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Politics Ends at the Water's Edge

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While there was indeed some domestic American political news happening last week, we're going to take a pass on focusing on any of it today. Instead, the news this week was dominated by foreign policy and events largely beyond America's borders. So, instead of dishing up our usual "Friday Talking Points" snarkiness here (did you hear Sarah Palin's trademarking her own name? Bristol, too!), and instead of providing useful soundbites for Democrats to use (unemployment dropped 0.8 points in two months!) and celebrating victories over Republican idiocy (such as shaming them out of changing the federal definition of rape to exclude non-incest statutory rape in an abortion amendment), we're going to do something different here today. We can wait until next week to begin highlighting Republican hypocrisy on budget-cutting, and all the rest of it. Because while Egypt's future is being worked out both in Cairo and in Washington, somehow it just doesn't seem appropriate to be handing out "most impressive" and "most disappointing" partisan awards this week. Instead of such pettiness, for the first time we're going to radically change our weekly approach here, and instead talk about bipartisanship of a very specific kind.

It can be summed up as: at times, politics is supposed to end "at the water's edge." This idea was originally put forth by Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan at the dawn of the Cold War. What Vandenberg actually said:

To me, "bipartisan foreign policy" means a mutual effort, under our indispensable two-party system, to unite our official voice at the water's edge so that America speaks with maximum authority against those who would divide and conquer us and the free world. It does not involve the remotest surrender of free debate in determining our position. On the contrary, frank co-operation and free debate are indispensable to ultimate unity. In a word, it simply seeks national security ahead of partisan advantage. Every foreign policy must be totally debated (and I think the record proves it has been) and the "loyal opposition" is under special obligation to see that this occurs.

Senator Vandenberg was speaking of the need for political unity when facing the rest of the world, and (as you can see) he was speaking of policies that had plenty of time to be worked out in advance. But what his phrase has come to mean in the political lexicon (now changed to the simpler: "politics ends at the water's edge") is that when presidents act in fast-developing situations around the world, they shouldn't be undercut by partisan griping at home, while the events are still in motion.

This doesn't mean blind obedience or unquestioned following of any leader. But it does mean "don't bump his elbow" deference to our elected leader when the country needs to speak with one voice.

This is precisely where we find ourselves with Egypt right now. There will be plenty of time for Monday-morning quarterbacking later on, for those who disagree with how President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are handling the Egyptian situation. But for now, the bottom line is that nobody really knows how the situation is being handled. And this is exactly as it should be.

WikiLeaks aside, the concept of modern diplomacy requires privacy at times. Call them "secrets" if you will, but without private communications there simply wouldn't be diplomacy as we know it. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not arguing for or against the larger WikiLeaks question -- but it would be foolish to think that the public deserves to know precisely what is going on and what is being said in any sort of real-time manner during a crisis situation.

This concept runs counter to the bedrock mission of the news business, I realize, and journalists everywhere are attempting to dig out exactly what is going on and what is and is not being said on a real-time basis. That's all fine and good, because that is their job.

But the secondary level in the media universe contains the pundits who don't actually report any news, but rather re-digest it and serve it up with their own opinion on what the reality is and what it should be. This is where loud cries are heard that we should know every word Obama is speaking to Mubarak right now, and that we should know every offer and counteroffer being made by Secretary Clinton as it happens.

While I definitely include myself among the punditocracy (I fully admit to my status as a leech, feeding off others' first-person reporting in parasitic fashion), I have to say that anyone right now calling for open disclosure about what is going on behind the scenes does not understand the way diplomacy works.

It is natural, of course, to try to spin events one way or another, since that's what pundits do. But we are in a time when no one can be certain of what they're talking about. Loud voices putting forth some version of "Obama should be doing/saying this..." have absolutely no way of knowing if he is already doing so. Which, again, is how it should be in the middle of a crisis.

We elect presidents not just to be leaders on domestic policy. We also elect them to personify America to the rest of the world, and to be commanders-in-chief of our military. At times, though, we must allow them to be this voice to the world without knowing what is being said or done in private, behind the scenes, on our behalf as a nation. This is the way things are supposed to work.

Any pundit looking to oversimplify the situation into any sort of definitive "we should be doing this" statement is free to do so, but should be taken with a large grain of salt by the media-consuming public. People should remember that no pundit writing such suggestions right now is in any way privy to the fullness of the real situation, and therefore has no idea whether what they're proposing is a good idea or a very bad idea.

