Even before the polls opened for voting in the U.S. midterm elections, the finger-pointing had already begun. The Obama agenda, instead of coming to term after four years, was suffering a miscarriage halfway through. The potential culprits were many and diverse.
President Barack Obama was to blame because his populist attempt to rally the economically disgruntled was too little and too late. The Supreme Court was to blame because it decimated campaign finance reform and allowed record amounts of money to distort the political process. The Democratic Party was to blame because it moved to the center in a misguided effort to win over independents. The Republican Party was to blame for arguing that "big government" is responsible for all of America's ills even while making government grind to a halt with obstructionist tactics. The tea party was to blame for, well, being itself. The media was to blame for focusing on trivia instead of the critical issues. The economy was to blame for not rebounding more quickly. The American people were to blame for turning certifiable nut jobs into viable political candidates.
Even comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were to blame for distracting hundreds of thousands of people from doing critical get-out-the-vote work and then failing to mention the election at all on the day of their rally on the Mall last weekend.
These fingers, however, were all pointed inward. Foreign policy played almost no role in this election. This is rather strange. After all, the United States is still involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The gargantuan military budget, even at this time of economic crisis, barely merits a mention in the news. (Check out this short film clip from director Iara Lee for information on military spending, featuring me and other Foreign Policy In Focus colleagues that the TV news won't give you). Critical treaties, such as New START, hang in the balance. Negotiations with Iran and North Korea might be in the offing. We're coming up on another round of climate change negotiations in Cancun at the end of this month.
And yet, the elections will likely have a huge impact on U.S. foreign policy. A realigned Congress will alter how the United States engages (or doesn't) with the world.
The first likely victim of the elections will be New START, our latest arms control agreement with Russia. Senate Democrats have so far been unable to guarantee the 67 votes needed for passage. The one Republican who has promised to vote yes, Richard Lugar (R-IN), doubts the treaty will even come up for a vote in the lame-duck session if the Republicans pick up enough seats.
Although the arms control community is battling hard for New START, others are more skeptical of the agreement. The deals cut in the Senate to win passage, writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Darwin BondGraham in START: Arms Affirmation Treaty, "ensure that the military and its contractors will receive huge budget increases, including funding for a new plutonium bomb pit factory, a growing the missile defense program that is already as large as the NNSA nuclear weapons program, the conversion of nuclear-capable missiles into conventional strike weapons under the prompt global strike weapons program, and a new generation of submarines and jets to deploy the nuclear arsenal." Still, it could be worse. More Senate Republicans will give Jon Kyl (R-AZ) the leverage to push for even more money for nuclear modernization.
A second potential victim is the Obama administration's commitments on climate change. You might ask, what commitment? The administration backs a controversial market-based solution by which governments issue pollution permits. "The $127 billion global carbon trading market has become a lucrative marketplace for turning planetary salvation into business deals," writes FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen in Worlds Collide in Cancun Climate Talks. "The upshot is that the polluter is allowed to keep on polluting."
But more Republicans in the Senate will give tea party favorites Jim DeMint (R-SC) and James Inhofe (R-OK) more opportunities to voice their climate change denial. Both received significant campaign contributions from BP.
And then there's Obama's more diplomatic approach to various conflicts around the world. True, I find the administration's way of dealing with North Korea — lots of sticks, no carrots — too reminiscent of the early Bush years. But a Republican takeover of the House means that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) will take charge of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Known for her UN-bashing and unqualified support for Israel, Ros-Lehtinen prefers regime change strategies to the current containment approach the U.S. favors with North Korea. Led by the Florida hardliner, Congress will likely take more extreme positions toward China, Iran, Venezuela, and other nations.
Some might argue that Obama missed his golden opportunity to push through all the vital pieces of legislation on his agenda — including a jobs stimulus bill and a climate change bill — when he had a clear majority in both the House and Senate. But the Republicans used the arcane rules of the Senate to block as much as they could.
Bringing a bill to the floor of the Senate requires a cloture vote. According to this rule, adopted in 1917, 60 Senators have to agree to end debate before the body can vote by a simple majority on most bills. To block Obama, Michael Tomasky points out, Republicans have threatened a filibuster roughly twice as many times since 2007 as the Democrats did when Republicans controlled Congress during the Bush administration between 2003 and 2007.
Of course, the tilting of the playing field begins even before the senators take their seats. As FPIF contributor Caleb Rossiter argues, our electoral rules have long supported our imperial foreign policy. "Members of the U.S. House, by state laws, and the Senate, by a constitutional amendment in 1913, are chosen under a winner-takes-all rule," he writes in Is Obama a Turkey or an Eagle? "This reduces the representation in government of the anti-imperialist minority that would be present under a proportional election rule."
In many ways, the Obama administration's foreign policy has been a major disappointment. Even where he has achieved some success — negotiating with the Russians on arms control, putting climate change on the table — these have been very qualified victories. But after a few whiffs of the alternatives proposed by the newly ascendant Republicans, and those hawkish Democrats who consistently fall in behind them, we'll be waxing nostalgic about the good old days of Obama's first two years. It might not have been a golden age, but it sure beats the dark ages to come.
Failures of Leadership Abroad
There are obstructionists at home, and abroad. Take Israel. Any peace deal at the moment has to involve Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's right-wing leader. "The current right-wing government of Israel wants to negotiate with the Palestinians for their independent state as much as China wants to negotiate with Taiwan for its independent state," writes FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo in If Israel Wants Peace… So, don't expect Obama to get any foreign policy bump as a result of a Middle East peace deal any time soon.
Nearer to home, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pushed the ordinarily sensible neighbor to the north into unusually extreme positions. As FPIF senior analyst Ian Williams points out, Canada has until recently been a model international actor. Then Harper took over and began copying George W. Bush. "Canada showed hostility to Russia and China, more on atavistic Cold War grounds than because of any deep concern for human rights, since Ottawa developed a U.S.-style expediency on that subject," Williams writes in Canada on Ice: At the UN. "Its troops in Afghanistan handed over prisoners to the CIA. Its officials did nothing at all about Canadian citizens that the United States kidnapped in New York and sent for torture in the Middle East or held in Guantanamo."
Finally, to the south, communities are trying to rein in the Mexican military. In the village of Mini Numa, the Me'phaa Indigenous Peoples Organization struggle for day-to-day human rights, which includes flush toilets. "They want a fair share of the commons, basic services and resources with which to scrape out modestly improved lives," writes FPIF contributor Daniel Moss in Postcard from…Mini Numa. "But these assertions of dignity, no matter how mundane they may appear, are a slippery slope, deeply threatening to local politicians and their goons who enjoy the plunder opportunities offered by despotic control."