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Partisan Politics at the Water’s Edge: Lessons from the Dubai Seaports Imbroglio

Peter Beinart

“I’m shocking myself. I’m the diplomat here,” explained a bewildered Bill O’Reilly last February on Fox News in defending the Bush administration’s decision to allow Dubai Ports World, a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates, to manage several U.S. ports. “If America spits in the eye of the UAE, which is a huge help in the war on terror right now, if we tell these people to take a hike just because they’re Arabs, we’ll lose the help of all the rest of the Arab world.”

When Bill O’Reilly warns against spitting in another country’s eye, something strange is afoot. Ever since September 11, commentators like O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and The New York Post editorial page have been the Republican Party’s foreign policy id. They give voice to the unapologetic nationalism that frames much of the GOP’s foreign policy. They represent the tradition that Walter Russell Mead has called “Jacksonianism”—populist, militaristic, jealous of national sovereignty, more interested in making other countries respect and even fear America than in making them love us.

The story of how Bill O’Reilly and George W. Bush moved away from Jacksonianism—and Democrats moved towards it—says a lot about the shifting currents in American foreign policy. As Mead argues in his 2001 book, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, Jacksonians can be isolationist when they don’t feel threatened by foreign enemies; they don’t like foreign policy as social work. But when such enemies emerge, they demand a maximalist, bone-crushing response.

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