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Looking for a Silver Lining

By Frank Gruber

"[We] have made a donation in your name to
The Armed Forces Foundation
The American Civil Liberties Union"

-- Sentiment inside a Christmas card I received from a business acquaintance.

This time of year it is traditional to be optimistic and I expected to focus this week on various good things that happened to me in 2001.

Good things that interjected themselves in between the hyper-politics of the Bush ascendancy and the political trench warfare that followed, the unutterable sorrow of September 11 and the anxieties a suddenly more dangerous world unleashed, the war that ensued and its surprising course, and, not to trivialize the foregoing, the highs and lows of Santa Monica politics.

I thought I might write about the joys of the John Adams Middle School music program, or the fantastic smoked fish, sausages, rye bread, and poppy seed cakes I discovered at the Ukraina Deli on Wilshire near 12th, or the serendipity of someone getting around to making "The Lord of the Rings" movie just when my son turns twelve.

But it is hard for me to write with a light touch after September 11. I admire those, like the writers at "The Onion," who can. (See "Entrepreneur Stuck with 40,000 Unsold Bin Laden Urinal Cakes" at if you want to know what I mean.)

Still trying to be optimistic, however, I have found something to be happy about. Something rather ponderous.

A bipartisan foreign policy.

It took the worst disaster in our history, a terrible, murderous attack, but for the first time in three decades Americans now have a politically unified foreign policy. This is not trivial.

Not to discount the skill and professionalism of the Powell-Rumsfeld-Cheney-Rice team, but this Republican administration has adopted Al Gore's foreign policy. Before September 11 the Bush administration was turning toward neo-isolationism, but now, by necessity if not with ardor, they have embraced the nation-building, the multi-lateralism, and the engagement in the hard problems of the world that they previously scorned.

Democrats have supported the administration with near unanimity. What's more a major cultural shift has occurred in the left-wing of the party.

The left-wing has literally rallied around the flag.

I knew a change was in the air on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which occurred just days after September 11. I attend a synagogue with a politically active, left-wing, rabbi, and it came as something of a surprise when, at the close of the first service, the rabbi led the congregation in "God Bless America." A surprise, but quite moving.

It is possible to support both the ACLU and the Armed Forces Foundation.

This cultural shift, not only to accept patriotic symbols without embarrassment, but also, and more importantly, to acknowledge that not everything the U.S. does in the world is suspect, is just as important to the nation as the Bush administration's acknowledgement that neo-isolationism cannot work in today's world, that we will not find security behind a strong military and nothing else.

Although September 11 kicked it into gear, the left's cultural shift did not come from nowhere, but developed gradually with the end of the Cold War, as the left began to reacquire internationalist ideas and urged, in particular, a stronger American role in the Balkans and elsewhere in the world to protect human rights.

The great divide in American foreign policy was always between internationalism and isolationism, but, historically, foreign policy was not predominantly partisan. Both parties had their internationalists (Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson) and their isolationists (William Jennings Bryan, Henry Cabot Lodge).

America's true bipartisan foreign policy was born at Pearl Harbor and continued until the day in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson told his fellow Americans that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic nomination to run for reelection.

While the parties had stuck together to fight Fascism and contain Communism, they came apart over Vietnam. Aside from the unique tragedies of that unfortunate war, the issue that drove Democrats and Republicans apart was that Democrats no longer agreed that all issues of foreign policy were subservient to the conflict between the "free world" and the "evil empire," or that Cold War considerations justified any action on the part of the U.S.

Fortunately, the Soviet Union obliged the foreign policy establishments of both parties by imploding.

Unfortunately, when that happened, the parties were still stuck by habit and culture in their adversarial postures. The votes in Congress on intervention in the Gulf and in Kosovo were embarrassingly partisan. Democrats, leery of another Vietnam, could not support the first Bush's righteous war against Iraq, and Republicans, unwilling to concede any authority to that Vietnam-era draft dodger, Bill Clinton, could not support his righteous war against Milosevic.

A bipartisan foreign policy will be a good thing. But beyond an America forced to involve itself in a world it can never turn its back on in any case, what will having a bipartisan foreign policy mean?

It should mean, in the long term and notwithstanding the current popularity of President Bush, good news for Democrats. The less foreign policy is a political issue and, crucially, the less Republicans can tar left-wing Democrats as unpatriotic, the more elections will turn on domestic issues where the Democrats have a proven advantage.

I happen to be something of a left-wing Democrat, albeit one who simultaneously considers himself a super-patriot. But my belief that a bipartisan foreign policy will make it easier to elect the liberals I vote for is not the reason I believe it will be a good thing.

These past three decades of cultural wars have been nasty. It is not good that Americans make assumptions about each other's love of country based on their politics.

These negative assumptions go both ways. It is wrong for people on the right automatically to characterize anyone who questions the value of a missile defense system as unpatriotic just as it is wrong for people on the left automatically to characterize anyone who joins the military as a jingo.

If we can get beyond these assumptions, i.e., if we can put Vietnam behind us, that would be a silver lining. Not one that by itself lifts the cloud of September 11, but something shiny to be hopeful about.

Happy New Year.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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