It may never fully have been true that “politics stops at the water’s edge, but that famous phrase coined by Senator Arthur Vandenberg to describe postwar unity has resonated with many Americans’ hopes for a united non-partisan foreign policy.
The idea is very simple: while Democrats and Republicans may have very different ideas on how best to achieve the common good within our borders, there shouldn’t be that much difficulty in agreeing on the basic foreign policy of the United States, at least when it comes to national defense and winning wars we are engaged in.
Vandenberg coined his famous phrase in what came to be known as “the speech heard round the world,” in which he foreswore his previous isolationism to join with the Truman Administration in pursuing its policies of the Marshall Plan, the establishment of NATO, and the beginning of the Cold War.
Our victory over communism in the Cold War was only made possible by the tacit agreement that on matters of foreign policy, politics would be trumped by national interest.
Compare Vandenberg’s leadership in the late 40’s to the Senators of today. Whatever you think of President Bush’s management of the Iraq War, and the War on Terror in general—I could give you a long list of mistakes that I think they have made—nobody could argue that the President has been able to pursue his policies in an environment of national unity even remotely similar to the one that obtained in the 40s and 50s.
Almost from the start of this conflict President Bush has been under constant political assault. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, how long did it take for political opponents to begin the criticism of his handling of the incident and our subsequent response?
It seems that politics stopped at the water’s edge for about 10 or 15 days—perhaps an appropriate period for mourning, but hardly enough time to develop a consistent national defense policy against an existential threat to our nation.
These days there is no clear line between foreign and domestic policy battles in the minds of many politicians. Both are seen as venues within which it is appropriate to use the inevitable disagreements, mistakes, miscalculations, or even ambiguities that exist as fodder for political battles. In other words, there is no “national interest” outside of “my interest” in having and retaining power.
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