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[David Ignatius] What good foreign policy looks like

The pathway to compromise is never easy to find, at home or abroad, but it was visible in Colombia this week in the peace agreement that ended a 52-year guerrilla war. What opened this route was good political leadership.

President Juan Manuel Santos asked Colombians who had suffered from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgency to forgive those they regarded as terrorists. FARC’s leader, Rodrigo Londono, asked for forgiveness, in turn, “for the pain we have caused in this war.” The cycle of rage and recrimination paused long enough to get a deal, which the Colombian public is expected to ratify in a referendum Sunday.

Now contrast this exercise in responsible government with the political pot-shot taken by the US Congress on Wednesday in overriding President Obama’s veto of a bill to allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for damages. Voting for 9/11 families and against Saudi Arabia proved an irresistible package in an election year, as the 97-to-1 Senate vote showed.
Saudi Arabia’s refusal to admit its mistakes helped create this congressional car wreck. What a difference it would have made if the Saudis had expressed regret -- not for the 9/11 attacks (there’s no credible evidence the government was responsible), but for tolerating the Sunni religious extremism from which the jihadists emerged. That would have signaled a new day in Saudi Arabia.

But this bill should never have come to a vote, let alone a veto override. In its feel-good, retroactive retaliation against the Saudis, Congress has compromised the principle that governments can’t be sued in foreign courts. If other countries follow suit, American soldiers and diplomats abroad could be at risk every time they enter a country that believes the US has killed its citizens unjustly or committed “war crimes.” 

Obama and CIA Director John Brennan practically begged Congress to refrain from the override, to no avail. Senate leaders said they might consider legislation limiting the bill’s scope if it provoked strong foreign reaction. Perhaps we have become a country where Congress has to go over a cliff before it thinks about a parachute. That has been the case with budget issues, and now foreign policy.

Let’s return to Colombia for a lesson in how politics and good policy can sometimes converge. The key to the FARC peace deal was Santos’s ability to create space for reconciliation with FARC rebels, rather than insist on their capitulation. As any negotiator knows, successful deals are the ones that allow each side to preserve its dignity and self-respect. Politicians too often insist on the purity of seeking total victory, even if the practical result is a continuing impasse.

Santos, a former defense minister, felt strong enough to ignore the usual political calculations and offer the insurgents seats in Colombia’s parliament and a chance to claim land in a process of “transitional justice.” Some Colombians don’t feel so generous. Former President Alvaro Uribe has rejected the deal, and millions of Colombians will probably vote against it Sunday. But Santos understands how wars end.

America figures in Colombia’s reconciliation story in ways that remind us of what good foreign policy looks like, even as Congress is showing the worst face. The US has been helping Bogota suppress the FARC insurgency since the 1990s, when the Clinton administration launched “Plan Colombia.” Steadfast support for an ally, through three different administrations, weakened the FARC to the point that peace was possible.

Colombia was the opposite of the Middle East roller coaster: It was a sustained, consistent, limited approach that used all the tools of US power, overt and covert, to get the right result.

Obama facilitated the final stages of negotiation by reconciling with Cuba. FARC’s rebellion had been sustained for more than a half-century in part by an anti-Americanism engendered by US sanctions against Fidel Castro. When Obama dismantled sanctions against Cuba, he made reconciliation possible for the Colombian left. It’s no accident that the Colombia peace talks took place in Havana.

Traveling this week in Latin America with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, I’ve seen how the US opening to Cuba has created more space, paradoxically, for centrist politicians. Officials in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia have explained that it’s easier to support free-market reforms when anti-Americanism has receded. Obama has taken away the leftists’ oxygen.

Good policy is impossible when politicians play to public fears and prejudice. The virtuous circle of reconciliation and reform that we’re seeing in Colombia benefits everyone once it gains momentum. But first, strong leaders have to defy the politics of expediency -- the popular but shortsighted approach demonstrated this week in Congress.       

By David Ignatius

David Ignatius’ email address is

(Washington Post Writers Group)