One Thing They Can Agree On — They Need to Listen

Posted January 18, 2018 11:49 p.m. EST

In hyperpartisan Washington, Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Brian Katulis of the liberal Center for American Progress are an anomaly. Despite working for think tanks at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the two foreign policy experts not only talk to each other, they like each other and respect each other.

So much so, in fact, that in 2016, when they were to appear on a panel together in Florida and an emergency forced Katulis to bow out, Pletka felt compelled to be “extra fair,” since the event was billed as a bipartisan discussion. She tried to give the audience a sense of how Katulis, the liberal Democratic yin to her conservative Republican yang, would answer the questions posed, as well as conveying her own views.

Some partisan listeners objected. But such experiences haven’t swayed Pletka and Katulis, or their friends and colleagues Vikram Singh of CAP and Michael Rubin of AEI from a collaborative relationship. While it is not unusual for such groups to cooperate, these experts have developed a robust partnership on national security that includes formal projects as well as informal conversation.

Their aim is to foster rigorous and respectful debate, not to forge a bipartisan foreign policy, they told me during a round-table discussion I organized at the CAP office. They are looking to brainstorm new solutions to problems, plug holes in their own policy arguments, avoid “group think,” and be challenged in ways they aren’t when they associate mainly with their respective conservative and liberal allies.

“We often get caught in our own silos, in our own individual organizations,” Katulis said. “And especially with social media now, sort of highlighting the differences and breaking down any dialogue or trust as opposed to opening it up. The in-person contact, I think, was essential.”

The cross-fertilization began during the Obama administration when AEI, which backed the Iraq War, and CAP, which opposed it, started exploring approaches to Iraq’s future.

After 2011, when Katulis and Pletka were on opposing sides in a debate over Iran at an Israeli security conference, the joint activities expanded: public appearances here and abroad; meetings with foreign leaders; writing essays; and a book, by Rubin, Pletka and Katulis, on the need for a fundamental rethinking of U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.

None of this suggests a homogenization of right-left thinking. The group has many differences over Iraq, the Iran nuclear deal, climate change and President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as shades of gray on topics like military power. “The ground rule is we don’t have to agree with each other at all,” Rubin said.

Still, the common truths uniting them are more compelling. Like the “moral imperative” that Pletka says she shares with Katulis about the need for a coherent policy to deal with the war in Syria, which has killed an estimated 500,000 people. Or their opposition to racist and Islamophobic policies and their support for human rights and for America as a beacon of hope for people fleeing war and oppression. (On this latter topic, Rubin has some reservations about the criteria used for vetting refugees.) Or the fact, Singh said, that knowing “we’re all interested in the best things for the country” provides a solid foundation for meaningful arguments.

In general, they see Russia as a threat, value America’s international leadership and worry that the presidency has become too powerful and Congress too supine, especially in not taking responsibility for authorizing overseas military operations.

For Singh, one of the group’s strengths is that “we’re coming at the world as Americans before we’re coming at the world as liberals or conservatives.”

Pletka would dispense with those terms, arguing that “increasingly in America the divide is actually not between liberals, progressives and conservatives. Or Democrats and Republicans. It’s between internationalists and isolationists.”

The experts fall squarely in the internationalist category, which sometimes puts them at odds with their respective parties and makes them targets of internet trolls. They are searching for ways to counter Trump’s isolationist tendencies and to persuade Americans that the country needs to remain engaged overseas and involved in a nonvitriolic debate at home over how to address international challenges.

Beyond the corrosive environment in Washington, the analysts worry about what’s happening on campuses where students sometimes refuse to let controversial speakers appear at events and shout down people with whom they disagree. To set an example for more civilized discourse, Rubin and Katulis are taking their tandem act to colleges and universities. One recent stop was Yale, where they tempered their robust debate by playfully wielding boxing gloves.

In Trump’s Washington, it’s easier for a think-tank analyst than an elected member of Congress to deal cooperatively with a political opponent. But truth-seeking and analysis between people of opposing views are likely to lead to better policy. That’s an ethic and a behavior to be encouraged.

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