By Juan Cole
Although Congress for the most part leaves foreign policy to the president, it can occasionally intervene pivotally in that arena, as when it shot down Woodrow Wilson’s plan to have the U.S. join the League of Nations. Obama’s hopes for better relations with the Muslim world were based on a renewed U.S.-brokered peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, on direct negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, on gradually bringing the Afghanistan war to an end after an initial troop surge, and on a military withdrawal from Iraq. If the freshman class of 2010 comes into town riding atop elephants, it is likely to contribute to the failure of these policies, some of which were already in trouble, and thus to worsen U.S. security.
Some of Obama’s undertakings were unlikely to succeed from the beginning, such as an effort to have the right-wing Likud Party in Israel, with its far right-wing coalition partners, make peace with the deeply divided Palestinians. A Republican-controlled House, beholden to pro-Israel evangelicals, will back up the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in its refusal to freeze further settlements on the West Bank and its recalcitrance in negotiating in good faith with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Indeed, Eric Cantor wants to put aid to Israel in the U.S. defense budget so as to protect it from even the possibility of U.S. pressure. Republicans will pound a nail into the coffin of this round of peace talks, to the extent that they can do so. Since the worsening condition of the stateless Palestinians is the powder keg of Middle East politics, failure could lead to more uprisings and terrorism directed in part at the U.S.
Likewise, Obama’s overtures to the leadership in Iran have not borne fruit, and he has turned to stricter sanctions in an attempt to force Tehran to the bargaining table. A Republican Congress could do little more, short of war, which it is unlikely to declare. Its leaders will likely hold hearings and produce tendentious reports that can be used by a future, Republican administration for the purpose of making a case for military action against Iran. But Obama knows how overstretched the U.S. military already is, and how important Iran is to success in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is highly unlikely to be stampeded into yet another conflict by the GOP.
Some Republicans on the tea party and Libertarian side of the spectrum, such as Rand Paul, running for the Senate in Kentucky, could offer foreign policy surprises if they win. Paul wants to reduce the number of U.S. military bases abroad and wants a “debate” on Afghanistan policy. A Sen. Paul would probably be an outlier in his own party who would be aligned with the Democrats least enthusiastic about the wars. Alaska GOP/tea party candidate Joe Miller, like Paul, wants to cut the defense budget and complains about the U.S. being overextended abroad, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Obama’s Afghanistan escalation is not controversial with most Republicans, of course. Lisa Murkowski, who was defeated in the Republican senatorial primary in Alaska by Miller, is running for her old seat as a write-in candidate and has seen her numbers improve in recent days. If she wins she will likely caucus with the Republicans. She visited Afghanistan in January, and expressed support for Obama’s troop surge strategy. Likewise, Republican senatorial candidate in Pennsylvania Pat Toomey supports Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan, but has doubts, like many Republicans running for office, about the president’s determination to begin withdrawing troops from that country in summer 2011. The Stars and Stripes reports that a Republican House of Representatives could hold hearings on Afghanistan in the run-up to the beginning of Obama’s withdrawal, in an attempt to pressure the White House to keep the troops there.
Hearings could also be called by the House in an attempt to delay the pullout from Iraq in fall 2011, though no Republican candidates have said in public that that is their goal. Republicans trying to arrange for the U.S. military to stay in Iraq in any numbers would risk a public backlash in the U.S. (Small numbers of U.S. trainers and Air Force personnel might well remain in any case, should the then-prime minister request it, and given Iraq’s lack of an air force.) The Iraqi parliament might well not put up with foot-dragging on this score, since a key parliamentary player is the Shiite Sadr Movement, led by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Republicans could risk another sort of backlash. If the Sunni and Shiite guerrilla groups in Iraq reactivated themselves to strike at the few remaining U.S. troops in order to ensure a withdrawal, there could be a replay of tragedies such as those in Lebanon in 1983 and in Somalia in 1993, when Marines and special forces, respectively, were hit by deadly local attacks, impelling a swift U.S. departure and loss of face.
A Republican victory thus has the potential for keeping the U.S. in Iraq longer than either the U.S. public or the Iraqi public has a stomach for, and could expose the small remaining contingent of troops to a large-scale strike. It could delay the start of Obama’s drawdown from Afghanistan, and more firmly ensconce the administration in that building quagmire. It would strengthen the hand of the Likud Party in resisting Obama’s pressure to negotiate a two-state solution in Palestine, leading to further conflict with Palestinians and their supporters. And it would ratchet up even further rhetoric and sanctions against Iran (though it would be hard to out-do the present Congress in that regard). At best, the effect on America’s relations with the Middle East will be negative. At worst, Republican militancy could well drag us into further military conflicts in the region, and expand yet again our seemingly perpetual war there.
Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, maintains the blog Informed Comment. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is “Engaging the Muslim World.”
AP / Rodrigo Abd