If President Obama is looking for an excuse to scale back his ambitions in the realm of foreign policy following a lackluster first two years with few successes, the GOP takeover of the House will provide him with a perfect excuse.
The ascent to power of conservative hardliners in key committee chairmanships—likely Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Florida) at Foreign Affairs, Buck McKeon (California) at Armed Services, Mike Rogers (Michigan) or Mac Thornberry (Texas) at Intelligence—means that a crew of negotiations-hating, counterinsurgency-backing, weapons-system-promoting, Likud-following, START-bashing, Russia-fearing Islamophobes has the reins. Expect great quantities of podium-pounding, scathing speeches about Obama the appeaser/unilateral disarmer, and ersatz hearings calculated to embarrass the White House.
But if Obama wants to ignore all that, for the most part he can, because the House has little or no direct leverage over foreign policy (case in point: House Democrats vs. Bush, 2006–08). Also, since foreign policy played an insignificant role in the GOP electoral tsunami—only a tiny percentage of voters listed it as a major concern—the Republicans can hardly claim a mandate to challenge Obama’s conduct of global affairs. With a revamped national security team—a new national security adviser, a new director of national intelligence and, coming soon, a new defense secretary, a new team of military commanders and possibly a new CIA director—Obama could recast his foreign policy by ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, making a deal with Iran, reducing military spending and improving relations with China and Russia. But if he does, no doubt he’ll have a showdown with the House GOP, refereed on cable news.
Of course, the new House leaders will try to put all sorts of obstacles in Obama’s way. At Foreign Affairs, Ros-Lehtinen and a phalanx of subcommittee chairs will do their utmost. She is a militantly anti-Castro Cuban-American from Miami-Dade County who’ll seek to ratchet up sanctions on Iran and North Korea, halt détente with Cuba and restore the lockstep US-Israeli mindmeld that prevailed during the Bush administration. She’ll seek to slash the foreign aid budget for all countries not called Israel. The Palestinian Authority must drop its conditions for negotiations, recognize Israel as a "Jewish state," clamp down on violent groups and end corruption—or "we should not give it one more dime," she said recently. Since the election, she’s called on Obama to "rethink his ‘reset’ policy with Russia" because of the "brutal nature of the regime," and she said the US-Russia civilian nuclear agreement "should be stopped" because Moscow "continues to undermine US interests in Iran, Venezuela [and] Central Asia." She also railed against the "dangerous behavior" of the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, who pose "tangible risks to the security of our region."
Iran watchers in Washington expect Ros-Lehtinen to try to throw monkey wrenches into the US-Iran talks, and some suggest that House Republicans, led by Ros-Lehtinen and incoming majority leader Eric Cantor, will propose some sort of Iran Liberation Act, parallel to the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. Like most conservatives, Ros-Lehtinen also strongly opposes Obama’s July 2011 Afghanistan drawdown timetable. And on Iraq, she warned that Washington must "ensure that a strategic defeat does not spring from [the] hard-fought tactical victory" because Obama is "drawing down troop levels quickly—without sufficient focus on the emergence of Iran as the key power broker in that country."