Which is why I refuse to even attempt second-guessing Obama and Clinton at this point. I have no idea what either of them (or anyone else in the American government) is saying to Mubarak or the Egyptian military (or anyone else in Egypt). Nor, at this point, should I. I don't have their intelligence (in the "Central Intelligence Agency" sense of the word). Which means I don't know the full ramifications of what is happening right now, or what is even being proposed.

But my main point is: neither does any other pundit. Which hasn't stopped some of them from tying the entire Egyptian situation up in a nice, neat package with a convenient soundbite bow on top. When you're a pundit, the urge to pontificate (and to oversimplify) becomes overwhelming at times, even if you know full well you haven't a clue as to what you're talking about.

Some may see this as some sort of "let's all stick our heads in the sand" thinking. The inherent mistrust of government and government officials (up to and including presidents) has become deeply ingrained in America, stretching back through all kinds of lies and shenanigans to Watergate, Vietnam, and even earlier. This has bred a hyper-intensity of demanding the "people's right to know" what government is up to -- which, in most cases, I fully agree with.

But this is not one of those times. I am content, when events are moving quickly on the ground, to examine presidential and governmental actions after the fact. This is the trust I place in letting our elected officials to do their jobs. Hillary Clinton famously made this a campaign issue, when running against Barack Obama in the primaries, with her "3 A.M. phone call" television ad. When the phone rings at the White House in the middle of the night, who are you going to trust to be the one picking up the phone?

I may not agree with any president's actions. I disagree with Democratic and Republican presidents as I see fit. But I also know that, at times, presidents need maneuvering room in diplomatic crises, and I don't begrudge any president this realistic level of trust. I wasn't blogging when 9/11 happened, but I wasn't calling on any sort of full disclosure from President Bush at the time -- because it was one of those times when the public has to be kept in the dark, while the political leaders make their plans. Imagine if President Kennedy had had to report his daily conversations with the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance. Sometimes leaders of countries cut deals, and sometimes the public doesn't get to hear about these deals until long after the fact.

But again, to a certain level, that's what we elect our leaders to do. It's a major part of their job.

I fully support anyone's right to criticize the president and the government at any time, of course. I'm not saying we shouldn't all have this right, even in the midst of a crisis. And I fully support (and sometimes join in) criticism of American foreign policy, even while we're going to war (I would argue especially when we're going to war, in fact). My intended message today is for the consumers of news and punditry -- to you, the readers and viewers of such. And that message is: when you hear anyone espousing: "Obama should be doing X," the proper response at this point is nothing more than: "How do you know he isn't doing X?"

The political ramifications and repercussions of how President Obama is handling the Egyptian situation will doubtlessly be discussed for months and years to come. We can all have a go at hindsight then, and declare how a perfect solution could have been achieved. But in the midst of an ongoing crisis, nobody but Obama and Clinton (and those in their confidence) really have any idea what is and what is not being done.

Neither President Obama or Secretary Clinton is going to step out in front of the cameras and say to the world: "Here is exactly what I just said to Mubarak." It's just not going to happen, nor should it. Diplomacy demands that some conversations remain private in situations like this. There's a reason for this, and the reason is face-saving. When Mubarak leaves office (note: "when," not "if"), he will tell his domestic Egyptian audience his version of the end of his reign. Obama must leave Mubarak open to tell whatever story he feels like telling, because if Obama didn't it could severely change the situation and the outcome. Probably for the worse. This is why we have to trust Obama at this point to be vague in public statements, while assuming he is being a lot more specific in personal conversations with the Egyptians. This is where the whole: "How do you know Obama isn't saying that?" question comes from.

Which means we truly are in a "politics ends at the water's edge" moment. If the outcome is a disaster, everyone will have plenty of time later to heap political blame on Obama. If the outcome is a step in the right direction, we've got plenty of Monday mornings later to suggest from our armchairs how the quarterbacking could have been better. Calling on the president to do one thing or another at any time is certainly everyone's right, but it's also somewhat irrelevant at this juncture. Obama has chosen -- and is choosing -- his course during this crisis very carefully, and there's nothing for us to do at the moment but trust that he's doing the best job possible. As I said, if it all goes south, there'll be plenty of time later to figure out why and to pay whatever political price needs to be paid. For now, I -- like most people -- am content to wait and see how it all plays out, and give Obama and Clinton the benefit of the doubt in the meantime.

 

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