We Bow to the God Bipartisanship
UPON HIS departure as secretary of defense, none other than Washington’s latest living legend Robert Gates cautioned those he was leaving behind to cherish and nurture bipartisanship. “When we have been successful in national security and foreign affairs, it has been because there has been bipartisan support.” To drive the point home, he added: “No major international problem can be solved on one president’s watch. And so, unless it has bipartisan support, unless it can be extended over a period of time, the risks of failure [are] high.”
Contrary to Gates’s Holy Grail sentiments and to most homilies to bipartisanship, Dean Acheson tagged the practice a “magnificent fraud.” As President Truman’s secretary of state and thus one of its earliest practitioners, he knew of what he spoke. In a 1971 interview at the Truman Library, Acheson offered a taste of his usual rough-and-tumble candor:
The question, who is it bad for, and who is it good for, is what you ought to put your mind on. . . . No, I wouldn’t be too serious about bipartisanship. It’s a great myth that ought to be fostered. And don’t bring too damn much scholarship to bear on it. You’ll prove it out of existence if you’re not careful.
The intent here is not to slaughter the sacred cow, but to reduce its high-flying levitation, thereby giving its Washington worshippers a better view of when bipartisanship might be useful and harmful—and to whom. Presidents seek bipartisanship to tamp down domestic critics and to convince foreign leaders that they cannot outlast or undermine presidential policies—as happened with Hanoi during the Vietnam War, Moscow during arms-control talks of the Cold War and the Taliban in the current war in Afghanistan. But in these and many other cases, bipartisan backing at home has too often been purchased at the price of good policy abroad.
When worrying too much about bipartisanship, presidents also would do well to reflect on their vast powers to make foreign policy, powers to act as they think best—even in the face of serious political attacks. My concern is that Gates and many others have so inflated bipartisanship’s centrality that it has become a distraction from, and detriment to, making good policy. And if it is greater political support presidents are seeking, they’d find it better in the results of smart thinking than in compromised positions. Good policy enhances the chances of success abroad, which in the end is good politics as well.
The distance from Gates to Acheson is not small: Gates holds that two-party togetherness is essential to successful foreign policy. Acheson saw it as a useful political tool for presidents, presumably to curb domestic opposition and add some weight to U.S. foreign policy—but did not want key decision makers to be teary eyed and reverent about it. Three national-security advisers interviewed for this article—Brent Scowcroft for Presidents Ford and George H. W. Bush, Sandy Berger for President Clinton and Stephen Hadley for President George W. Bush—fall somewhere in between, though closer to the latter. Whatever their differences, all agree that a review of bipartisanship—its meaning, practice and value—is long overdue.
INDEED, THE story and study of bipartisanship best reveal why Acheson’s cynicism is preferable to Gates’s worship. And most begin the narrative with Truman, Acheson and George Marshall. More or less, this trio maneuvered Senator Arthur Vandenberg, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, into being their cat’s-paw in a Republican-controlled Senate. They needed the very influential Michigan senator to cajole more than a dozen of his fellow conservatives to vote for Truman’s highly controversial Cold War initiatives: the Marshall Plan, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the like. With the brilliance and effectiveness of these initiatives, cries for bipartisanship became a Washington staple. The idea grew so agreeable that few policy hands carefully examined exactly what bipartisanship meant or searched for its telling derivations.
The roots of bipartisanship go back to the well-worn trope that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Vandenberg is often credited as its author, but it seems that the first utterer of this biblical phrase was Daniel Webster, as a member of the House during the War of 1812. “Even our party divisions, acrimonious as they are, cease at the water’s edge,” said the great orator. He was either hallucinating or wishing upon a star, for even in his day, political divisions abounded over international affairs. As for Vandenberg, he actually preferred the term “unpartisan,” similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of state Cordell Hull’s “nonpartisan.” FDR himself and, later, President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles used today’s favored term, “bipartisanship.” Whoever first framed the incantation and whatever its exact origins, the propagators all had the same idea in mind: while squabbles at home represent democracy at work and are fine, unity abroad is necessary.
