- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2006

There once was a French prime minister — Pierre Mendes France — who tried to get his people to stop drinking wine and to drink milk instead. On the basis of what cardiologists now tell us about the relative merits of red wine and milk, it can be argued Mendes France might have been misinformed.

On another, and perhaps, much more important score, Mendes France was a very wise leader when he came to power in the summer of 1954. With the French people sharply divided over whether they should continue waging war against the communists in Indochina, especially after the fiasco at Dien Bien Phu, Mendes France declared his primary focus was not on the problems in Southeast Asia.

He expressed sympathy for the Indochinese business people and Catholics who, he knew, would suffer if France pulled out. Of course he also recognized how withdrawing would damage French prestige. If France did not keep its commitments in Indochina, he knew it be hard for people to take seriously its commitments elsewhere. But his overriding concern was for France.

His policy, he said, was simple. “Nothing that divides France can be good.”

Domestic support for foreign policy, it should go without saying, is essential in a democracy. In his memoirs, Henry Kissinger argues at great length that there was nothing wrong with the Nixon administration’s Vietnam policy — except too many Americans wouldn’t give it the support it obviously deserved. This is like saying there was nothing wrong with the Edsel — except nobody wanted to buy one.

Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, was deeply sensitized to the need for public support for foreign policy by the events following World War I. Woodrow Wilson had negotiated the peace treaty and the Charter of the League of Nations as if operating in a vacuum. After the agreements were cast in stone, he tried to sell them to the Republican-controlled Senate and then, when that did not work, directly to the American people. For all intents and purposes he died in the process, as did the treaty and the League.

Franklin Roosevelt, while keeping the most important decisions in his own hands, left day-to-day conduct of foreign policy to experts, like Sumner Welles, in and out of the State Department. He assigned responsibility for ensuring Congress — including key Republicans — were on board to his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, a former Tennessee senator with great influence on Capitol Hill.

And for the most important job — selling our foreign policy to the American people — FDR chose FDR, perhaps the “greatest communicator” of them all. At every step, he made sure he had the necessary support in Congress and among the public and was never in the embarrassing position of trying to lead with no followers.

This is a lesson those in power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue should focus on. Of course, Iraq is important. The Middle East is important. Oil is important. They are all important. But none of them is capable of inflicting more harm on U.S. national interests than this horrendous split in the American electorate between those who support the Iraq war and those who oppose it.

Whatever else the Bush administration wants to do — right, wrong or indifferent — the well is poisoned by Iraq. All other players in world politics, whether they wish us well or ill, are keenly aware the administration is weakened by lack of public support. That gives confidence to our adversaries that the administration’s threats don’t carry a lot of weight and increased concern by our friends that its promises don’t count for very much.

To echo Pierre Mendes France: Nothing that divides the United States like this can possibly be good. The Bush administration and its political strategists apparently believe the key to election victories is to exploit “wedge” issues, such as abortion, same-sex “marriage” and stem cell research to divide the country. That obviously has some validity come election time. The problem is that such divisiveness makes it nearly impossible to govern and to conduct foreign policy.

In his press conference following the November elections, President Bush said he knows “when it’s time to stop campaigning and start governing.” But in all other public remarks, and especially his responses to the Baker-Hamilton commission recommendations, he gives the impression he is still campaigning, still trying to exploit divisions rather than to achieve the kind of consensus essential to governing and conducting foreign policy.

If things don’t change, and quickly, President Bush may find himself — very quickly — the lamest duck since Woodrow Wilson.

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington D.C. and Florence, Italy.

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