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Under New Management: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Obama Twilight

January 5, 2015

By Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow

“But is a U.S. president ever not a lame duck?” asked my friend, in response to my margarita-fuelled assertion that the executive branch of the U.S. government had now entered a state of limbo that would run until early 2017. Sitting in a rather overheated Mexican restaurant a few hundred yards from the White House, it was difficult for me to argue with her point. Even if a newly elected president of the United States is lucky enough – as Barack Obama was – to enter office with both the Senate and House of Representatives under his party’s control, the window of genuine freedom of action – from the point of inauguration to the start of the build up to the next midterm elections – can be as little as twelve months. Given that the party not holding the presidency almost always gains seats in Congress in midterm elections, this can result in the president’s party losing control (if they had it to begin with) of one – or in Bill Clinton’s case, both – of the houses of Congress just two years after taking the Oval Office. Following the inevitable recriminations, the administration will then focus all its efforts on not doing anything to endanger the president’s chance of a second term. Given the advantage of incumbency, this will usually succeed; but the benefits the sitting president enjoys will rarely translate to major gains for their party in Congress. From then on, things tend to go downhill: no president since Truman, in 1950, has had their party in control of either of the houses of Congress following their second term midterms.

However, for all the stigma attached to the term, being a lame duck domestically does not necessarily mean the end of the line for a presidency. Suggestion has been made that Obama may seek to follow in the footsteps of his recent predecessors and focus on foreign policy issues – an area that generally falls outside the realm of Congress. He would not lack for examples: the last three two-term presidents have seen off allegations of illegal arms dealing, impeachment and floor-scraping approval ratings to implement their agendas abroad. But in parallel to Obama’s loss of Congress, this last year has also seen the beginning of an apparent turnaround in the foreign policy sentiment that ultimately gave life to his presidency.

2006 saw the Democratic Party take control of both houses of Congress on a wave of public dissatisfaction regarding the Iraq War. The subsequent nomination by the party of Obama as their candidate for the 2008 presidential election was also owed, in no small part, to the support the presumptive nominee, then Sen. Hillary Clinton, had given to the initial invasion of Iraq. In addition, what is frequently underappreciated is that the post-2008 Republican Party also underwent a shift with regards to the attitude of many of its supporters towards foreign policy matters. Whilst the Tea Party movement was most notable for its opposition to the growing U.S. national debt and the expansion of the federal government, it also brought with it a distaste for interventionism. The lack of an appetite for foreign military engagement across both parties arguably reached its manifested peak manifestation in August/September 2013, during the debate over launching air strikes against Syria in response to a chemical attack launched by the Assad regime. Backed by large-scale U.S. public disapproval of military intervention, liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans led the charge against the planned operation.  By late 2013, support amongst the U.S. public for an active U.S. foreign policy had reached rock bottom, with over half of the U.S. public believing that the U.S. was doing too much to try to solve the world’s problems and should mind its own business.

But if 2006 marked the beginning of a foreign policy cycle that reached its crescendo in 2013, 2014 appeared to represent the beginning of something new. With regards to U.S. public opinion, the turnaround in attitudes to global engagement as a result of a string of crises abroad has been moderate but significant. Whilst in November 2013, polls showed that 51 per cent of U.S. citizens believed that the U.S. does too much to try to solve the world’s problems and 17 per cent too little, by August 2014 this ratio had changed to 39 per cent thinking the U.S. does too much and 31 per cent too little. But it has been the recent shift within the U.S. political elite that has really mattered.

2014 saw many within the Democratic Party begin to sense that Obama’s self-declared foreign policy mantra of “Don’t do stupid shit” has resulted not in a well-considered policy programme, but in a form of intellectual paralysis that is increasingly difficult to defend to an ever more sceptical public. For all the hope amongst Democrats that they had finally left behind their reputation for being weak on national security, the rise of ISIS in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and botched approach to the conflict in Syria has given the Republicans a stick to beat them with. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Obama’s former secretary of state and presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton who has been most aggressive in distancing herself from his foreign policy approach. Indeed, she has taken up the mantel of foreign policy hawk to the extent that rumours abound that even some committed neoconservatives are preparing to back her in the 2016 presidential race. Although the shift in the Democratic Party is far from uniform – a hawkish Clinton could very well face losses to a more left-wing rival such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren – many rank and file Democrats in Congress will likely take a similar path as an act of electoral self-preservation.

However, in the immediate, the most important shift has been in the make-up and power of the Republicans in Congress as a result of the 2014 midterm elections. Not only do they now run the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, but it is the internationalist wing of the party that has seen most of the benefits of the right-wing resurgence. The first of a new generation of hawks, notably in the form of Senators Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst, were elected in 2014. Nevertheless, probably the single greatest advantage the Republicans gained with their victory in the Senate has been control over a number of key committees. Arch-interventionist Sen. John McCain is now leading the Senate Armed Services Committee; and his long-time cohort Sen. Lindsey Graham presides over the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on state and foreign operations. The more moderate – but still vocal critic of Obama on Iran and Russia, Sen. Bob Corker, chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Whilst such positions of leadership do not give the Republicans the ability to dictate foreign policy to their whim, the power of the Congressional ‘bully pulpit’ should not be underestimated.

