Last week well-known neoconservative Robert Kagan had a column in the Washington Post and Foreign Policy magazine that argued that bipartisanship in foreign policy was alive and well in the Obama administration. Although, I agree with Kagan’s central argument, I have issues with his rationale about why this came about and his prescriptions for the future.
Unnoticed amid the wailing about “broken government,” a broad bipartisan consensus is emerging in one unlikely area: foreign policy. On Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran — the most expensive and potentially dangerous foreign challenges facing the United States — little separates the Obama administration from most Republican leaders in and out of Congress.
Indeed, the fact that President Obama and many Republicans generally agree on the way forward in these major foreign policy challenges – despite sometimes sharp rhetoric to the contrary from both sides – is quite an achievement. Or perhaps these bipartisan achievements appear noteworthy more so because the debate on domestic issues such as health care and the economy has become so caustic.
Why did this happen? Kagan argues that it’s because Democrats now have the responsibility of governing and can’t just be critics. That’s part of it. The other part, though, is that the second term of the Bush administration was actually much more centrist than the first. This was in response to the dramatic overreach of the first term. So, on many of the big issues, there was already much more consensus moving forward.
So, many conclude, in foreign policy, what’s the difference between having a Democrat or a Republican in charge? I can’t say exactly how John McCain would have governed. Perhaps the outcomes on these three big issues would have been similar. My argument, however, is that it’s not just the outcomes that we should examine. We also need to examine process. In foreign policy, the process by which one reaches a policy decision is quite important and has tremendous ramifications for how the U.S. public and the world perceives that policy.
Let’s take the decision to the increase the troop buildup in Afghanistan. Many critics complained of the tremendously long time that it took to come to that decision. President Obama came into office in January 2009 having announced that he intended to refocus attention on Afghanistan and away from Iraq. It wasn’t until December 2009 that this troop buildup was announced and at the same time there was a recognition that troops could not be there indefinitely. With such an important decision on the table, I’d argue that the American people and the international community deserve the assurance that all other options were carefully considered. Numerous consultations with military leaders and Afghans took place and when a faulty election further complicated matters last August, that also went into the equation. Also during this time, President Obama sought to engage the Muslim world in his speech in Cairo, which was generally well-received. The way that the administration arrived at the decision and the increased support that this generated domestically and internationally were important factors.
Now let’s contrast this with the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. In September 2002 President Bush publicly made the case against Iraq to the United Nations. Why September? Andrew Card said, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” Many allies opposed immediate action and there were dramatic public protests around the world. Reports have since come out of the cherry picking of intelligence to support what appears now to have been a foregone conclusion. Then, a mere 6 months later, U.S. troops were storming into the country.
Even if the end result is the same, process matters. Iraq presents a lesson of what not to do. I believe that the process undertaken by the current president shows the opposite.
Kagan also concedes another point that it was actually the Obama administration’s efforts to get Iran to come to the table and the ensuring rejection by the Iranian regime that might be responsible for strengthening global resolve to isolate Iran. The process mattered here.
Kagan also talks about some of the goals that Obama might want to consider moving forward. He writes,
Nothing would do more to cement bipartisan support for Obama’s foreign policies than a return to the old American tradition of making the world safer for democracy.
I agree that there is much that President Obama could do encourage the strengthening of democracy around the world. How we get to that outcome though is critically important. Is it at the barrel of a gun? I hope not. One part of it may be supporting dissidents in authoritarian countries. But there is much more that can be done by the U.S. government to foster democratic institutions around the world. It’s that hard long work on institution building that I’d hope we would emphasize.