It is a sign of how desperately Democrats are searching for a silver lining to the Nov. 2 midterm elections that some have suggested President Barack Obama, facing two years of implacable opposition on domestic policy, may be able to score some foreign policy victories to boost his accomplishments as he heads into the 2012 reelection campaign.
Already incoming Senators and House committee chairs are making clear the troubles Obama will face. One of Obama’s signature efforts has been restarting relations with Russia, but now opponents of rapprochement are on the rise, and Obama’s attempts to get ratification for an arms reduction treaty with Russia, New Start, faces new trouble in the Senate. Influential outside groups, like the Heritage Foundation, are pushing new GOP Senators to oppose the New Start treaty.
Obama is also likely to face a more vocal opposition for efforts to draw down troops in Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden has said Obama is determined to begin bringing combat troop numbers down next July, but Obama faces opposition from some in the Pentagon. Last week, the influential senior senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, predicted Obama would face even broader resistance now if he tried to draw down troops quickly. With an increased Republican control in Congress, “the likelihood of a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq has gone down,” Graham said.
And for those optimists who still think Obama can make progress on less visible foreign policy goals, Hill insiders have three words: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. As the new head GOP head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the ten-term Cuban American from Florida has been a vocal critic of Democrats on Cuba and the Middle East. Ros-Lehtinen rose through the GOP’s Congressional foreign policy ranks in the era of Jesse Helms, embracing his particular brand of muscular opposition to rapprochement with America’s enemies abroad.
The GOP House will pose the biggest problems for Obama on foreign aid. “Even the Christian right-Liberal Democratic consensus on foreign aid is in jeopardy,” says one Hill foreign policy staffer. For a brief, two-year moment, Hillary Clinton was able to build a coalition to support expanding foreign aid, managing to protect it even as the White House was looking for cuts. The likely head of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds foreign aid, Kay Granger, is a fiscal hawk who has argued for cutting the foreign aid budget. USAID and the Millenium Challenge Corporation are sweating. “How will they survive the axe when people start looking for money to save domestic programs,” says the Hill staffer.
In theory, isolationist, libertarian Tea Partiers might work in Obama’s favor when it comes to withdrawal from Afghanistan or limiting the extent of the Patriot Act’s powers. But it likely won’t take long for new Senators like Rand Paul, who once called the Patriot Act a mistake, to see the political wisdom of staying to the right of the Democrats and President Obama. When Obama shifted to adopt the policies of his predecessor, or even moved to the right of them, for example on Guantanamo Bay, the GOP shifted to stay on his right flank and were rewarded in the polls.
One area where Obama may be able to score a point or two is on free trade, if he’s willing to snub labor and the left. Obama has supported moving three free trade agreements that have been languishing since the late Bush era thanks to insufficient numbers in the Senate and opposition in Nancy Pelosi’s House. A GOP, business friendly House is likely to move those as bills, and Obama could win GOP backing to get the Senate votes needed to pass the bills. (Treaties require 67 votes in the Senate, but if passed by both houses, only require 60 in the Senate to overcome a filibuster and 50 for passage).
So maybe there is a foreign policy silver lining for Obama, but you have to be a pretty sharp-eyed and optimistic Democrat to find it.