Yes, Obama is still Commander in Chief, and yes, the U.S. remains the world's sole superpower, but while foreign policy played nary a role in the midterm elections, the foreign policy fallout from the election drubbing is unavoidable. Every foreign journalist, every adversary, and every ally will be reading the tea leaves to make their own assessment how badly Obama was damaged by his party's loss of political and popular support, and either take it in stride, or dangerously miscalculate. Clearly, it's the latter problem that can have adverse consequences.
Any Congress, particularly a hostile Congress, has the power to give any sitting president a major national security migraine and the incoming House GOP leadership has proven their determination to confront the Obama Administration's foreign policies.
The good news for the home team is that we have seen this movie before. President's losing control of either or both houses of Congress is nothing new.
What is new, however, is that it didn't happen when the U.S. faced so many global security challenges at one time. What with two wars, a lethal terror threat, a resurgent China, a nuclear wannabe state sponsor of terror (aka Iran), and, most importantly, the incalculable conclusion by many foreign observers that the U.S. was already constrained by recession, battle fatigue and an impaired capacity to influence global events. America's allies abroad will be particularly nervous because a politically weaker American president may very well translate into more tepid American global leadership.
So what does this new post mid-term Election Day mean for America's national security? Here it is in a nutshell....
Afghanistan: Ironically, President Karzai may mistakenly conclude that the surging Republicans will inoculate him from U.S. pressure to clean up his act. Karzai should realize that Republicans find him as distasteful as do Democrats. Yet, in one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement, the House Republican leadership and the White House largely see eye to eye on Afghanistan, and Obama will be facing less pressure from the House GOP than he would have faced from the House Dems to accelerate a withdrawal timetable. Although the public's patience with the war is wearing thin, Obama's wiggle room may evaporate if Republicans believe the White House is strategically undermining Gen. Petreaus' surge strategy. In fact, Obama's biggest headache is going to come from Senators McCain and Graham if they believe the White House is withholding vital military support from their favorite general. There will also be far more push by GOP members to toughen our stance with Pakistan and to accelerate U.S. special forces and drone attacks on targets inside Pakistan -- something which will cause further friction with Pakistan's shaky leadership.
Iran: Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader will grossly miscalculate that their nemesis Obama was badly wounded from the election results. They will assume that Obama will not have the domestic political support to militarily confront Iran and sustain American sanctions. They are very, very wrong.
True, Republicans consider Obama's Iran engagement policy both politically naïve and having yielded nothing but more time for the regime to clamp down on a demoralized democratic opposition and accelerate its nuclear enrichment program. But Republicans strong support a full court press against Iran, yet believe Obama lacks the willpower to confront Iran. They intend to force some anti-ayatollah backbone on him. The danger to the White House is that unless it establishes a coherent approach to Iran Republicans may compel him to go in directions his Administration may not want to go. But Obama cannot escape his own self-imposed deadline on engaging Iran and the Republicans will hold him to it The next six months will set the end game for confronting Iran's nuclear aspirations. In another area of potential bipartisan accommodation, persistent, ongoing consultations with Republicans to jointly develop that end game strategy can yield a lot of domestic and international dividends for Obama.
China: There is no one on the Republican side that has figured out how to deal with China any better than the Obama Administration. Between China's refusal to unshackle its overheated currency and its expansionism throughout the Pacific, talking tougher to China is an unsustainable policy, however inclined may be the GOP. From China's perspective, Obama's political defeat is not particularly great news. Republicans have historically been far more supportive of Taiwan, and eager to confront North Korea's nuclear missile programs and its constant provocations against South Korea. That is not going to make it easier to deal with China.
Middle East: Republicans (and many Democrats) have been livid with Obama for publicly chastising Israel on its West Bank settlement policy and Obama's perceived indifference to Israel's regional security challenges. The House GOP leadership, particularly GOP House Whip Eric Cantor, and incoming House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehiten have served notice on the White House that they intend to carve out foreign aid to Israel and begin withholding foreign aid to countries that are not supporting U.S. goals in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Authority Obama is going to have to assuage these concerns if he is going to protect his Administration's foreign aid programs. Moreover, a GOP gain is going to be interpreted by Israeli PM Netanyahu as a reaffirmation of Congressional support for his government's approach to negotiations with the Palestinians. This is no time to feel one's way in the Middle East without domestic political support. Message to the White House: with Rahm finally gone it's time to begin investing in the optics and substance of the U.S. - Israel bilateral relationship before being forced to do so at a steep political price with potential adverse foreign policy consequences.
Russia: The Russians were already annoyed with Obama that he negotiated a new START nuclear weapons reduction treaty, but lacked the political muscle to push it through the Senate. Senate GOP leaders, notably Sen. John Kyl of Arizona, are demanding concessions, and may soon be in an even more formidable position to force a showdown vote on the Treaty that will not go the President's way. It's hard to tell what would be worse, a languishing treaty or a treaty that was voted down. Moreover, Sen. John McCain will emerge as the de facto GOP national security spokesman, and he has already called for drumming Russia out of the G-8 group of nations. The danger to the U.S. is that the de facto Russian leader Vladimir Putin will construe a weakened Obama as a potential pushover on issues of strategic concern to the U.S., such as Iran, Georgia, and NATO's willpower to act on Russia's western flank. Putin needs some firm reminders that Obama is his best line of defense against a more confrontational Congress.
Foreign Assistance: Between a newly empowered GOP House and an estranged Senate GOP leadership, the Obama Administration's foreign aid program faces a very bleak future. Not only is there an attraction to cut foreign aid to show the American people that the GOP is cutting the deficit, cutting foreign aid selectively will wreak havoc on America's global engagement with international institutions, including the United Nations. The incoming House chair of the appropriations subcommittee that controls the foreign operations budget (Kay Granger (R.TX) is no friend to international organizations and foreign assistance programs. Moreover, the Senate GOP has yet to select the incoming class of foreign aid subcommittee members...none of whom owe any allegiance to any of the Obama Administration's foreign aid programs, which is sitting fairly naked without a FY 2011 budget resolution to set its parameters.
The Obama Administration is going to have to regroup and rewire itself to deal with the new foreign and domestic realities it now faces. The worse thing that the president can do is to listen to anyone who solicitously whispers in his ear that he can maintain his current bearings without some mid-course political and foreign policy accommodations to the new Congress. Better to chart that course than have his political adversaries chart it for him.