WASHINGTON — A big Republican win in November 2 congressional elections could stymie US President Barack Obama's attempts to reset relations with Russia, but open the way for a new bipartisan toughness toward China.
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In an election year where international relations have barely produced a blip on the national political radar, the outcome of the election was likely, nevertheless, to have a significant effect on how the Obama administration juggles the multitude of challenges the United States faces in the rest of the world.
A strong Republican voice in Congress would likely push Obama to slow his plans to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan next July, badger him to be even tougher on Iran over it's suspected nuclear weapons program and encourage less US pressure on Israel in negotiations with the Palestinians.
While the US entanglement with Iran has drawn major attention, simmering conflicts with China probably are the most open to quick US action with stronger Republican backing after the vote next month.
Republicans traditionally take a tougher line on trade issues and imbalances and those clearly are central to relations with Beijing.
"There's a conviction that the US must respond to a whole range of Chinese provocations," said Jessica Matthews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
China is in the doghouse not only with the United States, but with many of its global trading partners over Beijing's practice of routinely deflating the value of its currency. That practice makes Chinese goods less expensive abroad and inflates the price imported goods — like those made in America — insuring a smaller market inside China.
That's partly to blame for the outsized US trade deficit with the Chinese and an easy target for politicians in Washington who are frustrated by their inability to reinvigorate the American economy.
"This is about money, not ideology," said Wayne Merry, senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council and former US diplomat.
"The notion is becoming accepted that protectionism is no longer a dirty word. A year ago that was heresy. A year from now that will be mainstream," said Merry, predicting that Washington would begin to impose some kind of trade penalties on Beijing for manipulating its currency.
Also likely to win support among Republicans in the new Congress is the Obama administration's more forward-leaning stance on American strategic interests in the shipping lanes near China. The Americans also have voiced displeasure with Beijing's aggressiveness over disputed islands in those waters.
Obama foreign policy will likely take a battering over relations with Russia. Many conservatives have not shed their Cold War distrust of Moscow, making it even more difficult for the administration to win Senate ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (new START) signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April.
While it remains unlikely Republicans will seize a majority in the Senate, where they are currently outnumbered 58-41, the party is expected to considerably close the gap, The Senate must ratify all treaties and that requires 67 affirmative votes.
That's unlikely in the next Congress, but there is a chance Obama could succeed in the so-called lame duck session that begins 13 days after the election. That session will include Senators who have lost their seats in the November 2 vote and who, in theory, will be less politically motivated.
The Russians have made it clear that Obama's vow to improve relations, while theoretically beneficial to both countries, hangs on his ability to win ratification of the new START treaty. The pact calls for big reductions in nuclear weapons.
Even though Washington is engaged in two wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — those expensive and bloody ventures have drawn scant attention in this election year. While Democrats are losing patience with the Afghan conflict, now in its 10th year, Obama will likely find backing for his war policies from Republicans, but they will pressure him to limit or put off plans to begin withdrawing in July. Republicans normally take a more aggressive line on issues of war and peace.
The Iraq war, barring an outbreak of extreme violence, has faded from the American consciousness as the administration has declared the last combat forces left this summer and all troops are scheduled to be gone by the end of next year.
In the Middle East, Obama probably would lose some room for maneuver in his sponsorship of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The president has shown a tendency to pressure the Israelis — particularly to stop their West Bank and Jerusalem settlement building projects.
With Congress in a far more conservative cast of mind — and some of that group recalling that they relied upon the votes of evangelical Christians — Obama will likely feel heavy pressure to ease up on Israel. Evangelical Christians are ferocious in their support for Israel, as are traditionally powerful US Jewish groups.
Even so, Obama may find that his dealings with Iran and its suspected
nuclear weapons program gains ground from the unlikely and quiet
convergence of national interests that Arabs and Israel share concerning
Israeli feels directly threatened by Iran, whose leaders have said the
Jewish state should be eliminated. Arabs are deeply concerned that a
nuclear-armed Iran would utterly upend the balance of power in the
The intersection of those worries could create greater pliability on
both sides and grease the negotiating process with the Palestinians, who
rely heavily on fellow Arabs for backing.
Regardless of how foreign policy issues eventually play out after the
November vote, it is certain that Obama will find it hard to take refuge
from a gridlocked and unfriendly Congress by turning to international
Other presidents have taken that path in similar circumstances. The
badly damaged US economy, however, is going to force the president to
focus on that key domestic issue.