Commentary Magazine


Selective Memory on Democrats and Foreign Affairs

Political myths often persist not only in the face of revisionist history but also despite relying on a logically unsustainable contradiction to begin with. This is certainly the case with regard to the modern left’s exhortations for President Obama to run against the “do-nothing Republican Congress” in the model of Harry Truman, while also castigating Republicans for abandoning the halcyon era of bipartisanship and allowing politics to stop at the water’s edge, personified by Arthur Vandenberg. It is never quite explained how the Vandenberg-led congressional Republicans could give Truman massive assistance in essentially constructing the post-war American state—an accomplishment on which Truman heavily based his reelection campaign—while also being “do-nothing” and uncooperative to a fault.

Bloomberg’s Al Hunt is the latest to build his judgment of the current era on this shaky foundation. He laments in his latest column the fall of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by the Democrat Bob Menendez. Menendez is embroiled in a political scandal in which he is accused of corruption, and the allegations alone, Hunt says, will hurt the committee’s credibility and influence on the administration and the broader public. The Foreign Relations Committee, Hunt writes, has a storied history of shaping bipartisan American foreign policy and also providing oversight to keep the president in check. Hunt writes:

At times, the Foreign Relations Committee has played a pivotal role in U.S. policy. Negatively, it was a Republican chairman, Henry Cabot Lodge, who scuttled President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations after World War I. After World War II, another Republican chairman, Arthur Vandenberg, fashioned a bipartisan foreign policy with the Harry Truman administration.

Almost a half century ago, Chairman J. William Fulbright, in a remarkable series of hearings, questioned the underlying rationale and wisdom of the war in Vietnam, which he had initially supported. The Fulbright sessions opened the door to a national dialogue and debate that ultimately led to the U.S. withdrawal.

This is, of course, the classic pattern of the media’s conventional wisdom: Democrats who challenge the administration are speaking truth to power; Republicans who do so are political saboteurs. Hunt doesn’t remind readers that Vandenberg’s cooperation—which was wise, since Truman’s policy objectives were also wise—was rewarded by the White House with a brutally mendacious campaign that put at risk their own policy simply to beat Republicans. Princeton’s Julian Zelizer recalls the poisonous partisanship:

Dean Acheson told the president that he should be ashamed of his rhetoric since, in foreign policy, the 80th Congress was the best the nation had ever seen. Acheson would later admit that bipartisanship was a “magnificent fraud” and that the way to build support for executive-branch policies had been to run around saying that “politics stops at the seaboard, and anybody who denies that postulate is ‘a son of a bitch and a crook and not a true patriot.’ Now, if people will swallow that, then you’re off to the races.” Acheson recalled Vandenberg asking him whether the administration would really support him in a tough re-election race and tell voters about all of the work he had done in foreign policy. No, said Vandenberg, answering his own question, because realistically the president would support a Democratic isolationist rather than a Republican internationalist if the Democrat stood a chance of winning.

Hunt also makes it clear he isn’t looking for too much oversight of President Obama’s administration: “Although no administration believes it, it’s healthy when Congress keeps its feet to the fire, not with cheap shots — as with the Benghazi imbroglio — but in a serious fashion, by broadening the discussion about major geopolitical concerns, certainly war and peace.” The suggestion that the Benghazi attack–which happened in the wake of a war in which we took part and because of a series of decisions made by the administration and then subject to the administration’s clumsy attempts to mislead the public about it–is neither a serious geopolitical concern nor a matter of war and peace is laughable on its face.

Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee include John McCain, who is known for his bipartisanship; Marco Rubio, known for his studiousness; and Rand Paul, known for his ability to highlight foreign policy issues and force the administration to explain itself–sometimes called “oversight.” It isn’t the committee itself that is weak and inconsequential, merely that the Democrats on the committee have abandoned its traditions and refused to be anything but a quiet tool in the White House’s policymaking box. That’s not a surprise: the ranks of Democratic seniority on the committee have been recently depleted with the departures of the three men who are now president, vice president, and secretary of state (if you can say that any committee no longer burdened by Joe Biden or John Kerry is “depleted”).

Hunt is right to want the Foreign Relations Committee to do its job. The Republican side of the committee already is—though perhaps that is what’s truly bothering him.

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