- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2005

The following are excerpts from the author’s report, “Both Sides of the Aisle: A Call for Bipartisan Foreign Policy,” published by the Council on Foreign Relations last month:

“People naturally disagree about who is responsible for the partisan tone and tactics in Washington, D.C., these days, but most agree on this: It’s worse, it’s more intense and it’s nastier. And few on either side are enjoying it much. …

The capital city has always been a partisan place full of rough-and-tumble political brawling. However, … it is better to work with all — not half — of our collective foreign-policy brain.

Today, like at so many significant moments in history, much is unsettled. Policy-makers are seeking to understand the Muslim world, anti-Americanism is intensifying, the White House is attempting new policies in the Middle East, and the United States is embroiled in a war testing all those policies. So this is a time for asking questions, not pulling down the blinds. Yet, fewer opportunities exist for the two parties to deliberate on foreign-policy issues.

The big foreign-policy issues, both regional and topical, that currently dominate the agenda — Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, nuclear proliferation, trade and immigration — will benefit from a process that engages the wisdom from both sides of the aisle. Such a bipartisan deliberative process matters for several reasons:

It positions policy as American policy, rather than Republican policy or Democratic policy. As such, it allows that policy to fare better in the international arena, since both allies and rivals see the policy as having ideologically diverse support.

It means that the party ultimately responsible for the policy will have contemplated potential pitfalls raised both from within that party and from across the aisle.

It increases the odds of continuity in policy as administrations inevitably change hands.

It helps to facilitate the legislative process, as a bipartisan process demands stronger communication and relationships between the executive and legislative branches.

The Panama Canal treaties provide an example of what a deliberative process can yield. Albeit with some bumps, the United States won approval for treaties aimed at modernizing the Canal regime and strengthening U.S. relations with Latin America.

Democratic President Jimmy Carter worked closely with Congress, consulting with Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (West Virginia Democrat) and Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tennessee Republican) as the treaties were negotiated. On Aug. 12, 1977, he sent a letter to all members of Congress stating that an agreement had been reached.

“This is a difficult political question and I need your help during coming weeks,” wrote Carter. The administration was sensitive to the domestic politics that characterized the treaty negotiations as the “Canal Giveaway” and worked with senators to explain the policy goals. In doing so, and in getting senators’ feedback, the treaty was modified and Republicans were a part of that process. That positioned Senators Byrd and Baker to round up support to ratify a treaty that began far short of the two-thirds support necessary in the Senate.

The Republican Reagan administration reached out to Democrats in the House of Representatives when it ran into trouble in its efforts to secure funding for the MX missile. In the House, the White House reached out to then Majority Whip Tom Foley (Washington Democrat), Rep. Al Gore (Tennessee Democrat), Rep. Les Aspin (Wisconsin Democrat), and Rep. Norman D. Dicks (Washington Democrat). That bipartisan process resulted in the creation of the Scowcroft Commission, which was set up to consider strategic nuclear modernization. The commission recommended that the MX missile be retained and Congress later approved funding for the missile program in accordance with the commission’s recommendations.

Not everyone agrees with the outcome of either the Panama Canal negotiations or the decisions surrounding the MX missile, but both examples reflect a deliberative process that yielded policy based significantly on substance, as well as the inevitable politics that come with these debates. Those who remember the battles over the Panama Canal treaties or the MX missile certainly will not remember them as placid. They were contentious and at times downright bitter, but there was conversation. There was deliberation. Both parties were involved in the end product.

It is hard to prove that this process matters. Even the best bipartisan deliberation does not guarantee sound policy. The lack of bipartisanship does not prevent it. But policy-makers in both parties … agree that the odds of sound policy increase when players from both parties are involved. Moreover, the absence of bipartisanship can often mean a lack of public understanding of the issues involved, as both sides spin the policy. It also makes it easier for policy to be driven by special interests. …

Both President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (Massachusetts Democrat) called for unity in the wake of the November 2004 presidential election. Yet, here we are with tensions rising to an all-time high as Republicans and Democrats squabble over Iraq, Iran, Hurricane Katrina and federal judges.

Is this level of rancor different from the many other times throughout history when the parties battled royally?

Yes, though politics never really “stopped at the water’s edge.” In 1919?20, Congress fought over whether the United States should join the League of Nations. In fact, when Democratic President Woodrow Wilson chose to personally attend the peace talks in Paris, he decided not to include any Republican senators in the American delegation, despite the fact that just a week before Republicans had won control of the Senate and that the Foreign Relations Committee was chaired by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (Massachusetts Republican), who was not a supporter of either the Versailles Peace Treaty or the League of Nations.

