With voters focused on the U.S. economy, President Obama’s foreign policy agenda has been largely overlooked in the midterm campaigns, but it will come under harsh scrutiny in the Congress that emerges after election day, say Republican and Democratic strategists.
Republicans, considered likely to win control of the House and to pick up seats in the Senate on Tuesday, are expected to challenge the White House on its policies involving Afghanistan, nuclear arms control, Russia, China and foreign aid spending, to name a few.
Though the GOP won’t have enough leverage to entirely block the administration on key issues, it will be able to complicate the White House’s plans and inflict political damage as the 2012 presidential campaign election launches, analysts say.
“We’ll see political IEDs out everywhere for the administration,” said one Democratic strategist, using the U.S. military’s abbreviation for makeshift bombs known as improvised explosive devices.
Administration officials say they are braced for Republican challenges to Obama’s plan to begin drawing down U.S. troops in Afghanistan next July, as conservative lawmakers are expected to use their anticipated election momentum to align themselves with military leaders opposed to a major withdrawal.
Administration officials said they would fight any attempts by Congress to hem in the president.
“The goal is to preserve the president’s ability to make the best decision,” said an administration official, “in the face of some vested interests who may try to force his hand or narrow the options prematurely.”
Another target of conservatives may be the administration’s fast-growing spending on civilian aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which the GOP will attack as wasteful.
“It’s hard to be against defense spending; it’s much easier to oppose foreign aid,” said a senior Republican aide.
The officials declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.
Ken Buck, the Republican Senate candidate in Colorado, has criticized the administration’s “nation-building” efforts in Afghanistan, and has urged the administration to narrow the goals of the Afghan mission.
If Republicans win a House majority, they are expected to use their investigative authority to probe the administration’s policies, and they could try to dredge up the details of how Obama formulated his Afghan policy.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), in line to become chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is expected to push the White House aggressively. A spokesman noted that he has been deeply interested in foreign affairs.
But as Republican hawks mount the main attack on Obama’s Afghan policy, criticism also could come from Tea Party-backed lawmakers with libertarian inclinations who are skeptical about the war. In an odd alliance, they may align with liberal Democrats to try to scale back spending on Afghanistan.
Over the last two years, House Democrats have limited their criticism of the president’s Afghan mission. But if the election goes as pollsters predict, the smaller Democratic caucus may be dominated by a liberal core that is against the war and may feel emboldened to speak out.
The election result also may have an immediate effect on the pending New START arms control treaty with Russia, which is awaiting Senate ratification.
The Obama administration views the treaty, which would limit the size of the two countries nuclear arsenals, as one of its most important foreign policy achievements, and is pushing for Senate ratification during the lame-duck session.
But the Republican leadership, led by Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona may decide to delay the vote until the new session of Congress, when they will probably have more votes. A decision to delay the vote might help Kyl in his bid to become a leader of the party’s conservative wing, congressional aides note.
The administration has touted its work to improve relations with Russia, which were strained in the Bush years. But the Republican congressional leadership is more wary of the Russian government, and is likely to push the administration to be tougher on Moscow on issues such as trade and missile defense.
The new Congress might also push the administration to be more assertive on relations with China, mainly on such flashpoints as trade and Taiwan.
Obama’s efforts on Middle East peace talks could face new challenges after the election if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu perceives the president as weakened, and decides to push back harder against Obama’s pressure for compromise.
Obama has been urging Netanyahu to extend a moratorium on Jewish construction in the occupied West Bank in hopes of persuading Palestinian leaders to return to stalled peace talks.