National security need not become hyperpoliticized in today’s Washington
"Tuesday’s speech to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be half foreign-policy event, half partisan spectacle, which raises a question: Is this a sign that national security, once thought to be at least slightly above the political fray, is becoming just another exercise in today’s polarized Washington?"
Answer: not necessarily.
Let’s be honest. Foreign-policy debates have always been tinged with partisanship. And on the key questions of the hour—a nuclear deal with Iran and the battle against Islamic State extremists—there’s more crossing of partisan lines than current rhetoric suggests.
Still, there’s a danger that this week’s spectacle will inject a big new dose of partisanship into areas where it’s better left at bay. Once Mr. Netanyahu leaves town, it will be time for cooler heads in both parties to prevent that from happening.
The danger arises for two reasons, unique to the Netanyahu visit. The first is that this week’s event is out of the norm. It isn’t routine for a House speaker of one party to invite a foreign head of government to address Congress without consulting with a White House controlled by the other party. That’s particularly true when everyone knows the point of the speech will be to try to stop a presidential initiative—in this case the nuclear deal with Iran that the administration is trying to negotiate.
So this was inevitably going to be seen as a partisan act, as it would have been if the roles were reversed. It’s not hard to imagine what the Republican reaction would have been if a House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had invited a European head of state to address a joint session of Congress to question President George W. Bush’s request for authorization to go to war in Iraq.
The second reason this moment feels different is that the controversy affects American support for Israel’s government, an area that both sides have at least tried to keep above partisanship.
Add to those factors the sometimes “toxic” relationship between the Republican Congress and President Barack Obama and you have the makings of a broader partisan overlay, says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and one of the few figures who maintains good lines of communications with both parties. The danger, he adds, is that “resentment from one issue carries over into the other,” getting in the way of, for example, Republicans’ working with Democrats on free-trade issues.
That doesn’t have to be the case, though. History provides ample evidence that the country can move beyond partisan splits on big foreign-policy issues. Republican isolationists battled Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt over providing aid to Britain before the U.S. entered World War II, for example, and the historic congressional vote on the Lend-Lease Act authorizing the aid fell largely along party lines.
When Congress faced a similarly dramatic moment in relations with Israel, in 1981 at the dawn of Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the debate again had political overtones. The issue then was the Reagan administration’s decision to sell advanced Awacs radar planes to Saudi Arabia, a move Israel vehemently opposed. The sale was approved in the Senate largely along party lines, when Mr. Reagan prevailed on fellow Republicans to fall in line. (Irony of the week: Today, Israel probably is happy Congress approved that Awacs sale because the Saudis now are aligned with Israel in staunchly opposing Iran’s growth as a regional power.)
And congressional votes authorizing both wars with Iraq—the first sought by President George H.W. Bush and the second by the younger Mr. Bush—fell heavily along partisan lines.
More telling are the times when partisanship has been shoved aside in big foreign-policy debates. During the Cold War, arms-control treaties were pushed through Congress by leading foreign-policy thinkers of both parties, working in unison. Democratic President Bill Clinton relied on Republican votes to get free-trade deals through Congress. By the end of his presidency, Lyndon Johnson could count more on Republicans than Democrats for support of his policies in the Vietnam War.
And in 2001, the resolution authorizing use of force against al Qaeda passed both houses of Congress on a combined vote of 508 to 1.
The key is to get past the partisan emotions let loose this week and back to a national-security debate driven as much by conviction as party loyalty. That should be doable.
On an actual Iran deal, for example, Mr. Obama may find himself in the odd position of being supported by Republican Sen. Rand Paul—and opposed by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. And on the equally important question of authorizing the fight against Islamic State, Republicans are more likely to back Mr. Obama than are many Democrats. Which isn’t a bad thing for the system.
Write to Gerald F. Seib at email@example.com