From 1938 [to 1940], in the midst of World War II, the United States was divided over whether to challenge the Axis powers or preserve American neutrality. This question was not resolved until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

More recently, history was dominated by the Cold War, when the United States and Western Europe, as well as Democrats and Republicans, were united in a desire to contain the Soviet Union. That was a big, broad and unifying goal, and support for that goal meant it was easier for Republicans serving in Congress under Democratic President John F. Kennedy or Democrats under Republican President Ronald Reagan to cross party lines and embrace the president’s foreign-policy agenda.

But did politics really “stop at the water’s edge”? Think Vietnam. Think aid to the Nicaraguan Contras or Star Wars, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. What internationalists really remember so fondly when they recall those golden years is a time of shared common goals big enough to overcome political differences.

It did not mean that President Kennedy did not lock horns with Republicans prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, or that President Reagan did not go head-to-head with Democrats over his dogged pursuit of Star Wars. Rather, politics “stopping at the water’s edge” meant both that there were broad goals big enough to unify politicians and that general agreement created a space in which members could occasionally reach across the aisle on other foreign-policy issues when they wanted to.

Some would insist that the United States has had plenty of bipartisanship recently — maybe even too much. The resolution authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks passed with only one dissenting vote in the House of Representatives. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 passed and was extended with overwhelming majorities. Congress has authorized the use of U.S. forces in Iraq and few would cut funding for U.S. troops in Iraq (although some would argue for either a drawdown or an increase in the troop levels). But bipartisan votes or politically essential support for the troops must not be confused with a bipartisan process.

Some of those votes were [born] of fear, the fear of failing to support the troops or the president; or the fear of appearing weak on national security at a time of vulnerability for the nation. A fully partisan process may at times produce votes that are quite lopsided — creating an illusion of bipartisanship.

Few recent foreign-policy-related votes reflecting majority support from both parties have grown from a truly deliberative process. Instead, people in both parties are complaining that they do not know what the other side thinks on critical foreign-policy issues. They say there is generally less engagement; ideas are not being honed through debate; the tough questions are not being probed. Moreover, both sides have tended to support their party leaders even when they had deep reservations about their leaders’ position.


Americans have almost always been unified by foreign-policy goals, particularly those articulated at a high level of abstraction. Nearly everyone agrees that we should defend America’s security, promote prosperity, fight communism, promote American values, stop terrorism, advance democracy, and reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation. The divisive issues surround how to best advance those goals. …

Executive Branch

1. The president matters most. His decisions — more than any other — set the tone and shape the process. Accordingly, all who will offer themselves as candidates for the presidency in 2008 should begin now to consider ways in which they might help establish a process that engages debate and discussion in foreign policy … .

2. Future administrations should devote time and energy to building relationships with Congress and consulting congressional leaders on foreign-policy issues on an ongoing basis, not just during times of crisis. …

The president should notify Congress in advance of major foreign-policy appointments, including the secretaries of state, defense, and treasury. …

The president should also seek congressional input on front-burner issues ranging from trade with China to the size of the military. …

The president should establish regular monthly meetings with the secretary of state and leaders in Congress, including the Speaker of the House, the House minority leader, the chairs of the House International Relations and Armed Services committees, the Senate majority and minority leaders, and the chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Intelligence committees. …

The Department of State should build a deep congressional-affairs division with a sufficient number of personnel to help learn the texture and talents of the congressional membership. …

3. Presidents should consider the appointment of qualified people from the opposing party to senior positions at the Department of State, United States Trade Representative, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and within the intelligence community. …

4. The executive branch should have consultative bodies and encourage the continuation of the long history of boards that provide for discussion.

For Congress

1. Committee chairs should consider a monthly lunch meeting without staff or press, during which members could discuss some issues without the glare of the lights and special-interest groups. …

2. To help chip away at the scarcity-of-time issue, new members of Congress should be limited to serving on only two committees. This would mean a smaller total number of members per committee. …

3. End the practice of killing presidential appointees through holds. … No senator should be allowed to delay a vote on a nominee indefinitely.

4. Administrations, both Republican and Democrat, should be able to staff up earlier. …

5. Many members of Congress are reluctant to travel, given the public’s disdain for “junkets.” Close scruity of congressional travel has been a good thing and has eliminated most abusive travel. The pendulum, however, should not swing too far in the opposite direction. An overwhelming majority of members in both parties say that their strongest relationships across the aisle were built on bipartisan congressional delegation trips, where both members and spouses had a chance to get to know one another more than superficially.

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