By Leon Hadar
Let us assume that Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives (and even the Senate). What kind of effect will that have on the Obama Administration’s foreign policy? Studying the lessons of another Democratic President, who after two years in office and impressive GOP wins in the midterms found his policies being challenged by a Republican Congressional majority, leads to a sobering conclusion. Do not expect a change in the balance of power on Capitol Hill to have any dramatic effect on foreign policy.
When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, riding a tidal wave of anti-incumbent sentiment to victory in the midterm elections, the political narrative drawn by the pundits recalls the current one. The voters delivered a strong rejection of Democratic President Bill Clinton and his policies, while giving an electoral green light to Republicans to promote a populist anti-government agenda, The Contract with America.
Interestingly enough, much of the attention of the media in 1994, not unlike in 2010, focused on the domestic social and economic policies being advocated by the Republican “insurgents”: reducing the size of government and balancing the budget.
And both in 1994 and 2010, issues relating to America’s position in the world–ranging from national security to international trade–seemed to be marginalized during the election campaigns.
Moreover, the media was confused about the foreign policy agenda embraced by the Contract-With-America crowd sixteen years ago and by Tea Party members today. To what extent were Republican populists rallying against Washington, ready to target the two main programs advanced by the hated elites: an interventionist foreign policy and a global free-trade agenda?
Then, like now, opinion polls suggested that those segments of the public driving the populist revolutions in 1994 and 2010 were actually split over these issues. In 1994, many of those who supported the Republican Contract included ex-allies of former presidential candidate and businessmen Ross Perot who had campaigned against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Similarly, there are strong economic nationalist sentiments among many of the present-day Tea Party activists who blame China and other emerging markets for America’s economic woes.
At the same time, in 1994 like in 2010 national security issues were not the main preoccupation of the American voter. That there was not much debate over defense policies during the 1994 election was easily explained–it was taking place in the aftermath of the Cold War when the U.S. did not seem to be threatened by a powerful foreign adversary,
More intriguing is the mood of the American public this year. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of American troops are engaged in military operations in Iraq and are being drawn into a quagmire in Afghanistan–and against the backdrop of a lot of talk about a possible U.S. confrontation with Iran–most of the angry Tea Partiers have refrained from bashing the Obama Administration’s military interventionism. If anything, some of them have even accused him of not being tough enough in dealing with what they regard as the threat of radical Islam.
The only exception were members of the libertarian wing of the Tea Party allied with former presidential candidate Ron Paul, who have called for pulling U.S. troops out of the Middle East and elsewhere and slashing the defense budget. Yet not unlike in the midterm elections of 1994, the Republicans campaigning against government spending and rising deficits this year have refrained from calling for cuts in one of the largest parts of the federal government’s expenditures–national security.
But for those who are trying to draw some lessons from the 1994 midterms, here is an interesting one. While the new Republican majority proved to be effective in terms of blocking some of President Clinton’s initiatives on the domestic front, including the earlier plans to reform health care, Republican lawmakers played an historic role in helping the Democratic president get his ambitious trade liberalization agenda approved by Congress, including 300 trade accords with other countries.
In fact, the passage of a milestone trade agreement with China, allowing for the lowering of trade barriers between the two countries, would not have been achieved without Republican support. The agreement could only take effect if China was granted permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status by the U.S. Congress and accepted into the World Trade Organization (WTO). The bill approving China’s PNTR status passed in the House by a majority of 237 to 197 on May 24, 2000, with 164 Republicans voting in favor and 138 Democrats opposing the legislation. Or to put it in simple terms, it was the Republican majority in the House that made it possible to remove the final obstacle to full Sino-American trade ties, a development that continues to have a dramatic impact on U.S. economic policy today.
On national security issues, the post-1994 Congressional Republicans seemed to generally support the Clinton Administration’s policies in the Middle East, including the “Dual Containment” approach vis-à-vis Iraq and Iran. And if anything, the pressures from neoconservatives pamphleteers, think tankers and public figures associated with the Project for New American Century (PNAC),which was established in 1997 — including the calls for “regime change” in Iraq — played an important role in mobilizing support for the approval the passage of theIraq Liberation Act. From the perspective of U.S. policies in the Middle East, the Republican-led Congress served as an echo chamber for the PNAC and helped create a political environment in which the plans to oust Saddam Hussein were embraced with much enthusiasm by Republicans on Capitol Hill after 911.
