The Magazine

Détente and the Bunker

How to oppose a president's disastrous foreign policy.

Oct 12, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 04 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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The appearance in Washington last week of Iran's foreign minister, while the blood is not yet dry from his government's continuing suppression of student protests, is a reminder of the disastrous foreign policy path the Obama administration has chosen. Not so long ago, proponents of a stronger U.S. foreign policy faced a similar policy of weakness and accommodation. The 1970s saw some pretty dark days of "détente"--when Gerald Ford refused to see Alexander Solzhenitsyn; when the United States allowed Cuban troops to flow into Angola; and when, in the single year of 1979, Jimmy Carter watched a small band of would-be commies take Grenada, the Sandinistas take Nicaragua, and the Soviets go into Afghanistan--not to mention the shah's fall and the Ayatollah Khomeini's takeover of Iran.

One begins to wonder how far we will drift into a new period of generalized disaster. In Honduras, we back the Hugo Chávez acolyte and say we won't respect November's free elections. In Israel, we latch on to the bizarre theory that settlement growth is the key obstacle to Middle East peace and try to bludgeon a newly elected prime minister into a freeze that is politically impossible--and also useless in actually achieving a peace settlement. In Eastern Europe, we discard a missile defense agreement with Poland and the Czechs and leave them convinced we do not mean to fight off Russian hegemony in the former Soviet sphere.

Manouchehr Mottaki, foreign minister of Iran, visited Washington, as noted, after such visits had been forbidden for a decade. High-ranking American officials have made six visits to Syria, even while the government of Iraq and our commanding general there complain of Syrian support for murderous jihadists. The highest ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba in decades recently toured Castro's tropical paradise. The president won't see the Dalai Lama, however, for fear of offending the Chinese.

See a pattern here? The president's U.N. General Assembly speech tied all this together, perhaps unintentionally: Talk of allies and enemies and national interests was absent. Getting something for concessions we make is contrary to the new spirit of engagement. The president, transcending all such anachronisms, poses as the representative of .  .  . the world. So why would his country treat friends better than foes, and why would we bargain for reciprocal concessions? So old fashioned, so Cold War.

Instead, he told us, "I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world. These expectations are not about me. Rather, they are rooted--I believe--in a discontent with a status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our differences." (Did speechwriters substitute "discontent" for Carter's famous "malaise"?) So we will turn away from such thinking: "It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009--more than at any point in human history--the interests of nations and peoples are shared." Acting in the narrow interests of the United States and its friends and allies is passé: "Because the time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must begin now." This must sound to Ahmadinejad--or Putin or Assad or Chávez or Castro--rather the way Carter's call to end our "inordinate fear of communism" sounded to Brezhnev.

To those who do care about the interests of this country and its friends and allies, it should sound like a call to arms, leading us to ask how successful struggles to change America's foreign policy were waged in the past. In the 1970s, the headquarters of resistance to détente and its associated blunders was Room 135 in the Old Senate Office Building, which housed the foreign policy and national security staff of Democratic senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson.

I worked on Jackson's personal staff, next door. We called Room 135 "the Bunker" because the senator and "Scoop's Troops" were regularly assaulted by all right-thinking, liberal, cosmopolitan, Establishment voices. We were for war. We were for violence. We opposed diplomacy. We were backward, primitive, dangerous. We were (of course) advancing Israeli interests, not American interests. The majority in the Democratic party, which had nominated George McGovern in 1972, reviled us. After Carter's election in 1976, he soon hated us as much as Ford and Nixon had, so at least the attacks were nicely bipartisan.

The Bunker is worth remembering because, as we enter an equally depressing and perilous period in foreign policy, we can learn from those previous years of opposition. Jackson was opposing détente in an organized fashion by 1972 and fought on until Ronald Reagan buried it eight years later. The current fight may take as long. Jackson led a bipartisan effort. For the moment, ours appears to be located exclusively in the Republican party, but that will change as the administration careens from failure to failure and Democratic politicians seek a bit of distance.

Jackson had a small staff but a wide network on the Hill (at a time when his party controlled both the Senate and the House). Republicans up there today need to be sure their own staffs are tightly linked and able to resist the implementation of policies that harm U.S. interests. Jackson and his troops understood that an informal network of capable, dedicated Hill staffers is an invisible but powerful tool, effective across party lines.

Times change. Cable news and the Internet alone have transformed the way outreach to the American people can be accomplished. But at bottom, the Jackson model is a good one. Get set for a long fight, try to reach across party lines, have confidence in the American people, and be immune to the criticism of "the best and the brightest." If Scoop were alive, he'd be shaking his head in chagrin over our current foreign policy--and telling his troops to saddle up.

But he'd be smiling, too, because he liked a good fight and trusted that common sense about our national security would win out. And that's the final lesson, of Reagan as well as Scoop Jackson: Be of good cheer. No whining, no nasty personal attacks. It's a political mistake, it's unattractive, it's self-defeating, and it's unwarranted. The American people think our country is indeed "defined by our differences" with murderous Islamist groups and repressive regimes. They don't agree that our "interests are shared" with such groups, and they believe friends deserve better treatment than enemies. We're on the American people's side, and they're on ours in this struggle over our country's relations with the world.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.