As Americans, we fight about everything from guns and abortion to taxes and the environment. We’re even known to trade barbs over frivolous matters, like the interaction between two private citizens at a football game.
This is natural and even encouraged. Some give-and-take and exchange of ideas is necessary for a democracy to function properly.
Certainly foreign affairs is no different. We’ve heard plenty in recent days on a president’s power to make war, the immediacy of threats facing the United States and the fine line between deterrence and appeasement. It’s all fair game.
The United States and Iran appeared to step back Wednesday from a direct conflict in the Middle East, a prospect that even the most hawkish among us had to view with grim apprehension. Certainly, it would be a mistake to assume that the crisis has passed or Iran is no longer a threat to the region or American interests. They did attack an American military base.
What was more disconcerting than a march to another Mideast war was the tendency of Americans, both the general public and the political class, to retreat to ideological corners and treat it as another domestic squabble.
So Trump becomes the out-of-his-league madman who listens to no one and leads us to apocalypse. Obama becomes the terrorist enabler who naively funded an enemy’s ballistic missile program. Yes, both sides give the other plenty of ammunition. The nuclear deal didn’t prevent Iran from exporting terror, and Trump’s Twitter bluster gave fuel to his critics and hurt America’s standing in the world.
But it’s possible to look at the issue in all its complexities, to see what a political opponent is trying to do, without abandoning strongly held personal views. Both the nuclear deal and the targeting of Qasem Soleimani were bold, game-changing initiatives in their own ways, attempts to rearrange a chess board in this troubled region.
Both are risky moves that hold the potential of solving an intractable problem or making matters worse. What’s even worse, though, is a tendency to completely discount the other side’s strategy pretty much out of the gate.
It’s in stark contrast to public opinion and political attitudes during the Cold War, when Americans adopted a broad, long-term strategy of containment against an implacable foe. Efforts to engage this foe weren’t automatically called appeasement, shows of force weren’t dismissed as war-mongering. The success of that relative unity was illustrated in 1989.
Today, policy seems to lurch and those who make it seem to agree on nothing. No wonder the generals at Trump’s speech Wednesday seemed so somber.
They used to say that politics stops at the water’s edge. It needs to do so once again.