And the Elephants Came Marching In: Gridlock Over Foreign Policy to Increase with GOP Control of the Senate

BY ADAM LUCENTE

elepantsWith just the final two years left in his presidency, Obama needs not worry about the electoral ramifications of his foreign policy, leaving him with only his legacy and U.S. interests to consider. But with Republicans set to control both the House and now the Senate in the 114th Congress, partisan disagreements will come to the forefront even more so than before. And it’s not going to be pretty.

Many in D.C. predict this upcoming political tussle, with Iran, ISIS, the Middle East peace process, and the Russian-Ukraine conflict being the main points of contention. Christopher J. Deering of The George Washington University puts it bluntly: “No question, Republican control of the Senate will make life more difficult for the Obama Administration.” He further says “…with Republicans in control there likely will be a pretty consistent drumbeat of criticism coming from both sides of the hill.”

These difficulties and criticisms will surely include Iran’s nuclear program. On this issue, Noah Silverman, Congressional Affairs Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, says there is concern over “whether he (Obama)’s going to try to do an Iran deal that provides some relief without Congressional approval,” adding the “president is signaling some relief without concession.”

Mr. Silverman believes such an endeavor would run into opposition on Capitol Hill, naming Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and other senators as potential opponents. Others in D.C. agree. Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that “Congress will be very vocal” over Iran. Perhaps a preview of what is to come, she points to a bill by Sen. Graham which would have given Congress more authority vis-à-vis a deal, but was blocked last week.

Similar disagreements are to surface over ISIS. Sarah Binder, also a professor at GW, claims there will be division between Obama and Congress over “how aggressive the U.S. should be.” Professor Binder also singles out Sen. Graham, remarking how he and other more hawkish members of the Senate like John McCain (R-AZ) will not be satisfied by airstrikes alone against the militant group. Professor Deering likewise believes Congress will be more hawkish, although he cautiously clarifies that they are “not substantially more likely to want boots on the ground.”

Opposition to the president’s handling of ISIS will not be limited to hawkish Republicans, though. The GOP’s non-interventionist wing will take issue with him as well. Professor Binder remarks that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) takes an “isolationist, libertarian approach” to the issue, making him “not at all on the same page” of his aforementioned fellow Republicans. Mr. Silverman agrees, saying there “may be multiple different positions” in the upcoming Congress.

He also notes that “Republican presidential hopefuls will assert themselves on this issue,” a group that will definitely include Senator Paul among others. With the 2016 primaries just around the corner, this will make for an even more feisty Congress.

Mr. Silverman and Professor Deering additionally believe the ever so contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict will come up in the new Congress. Furthermore, Ms. Pletka thinks Congress will be more vocal on Ukraine and Russia.

But what will be the specific effects of the new GOP members of the Senate? An analysis of their foreign policy positions confirms the predictions made by those above. The new Republicans will not necessarily bring new ideas to Congress. They will simply bring more of the same positions upon which the president and the GOP have clashed in the past. Take Senator elect Cory Garder (R-CO), for example. While in the House of Representatives, he voted to destroy ISIS, saying “We must not sit back and watch while this terrorist organization continues to threaten our citizens, our government, and our way of life.” He also supported arming the Syrian opposition. Such positions will be the rule, not the exception.

In terms of who will have the most impact among the newly elected, there seems to be some consensus in Washington. Mr. Silverman and Ms. Pletka, who both spent time working in the Senate before taking their current positions, believe Senator-elect Tom Cotton (R-AR) will be particularly influential. “He’ll make a contribution from day one,” says Silverman, citing Cotton’s opposition to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s nomination as an example.

Ms. Pletka similarly says he will be an “important voice,” considering his military service and political experience. Speaking of the military, Silverman notes that Senator-elect Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) both served. And he believes they too will have an impact in the upcoming Congress.

So will the newly GOP-controlled Senate have an effect on global politics? As Professor Deering says, “…some of this, Middle East peace, has to do with the intractable nature of the problems regardless of who controls Congress and the presidency,” and he is right. The president has more authority over foreign policy than Congress.

And certain events will even be beyond his control. The United States is not likely to stop door to door fighting in Syria, Iran’s nuclear program, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the rise of China, Ebola or clashes on the Temple Mount in the immediate future, barring something incredible.

There is room for progress to be made globally, however. Trade, for example, figures to be less divisive. Ms. Pletka, for one, thinks this issue will surface next year. Professor Deering goes so far as to say “Republican control of the Senate…should make the Senate somewhat more receptive to trade agreements.”

Perhaps the administration should look away from the Middle East and towards Africa and Asia, where there is less disagreement with Congress.