The Mid-Terms, the Republicans, and U.S. Foreign Policy
Conventional wisdom implies that a Democratic president will naturally benefit from at least one house of Congress also being Democratic — except when both parties excel at obstructionism and getting little or nothing done. So while President Obama’s domestic agenda is likely to suffer — badly — now that control of the Senate — and therefore the Congress — has shifted to the Republicans, the president’s foreign policy agenda may actually benefit in some ways as a result.
For example, it has been the Democrats who have objected to the president’s request for fast track authority to push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Pro-trade Republicans will soon take over the reins on this, but neither proposal will pass without the support of a critical mass of Democrats. The question becomes whether the president can deliver that part. We will have to wait until next year to find out.
On the flip side are a plethora of foreign policy issues where the president stands to lose ground, some of which are rather important.
First and foremost is the president’s Syria and Iraq policy. John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and other Republican hawks are sure to push their agenda in favor of becoming significantly more engaged in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. If they have their way, American troops will be on the ground next year. They would also like to see a more robust U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and could be in a position to override presidential vetoes to the contrary.
While the president has attempted to walk a delicate line with Russia — not wanting to antagonize Vladimir Putin, while at the same time engaging in a game of chess with him in the Middle East — any subtlety that may remain in the relationship between Russia and the U.S. will quickly disappear under a Republican Congress. The hawks have awaited a time when they can beat their chests and flex their foreign policy muscles, and there appears to be little doubt that Russia will be front and center in that coming display of bravado. However, the hawks are likely to be disappointed, as there is relatively little they can do that has not already been done to attempt to rope Mr. Putin in — short of a more meaningful and coordinated response with and from Europe, which is clearly not forthcoming.
On Iran, as we appear to be on the cusp of a nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic, my guess is that the hawks in Congress will hold their fire to see if Iran lives up to its obligations under the treaty, before seeking to either re-impose or tighten the sanctions regime. It should quickly become apparent whether that will or will not be the case, but in the interim, they will have plenty to preoccupy themselves within the foreign policy arena.
Given everything else that is going on in the world at the present time, the Republicans are less likely to focus on either China or North Korea, given that neither country has been behaving particularly badly in recent months. By the same token, the Republicans are probably going to be selective in which other non-front-burner foreign policy issues they wish to focus on in the coming two years.
In the end, are the Republicans likely to do a much better job than President Obama with a split Congress in the foreign policy arena? Probably not. If a Republican was now sitting in the White House, he or she would be similarly constrained in what could be done on the big ticket issues. Nothing short of hundreds of thousands of ground troops, committed for many years, is likely to have a profound impact on constraining the Islamic State. The American people have no stomach for that. And, despite what many in Congress would like to believe, there really is little either the president or Congress can do to deter Vladimir Putin from further provocations. If a treaty is reached with the Iranians, the only thing that can be done is to wait and see if they abide by its terms.
So while gaining control of Congress sounds good to the Republicans on paper, I suspect that 24 months from now, when the presidential election is upon us, they’ll be regretting having taken the helm on foreign policy and will find themselves as powerless to determine the direction of events overseas as a Democratic president and divided Congress have been. The old adage of being careful what you wish for certainly applies here. The Republicans may pay for it in 2016.