Facing a Fragile Consensus
While a debate was unfolding in the Senate this week over the future course of U.S. policy in Iraq, President Bush was visiting Europe to attend the annual U.S.-EU summit. Both the summit and the Senate debate, following one in the House last week, were predictable in their outcomes. The summit affirmed a comprehensive transatlantic agenda without breaking new ground or solving looming issues, and the Democratic proposals to set a date for withdrawing or redeploying troops from Iraq were rejected.
But in both cases, one detects a fragile consensus for dealing with today's and tomorrow's global challenges.
In Congress, Republicans and Democrats are at odds with one another on what constitutes success in Iraq. Does "staying the course" mean more of the same bloodletting, and for how long? Does challenging the Iraq government to get its act together require setting a date for the U.S. downsizing its presence or does it mean avoiding a full-scale civil war? Instead of a substantive exchange, however, the debate between Senators was often full of what Republican Chuck Hagel labeled "catchy political slogans debasing the seriousness of war." Republicans were less divided among themselves than Democrats were, but they were also unable to present a case that portrays when and how to declare victory in Iraq and were forced to admit that a great deal of mistakes have been made there. With a bit more than four months before the Congressional elections in November, every member of the House and a third of the Senate is clearly aware that most national polls on Iraq indicate that Americans believe the war is going in the wrong direction but remain uncertain or ambivalent about solutions. They also know that this issue will overshadow most other issues.
Republican Senator John McCain declared that "the discussion over this war is perhaps the most consequential debate the Senate will engage in this year or perhaps in several years." That the U.S. needs a thorough and substantive discussion about the direction of its foreign policy is self evident. However, he also added that much of the discussion has deteriorated into slogans, and it has not been a serious weighing of the arguments, making a consensus that much more fragile.
Whether Iraq is the frontline in the war against terror or whether it was a strategic blunder remains at the heart of the debate and leaves the country uncertain about the course ahead. Neither the debates in the House nor in the Senate delivered much new dialogue to help clarify that question; they simply hardened the fronts. Should one or even both of the chambers revert to Democratic control in November, there will be a far more complicated dialogue in Congress and a lot less room for the President to steer his policies.
Back in Vienna, every effort was made to present a consensus at the end of the summit. The summit declaration addressed the many issues on the transatlantic agenda and expressed many good intentions to deal with them. Negotiating jointly with Iran was given a prominent slot as an indication of how far cooperation between Washington and Europe has progressed since the meltdown over Iraq. Yet at the press conference following the summit, President Bush was confronted with the continuing criticism directed at Guantanamo and the sagging image of the United States in Europe, where recent polls indicated that a third of Europeans see the United States as a bigger threat to world stability than Iran. Declaring such findings to be absurd, he dismissed polls as the gyroscope for his policies by arguing that he will do his best "to explain our foreign policy," and Austrian Chancellor Schüssel reminded everyone how important the United States was to the recovery of Europe after World War II.
But explaining present, not past, foreign policy has not been the among the polished skills coming out of Washington during the recent past and it remains to be seen whether such negative attitudes in Europe, toward the president and U.S. policies, will change significantly for the remaining period of the Bush presidency. That has implications for European leaders who do wish to build a consensus with the White House across a range of issues, even as they work to forge a consensus among themselves. The agenda is a full one, as declared by the summit's declaration. The U.S. and Europe do need to coordinate their policies on the Doha Round, on Darfur and a host of other issues. Yet, domestic politics will shape the running space of all leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, where a fragile consensus defines the political debates.
It will be important for those leaders to try to understand our respective debates, as complicated and contradictory as they appear. In the case of the United States, the battle is on for Presidential bids in 2008, reflected in the Congressional confrontations during the past week. The U.S. will be a very noisy stage for the next twenty-eight months and it will be difficult but important to distinguish policy substance from style. In Europe, there remains uncertainty about what the next priorities will be for the EU and there are few clear voices to articulate it. With that in mind, Chancellor Merkel should have her team fully focused on her priorities when Germany assumes the EU presidency and the Chairmanship of the G8 in the first half of 2007. At the end of those six months, the next U.S.-EU summit will be held in Washington. How strong or weak the leaders are then may determine how strong or fragile the U.S.-EU consensus can be. Between now and then, there will be many tests of both.