A Quick Reaction on the Midterms

Daniel DePetris reflects on how a Republican majority in the House can both hurt and help Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

Now that the midterm elections are over, with the Republicans capturing the House of Representatives for the first time in four years (as predicted by pollsters), questions are swirling over what President Barack Obama’s agenda will be over the remainder of his term.

Undoubtedly, the president will be forced to cooperate with Republicans like he has never had to do before. Domestic issues as the economy, fiscal policy, the debt, and government spending loom large for both parties at this point, and I seldom see the Obama Administration getting everything it wants without a little give and take. From an historical standpoint, the situation is reminiscent of President Bill Clinton’s experience in 1994, when Newt Gingrich’s Republican Party recaptured the House after being in the minority for an unprecedented forty years. At that time, Clinton managed to heed the challenge. Will Obama be able to do the same thing? The answer is up in the air.

What I’m interested in is the election’s effects with regard to Obama’s foreign policy. Even with both houses of Congress in solid Democratic hands, the Obama Administration’s lack of success abroad was pervasive. The record is clear; a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, an ever-closer nuclear Iran; a chaotic Iraq; an escalated war in Afghanistan; a neglected Latin American policy. Surely an opposing party in the legislature will not make things any easier for him? Right? Wrong.

On some specific cases, a Republican majority will indeed cause trouble for the White House. The Obama Administration’s ambassadorial nominees for Syria and Turkey will probably be stonewalled for another few months unless the president either names new people to the posts or concedes in other areas. Hype over Iranian nuclear weapons will increase throughout the House like never before, with Republicans now controlling key foreign policy committees. The mission in Iraq will hopefully gain in significance, primarily with regard to the civilian front. (I personally hope the Republicans will push through some aid packages for Iraqi reconstruction. The State Department does not have all the resources it needs to do the job well) And Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is of course smiling that his conservative patrons have more power.

But on other fronts, namely the war in Afghanistan, a Republican victory might actually help Obama in ways that were unintended. The Republican rank and file, by and large, is more supportive of the president’s Afghanistan policy than the Democrats have been. Many anti-war congressmen were disappointed when Obama decided to boost America’s commitment to the war last fall, with an extra 30,000 American reinforcements. Moderate Democrats were starting to reevaluate Washington’s chances for success. Republicans, on the other hand, have endorsed the counterinsurgency strategy against the Taliban (however remote that strategy may be). Obama may now have a little more time with Congress to prove that the United States and NATO are starting to gain the momentum in the war.

All in all, the election was a horrible mandate on the Democratic agenda. The turnover in Congress was embarrassing for Democratic heavyweights as Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer. But for Obama, the results are more of a mixed bag.