But several leading Republican lawmakers, including then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, parted way with PNAC and the Clinton Administration when it came to the U.S. decision to use military power against Serbia in response to Slobodan Milosevic’s attempts to suppress the uprising in Kosovo. As William Saletan chronicled in Slate, the Congressional Republicans seemed to be acting as leaders of an aspiring antiwar movement. “In past wars, Republicans accused these domestic opponents of sabotaging American morale and aiding the enemy,” Saletan wrote. “But in this war, Republicans aren’t bashing the anti-war movement,” he noted. “They’re leading it.”
Ironically, the Republicans then sounded like Democrats campaigning against George W. Bush’s Iraq War. “Once the bombing commenced, I think then [Slobodan] Milosevic unleashed his forces, and then that’s when the slaughtering and the massive ethnic cleansing really started,” Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma said at a news conference, according to Saletan. “The administration’s campaign has been a disaster. … [It] escalated a guerrilla warfare into a real war, and the real losers are the Kosovars and innocent civilians.” And on Fox News Sunday, DeLay blamed the ethnic cleansing on U.S. intervention. “Clinton’s bombing campaign has caused all of these problems to explode,” DeLay stated in a speech on the House floor. These and other comments were criticized not only by Clinton Administration officials, but also neoconservatives associated with the PNAC who warned of the re-emergence of “isolationism” on the political right.
This very brief antiwar Republican moment has encouraged those Republicans and conservatives opposed to the neoconservative agenda to speculate that the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill, as part of the anticipated confrontation with the White House, would end-up adopting a more critical stand against “Obama’s War” in Afghanistan. it is true that some Republican public figures and conservative pundits have expressed strong reservations about the conduct of the war in Afghanistan and have proposed U.S. military disengagement. As a libertarian who wants to see that happen, I wish that the Republicans would turn against the war. But much of the Republican criticism had to do with the decision of the president to set a timeline for U.S. withdrawal from there.
It is not inconceivable that Republican leaders will have to accept some cuts in the defense budget in the name of fiscal discipline. But it is very unlikely that many Congressional Republicans would join anti-war Democrats in calling for accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan or Iraq. Being strong on national security and advocating a tough U.S. stand–like Dick Cheney in the war on terrorism and in dealing with the threats emanating from the broader Middle East–reflects the ideological tenets of powerful constituencies in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. They include not only neoconservatives and lobbyists for the defense industry, but also the kind of activists that seem to play a powerful role in the Tea Party movement–Sarah Palin being one of them–staunch proponents of Greater Israel who seem to believe that America needs to prepare for a global struggle with a rising Muslim Caliphate. In a way, the mishmash of Islamophobia and radical Zionism may be replacing anti-communism as the new ideological glue that binds together the disparate elements on the political right.
This explains why President Obama would find it very difficult to toughen his approach vis-à-vis the Israeli government on the issue of the Jewish settlements. He won’t want to be perceived as looking “soft” on Iran in the next two years, during which he will have to contend with Congress where the only split will be between pro-Likud Republicans (and Democrats) who want to bomb Iran and pro-Israeli Democrats who want to continue pursuing the current policy of pressing Tehran through diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions. Expect President Obama to continue “muddling through” on these issues, with the Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates bashing him as a “pro-Muslim” and “anti-Israel” appeaser.
It is more difficult to predict what approach the Obama Administration and the Republicans are going to pursue on global trade, and in that context, the relationship with China. If unemployment remains high and the economic recovery stalls, all bets are off. It is not unlikely that Obama will end-up jumping on the populist bandwagon with Democrats, using China as a political scapegoat and embracing an anti-free-trade agenda. That in turn could force Republicans to make a choice between siding with the party’s free traders and members of its populist wing.
But it is quite possible that if the rate of unemployment drops and there are strong signs of economic recovery and diminishing populist fury, we are going to see a rerun of what happened during the Clinton presidency after 1994. The Obama Administration and the Republican Congress may work together to approve a series of trade accords, including with Korea, Colombia and the Southeast Asian economies, while trying to manage the complex economic relationship with China. Such an approach could antagonize important Democratic constituencies, like the labor unions, but could fit into a political strategy of marketing Obama as a centrist politician (a la Clinton) as he prepares to face the voters in 2012.
Leon Hadar is a research fellow at The Cato Institute.