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About That Foreign Policy Consensus...

I'm normally a big fan of Walter Russell Mead, but his column in the Los Angeles Times this weekend was a bit of a clunker. Mead argues that a "loose bipartisan consensus" is forming that incorporates both the Bush and Obama foreign policy worldviews. The column has all the elements of a caricature of a Council on Foreign Relations paper:

-- Gratuitous, ill-fitting Reinhold Niebuhr invocation? Check. (I mean, I love Niebuhr too, but the mere existence of some degree of irony in a debate about American foreign policy does not merit a Niebuhr reference.)

-- Strained attempt to claim bipartisan consensus? Check. Mead contends, for instance, that the consensus on Iran policy is as follows:

Intensive multilateral diplomacy, including direct U.S.-Iranian talks when appropriate, is our preferred strategy to keep Tehran from building a bomb. We are willing, even eager, to live in peace with a non-nuclear Iran. The next president will have to pursue negotiations while considering all the options--a policy that represents, at most, a small evolutionary change from the current Bush position.

If this counts as bipartisan consensus, then the foreign policy polarization of the Bush era has debased our standards even more than I thought. Agreeing that diplomacy is the first option, that we won't attack Iran if it agrees to give up its nuclear ambitions, and the next president should "pursue negotiations while considering all the options"--who (besides John Bolton or Dick Cheney) would object to that? It's certainly notable that the Bush administration is now engaging in direct talks, but just because the most extreme position on Iran has been abandoned doesn't mean there's any more unanimity on the ultimate question of under what circumstances a military strike might be merited.

-- Summary of the "bipartisan" position on Iraq that downplays the need for withdrawal? Check. Here's Mead again:

Bush screwed up the war in many ways. But we cannot afford to let hostile forces control this strategic country, nor can we allow Iraq to sink into genocidal strife. We will not leave Iraq like we left Vietnam. Here too Obama's current stance is, in practical terms, very close to Bush's.

Insofar as there's a growing similarity between the Obama–Maliki position and Bush's, it's that Bush is talking less like this and more about a timetable or a "general time horizon" or whatever. Yet Mead doesn't mention that at all, insinuating that it's Obama who's moved toward Bush, rather than the other way around. And anyway, is it really a consensus if the current Republican nominee for president doesn't subscribe to it? It's obvious that there are some areas of agreement, but let's not get carried away here. There's still a starker, more substantive contrast between the two parties on foreign policy than there's been in any presidential election in decades.

--Josh Patashnik