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The Bankruptcy of ‘Bipartisan Foreign Policy’

A potential Biden Secretary of State lays out his case for a failed orthodoxy

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) asks a question to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a Senate Foreign Relations hearing (Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)

Does America need a bipartisan foreign policy consensus? It is preferable that there be a broad national consensus about what U.S. interests are and how they should be pursued. The U.S. is poorly served if its foreign policy veers back and forth between two poles every few years. But if bipartisan foreign policy simply means a return to the stagnant, narrow range of views that have prevailed for the last thirty years, then we should want no part of it.

There have been some promising signs of bipartisan cooperation in reining in the executive and opposing illegal wars in the last few years, especially in connection with U.S. involvement in Yemen. If there is to be a foreign policy consensus in this country, it will need to be built on that foundation of commitment to the Constitution, peace, and restraint. Trying to revive a bankrupt consensus that has already failed the country will only lead to more of the same costly debacles and missed opportunities.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) recently outlined his vision of what “bipartisan foreign policy” should look like in the future, and it is very much the opposite of what the country needs. Coons describes going back to a pre-Trump approach in which both parties collude in maintaining exorbitant military spending, excessive commitments to too many other states, and perpetuating endless wars. To the extent that there is still bipartisan consensus in support of these things, that is not good for the U.S., and the continued existence of such a consensus is cause for lament rather than celebration. Coons proves that a bipartisan foreign policy is still possible, but he does not prove that it is desirable. This article matters because it is clear that Coons is writing as more than a Biden campaign surrogate. He is auditioning for a top position in a Biden administration, most likely Secretary of State, and there is reason to expect that he will get that appointment if Biden wins.

The senator says, “The key to a bipartisan foreign policy is never losing sight of the home front,” but neglecting things at home is what defenders of this consensus have done for decades. It is all very well to say that policymakers should consider how U.S. foreign policy affects Americans at home, but this doesn’t seem to be tied into any serious rethinking of what U.S. priorities should be or how large of a role the U.S. should have. Despite the numerous failures of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in the last twenty years alone, Coons shows no interest in any of the creative thinking going on in his own party about how to change and improve U.S. foreign policy.

One of Coons’ biggest blind spots is on Iran. He incredibly touts the potential of bipartisan support for a “new deal”:

Members of both parties support negotiating a multilateral deal with Iran—one that includes constraints on the country’s nuclear program and rigorous inspections, enforceable limits on its ballistic missile tests, and punishment for its support for terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East.

Even if there is bipartisan support for this fantasy agreement, that doesn’t mean that it is worth pursuing. The senator conveniently leaves out that none of the remaining parties to the existing nuclear deal is interested in negotiating such an agreement. Most of what he proposes to include in this deal is a non-starter in Tehran, and it will be an even harder sell there after their presidential election next summer. Coons has simply repurposed Trump administration talking points on Iran and slapped the label multilateral on them. The senator has unwittingly shown us how unrealistic and hard-line his notion of “bipartisan foreign policy” is and why we should reject it.

Coons also praises the role of Congress in restraining the president, but he notably omits some of the most significant Congressional rebukes of Trump:

Congress has checked the president’s most impulsive and ill-considered attempts at statecraft. When Trump attempted to dramatically slash the foreign aid budget, Congress maintained funding for national security, commercial, and humanitarian interests overseas. When Trump canceled military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, Congress prevented him from withdrawing troops from that theater. After Trump attempted to ingratiate himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Congress passed new sanctions against Moscow and Pyongyang by veto-proof margins. And after Trump signaled his approval of China’s horrific human rights abuses, Congress passed—and Trump was forced to sign—legislation promoting human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Some of these actions by Congress may have been the right ones, and some needlessly tie the president’s hands in providing sanctions relief, but what all of them have in common is that they reflect an utterly conventional view of what U.S. foreign policy should be. Coons never mentions the much more interesting and different expressions of bipartisan cooperation that have occurred in Congress in the last four years, and that underscores just how unimaginative and stale this vision is.

Coons’ article ignores Yemen and the U.S.-Saudi relationship entirely. There is no mention of the fight over arms sales or the administration’s phony “emergency” declaration that they used to circumvent Congressional scrutiny. Congress used the War Powers Act for the first time in 2019 to challenge continued U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen in the most significant protest against illegal warfare and presidential overreach in decades. It was a bipartisan initiative, co-sponsored by Sens. Sanders, Murphy, and Lee, but this is obviously not the kind of bipartisanship that interests Coons. For his part, Coons was one of the last Democrats to get on board with opposing the war on Yemen. When the resolution to end U.S. involvement was first introduced in the Senate in the spring of 2018, Coons voted against taking it up:

Menendez and nine other Democrats ― Sens. Chris Coons (Del.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Doug Jones (Ala.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) ― ultimately aligned with all but five Republicans to kill the bill.

Coons eventually came around to support the resolution after the backlash against Saudi Arabia intensified later in 2018 following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but Coons and his relatively hawkish colleagues on the Democratic side resisted efforts to end U.S. involvement in the war for quite some time before that.

I bring up Coons’ history on Yemen because it is a good example of how centrist Democratic hawks have positioned themselves on this issue. Initially, they were supportive of the policy under Obama, and they continued to say nothing against it for the first two years of Trump’s presidency. It was only when it became politically dangerous for them to stay on Trump’s side that they switched. For decades, the bipartisan foreign policy consensus has been made up of Republican hawks that set the terms of the debate and the Democratic hawks that follow in their wake, and it is only after a terrible policy starts to get public attention that the latter discover that reflexive hawkishness isn’t such smart politics after all. The fetishization of bipartisan cooperation as something good in itself has enabled many of our worst foreign policy disasters, and so it has been with Yemen.

The senator gestures at a Goldilocks solution as the answer: “The United States does not have to choose between being the world’s policeman and total retrenchment: it can engage the world more selectively, in principled and pragmatic ways that better serve the interests of working Americans.” That might sound reasonable enough, but at no point does he identify any place where the U.S. should be less engaged. He says that the U.S. can be more selective in where it involves itself, but he refuses to say how or where that should take place. He wants to strike a rhetorical balance between overcommitment and retrenchment, but when it comes to the details he is always erring on the side of the former. This is what usually happens when a politician or policymaker insists on maintaining U.S. “leadership”: preserving that “leadership” becomes an end in itself, and everything else has to be subordinated to it.

In practice, foreign policy bipartisanship has meant consistent support for new and unwinnable wars, higher military spending, and an ever-growing list of foreign entanglements. America doesn’t need any more of that. If that is all that a bipartisan foreign policy consensus has to offer, Americans should look elsewhere.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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