The elections were scarcely over when the country was hit by a bucket of bipartisan treacle. Politicians of whatever stripe swore their devotion to bipartisanism. “Bipartisan” became the universal predicate by which new directions are to be found, inter-party rancor ameliorated and old bickerings laid aside. (Focus groups would have it that we, as a people, are disgusted by political bickering.)
The votes were hardly counted before a new, bipartisan George W. Bush, relaxed, friendly and funny, reintroduced himself to an electorate that seemed to have just repudiated him. Things would be different from now on, and the Crawford cowboy would make beautiful music under the bipartisan moon with the San Francisco liberal in the House Speaker’s chair. A new era of good feelings would come to pass as the donkey lies down with the elephant in the political peaceable kingdom.
Politicians of both parties are embracing the slogans of bipartisanism out of a belief that the big bloc of politically unaffiliated voters want it. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but Democrats appear to be of a mind not to scare anybody by quick moves or loud noises. Instead of roaring into Congress with their new majority, the D’s are purring bipartisanism and moderation, a word that usually means nothing much is happening.
The war continues to happen, regardless of what’s in vogue on Capitol Hill. On the question of war in Iraq, the D’s—like the administration—are saying that they will stand stock still until the Baker-Hamilton Study Commission tells America what it should do. Unless Messrs. Baker and Hamilton have a new and spectacular special-effects program on their computer, the most they can do is endorse one of the choices that have been lying on the table staring at us for many months.
By now, everybody knows the choices: We can go, we can stay, we can have deadlines for ourselves or for the Iraqis or both, or we can kid ourselves with expressions like “phased troop drawdowns” as we sneak out by slowly reducing the number of our people there.
This last idea will be welcomed here at home, but the fewer the troops left alone in Iraq, the greater the danger they are in. Gradual withdrawal is militarily risky but attractive politically because it is a compromise between staying and going, and in tight places politicians do like to use compromise as a way out. The safest choice for our servicemen and -women is either all leave together or all stay in place together.
Either way is especially tricky for the D’s, who, if they’re not careful, may find that bipartisanism results in their getting co-opted into joint sponsorship of some temporizing, optimistic paste-over for the ever-worsening Iraq mess. Since their hold on the Senate depends in large part on Joe Lieberman, Mr. Bipartisan himself, there will be pressures aplenty to put their names to some new recipe for failure.
In the same vein, if the Democrats are smart, they won’t sign on to any new direction that George W. Bush and Baker-Hamilton cook up. Foreign policy is, as Mr. Bush was wont to say before he became a bipartisanarian, a strictly executive-branch function. Realistically, at this juncture there is no necessity for the Democrats to go bipartisan, endorse whatever the President has in mind and get half the blame for the ensuing fiasco.
The Democrats, as the legislative-branch majority, do not have commander-in-chief responsibilities. The only thing the D’s in Congress must do is vote the money that the troops need to carry out whatever damn fool thing their commander in chief will order them to do next.
While supporting the armed forces with the money they need, the Dems ought to carp, criticize and complain till the Capitol dome splits. The much-talked-about investigations into executive-branch corruption and incompetence will help—if the D’s aren’t scared off for fear of appearing too negative and polarizing. The worsening situation demands more, but for the time being that’s the most that can be expected of them.
A quick listing of what’s happening is positively frightening. Bangladesh is heaving with trouble; Pakistan balances on the edge of a knife; Lebanon, thanks in large measure to Israeli-American destructive idiocy, gets more unstuck by the hour; Afghanistan, with a measly inadequate force of 40,000 American and NATO troops, is reverting back to Taliban control; Egypt, like Pakistan, seems to be one assassin’s bullet or one suicidal bomber away from chaotic upheaval; Saudi Arabia is contending with an Al Qaeda presence that may be more dangerous than we have been led to believe. Although the Al Qaeda attack last February on Abqaiq, the Saudi oil-processing center, was played down, apparently it came within inches of disabling the facility, which is not to be lightly tossed off considering that Abqaiq is said to move as much as six million barrels of oil a day. The events at Abqaiq were serious enough for the American Navy to take up positions guarding the world’s largest oil terminal, at Ras Tanura.
Add to this list whatever is your take on current affairs in Iran, the shaky state of Jordan (which is bulging with refugees from Palestine and Iraq) and—as if things weren’t unstable enough—it appears that the U.S. is doing its best to intimidate or even topple the Syrian government (or Syrian regime, as we like to refer to it). What happens next is anybody’s guess, but if the news coming out of the region is big news, it’s bad news—and, as of now, the incoming Congressional majority has little to offer by way of amelioration. It’s too diverse a collection of politicians for that.
Regardless of whether or not we’re about to glide into the sunny land of bipartisanship, the newly reinforced Congressional Democrats are incapable of making any kind of helpful contribution toward the one situation in the Middle East which poisons all others. That, it should go without saying (although it does not), is the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Nor is this a frozen impasse in which things at least stay the same and don’t worsen—just the opposite. This is a dynamic impasse that grows more ghastly with each passing week.
It may go unremarked on here, but elsewhere millions are oh-so-very aware that Israel, with the help of the United States and the E.U., has turned the Gaza Strip into the world’s largest Abu Ghraib. It is a fine question as to whether or not the 1.4 million people living on the strip’s polluted 139 square miles are the most miserable and most terrified in the world. After all, there is Darfur, but whoever gets the “most miserable” prize, our chances of seeing the Middle East calm down and Al Qaeda go into remission are nil as long as the Palestinian crime is not redressed, or at least lessened.
So the outlook for us and the Middle East during the next two years is hardly more promising than it was before the election. Yes, we have reason to hope that the D’s will be able to bring back habeas corpus, pass some kind of anti-corruption law and even change the rules so that the members of Congress may read the laws before they pass them—but if bipartisanism becomes more than a bumper-sticker slogan, if they began practicing it for real, watch out. Ask yourself one question: Bipartisan for whom? Not for me and not for you.