Americans are divided on most issues these days. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine might be an exception — sort of. In recent polling, both Democrats and Republicans say they support Ukraine over Russia, approve of economic sanctions against Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, and agree that the U.S. should send money and weapons — but not troops — to Ukraine. Calls for sanctions have received bipartisan support in Congress as well. Yet prominent Republicans and conservative media figures have criticized President Biden’s handling of the situation, and some, like former President Donald Trump, have gone as far as to praise Putin.
As a result, many Americans have expressed nostalgia for a time when politics stopped at the water’s edge, a phrase attributed to Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who urged his Republican colleagues to work with President Harry Truman, a Democrat, on postwar national-security issues despite their differences on domestic policies.
But was there ever a time when our country wasn’t divided, even on questions of foreign policy?
Conflicts that we now think of as uniting the country were still political. Americans were torn over what to do in World War II, for example. Congress passed a series of neutrality acts in the 1930s, and these isolationist policies were responsible for America’s late entry into the war. And, of course, unity sometimes came at a price. The U.S. government’s steps to punish anti-war speech during World War I, for instance, are good examples of going too far with the idea that dissent is inherently harmful to war efforts.
The reality is that foreign policy has always been contested — and, more often than not, linked to questions of identity and ideology. But debates about war are so interwoven with our larger culture-war politics now that most questions of how to handle military conflict have been largely reduced to partisan scoring. And that’s a problem — not because we need to get back to some bygone bipartisan era, but because real dissension is vital in a democracy, especially in matters of foreign policy.
The seeds of war politics’ merging with culture-war politics arguably date back to the late 1960s, when anti-Vietnam War protests overlapped with civil rights protests and other social movements that challenged the existing social order. Over time, conservatives and liberals diverged in their attitudes toward the war, especially as liberal elites began to criticize it. Starting with the 1968 presidential election, being anti-war became more closely associated with being a liberal Democrat. And the accusation that George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, was all for “acid, amnesty1 and abortion” helped solidify this cultural connection.
And this larger cultural split between the two parties came to a head during the Iraq War. In many ways, it’s connected to the political discourse we’re seeing with Russia and Ukraine now. Unlike now, though, the discourse during the Iraq War — in the beginning at least — exemplified the idea that politics stops at the water’s edge. Critics of then-President George W. Bush rallied behind him after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and public opinion on the war was initially quite favorable, even though Democrats were far more split than Republicans.
That national unity turned out to be short-lived, though. As political communications scholar Mary Stuckey has observed, it was during the Iraq War that the two parties began to make very distinct arguments about what it meant to be an American in relation to the war. Bush, for instance, often framed the war on terror, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in terms of good and evil as he tried to establish the GOP as the party of faith and strength. Democrats, meanwhile, in their 2004 party platform accused Bush and the Republicans of having an “insufficient understanding of our enemy” and a failure to comprehend the complexity of the situation in the Middle East.
While the Iraq War was not directly related to Bush’s religious faith, both supporters and opponents alike depicted his approach to war as reflective of his overall philosophical approach: The president relied on gut and instinct, not expertise, to make decisions. Likewise, Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign portrayed his Democratic opponent, then-Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, as a waffling intellectual who lacked conviction and patriotic dedication.
In other words, the debate over the Iraq War quickly became an extension of the debates Democrats and Republicans were already having in the 2000 presidential election — and even earlier — about religion, culture and Bush’s intellect and qualifications.
Ultimately, the Bush administration’s justification for the Iraq War became the subject of widespread criticism across the ideological spectrum since the rationale for invasion was shaky at best. But the narratives Democrats and Republicans employed during the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror were still powerful for the ways in which they preyed on domestic and cultural disagreements and anxieties.
These arguments also had important implications for debates over presidential war powers. While many Republicans embraced an expansive role for the president — a strong leader asserting U.S. dominance on the world stage — Democrats said in their 2008 presidential platform that they “reject[ed] the sweeping claims of ‘inherent’ presidential power,” and that their candidate, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, would better grasp intercultural nuance and policy detail.
But as president, Obama struggled with questions of war and war powers as well. Although his administration was committed to a less interventionist approach, world events still demanded attention. There were new questions to answer about American intervention in the Middle East and North Africa, as civil wars broke out in Libya and Syria. And like Bush, Obama often found himself the subject of criticism — first for going too far in Libya and then for not going far enough in Syria.
In other words, the debate around the Iraq War didn’t help either Democrats or Republicans create a coherent set of ideas about how to engage with foreign conflict, how to prepare for the aftermath of one, or when it makes the most sense to avoid getting involved at all. Obama was different from Bush, but the foreign-policy questions he faced were still difficult — and domestic culture-war disputes were not especially useful in resolving them. Yet, because of the Iraq War, the country was now set on a political course that undermined the goal of meaningful, reasoned dissent on foreign policy.
Figuring out the role the U.S. should play following the Russian invasion of Ukraine requires answering a completely different set of questions than the global war on terror or the U.S. response to the war in Syria required, but as we saw in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere, culture-war politics are once again overshadowing the discussion of what to do. Instead of debating the extent to which Americans should intervene in Ukraine, Republicans have attacked Biden as a weak leader — and that’s the PG-rated stuff: Many attacks from the far right have veered into even uglier culture-war territory and praise for the Russian president.
So far, most rank-and-file Republicans have unfavorable views of the Russian invasion, not sympathy toward Putin. (Instead, a partisan divide is emerging over whether the U.S. should be “doing more.”) Still, it’s not hard to figure out why the discussion of whether and how America gets involved in armed conflict has devolved into partisan point-scoring. Nearly everything has. But this has a real cost, and the answer isn’t for politics to stop at the water’s edge.
Dissenting viewpoints and serious debate are crucial in a democracy, and foreign policy is not an exception. Politics can and should be a place for real debate and multiple viewpoints. It is imperative to hold public officials accountable for their decisions. When we treat foreign policy as an extension of domestic cultural politics, we lose almost as much as we do when we act as though it’s not up for debate at all.