Ignoring Acheson’s injunction to leave the subject well enough alone for fear of debunking “the myth,” scholars plunged in and proved with data that the practice of bipartisanship has been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, according to political scientists James McCormick and Eugene Wittkopf, bipartisanship—defined stringently yet commonly as majorities of each party supporting the president—has been absent for most of the post-WWII period. Amazingly, they found that since 1947, only Eisenhower met the standard in both houses of Congress for most of his foreign-policy positions. Even after 9/11, George W. Bush achieved only a modest spike in cross-aisle largesse.
Bipartisanship has been in short supply, and partisanship has been the norm. Since 1947, every president won far more support from members of his own party in both congressional bodies than from the opposition; in fact, on average 20 percent more in each chamber on foreign-policy issues. The reality has been that on many key congressional votes dealing with foreign policy and national security, Congress has split along party lines. In other words, the reality is that politics rarely stopped at the water’s edge.
Despite the absence of bipartisanship since World War II, presidents have generally survived the political deluge and followed their desired foreign-policy paths. That’s because they have the bulk of the political and bureaucratic guns—the State and Defense Departments’ expertise, the intelligence agencies’ claim on facts and so on. By comparison, congressional staffs are puny. Add to this, when push comes to shove, Congress’s traditional deference to the president as commander in chief plus key Supreme Court decisions favoring executive authority in foreign policy. Indeed, it’s only in trade negotiations and foreign aid that Congress comes close to holding its own. On aid and trade, legislators have fought hard and well, and above all, here their local political interests cannot be ignored.
LET US take it case by case. In the face of constant Republican barrages, Truman’s Cold War initiatives proved successful in establishing containment, deterrence and a worldwide ring of alliances. True, his detractors among both Republicans and conservative Democrats prevented him from engaging the Chinese Communists, but he steadfastly avoided their insistence on unleashing a war against them. As for Eisenhower, he settled for a highly unpopular stalemate on the Korean Peninsula while conservatives clamored for a nuclear attack. Nor did he bend to incessant pressures from hawks in both parties to vastly expand military spending and confront Moscow.
John F. Kennedy looked like a hawk, albeit a befuddled one, to Democrats as well as Republicans. Early on he botched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and an initial meeting with his Soviet counterpart. In short order, however, he faced down a Soviet threat in Berlin and Cuba, initiated arms-control talks with the dreaded Soviet regime, began a huge military buildup and crept into a war in Indochina. Kennedy was able to do all this his way, even though his victory in 1960 was a squeaker over Richard Nixon—and despite widespread skepticism about his experience and executive maturity.
For Lyndon Johnson, foreign policy began and ended with Vietnam. Congressional leaders raised their doubts about the war publicly, and mobs raged outside the White House and Pentagon, but he persisted in escalating the bombing of North Vietnam and raising troop levels in the South (all the way up to 550,000). No president before him had ever confronted more open and violent opposition on a foreign-policy issue—and still he basically kept to his course, good or bad. It was to get worse for Richard Nixon.
Indeed, what Johnson sowed in the Vietnam War—exploding doubts and fears about grossly excessive, unchecked and dangerous White House power on foreign affairs—Presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan were to reap. Suffice it to say, however, they too called most shots.
George H. W. Bush staunchly followed his own path despite constant fire from both parties. He and his team essentially got Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle the Soviet empire. Though conservatives lambasted him for “being taken in” by the Soviet leader, Bush persisted and succeeded. In order to keep following a traditional realist course on China, Bush the elder also successfully vetoed bills to tighten sanctions on the Beijing regime after the Tiananmen Square massacre. He got the necessary majorities to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, though significant numbers of Democratic senators dissented. Besides, his aides made clear that he would go to war with Iraq with or without a congressional resolution, citing his power as commander in chief. Above all, he ended the Cold War without a shot fired; all the while conservatives screamed “sellout!”
Though William Jefferson Clinton had no foreign-policy experience, and though White House powers over national security seemed to wane with the demise of the Great Russian Bear, the former Arkansas governor did his foreign-policy thing—when he was interested in it. For him, domestic issues came first. Still, as Bosnia’s bloody civil war escalated, he sent in troops and aircraft, despite bipartisan complaints and Republican control of the House. After he promised to extract the troops in a year, he kept them there.
