With the GOP poised to take at least one house of Congress, there is already much speculation about what this portends for policy. I will leave domestic policy to colleagues who follow it more closely than I do. When it comes to foreign and defense policy, my instinct is that there isn’t much change in the works.
In the first place, national-security policy is an area of almost unbounded presidential prerogative. Most of the time Congress can exert an influence only at the margins. Only if things really get off-kilter can Congress have a major impact, as it did in the early 1970s, when antiwar lawmakers cut off South Vietnam and severely hobbled our defense and intelligence establishments. But that was after Watergate and a military defeat (or so it was perceived at the time — debate about whether we really “lost” in Vietnam continues). Such circumstances seldom recur; no chief executive has been as weak as Nixon and Ford. In the 1980s, to be sure, Congress was a significant player in trying to limit aid to the Sandinistas and some other aspects of the Reagan approach to winning the Cold War — but that was a much more ideologically polarizing period in foreign policy than the one we’re in today.
As I noted recently, there is a surprisingly large degree of bipartisan consensus on the war on terror now that Obama has essentially endorsed most of Bush’s approach. That extends to other areas, including the most controversial foreign-policy issue of the day — the Afghan War. Republicans are actually more behind the war effort than Democrats, so it will be easy for Obama to reach across the aisle and seek and win the support of Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and other Republican leaders on the Hill. Some Tea Party isolationists (Rand Paul comes to mind) will object but they will be fringe players — unless the war goes seriously south. The most immediate impact of GOP majorities would presumably be to take the pressure off Obama to stick by his July 2011 deadline for beginning a withdrawal, but, as I’ve previously noted, I think the president has backed off the deadline as it is. Republicans may also pressure Obama to get tougher on Iran and less tough on Israel, but their leverage is going to be severely limited.
The most significant changes are likely to be not those imposed on Obama from the Hill but those he has decided to make himself based on two years of on-the-job experience. As Robert Kagan recently argued, there are some signs to indicate that Obama’s foreign policy has already entered a new phase:
If Phase One was about repairing America’s image around the world by showing a friendlier face to everyone, especially adversaries, Phase Two will be about wielding renewed American influence, even if it means challenging some and disappointing others. If Phase One was about “resetting” relations with great powers, especially Russia and China, Phase Two will be about discovering the limits of reset and taking a harder line when we disagree. If Phase One placed more emphasis on great-power cooperation and the nebulous concept of a “G-20 world,” Phase Two will be built around core U.S. alliances with democratic nations. If Phase One was focused on being Not Bush, Phase Two will be about shedding that self-imposed straitjacket and pursuing traditional American interests and principles even if George W. Bush pursued them, too.
I think that’s basically right. Obama came into office with little foreign-policy experience and lots of ideological baggage. (Remember his infamous pledge to meet during his first year in office with the leaders of “Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea”? Another campaign promise thankfully not kept.) He has been learning the hard way that his personal charm is not going to transform the world — that the mullahs, for instance, will want nuclear weapons no matter who is in the White House. He is now making some welcome course adjustments. Republicans on the Hill can support some of his initiatives and stymie others but ultimately they are not going to have a decisive impact on the course set by the commander in chief.