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Obama Foreign Policy Likely to Face Republican Challenges

Inter Press Service

While foreign policy issues played almost no role in last Tuesday's election results, the historic Republican landslide will almost certainly make President Barack Obama's vision of a more positive U.S. role in international affairs more difficult to pursue.

The Republicans, who won control of the House of Representatives and fell just short of a majority in the Senate, are for the most part strongly opposed to major elements of Obama's foreign policy ambitions, particularly with respect to arms control, climate change, and greater engagement with multilateral institutions.

They also tend to be significantly more hostile toward countries with which Obama has tried hard to cultivate better relations, notably Russia and China; as well as nations, such as Syria, Iran, and Venezuela, with which he has tried, however timidly, to ease tensions.

"Anyone who wanted to see the U.S. demonstrate that it could positively reshape the international order – whether that meant taking a new direction with Russia or China, or achieving Israel-Palestinian peace, or rallying other nations behind efforts to address great global challenges on climate and nuclear arms control – will find that these challenges have just become a lot more difficult," said Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy programme at the New America Foundation (NAF).

"This breed of Republicans has great disdain for international institutions and treaties and a kind of pugnacious nationalism that is reflexively hostile to multilateralism and engagement," he added.

Of course, as president with the power to veto legislation he dislikes, Obama will still retain the initiative in dealing with other nations. "(A)s long as Obama is prepared to veto bills he dislikes, he will carry the day," according to James Lindsay, senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). "Congress has not overridden a foreign policy veto in a quarter century."

Moreover, the fact that Democrats will likely retain a slim four-seat majority in the Senate will mean that House Republicans will be unable on their own to enact binding legislation that effectively ties the president's hands overseas on issues he cares strongly about.

But their power to set the House agenda, initiate legislation, hold hearings, and force officials to testify before them can put the administration on the defensive, as well as influence the political atmospherics surrounding U.S. relations with other countries.

"Any Congress, particularly a hostile Congress, has the power to give any sitting president a major national security migraine, and the incoming House (Republican) leadership has proven their determination to confront the Obama Administration's foreign policies," noted former Amb. Marc Ginsberg, an adviser to President Bill Clinton, in an article posted at huffingtonpost.com.

Indeed, the pugnacity to which Clemons referred is embodied in Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Cuban-American lawmaker who will take over the chairmanship of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee in January when the new Congress convenes.

A die-hard anti-Castro activist who has fought for years against the slightest easing of the 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, she has also opposed to efforts to "reset" relations with Russia and enjoys close ties to the most-rightwing elements of the neo-conservative movement.

As such, she will no doubt try to hold hearings and move legislation or resolutions designed to punish, or at least embarrass, countries considered either hostile to Israel, notably Iran, Syria, and even the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon and Turkey, on the one hand, or too friendly with Cuba or Venezuela, such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, and possibly even Brazil, on the other.

Indeed, ties with Latin America, which had not improved nearly as much as had been hoped under Obama, could worsen as a result of the elections and Ros-Lehtinen's ascendancy, according to most analysts.

"The new political environment in Washington is unlikely to improve the atmospherics with Latin America," noted Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a hemispheric think tank. He predicted that "Obama will be even more cautious than he has been to date" in engaging Cuba and Venezuela.

"The Obama administration, while moving only modestly to change Cuba policy, has generally tried to see the hemisphere in less black-and-white terms than did the (George W.) Bush administration," added Geoffrey Thale, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "The Republican leadership in the House will challenge that approach."

The same applies to other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East where the powerful "Israel Lobby" holds as much influence among Democrats as Republicans.

"I'm not looking forward to clownshow hearings with lunatics denouncing creeping sharia and whipping up anti-Islamic hysteria, which could undermine Obama's public diplomacy and counterterrorism strategies and do some real long term damage," wrote Marc Lynch, a Mideast specialist, on his foreignpolicy.com blog. "I'm gritting my teeth in anticipation of the next Congress becoming a platform for Iran war hawks, hyping the issue even further in anticipation of the 2012 elections."

Indeed, on Israel-related issues, House Republicans could get sufficient Democratic support in the Senate to send binding legislation to the president's desk for his signature or veto, particularly on Iran.

"Ros-Lehtinen will be pushing the administration to strictly enforce new sanctions law against Iran," wrote Josh Rogin on his "Cable" blog at foreignpolicy.com Wednesday.

"If the mere threat of penalties under the law doesn't entice large international companies to leave Iran, she will call for the administration to start punishing those companies, even if they are from China or Russia."

Such an initiative would enjoy the backing of many Democrats despite the administration's opposition, as could the imposition of tougher conditions on aid to the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab countries – possibly even Iraq – deemed insufficiently friendly to Israel, according to Congressional staffers.

Apart from specific countries or regions, Republican control of the House and the party's gains in the Senate could well put paid to Obama's hopes to restore U.S. leadership on global issues, notably nuclear non-proliferation and climate change. Many Republicans, particularly those associated with the "Tea Party" movement, are climate sceptics.

"American leadership is critical to solving the climate crisis, but yesterday's election made our ability to provide that leadership much tougher," noted Katherine Sierra, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

As to Obama's arms agenda, the "new START Treaty on reducing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arms is in intensive care, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) remains in its political grave," according to CFR's Lindsay, who also predicted cuts in foreign aid.

Where Obama could find greater support in the new Congress is in those positions that have created the most friction with his Democratic base.

On trade, for example, Republicans are considerably more enthusiastic about long-pending accords with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama.

On Afghanistan, he will find it easier to resist rapidly growing pressure from Democrats to accelerate his timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops beginning next July. On the other hand, a stronger Republican caucus will also encourage military commanders in their battle to persuade Obama to abandon that deadline.

Overall, the election results will likely make Washington "less ambitious abroad", according to CFR's Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy specialist at Georgetown University. "That's simply because during periods in which Democrats and Republicans can't agree on policy, the default position is to do less."

"To the degree that their might be some common ground, it entails a less expensive foreign policy. Members of both parties appreciate the need to bring down the deficit, and there is a strategic weariness stemming form the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he added.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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