If Barack Obama is reelected, he ought to consider making Mitt Romney his new secretary of state. I propose this far-fetched howler not because I'm trying to get into my own Dumb Idea Hall of Fame, or because white-male secretaries of state seem to be going the way of the dodo at Foggy Bottom (we haven't had one since Warren Christopher departed in 1997), or because I believe deeply in bipartisanship. (Although I do; it's been a long time since we've had a secretary of state who was from the opposing party, and it would be great idea.)
I raise the idea to drive home a broader point. Despite his campaign rhetoric, Romney would be quite comfortable carrying out President Obama's foreign policy because it accords so closely with his own.
And that brings up an extraordinary fact. What has emerged in the second decade after 9/11 is a remarkable consensus among Democrats and Republicans on a core approach to the nation's foreign policy. It's certainly not a perfect alignment. But rarely since the end of the Cold War has there been this level of consensus. Indeed, while Americans may be divided, polarized and dysfunctional about issues closer to home, we are really quite united in how we see the world and what we should do about it.
Ever wondered why foreign policy hasn't figured all that prominently in the 2012 election campaign? Sure, the country is focused on the economy and domestic priorities. And yes, Obama has so far avoided the kind of foreign-policy disasters that would give the Republicans easy free shots. But there's more to it than that: Romney has had a hard time identifying Obama's foreign-policy vulnerabilities because there's just not that much difference between the two.
A post 9/11 consensus is emerging that has bridged the ideological divide of the Bush 43 years. And it's going to be pretty durable.
Paradoxically, both George W. Bush's successes and failures helped to create this new consensus. His tough and largely successful approach to counterterrorism -- specifically, keeping the homeland safe and keeping al Qaeda and its affiliates at bay through use of special forces, drone attacks, aggressive use of intelligence, and more effective cooperation among agencies now forms a virtually unassailable bipartisan consensus. As shown through his stepped-up drone campaign, Barack Obama has become George W. Bush on steroids.
And Bush 43's failed policies -- a discretionary war in Iraq and a mismanaged one in Afghanistan -- have had an equally profound effect. These adventures created a counter-reaction against ill-advised military campaigns that is now bipartisan theology as well.
To be sure, there are some differences between Romney and Obama. But with the exception of Republicans taking a softer line on Israel and a tougher one on Russia -- both stances that are unlikely to matter much in terms of actual policy implementation -- there's a much greater convergence.
Yes, in the interests of winning votes, Romney will hone a few choice attacks in the campaign to come: "The president is weak and an apologizer, I'm not!" "The president doesn't believe in American leadership, I do!" These tropes, however, are either meaningless or inaccurate, and aren't likely to resonate much with a foreign policy-fatigued public.
Four key principles drive the new post, post-9/11 consensus:
1. Fix Our Broken House: These days, any sentient politician understands that the key to American power abroad is inextricably linked to the state of our union here at home. Whether or not our leaders are prepared to pay the political price to address these domestic problems is another matter. But the talking points seem pretty similar: Build our nation first, not anyone else's. Watch what you're spending abroad, and focus on the five deadly Ds at home -- debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, decaying infrastructure, and dependence on Middle East hydrocarbons.
Whether it's a Democratic or Republican president, domestic priorities have set the tone for a retrenchment in America's global footprint for years to come. When it comes to risky foreign-policy initiatives, expect politicians to take a long look in the rear-view mirror first.