Obama’s foreign policy after the midterms

A Republican-controlled Senate will force Obama to get tougher on Iran and Russia.

The Republican Party has won control over the US Senate [EPA]

The midterm elections in the United States do not have the dramatic fanfare and theatre of the presidential elections, but they are no less important in their impact on the rest of the world. The US president for all of his constitutional power still has to work with Congress to implement and fund his policies. Nowhere is this more prominent than in foreign policy where Congressional approval is crucial to ratify treaties and fund military actions abroad. In the wake of the Republican takeover of the US Senate the world could see some fundamentally different foreign policy coming out of the Obama administration for its final two years. And these changes will likely influence how the Obama presidency is viewed for decades.

President Barack Obama has staked a lot of his international credibility on the JPOA (Joint Plan of Action) a UN-sponsored plan to freeze Iranian nuclear development in exchange for easing US-backed sanctions. The US and Iran have until November 24 to finalise the deal, but with Republicans taking over the US Senate, Obama’s ability to back up the deal may be weakened.

There are already about 67 votes (out of 100) in the Senate including many in Obama’s Democratic Party, who are very hawkish on increasing sanctions on Iran. Thus far, Democratic leaders have stalled votes on any tougher sanctions on Tehran but come January when the new Senate takes over, a tougher bill will likely get passed. This will force Obama to either veto a sanctions bill against Iran, which would be political suicide, or take a harsher stance in nuclear negotiations with Iran to appease the Senate back in the US.

Former Republican presidential nominee John McCain will take over the Senate Armed Services committee and he’s been very clear that he wants US troops on the ground in Syria and fighting ISIL.

There is no love lost between Obama and Vladimir Putin, and their relationship has soured even more since the Russian soft invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

Obama was quick to impose sanctions by executive order because ultimately those can be reversed or amended should the conditions in Ukraine get better or worse.

Now that Republicans have taken over the Senate, Obama’s hand will be forced. The US only pledged an additional $53m to aid Kiev after an impassioned plea for help in September, and Obama will have a hard time getting more funding to the Ukrainian government with a Republican-controlled Senate that controls funding to foreign policy endeavours.

Worse than little or no funding to Kiev, the new head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Bob Corker, wants to put harsher sanctions on Moscow essentially picking a fight that Obama would rather avoid. If Russia gets more aggressive in the coming months, expect Republicans to pressure him for sanctions that are more binding than executive orders.

ISIL – boots on the ground?

The US doesn’t really have a plan on how to fight ISIL because it is still not entirely clear how big or how powerful it really is. However, that hasn’t stopped many Republicans from calling for putting “boots on the ground” all throughout the Middle East, including Syria, to battle ISIL no matter where they may be operating.

Former Republican presidential nominee John McCain will take over the Senate Armed Services Committee and he’s been very clear that he wants US troops on the ground in Syria and fighting ISIL. Very few Senators (in either party) are willing to go that far to fight ISIL but any of the president’s plans going forward will likely have to put troops into play in order to get full support from the Senate.

Relations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama have only been a shade better than those with Putin. With Republicans controlling the Senate, Israel will have more allies to lobby to obstruct any efforts by the Obama administration to put pressure on Israel to limit or stop building new settlements. US involvement in the Middle East peace process may slow to a crawl in the next two years.

The US has its political or military tentacles in just about every part of the globe right now and that won’t change due to midterm elections. However, if the Republicans have their way, the grip of those tentacles across so many crucial foreign policy issues might get a little tighter. The world will soon see just how much fight Obama has left in his last two years as president.

Jason Adam Johnson is an US professor of political science and communications, political commentator, and writer. He is the author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.