Bipartisanship - Bipartisanship in the 1990s




President George H. W. Bush's decision to go to war in 1990–1991 to evict Iraq from Kuwait captured widespread bipartisan support. Because the Defense Department carefully controlled the media and because the United States achieved its stated, limited objectives there was no repeat of the deep divisions that had accompanied the Vietnam War. With the end of the Cold War, a new set of issues emerged to dominate the Clinton years: terrorism, ethnic cleansing, sectarian violence, free trade, environmentalism. Although Democrats and Republicans fought bitterly over domestic social and economic issues, they were not clearly divided over foreign policy matters. Like the Clinton administration itself, the two major parties were more reactive than proscriptive, more pragmatic than ideological.

William Jefferson Clinton's election to the presidency in 1992 hardly represented a sea change in American politics. It certainly had nothing to do with foreign affairs. Clinton won because of George Bush's mishandling of the economy and because the Arkansan was able to keep traditional Democratic constituencies in place—among them African Americans, labor unionists, and intellectuals—and attract moderate conservatives by promising to reduce the bureaucracy and cut the budget. In foreign affairs, Bill Clinton had promised, in rather vague terms, to address the problems of the post–Cold War era. The United States, he said, should provide aid to the former Soviet Union to help it down the road to democracy and free enterprise. Indeed, there were Wilsonian overtones to his foreign policy statements. Advancing democracy should be the object of "a long-term Western strategy," he said. At the same time, the president emphasized that the focus of future foreign policy would be the global economy. America would have to learn how to compete peacefully with Japan and the German-led European community. Finally, Clinton seemed to echo former President Carter in calling for an American-led campaign to ensure respect for human rights. In the years that followed, the Clinton administration placed peacekeeping troops in Bosnia and Kosovo to keep ethnic and religious conflicts in the former Yugoslavia from embroiling the Balkans and perhaps all of Europe in war. The administration intervened in Haiti in 1994 under a UN resolution, helping to bring down the military dictatorship of General Raul Cedras, and pushed through Congress the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which provided for the gradual elimination of tariffs and other trade barriers between the United States on the one hand and Canada and Mexico on the other.

In 1994 the Republicans captured both houses of Congress, but conflicts over foreign policy did not split along party lines. Indeed, far more Democrats, representing organized labor, were opposed to NAFTA than Republicans. There were certainly congressional opponents of American participation in Balkan peacekeeping operations, but that opposition, like the support for the initiative, was bipartisan. Republican antipathy toward Clinton was intense, but that animosity had only a marginal impact on foreign policy. As the turn of the century approached, the terms "liberal" and "conservative" were in transition, and, as a result, so were the major parties. Bipartisanship in foreign policy reigned, even if by default.

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