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Republican Victories Promise Change In U.S. Foreign Policy -- With A Tea Party Twist

  • Christian Caryl

Sweeping Republican Party victories in the 2010 congressional elections are likely to have a major impact on the course of U.S. foreign policy.

Experts predict, among other things, a harder line on Iran, a more complicated relationship with Russia, and a possible postponement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Yet there could also be surprises in store for U.S. allies and foes alike in the months to come. The reason for this uncertainty factor is the new political prominence of the Tea Party, the conservative grassroots movement whose electoral appeal helped boost Republicans to control of the House of Representatives.


The Tea Party coalesced around opposition to President Barack Obama's signature domestic programs, like his health-care reform plan and economic stimulus program, but the movement's position on most foreign-policy issues remains blurry. Christopher Preble, a commentator for the online edition of the conservative magazine "National Review," summed up the prevailing view: "The many men and women running with Tea Party support agree on some obvious things -- especially that taxes are too high and the government is too big -- but they share no common foreign-policy vision."

New House

Even after an election as momentous as this one, of course, the basic contours of U.S. conduct overseas will remain unchanged. The U.S. Constitution gives the president broad powers in setting the course of foreign policy, and Obama's Democratic Party has managed to retain its control of the Senate, which plays a key role in assisting or blocking presidential initiatives. Yet the Republican takeover of the House gives the conservatives a powerful new megaphone for their opposition to White House policies.

Most importantly, their victory now gives the Republicans control over the House's all-important policy committees. The new chairmen and chairwomen of those committees are, without exception, established conservatives with long foreign-policy track records.

Elliott Abrams, a former U.S. diplomat now working for the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington think tank, says that the fresh prominence of such leaders will certainly lead to a "harder line" on U.S. efforts against Iran's nuclear program. "I think there'd be a push for a hard line that says any negotiated deal would have to be with zero enrichment," he says, referring to proposals that would allow Iran to enrich some uranium for ostensibly civilian purposes in return for accepting restrictions on military use.

"I think you'll see very strong support for what the administration's doing on economic sanctions against Iran." He notes that Congress has a record of leading the agenda on sanctions dating back to the previous administration of George W. Bush -- a trend that is unlikely to change under the new Republican leadership in the House.

The new political alignments on Capitol Hill are also likely to affect Washington’s relations with Russia. One possible casualty could be the New START Treaty, the nuclear arms reduction pact that would limit strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 on both the U.S. and Russian sides. Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty in April, but it still awaits ratification by the Russian parliament and the U.S. Senate.

Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution in Washington says that an intensely polarized political climate in the wake of the elections could lead Republicans to agitate against Senate approval -- if only to score political points against a president who has counted improved relations with Russia as one of his few clear-cut foreign-policy successes. The Republicans, she asserts, "just don't want to give [the White House] a success on any issue" -- despite some evidence of bipartisan support on the treaty.

Commentator Albert R. Hunt, writing in the "International Herald Tribune," says that some prominent establishment Republicans who have exercised leadership on foreign policy -- like Indiana's Richard Lugar or Maine's Olympia Snowe -- could come under pressure from the invigorated right wing of their own party to prove their conservative bona fides.

Foreign Wars

Some of these traditional Republicans -- unsuccessful presidential candidate John McCain being but one example -- have criticized Obama for setting a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year, and the Republican leaders in the new House are likely to continue this line of attack. But this is one area where Tea Party newcomers could mix things up.

Take freshman Senator Rand Paul, the victorious Tea Party-backed candidate from Kentucky. In an interview not long before the election, Paul expressed skepticism about the Obama administration's efforts to shore up Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan -- an undertaking Obama inherited from his predecessor, the Republican George W. Bush. "There are reasonable people, conservatives like me, who believe that defense is the primary role of the federal government, but do not believe that you can make Afghanistan into a nation," Paul said. "It never has been one."

Indeed, how the new Tea Party Republicans respond to the Afghan dilemma is one of the big question marks. While some of them will seem inclined to hold true to Bush-era neo-conservative principles, others view the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the overseas equivalents of the same high-cost "big government" programs they reject at home. This has led some observers to speculate whether these "anti-imperialist" conservatives could make common cause with antiwar activists on the left wing of the Democratic Party. Those liberals oppose Obama's broad expansion of drone attacks on jihadist targets in Pakistan as well as the troop surge currently under way in Afghanistan.

Still, there is one clear bottom line from this election: Obama emerges from it a weakened president. And that, says ex-U.S. diplomat Elliott Abrams, means that "anyone who is trying to resist him feels probably that resistance is a little easier." That will probably hold true in the case of the Middle East peace talks, where the U.S. president has been pushing the Israelis and Palestinians to come to an accord.

Now, says Abrams, "both sides out there [will] feel a little bit freer to push back." And they're almost certainly not the only ones who will see it that way. This election clearly does not make Barack Obama's job as America's diplomat in chief any easier.

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