Even though there are still two years remaining in his term, Barack Obama’s time in Washington seems destined to be remembered for gridlock and thwarted ambitions. Thanks to the bitter divisions between political parties, the United States has been governed for most of the last six years by a combination of executive fiat and necessary but grudging compromise. Meanwhile, the president’s foreign policy goals – especially his desire to reset US-Russia relations and to balance American attention towards the Pacific – have been overtaken by events in eastern Europe and the Middle East.
On 4 November, the US will vote in midterm elections – the last of Obama’s presidency. If the Republicans take a majority of the Senate, as polling suggests they are likely to, the next two years are unlikely to see a new era of comity and bipartisanship. But what comes afterwards may give clues as to the future direction of America’s engagement beyond its own shores.
The Republican Party – largely shut out of the foreign policy-making process since 2008 – has had the luxury of being able to criticize Obama’s policies without needing to provide substantial alternatives. The midterms, however, may deliver to them a double-edged sword: with a Senate majority, conservatives will have an increased ability to challenge President Obama’s priorities at home and abroad, but in doing so they may expose significant divisions within their own ranks.
The primary political battlegrounds of the last six years have been domestic policies such as healthcare, immigration, deficits and fiscal policy. Excepting immigration, on these issues the various constituencies of the Republican Party are in favour of a broadly similar slate of policies, even if they do not necessarily agree on the particulars.
However, the situation with regards to foreign policy is much more complex. The Republicans have criticized Obama with a single voice, condemning everything from his foreign policy rhetoric to his administration’s handling of Benghazi, Russia and the Ebola virus. But they are also caught between two largely incompatible foreign policy ideologies – the once-ascendant interventionist neo-conservatism which characterized the George W Bush administration, and the rise of the much more inward-looking Tea Party. Even though foreign policy plays a relatively minor role in elections, the Republicans will need to figure out what they stand for – not merely what they stand against.
And they will need to do so quickly. Public opinion of Obama has been driven downwards by political stagnation, a slow and unequal economic recovery and a seemingly endless supply of international crises. But if Republicans control the Congress, the public will very soon begin to blame them for failing to reverse these trends. The American electorate is nothing if not fickle.
That elasticity has to be on the minds of Republican strategists, given that the midterm elections also mark the unofficial but very real beginning of the 2016 presidential election campaign. The end of this year and the first few months of 2015 will almost certainly see a rush of announcements from aspirants to the White House, and every action from now onwards will be increasingly scrutinized for its relevance to the upcoming presidential race. That leaves precious little opportunity for the Republicans to set out foreign policy choices in a way which would not come to restrict their future options.
The Senate will be a particularly important forum, as three of the most likely Republican presidential candidates– Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio – are all senators, all representing different foreign policy visions and all in positions to demonstrate engagement with foreign affairs. (Cruz sits on the Armed Services Committee and Paul and Rubio on Foreign Relations.) Cruz is undoubtedly the most unabashed proponent of aggressive American power; Rubio is slightly more moderate and Paul favours a rebalancing of American power away from foreign engagements of all kinds.
These philosophical differences, which have already surfaced over issues such as drone strikes and intervention against Islamic State, are likely to become more public and more intense if and when the electoral rivalry between them becomes official. The Republicans need to advance a foreign policy agenda; but in order to do this they need to find an accommodation between their isolationist and interventionist wings without damaging public showdowns on the Senate floor.
But if Obama and his team are likely to find the Senate an increasingly unsupportive environment for their foreign policy initiatives, it will not solely be down to the Republicans. As the potential candidate with the most foreign policy experience by far, Hillary Clinton does not need to prove her capability, but she has already begun to distance herself from some of the Obama administration’s strategic choices. Similarly, Democrats in tight re-election races have declined Obama’s political aid, fearing that his unpopularity will drag them down. Democrats can read calendars and polls just as well as Republicans, and they understand that at this stage they have little to lose from demonstrating independence from the current administration’s priorities and goals.
In short, the greatest impact of the midterms may well not be on Obama’s foreign policy over the next two years. Instead it may be in the debates to come as both parties start to determine what comes next.
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