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 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.