Opinion

Obama's bipartisan moment on foreign policy

For now at least, Republicans have found little to disagree with in his handling of foreign policy.

Don't look now, but the United States is experiencing something unusual in its recent history: a moment of bipartisan consensus on foreign policy.

Over the last month, President Obama has launched initiatives in areas that were flash points of contention only a year ago: winding down the war in Iraq, escalating the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, negotiating with Iran, renewing efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and seeking warmer relations with Russia and China.

All those issues drew heated debate in the 2008 presidential campaign. But this spring, the prevailing Republican response to Obama's announcements has been silence -- even support.

Last year, John McCain called Obama too naive to be commander in chief. Last week, McCain expressed support for Obama's decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, saying he was "confident that it can and will work."

Equally remarkable, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confirmed that the new administration was dumping the Bush-era label of a "global war on terror" and sent super-envoy Richard C. Holbrooke to chat up Iran's deputy foreign minister, the response from the once-lusty right was almost imperceptible.

Some critics are still out there, of course. Former Vice President Dick Cheney charged that Obama's policies were making the nation vulnerable to terrorists, and paleoconservative scold John R. Bolton accused Clinton of "bumper sticker diplomacy." But neither Cheney nor Bolton found any echoes in the ranks of practicing politicians.

Why the sudden reticence on the part of conservatives who, only a year ago, delighted in shellacking Obama as soft on national security?

Part of it is simple distraction. The economic crisis, the federal budget and the battle over healthcare have crowded foreign policy off center stage, at least for a while. On those domestic issues, old-fashioned partisanship is alive and well.

Another factor is Republican exhaustion on foreign policy. The traumas of the Bush administration left them a legacy that needs to be refreshed and (as the political consultants say) rebranded -- but they haven't had time to do that yet. In a recession, they know they need to win voters back on home economics first.

But the biggest reason for bipartisan comity is that there isn't all that much for the Republicans to take issue with. Obama, the presidential candidate with the most liberal voting record in the Senate, has turned out to be a determined centrist when it comes to foreign policy.

"There is a rough bipartisan consensus in American foreign policy, and Barack Obama is in it," one of the original neoconservatives who promoted the idea of invading Iraq, Robert Kagan, told me.

In Iraq, Obama's first action once in office was to soften what had been the central promise of his campaign: withdrawal within 16 months. He now says he hopes to withdraw two-thirds of the troops in 18 months, but even that will depend on how things look then. In Afghanistan, Obama agreed to his generals' request for troops to launch a smaller version of the manpower-heavy counterinsurgency strategy that worked in Baghdad.

Obama's choices for top foreign policy positions reassured conservatives too. Clinton was the most hawkish Democratic presidential candidate; national security advisor James L. Jones Jr., a retired Marine general, had served as a McCain advisor; and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was, of course, a holdover from the Bush administration.

But this wasn't a postelection conversion. Obama began moving squarely into the center during the campaign, when he fended off conservative attacks by promising that his withdrawal from Iraq would be "responsible" and that he would do "everything" to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Despite his multinational upbringing, Obama's political agenda has always been primarily domestic. He didn't have developed positions on many foreign policy issues until he arrived in the Senate in 2004 -- and promptly recruited a conservative Republican apostle of bipartisanship, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, as a mentor. For a president whose central goal is an ambitious and, yes, liberal reshaping of the federal government's domestic role, disarming the opposition on foreign policy serves a useful purpose.

But that bipartisan centrism has not been universally acclaimed. A vocal challenge on foreign policy has risen from the leftmost wing of his own party, where leaders of the antiwar movement have reacted to his actions with distress. To them -- including some of Obama's staunchest supporters during the campaign -- the escalation in Afghanistan looks distressingly like the "surge" of troops into Iraq that Obama joined them in opposing only two years ago.

Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey called Obama's decision to keep some troops in Iraq longer than the promised 16 months "unacceptable," saying Iraqis would perceive the military presence as "an enduring occupation force." Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern said Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan would lead to a "war without end."

But they were minority voices. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who led efforts to cut off funding for Bush's Iraq war, shows no inclination to legislate limits on her own president.

This bipartisanship moment won't last forever. Conservatives will regain their footing once they catch their breath. And once Obama's diplomacy runs into trouble, as it almost inevitably will somewhere in the world, they will have more to criticize.

Obama has already postponed a difficult decision until this fall, when his generals want him to approve an additional 10,000 troops for Afghanistan. If Iraq's fragile semi-peace collapses, he'll face another tough choice: whether to halt the U.S. withdrawal. If nuclear talks with Iran don't produce quick results, he'll have to decide whether to declare his own diplomacy a failure.

Last week, McCain warned Obama that his biggest trouble was likely to come from the left. With no apparent irony, he urged the president to consult closely with the Democratic leadership in Congress "to prevent ... a resurgence of antiwar activity."

The Arizona senator offered Obama an offhand but chilling warning from history. Obama's decision to postpone his decision on the additional 10,000 troops for Afghanistan, McCain warned, smacked of "Lyndon Johnson-style incrementalism."

Only two months in office, and Obama already faces Johnson's dilemma: a war policy that divides his own party. Maybe bipartisanship isn't all it's cracked up to be.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

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