Probably the most immediate case in point regarding how control over the foreign policy agenda is slipping from the Obama administration is the situation concerning negotiations with Iran. For all the issues with Iran’s approach to talks relating to a potential agreement with reference to its nuclear programme, it is not just Tehran that may prove to be an obstacle to a deal. Many Republicans – and some Democrats – sense that the Obama administration is content to either except what they see as a bad deal with Iran, or let the negotiations end without meaningful consequences. In order to prevent either of these outcomes, two bills have been put forward by members of Congress. The first, the Iran Nuclear Negotiations Act, would, if passed, require that Congress is given the right to approve any deal. The second piece of legislation, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, would seek to reactivate and strengthen sanctions if a deal failed to meet the tough conditions stipulated within it. The latter bill received substantial bipartisan support on its introduction, and it was only intense lobbying from the White House that put the brakes on its passage in late 2013. However, with a new Republican majority in the Senate, the bill is now being reintroduced.  Ordinarily, even with the opposition in control of both houses, a president can rely on the fact that he can veto any legislation he perceives as hostile to his agenda. Now, it is beginning to look genuinely possible that a veto-proof majority in Congress could force through one or both of the bills against the administration’s wishes.

Two further issues that will, in the immediate, fall to Congress are the question of granting an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to provide a legal basis for the war against ISIS, and the  holding of confirmation hearings regarding the replacement of the recently de facto fired secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, with Obama’s nominee Ashton Carter. It is likely that the Republican-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee will take both opportunities to force the Obama administration to clarify its strategy in the war against ISIS and its planned endgame against Syria’s Assad. The glacial pace at which U.S. efforts to deal with ISIS in Iraq have unfolded in the last year can to a significant extent be blamed on the need to remove the now former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, but the continuing absence of even a clear desired end state for Iraq and Syria – let alone a roadmap for how to get there – is a source of deep concern for many. Indeed, it is rumoured that a call for clarification on Syria in particular was what cost Hagel his job. To take one example, the recent authorisation of funding to train moderate Syria fighters contains a line stating that one of the four objectives of the programme is “promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria”. Is this a reference to ultimately using U.S. trained fighters to remove Assad, or something more modest? In the hope of answering this and other questions, the current AUMF draft demands that the president submit a comprehensive war plan to Congress within ninety days of the AUMF resolution being passed, including a “realistic end goal and exit strategy”.

Ultimately, it is highly unlikely that Congress will block either the AUMF or the new nominee for secretary of defence. Where the new Republican majority could, however, have a major impact is in the repeal of the defence expenditure elements of the sequestration brought in by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to reach a deal on reducing government spending. Born of a scheme to reign in the US budget deficit, the end result has been the imposition of draconian cuts across both military and civilian federal government spending. Now, with a Republican majority in both houses and a new war in the Middle East, the Obama administration – which has in the past promised to veto any defence-only sequester repeal -will be under potentially huge pressure to approve the rollback of planned defence cuts – even if, as many Democrats fear, the cuts imposed on social programmes remain in place.

Evidence even suggests that Congress it also taking the lead with regards to policy relating to Ukraine. Even prior to the Republicans taking control of the Senate, both houses passed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act against the wishes of the White House. The bill does not force the sale of weapons to Ukraine or the imposition of additional sanctions, and as a result the president reluctantly signed it. However, just a day later, the administration placed a total ban on all trade between the U.S. and the Crimea. This development would seem to indicate that even where Congress cannot control foreign policy, it can help set the mood music.

There are of course many other foreign policy issues facing the U.S. in the near-term. It would also  be unwise to underestimate the power of even a diminished presidency to set the agenda where it has the willpower – as the recent decision by the Obama administration to reopen relations with Cuba attests to (although even on this issue, Congress can still run interference). But fundamentally, it would seem unlikely that we are about to see a repeat of the closing eras of the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations with regards to foreign policy. Instead, it seems more probable that we will witness a battle between a Congress that desires to restore a proactive approach to U.S. foreign affairs and an administration that seeks to continue to limp down the path to the finish line of the next presidential inauguration. It could be a long two years.

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Deputy Director who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Politics and a MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent ‘Fire and Ice: A New Maritime Strategy for NATO’s Northern Flank’ report. Rowan's publication credits include articles and commentary in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, UK Defence Journal, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest. He has previously worked as a lobbyist for the Whitehouse Consultancy in Westminster, and as a Senior Analyst for RAND Europe's Security, Defence and Infrastructure team.