Paul Pillar

Pence Goes Over the Water's Edge

As recently as a generation or two ago, the mainstream of American politics observed an important limit whereby domestic politics did not operate beyond the nation’s boundaries.  This did not mean there weren’t sharp differences and vigorous debate about foreign policy, often along party lines.  There always have been those, going back to differing Federalist and Democratic-Republican sentiments toward Britain and France in the early days of the republic.  The limit was nonetheless based on recognizing a common national interest in America’s encounter with the rest of the world, and on believing that this interest takes precedence over more parochial and partisan interests.  Flowing from this recognition was a felt need to present a single face to the outside world and to avoid washing dirty domestic political linen on foreign soil.

The limit also included the concept that party lines should not cross, in either direction, the nation’s boundaries.  This concept has been even stronger in the United States than in most European democracies.  There has been a traditionally American aversion to participation in transnational partisan movements such as the Socialist International, and not just because that particular movement is socialist.

In modern times one of the foremost personifications of this limit was Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worked with the Truman administration in establishing the post-World War II international political and economic architecture.  His role included active participation and not just Congressional approval; Vandenberg was, for example, a U.S. delegate to the founding conference of the United Nations.  The guiding principle of Vandenberg’s conduct on these issues was, in his words, that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge.”

Today one can find discouraging examples of disdain for Vandenberg’s principle.  There was, for example, the egregious open letter to Iran three years ago that Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas devised, most Senate Republicans signed, and basically said to the Iranian regime that it should not take as a credible commitment whatever the incumbent U.S. administration was saying at the negotiating table.

This month we have had another demonstration of how far things have come from Vandenberg’s principle in the form of Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the Middle East.  The trip also demonstrated how, on one foreign policy issue in particular, the principle had been abandoned some time ago even though many on one side of that issue do not want to admit it.

Early in the trip Pence held a meet-and-greet with U.S. troops at an undisclosed location near the Syrian border.  This sort of meeting with American service members overseas is traditionally a way for senior leaders to express, on behalf of themselves and the American people, appreciation for the troops’ work and sacrifices.  It is supposed to be an apolitical morale booster.  It is one of the last places where partisan attacks should intrude.  But Pence used the occasion to lambaste Democrats for the government shutdown.  Senior staffers for previous vice presidents, both Republican and Democratic, appropriately criticized Pence for his very inappropriate abuse of the occasion.

Then came Pence’s speech to the Israeli Knesset.  Pence—notwithstanding his performance from time to time of clean-up duty back home after some of Donald Trump’s rhetorical excesses—did nothing to limit the damage from Trump’s recent divisive proclamation regarding Jerusalem.  Instead, Pence exacerbated the damage.  He went all in with the Israeli right wing, who could not have loved the speech more if the Israeli prime minister’s office had drafted it.  One of the leading hardliners in the ruling coalition, Naftali Bennett, said the speech “will go down in the history books of both nations.”

The most plausible interpretation of Pence’s primary motivation in designing the speech, replete with biblical references, was that he was speaking to American evangelical Christians whom Pence considers his primary domestic political base and of whom he is himself a member.  Domestic political considerations (supplemented by personal religious sentiments) took precedence over well-considered conduct of relations with a foreign country, and did so in a way that advanced neither U.S. interests nor international peace.  That Pence was aiming his remarks at American Christians, not Christians in the Holy Land in which he was speaking, was reflected in how the latter were unsurprisingly critical of Pence for buying into the Israeli government position.