The Republican party has won the US senate and added to its majority in the House of Representatives. Optimists think this will usher in a new era of cooperation between the White House and Congress much as what happened when Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were faced with majorities from the other party in both houses and actually modified their approaches to achieve compromise and get work done. This time round, the pessimists fear that an energised group of Republicans may just play hardball with President Obama and try to undo some of his pet projects like healthcare. While it remains to be seen which prediction comes true on the domestic front, in the international arena one can quite confidently say so what? US foreign policy is unlikely to change in any significant way. Nor is it likely to get a coherent strategy together to deal with global issues.
The new Congress like its predecessor is unlikely to hold the president’s feet to the fire since it recognises that the Iraq war is deeply unpopular amongst the American public and that escalation would only lead to a backlash at the polls. Thus the President’s recent demand from Congress for an additional US$5.6 billion to send 1,500 troops to Iraq will not be met with much opposition. The last Congress, similarly, was happy to let Obama take the heat on how to prevent ISIS from gaining ground.
There is talk that Congress may push for the Obama Administration to hasten in bringing about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty that was being held up due to resistance from the Democrats who felt that the TPP would go against the interests of American labour. It is believed that the Republicans might agree to give the President a fast track authority to negotiate since the party favours increased trade. Skeptics feel, however, that the Tea Party faction of the Republican party which has been complaining about an imperial presidency is unlikely to give Barack Obama even greater authority. More importantly, free trade agreements are an anathema to the US working class so there may be a backlash that Republicans, looking to win the presidential election in 2016, may be leery of antagonising.
Which then leaves China, Iran, and Russia and in none of these cases is the US Congress interested in doing anything to radically shift these relationships. China cannot be dealt with through traditional security measures like an arms build-up or an attempt at containment - which by the way is how the Chinese perceive the Pivot to Asia. Instead it requires a combination of building up allies, increasing economic collaborations, and a judicious use of soft power, but that would require a degree of imagination and creativity that is not being displayed at present in the US foreign policy debate.
A new relationship with Iran could create new options for the US in both the Middle East and more importantly in Afghanistan. An opening through Iran would decrease US dependence on the supply routes through Pakistan while rapprochement with Tehran would also permit a coordination of policy between Iran and the US to counter the efforts of the Taliban. Yet for such a rapprochement to happen, Congress would have to work with the President to deliver a bipartisan consensus that would limit public criticism and convince the Iranians that the US means business. Again, Congress is unlikely to rise to the occasion given the negative reaction from Congressmen to the secret letter sent by President Obama to the supreme leader of Iran.
Which then leaves Russia and there the President has done what he can by slapping Moscow with a range of sanctions that have begun to bite. But no one in the US wants to go much further than that because not only is Russia a bit player - President Obama dismissed it as a regional power - but getting involved in Ukraine would only stretch the US’ already overextended resources.
In the immortal words of David Byrne, “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.