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Obama has a rare moment of bipartisan backing for his foreign policy — but is that a good thing?

April 7, 2009 1:39:50 am

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 Barack 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.

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

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Part of it is simple distraction. The economic crisis,the federal budget and the battle over health care have crowded foreign policy off centre 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 — 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.

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 adviser James L. Jones Jr.,a retired Marine general,had served as a McCain adviser; and Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates was,of course,a holdover from the George W. Bush administration.

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,they will have more to criticise.

Obama has postponed a difficult decision until this autumn,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 US 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 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.

Los Angeles Times

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