George W. Bush, also bereft of foreign-policy credentials and confronted by Democratic majorities in Congress, possessed something perhaps more empowering than the Soviet enemy—the terrorism threat set in motion by 9/11. Everyone applauded his attack on Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s safe haven, and many bought into his fearmongering about Saddam Hussein. As opposition to the Iraq War grew steadily in the public and in Congress, he nonetheless persisted in escalating the number of U.S. forces. As Stephen Hadley told me, “In theory, it would have been easy for Congress to block the surge with a combination of deadline setting, revising readiness requirements and defunding the war effort.” None of that happened. Further, Bush doubled the intelligence and baseline defense budgets almost without a legislative peep.
Barack Obama, besieged by a declining economy and two major land wars, has largely shaped his own path abroad. He has bobbed and weaved as he sees fit with Iran and North Korea and intervened in Libya against public opinion. Only regarding the long war in Afghanistan did he first bend to criticism from the right by increasing force levels from twenty-one thousand to one hundred thousand, and then to the left by announcing cuts to seventy thousand in 2012.
This recital of presidential power is not meant to suggest that their policies ranged free of serious domestic attack or proved generally effective abroad. What the record shows is this: with or without bipartisan backing, the White House usually preserves its desired policy core. To do their business overseas, they did not need bipartisanship.
TELLINGLY, SINCE WWII, only three presidents—Nixon, Carter and Reagan—suffered outright defeats by Congress on major issues. More telling still, they were defeated by bipartisan majorities. Yet even in defeat on particular issues, the presidents all found ways to follow their desired paths. Bipartisanship, one way or the other, was not decisive in the end.
When Nixon took office, Congress had not rejected any president’s main foreign-policy initiative since FDR’s initial failure to revise the Neutrality Acts in 1939. With the Watergate scandal aborning and the Vietnam War doubling in costs and casualties over the Johnson years, significant majorities in Congress handcuffed Nixon two ways on Vietnam: by banning air operations over Indochina and by prohibiting arms shipments to South Vietnam. On top of this, Congress passed the War Powers Act over Nixon’s veto in 1973. The Senate override vote was bipartisan, and the House vote was disproportionately Democratic.
Before Jimmy Carter even completed his oath of office, the foreign-policy community went for his jugular. They judged him to be naive and incompetent. High gas prices and the failed attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran only made matters worse. Carter suffered a flat-out defeat with the Senate’s failure to even vote on, let alone approve, his SALT II treaty with the USSR.
Congressional majorities as well as many foreign-policy experts cringed at Reagan’s provocative rhetoric regarding Moscow. Accordingly, congressional majorities tied his hands on nuclear-weapons systems and on the arms-control negotiating process. In 1985, the Senate voted seventy-eight to twenty and the House passed legislation to undercut Reagan’s plans to deploy one hundred new MX missiles, presumably a big bargaining chip in arms talks with Moscow. Congress also feared war in Central America. A Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Boland amendments, sharply curtailing aid to fight left-wing insurgencies and governments in Nicaragua. The first Boland vote in 1982 passed the House 411–0 and was later approved by the Senate.
To beat presidents in up-or-down votes requires a perfect storm of botched policy making and bad politics. In most instances, White House opponents cannot prevail without a full barrage: the weakening of the president’s overall popularity; the apparent failure (and the presumed dangers) of his policies in human and financial cost; and, perhaps most critically, the resistance from overwhelming numbers of the party in control of Congress—plus a healthy chunk of the other side. Two-party backing is not necessary for the president to make and conduct foreign policy; it is often essential to defeat it.
Remarkably, even these outright defeats were not utterly debilitating. All Nixon’s tribulations notwithstanding, he essentially fought and concluded the Vietnam War as he secretly expected. Although besieged by Congress, he was able to reverse Cold War history, pursuing a détente policy with the USSR that greatly displeased his own party. Equally impressive, he reopened ties with China, the devil of devils in American politics.
