2013. Both candidates promised to continue the war against Al Qaeda with rigor. The vestiges of the polarization surrounding President Bush’s foreign policy remained merely as a façade during the 2008 presidential campaign.

This is a change from the first eight years of this century, when controversy over President Bush’s foreign policy practically defined his presidency. Certainly, the invasion of Afghanistan after September 11th drew broad support (even though its execution did not). But the Iraq War was divisive and politicized. Liberal commentators like Paul Krugman claimed the American people “were lied into war,” and Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich even called for President Bush’s impeachment. To support the war was to be a Republican, and to protest it, a Democrat – despite a number of prominent Democrats voting for the war resolution. While 215 of 223 House Republicans voted in favor of the Iraq Resolution, only 82 of the 209 House Democrats did the same. For years the issue seemed to define party politics, and it overshadowed other, more principled distinctions between the parties.

While every president plays a role in shaping policies on issues that will divide the country, the polarization of the Iraq War is especially ironic considering that then-Texas Governor George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 on a platform skeptical of overseas intervention. In the campaign against Al Gore, Governor Bush warned, “If we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road. And I’m going to prevent that.” Three years later, the party of George W. Bush supported two wars in the Middle East with enough zeal that the issue practically defined party membership. Somehow, within three years, an activist foreign policy became a hallmark of the Republican Party, and the debate surrounding such interventionism evolved into one of the many polarized debates of the decade – at least for a few years.

This is not to say everyone agrees about America’s policies in the Middle East. There has been real debate over President Obama’s choice to intervene in Libya. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman expressed hesitant support accompanied by a serious warning about the commitment, while some conservatives like George Will worried over the uncertainty of the situation. Similarly, there has been intense debate over President Obama’s negotiations in Yemen, his execution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his cold shoulder to Israel. But these debates have been sophisticated, informed, and generally less polarized than most American politics.

To be sure, support for President Obama’s foreign policy on the left has been uneasy. Democratic Representatives Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey issued a joint statement calling for immediate withdrawal from Libya, arguing that the president should not have taken action without congressional approval. Democrats throughout the party echoed this procedural criticism. But several prominent Democrats have also been loudly enthusiastic, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Barbara Boxer, who called the effort in Libya “an extraordinary achievement by the president and our secretary of state to get the world to come together.” Many Democrats are treading carefully, not wishing to alienate their beloved president but worried about looking hypocritical after criticizing President Bush’s meddlesome foreign policy.

In light of this emerging consensus regarding American interventionism, it is a study in party politics to watch Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and current presidential hopeful, flip-flop over intervention in Libya. As Muammar al-Qaddafi’s reaction to the rebellion turned violent, Gingrich criticized President Obama for not instituting a no-fly zone. At a conference in Iowa, Gingrich said the United States should “provide help to the rebels… This is a moment to get rid of [Qaddafi]. Do it. Get it over with.” However, after the president took this course of action, Gingrich began criticizing intervention. On the Today Show weeks later, Gingrich said he “would not have intervened.” Gingrich’s flagrant attempt to re-politicize foreign policy is failing. Most Republicans who supported intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan recognize that they cannot criticize intervention without looking hypocritical (as Gingrich has succeeded in doing). Gingrich’s ability to champion intervention one week and restraint the next demonstrates a lack of commitment to any particular principle of foreign policy.

The right has criticized President Obama on a few issues of foreign policy in the past few years. Among these are his lack of support to protesters in Iran in 2009, his failure to visit Israel after his speech in Cairo, and his conciliatory negotiations with Russia. As for Guantanamo, President Obama has taken sufficiently long to close to prison for Republicans to look on smugly. That said, Guantanamo was a policy with which most Republicans were never completely comfortable, and President Obama’s actions have met minimal criticism from the right. Republicans did not make any of these issues into major political point-winners.

Perhaps President Obama’s foreign policy appears to be nonpartisan because he has not had to make any big choices. A president’s daily, small-scale decisions fly under the media’s radar; pundits focus on the bigger, hot-button issues, which have happened to be domestic for the past three years. President Obama’s choice to support the NATO intervention in Libya is one of the first major decisions he has had to make, and the fact that it followed a more “Republican” line shielded him from that party’s criticism. Thus, the lack of politicization may be circumstantial. We should not necessarily credit President Obama for the de-politicization of America’s foreign policy, but we should acknowledge that it is happening and beware of political opportunists who are trying to prevent the change.

The de-politicization of foreign policy is good for America. Many argue a lack of vocal criticism from within played a part in the Bush administration’s poor conduct of the Iraq War for the first three years. John McCain was one of the few outspoken Republicans criticizing the meager force in Iraq and the administration’s half-hearted approach, while Democrats were busy trying to distance themselves from the whole affair. Party politics tends to create a herd-mentality, which eliminates constructive criticism from within and reinforces destructive antagonism from without. If politicians truly think about each issue, it is unlikely they will agree as universally as the parties seem to. It is hard to see how a conservative or liberal approach to social policies, or economics, requires any particular view about military intervention.

Party politics in America runs deep, and Republicans certainly won’t let President Obama get off easily, as evinced by Gingrich’s jabs. But for the time being, President Obama’s foreign policy is getting welcome relief from politicization. We are not back to the days of “I Like Ike,” where content Americans universally cheer on their nation’s foreign policy. It’s not that politicians are enthusiastic about everything Obama is doing abroad; they simply aren’t sure where their parties stand. Hopefully, the lack of party guidance will force politicians to think for themselves.

Colleen McCullough is a junior majoring in philosophy from Seattle, WA. She can be reached at cmccullo@princeton.edu.

Image courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor. Illustration by John Overmyer.

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