Judging by the rhetoric coming out of the Obama and McCain campaigns this week, the United States is fated to endure another four years of bitter foreign policy partisanship, whoever wins this election. The rival nominees clashed on the proper approach to the war on terrorism; the way to handle the world's major trouble spots, including Iraq; and the approach America should take on everyone from Raśl Castro to the Iranian mullahs.
If there is any hope of reconstructing what this country and the world desperately need an American national security policy that commands broad support across party lines the impetus will have to come from elsewhere.
Last week, I visited the likeliest source. I spent two hours in separate but parallel interviews with the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden of Delaware, and the ranking Republican on that panel, Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Despite all the static in the political atmosphere, Biden and Lugar left me believing that there is hope of overcoming the divisive legacy of the past six years in large part because of the work these two have done together to prepare the way.
They are not unique. There are deep friendships and cordial working relationships on a few other Senate committees, including Armed Services, where Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican John Warner of Virginia enjoy a similar bond.
But in the years since the troublemaking Jesse Helms of North Carolina retired and Lugar and Biden have passed the chairmanship back and forth, they have established a code of comfortable collaboration that has pervaded the entire panel.
Both these men are dead-serious students of international affairs. They travel the world and read and consult widely. There is a deep mutual respect; I lost count of the number of times Biden quoted Lugar, and vice versa, during our conversations.
As foreign policy specialists know, Biden and Lugar have conducted scores of hearings exploring the trouble spots in the world with officials from this administration and its predecessors, along with academic experts without regard to ideology.
Their emphasis has been on future policy choices, and both men said that as views have been exchanged and policies tested, the area of agreement within the committee has grown and the differences have narrowed.
Increasingly, Biden said, he and Lugar have begun to focus on some of the structural problems that impede America from achieving its goals in the world. "We need a new national security act," he said, one that equips the United States with a diplomatic and civil administration capacity as ready to move into Iraq-type conflicts as the military is to cope with hostile forces. "Lugar had it right five years ago," Biden said. "We needed to send 600 mayors to Iraq to get that country functioning again."
Lugar also sees the need for a recasting of foreign policy. Energy issues will increasingly foment international conflicts, he said, and therefore need to become an important part of the State Department structure and agenda. Last year, well before the current spike in oil prices, Lugar proposed that kind of shift.
It is not certain that Biden and Lugar will remain in their posts when the new president takes office. Biden is a plausible choice for vice president or secretary of state under Barack Obama. Lugar could serve as secretary of state for either John McCain or Obama, a man Lugar recruited for membership on Foreign Relations and a vocal admirer of his.
But if they stay where they are, they could be the best friends the new president has on Capitol Hill. Both Lugar and Biden have run for the presidency themselves, and both are genuinely ready to work with a new president after feeling more than frustrated by their dealings with the Bush White House. If that new president wants a genuine partnership on an American foreign policy, he would have to look no farther than these two.