Americans used to argue about foreign policy strategy as part of the general debate on politics. Some aspects of the argument were easy to predict along ideological lines, and many others were not. Conservatives were gung-ho about supporting the Contras, liberals less so; liberals were eager for a Panama Canal treaty and early sanctions on apartheid South Africa, conservatives much less so. On the other hand, debates about immigration and free trade used to cut across party lines, as did the long-running argument about the proper balance of priorities in America’s engagement with China.
This combination of ideological and non-ideological debate about foreign policy ended somewhere in the 1990s, and was replaced by a discussion centered entirely around the personality of the president and the people whose politics were organized around hating him. This has now been the case for four consecutive presidencies and it has made for an unusually shallow foreign policy debate in a country that needs a mature approach to global affairs. First came the obsessive Clinton haters, then the Bush haters, then the Obama haters, and finally the Trump haters. Foreign policy was an extension of whatever side of the organizing principle you happened to fall on.
This had real consequences beyond the cable news talk shows and op-ed pages. It gave birth to a predictable series of missteps in each new administration’s first year as newly empowered foreign policy hands pursued Anything-But policies. Anything-But-Clinton for the incoming Bush Jr. crowd, Anything-But-Bush for the new Obama administration, and Anything-But-Obama for Trump.