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Why partisanship hurts the foreign policy debate.

Former Bush administration homeland security official Frances Townsend offers her take on how to handle the burgeoning jihadist threat from Yemen:

The Obama administration needs to take a clear, tough line with Yemen: Take care of the terrorism problem within your borders so you are no longer a threat to the United States and our allies in the region, or allow the international community to come in and clean it up for you. The time for polite diplomacy is long past.

Matthew Yglesias isn't impressed:

But is excessive politeness really the reason Barack Obama hasnâ??t threatened a full-scale invasion of Yemen unless the Yemeni government undertakes unspecified measures to â??take care of the terrorist problemâ??

It seems to me that just 18 months ago the President was one George W Bush, a discredited and unpopular figure who liked to go out of his way to be rude to foreign countries, and even there these tactics werenâ??t being employed. Why? Well because when the right was in power a â??Yemen hawkâ? inside the administration would have had to say what, exactly, she wanted done and what the risks and tradeoffs might be. But from an out of power perspective, itâ??s party time. On to Yemen!

While this is unquestionably true, I don't think sketching out maximalist "solutions" has anything to do with being a "hawk" per-se but being a partisan operative. If you are primarily motivated by a desire to wound political opponents, position yourself for a future job in an administration or protect your legacy, you will make arguments in the fashion that Townsend does above. (And in her defense, the format was not the place for a long discourse on "what should be done with Yemen." Perhaps her specific ideas have a lot more merit than a few paragraphs can reveal.)

We saw this with much of the Democratic party and Afghanistan in the 2008 election. There was a lot of enthusiasm for fighting on the "central front" of the war on terrorism when it was convenient to burnish Obama's Commander in Chief credentials. When it came to actually making the decision, there was considerably less enthusiasm for a troop surge. Ditto Sudan, where there was a lot of tough talk before the Obama administration took office about stopping the genocide, and not much since.

Partisanship puts demands on our foreign policy debate that are hard for the subject to bear: it reduces complexities to Manichean certainties and it offers easy solutions to problems that can't be solved - and that's when it's not being blatantly dishonest. There's no escaping it, it's just the way the political incentives work.