Leslie H. Gelb: We Bow to the God Bipartisanship

Roundup: Talking About History

Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former senior official in the State and Defense Departments, and a former New York Times columnist. He is also a member of The National Interest’s Advisory Council.

Upon his departure as secretary of defense, none other than Washington’s latest living legend Robert Gates cautioned those he was leaving behind to cherish and nurture bipartisanship. “When we have been successful in national security and foreign affairs, it has been because there has been bipartisan support.” To drive the point home, he added: “No major international problem can be solved on one president’s watch. And so, unless it has bipartisan support, unless it can be extended over a period of time, the risks of failure [are] high.”

Contrary to Gates’s Holy Grail sentiments and to most homilies to bipartisanship, Dean Acheson tagged the practice a “magnificent fraud.” As President Truman’s secretary of state and thus one of its earliest practitioners, he knew of what he spoke. In a 1971 interview at the Truman Library, Acheson offered a taste of his usual rough-and-tumble candor:

The question, who is it bad for, and who is it good for, is what you ought to put your mind on. . . . No, I wouldn’t be too serious about bipartisanship. It’s a great myth that ought to be fostered. And don’t bring too damn much scholarship to bear on it. You’ll prove it out of existence if you’re not careful.

The intent here is not to slaughter the sacred cow, but to reduce its high-flying levitation, thereby giving its Washington worshippers a better view of when bipartisanship might be useful and harmful—and to whom. Presidents seek bipartisanship to tamp down domestic critics and to convince foreign leaders that they cannot outlast or undermine presidential policies—as happened with Hanoi during the Vietnam War, Moscow during arms-control talks of the Cold War and the Taliban in the current war in Afghanistan. But in these and many other cases, bipartisan backing at home has too often been purchased at the price of good policy abroad...

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