Party Politics - The late cold war and beyond



The Vietnam War may be somewhat unusual in the degree to which it linked domestic political considerations and foreign policy, but it is by no means exceptional in the nation's recent history. Jimmy Carter's decision to launch a risky and ultimately disastrous mission to free American hostages in Iran in the spring of 1980, for example, owed something to his domestic political difficulties in an election year, including a tough challenge for the Democratic nomination from Senator Edward Kennedy. Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, urged the action "to prove to the columnists and our political opponents that Carter was not an ineffective Chief Executive who was afraid to act." Carter himself explained that he had "to give expression to the anger of the American people. If they perceive me as firm and tough in voicing their rage, maybe we'll be able to control this thing."

A decade later another president confronted the perception that he was too timid. During the 1988 campaign George Bush had to endure a Newsweek story on him in which the words "Fighting the Wimp Factor" were emblazoned on the cover, and there were charges from conservative quarters in the months after the inauguration that he was not resolute enough in foreign policy. The "wimp" charges could be heard again in October 1989, when Bush failed to back a nearly successful coup d'état against the drug-running Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. "We'll be hit from the left for being involved at all," the president noted privately, "and we'll be hit harder from the right for being timid and weak." This right-wing reaction to his inaction—Republican Senator Jesse Helms referred to a "bunch of Keystone Kops" in the administration—almost certainly contributed to Bush's decision in December to order the invasion of Panama to arrest Noriega. In August 1990 various motives moved Bush to adopt an uncompromising position toward Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, but one of them was surely the domestic political benefits that he and his advisers believed could accrue from it. Locked in a budget battle with Congress, faced with a messy savings and loan scandal, and with approval ratings sagging, Bush saw a chance to demonstrate forceful presidential leadership and galvanize popular support. Tellingly, perhaps, he received encouragement to "draw a line in the sand" from British prime minister Margaret Thatcher—who herself had received a powerful boost to her domestic position from Britain's "splendid little war" in the Falkland Islands eight years earlier.

The war against Iraq was the first military conflict of the post–Cold War era. In the years thereafter various commentators complained that America's newfound status as the world's sole superpower, one without a compelling external threat to unify the populace, had allowed party politics to infuse foreign policymaking to an unprecedented degree. Many drew a contrast with the supposedly bipartisan and selfless days of the Cold War. It was a dubious claim; party politics and foreign policy have always enjoyed a close relationship in the United States. This was so in the most tense periods of the superpower confrontation—during the Cuban missile crisis, John Kennedy considered the domestic political implications of the various options before him—and it was true in less traumatic times.

Still, few would deny that the partisanship became more pronounced in the Clinton years than it had been in decades, the atmosphere in Washington more poisonous. The power of the presidency in foreign policy seemed diminished and that of Congress as well as ethnic and other special-interest lobbies enhanced. Republicans saw personal political advantage as motivating virtually every one of Bill Clinton's foreign policy decisions and, after capturing control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, worked diligently to thwart many of his initiatives. In April 1999, for example, during the war in Kosovo, the House of Representatives refused to vote to support the bombing; that October, the Senate voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—an action the New York Times compared with the Senate defeat of the League of Nations after World War I—even though the president and sixty-two senators asked that it be withdrawn. Clinton and his advisers, meanwhile, insisted that their only concern in making policy was promoting the national interest. The early evidence about the policymaking process in the Clinton White House suggests strongly that he and his aides paid close attention to how various policy options would be perceived at home and that their determinations in this regard helped inform their decisions. In other words, Clinton was much like his predecessors.

During the debate over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's eastward enlargement in 1996–1997, Clinton administration officials insisted that bringing as much of Europe as possible under the NATO banner would serve the nation's strategic interests. They also said it was important to reassure the eastern and central European populations after Moscow became more nationalistic and assertive in 1994. No doubt they were being truthful in these claims, but Democratic Party leaders surely also saw enlargement as a surefire vote-getter among eastern European ethnic communities in battleground states in the Midwest, states Clinton had to win in the 1996 election. Foreign observers often perceived this domestic political element to be the root motivation behind the expansion. Said Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien (who thought his microphone was turned off) to Belgium's prime minister about NATO enlargement in August 1997: "All this for short-term political reasons, to win elections. In fact [U.S. politicians] are selling their votes, they are selling their votes…. It's incredible. In your country or mine, all the politicians would be in prison."



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