Weakened as Carter was, he still carried out a controversial human-rights policy, openly criticizing the shah of Iran and jeopardizing Soviet arms talks; cut U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Guatemala and Argentina; won passage of the Panama Canal Treaty (approved by two-thirds of the Senate despite public disapproval); and sold fighter planes to Saudi Arabia and Egypt in 1978 (despite the resistance of the Israeli lobby). After being battered in Congress, Reagan still had the strength to reverse course and pursue the most wide-ranging arms-control agreements with Gorbachev, against the will of leaders in his own administration and his own party.
THIS HISTORY should quiet passions for bipartisanship or, at least, pressures to pay a high price for it. But it doesn’t. Presidents, their advisers and foreign-policy experts all get uneasy about disunity at home. It’s not easy to shake the belief that enemies successfully use America’s internal splits to their advantage. Those at war with a divided America outwait us; those negotiating with Washington play one side of the aisle against the other. As Sandy Berger put it to me, “A lack of bipartisanship gives foreign governments an opportunity to drive a wedge between our political parties.”
Yet the advantages gained by foreigners are mostly at the margins. Whether it be China, Pakistan or Iran, all have failed to significantly alter the presidentially desired course because of internal disunity. China gains advantages in certain negotiations less because of domestic splits and more because of its newfound power. Even the Soviets’ gaming of American politics rarely allowed them to get the better of us during arms talks. In the Afghan war, the Taliban gain leverage not because of a Republican-Democratic divide, but because the American people increasingly conclude that the war is too costly, too long and no longer vital to U.S. interests.
The real and consequential problems arise when leaders believe they must have bipartisan help and tailor their positions to facades of unity. So it is that the Obama administration, not untypically, is pursuing policies with respect to North Korea, Iran, the Arab Spring, Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and the Afghan war, to name a few examples, where it has little faith its efforts will succeed. To go for a more decisive course would risk heated domestic opposition.
As with other administrations, it’s nearly impossible to document the importance of politics in making such decisions because the myth reigns that security must reside well above politics—untouchable. Not surprisingly, leaders rarely leave a written record of how they integrate policy with politics, however legitimate and necessary that integration may be. It’s not discussed at White House meetings, even though there isn’t a White House session where it’s out of mind. Consequently, these key political calculations are made without discussion, for good and ill. Without this data, it is no surprise that the acclaim for bipartisanship has not been carefully examined.
Even Acheson, cynic that he was, didn’t want to abandon bipartisanship, arguing it “is ideal for the Executive because you cannot run this damn country under the Constitution any other way.” By this, he apparently meant that without it, the congressional rabble would get totally out of hand. Thus, even the cynic, in his own way, contributed to suffocating a hard look at the subject.
Presidents have to closely examine what they gain and lose by making political compromises on policy for political backing. Obama quiets complaints at home by denying Iran the right to have a uranium-enrichment facility under international inspection. But that condition makes negotiations with Tehran impossible. Obama avoids criticism from human-rights camps by joining the effort to overthrow Colonel Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. But does he do so at the expense of a very uncertain and possibly dangerous future? He appeases conservatives by minimizing defense cuts. But what price is paid for the U.S. economy, the bedrock of power? Brent Scowcroft put it best: “Our policies are too often constructed to deal with domestic politics rather than the realities of world politics.”
Congress can also lose from excessive pursuit of bipartisanship. Sure, legislators gain leverage in the process, but it can weaken political resolve to challenge presidents openly and hard. This is especially the case in early stages of key policy debates when presidential thinking is most in need of hard scrutiny. Legislators know full well that presidents use “unity” to stifle or quiet tough questions. Indeed, both sides tend to use bipartisanship as a political hammer. By bowing to this Holy Grail, Congress shortchanges itself, the American people and the president as well.
The foreign-policy community should look again at the costs and benefits of bipartisanship. A strong case can be made that a winning U.S. foreign policy turns not so much on politics and political parties but on other factors: the strength and vibrancy of the economy (declining seriously), the credibility of our military capability (still strong for deterrence and punishment), and how well policy corresponds to realities on the ground and applicable U.S. power.
Step one in the quest for better policy is to stop drinking the bipartisan Kool-Aid.
Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former senior official in the State and Defense Departments, and a former New York Times columnist. He is also a member of The National Interest’s Advisory Council.