June 24, 2008

Bipartisan Consensus-Building: The Key to Any U.S. Strategy

On June 23, panelists at the Partnership for a Secure America discussion on “Bipartisan Foreign Policy for January 2009” demanded bipartisan national security policy in the next presidential administration.

The panel, which featured Ambassador Tom Pickering, Undersecretary of State, 1997-2000; Robert McFarlane, National Security Advisor, 1983-85; and Frederick Barton, senior adviser in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, called for U.S. national security reform that clearly defines U.S. strategic interests, abandons party lines, and builds consensus between and among policymakers and the American public.

“Paralysis” cripples Democrats and Republicans when they solely pursue partisan goals, McFarlane said. He argued that bipartisanship has historically yielded considerable progress, pointing to cross-party efforts against communism during the Cold War era as an example. “There are no fundamental philosophical differences between the two parties,” McFarlane noted, but on certain issues, there apparently remains “a certain political advantage to taking the opposing view.”

Pickering and Barton agreed on the need for a shift in national security policy development. Calling for major policy reform, Pickering argued that one important step is the creation of a bipartisan commission to consult with the president on national security issues.

Barton focused on the coming administration’s obligation to re-engage the American people: “Unless the population thinks we are doing good [things], they will pull back [from public life],” he warned, calling on Washington to shape a “fresh narrative” that “balance[s] fear and opportunity.”

The conversation quickly turned to an issue that often thwarts such bipartisan initiatives: U.S. policy in Iraq and the greater Middle East. The panelists argued that the U.S.’s Middle East approach must involve what McFarlane called “sustained, full-time, consultative planning” to overcome oversights that resulted from poor policy development in the past.

“Consensus starts with the American and Iraqi people,” Barton said of U.S.-Iraq policy. He called for a target date for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and looked to non-political exchanges as avenues for bipartisan regional progress, observing that various elements of American society, such as American-style university education and U.S.-produced technology, are taking hold in the Middle East.

“It would be profoundly wrong to set a date,” McFarlane said of U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, disagreeing with Barton. He argued that the U.S. needs to define its own interests in the Middle East, but realize that a U.S. presence in Iraq is still vital to regional security. “There is a uniquely strong animus to foreign presence,” he said of Middle Eastern sentiment, “but neither can there be a vacuum,” which he argued rushed withdrawal would create.

With Iraq’s neighbor Iran, McFarlane said that the next president cannot make diplomatic engagement of Iran his first action. “The U.S. ability to engage is much better after disciplined planning,” which he said the next administration needs before engagement in order to fully understand U.S. goals. McFarlane noted the importance of soft power initiatives similar to those Barton endorsed in the greater Middle East. He called for better U.S. broadcasting efforts, exchange programs, and other similar initiatives to solidify U.S. cultural leverage among the younger, pro-Western generations in Iran.

Championing immediate diplomacy in both countries was Pickering. “Absent part of the equation in Iraq has been a sustained diplomatic effort,” Pickering said. He underscored the need for major regional players Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, other key UN countries, and the U.S. to join in consensus-building and solution formation in the Middle East. “The U.S. is not strong enough to put things back on track alone,” he cautioned.

Regarding Iran, Pickering continued his calls for robust diplomatic action. Calling for substantive, direct talks between the U.S. and Iran, he acknowledged the ideological appeal but practical counter-productivity of keeping Iran’s uranium suspension as a precondition for talks.

“Preconditions, as laudable as they are as a context,” he said, “are standing in the way of diplomacy.” Pickering contended that “to ensure permanence” of U.S. policy proposals and international solutions in the Middle East, diplomacy is indispensable.

Despite their differing views on some of the issues discussed, the panelists overwhelmingly agreed that to uphold U.S. national security interests the next administration must facilitate consensus in Washington. Whether Democrat or Republican, their message to the next administration was, “You can’t do it alone.”

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