How a GOP Senate Would Challenge Obama on Foreign Policy
Policy + Politics

How a GOP Senate Would Challenge Obama on Foreign Policy

For years, Republicans have criticized President Obama’s foreign policy and defense strategy in the Mideast and Far East, even while their own party has had to live down the costly blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan of former president George W. Bush.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a leading GOP figure on national security and foreign affairs, has widely blamed Obama for allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to run roughshod over eastern Ukraine without providing Ukraine leaders with the necessary military support to fight back.

Related: Defending America: How 11 GOP Presidential Hopefuls Differ  

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations and other GOP leaders fear Obama may give away the farm in the current negotiations with Iran over the future of that country’s nuclear program and international sanctions.

And Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, criticized Obama for backing down a year ago from his threat to attack the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons against his own people. Inhofe blames Obama for leaving a power vacuum in war-torn Syria that gave rise to the murderous ISIS jihadists who have swept across Syria and parts of Iraq – and now pose a serious threat to the United States and other western powers. 

“The president’s inaction over the last three years has allowed the rapid growth of ISIS, potentially the greatest terrorist threat to American citizens,” Inhofe said in response to the president’s nationally televised address in September on his plans for destroying ISIS.

“Time and again, this president proves that he is uncomfortable being commander in chief and implements policies unsteadily and at odds with his stated goal,” Corker wrote.

Related: Boehner Says Defeating ISIS Means Using Ground Troops   

While the Congress was divided between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate for the past six years, the views of McCain, Corker and others were just part of the cacophony of criticism of Obama’s actions.

With the prospects that Republicans will regain control of the Senate in Tuesday’s mid-term election, the views of these and other GOP foreign policy experts will take on added significance.

Corker appears in line to replace Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee if the Republicans take charge of the Senate in January. Inhofe (R-OK), a sharp critic of Obama defense spending policy, would likely succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan as chair of the Armed Services Committee.

Related: U.S.  Could Spend 10 Years Eradicating ISIS

And McCain – the 2008 GOP presidential nominee who lost to Obama -- is a senior member of the Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees – making him a triple threat when it comes to the president’s policies and decision making.

While foreign policy and defense strategy are primarily the province of the president, a new Republican majority in the Senate and House can have enormous influence over defense spending and priorities.

It can do much to set the tone for the foreign policy debate in the final two years of Obama’s second term.

During a meeting with The Tennessean newspaper’s editorial board last week, Corker “made a broad case for more and better engagement in the world,” according to the newspaper. He said the United States had been late to getting involved on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, allowing the problem to become bigger than it should have been.

Wretched New Poll Numbers for Obama’s Foreign Policy

"Republican control of the Senate would mean that many of President Obama’s foreign policies would face more scrutiny and, in some cases, legislative hurdles,” said Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy institute.

An early test of the new relationship could come during the lame duck session – after next week’s election but before the GOP takes control – when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will likely press for congressional authorization for Obama’s expanded military operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

McConnell said that convincing Congress to approve new language should be relatively simple, given the recent surge of “hawkish” sentiments among lawmakers, including some liberals.

But Obama and his top aides have argued that they already have the necessary authority from previous votes on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and other Democratic leaders are resisting another formal vote.

Beyond that, Republicans are keeping a close watch on the administration’s negotiations with the Iranian government as important nuclear talks come to a head Nov. 24. Iranian and U.S. officials have been discussing different approaches that would limit Iran’s nuclear stockpile and centrifuges, according to media reports.

Related: Exclusive: Iran offers ‘compromises’ in nuclear talks, West unmoved

 The U.S. is seeking to sharply limit Iran’s enrichment program – and extend the time in which it would take Iran to develop a nuclear bomb – in return for an easing of international sanctions against Tehran.

“Most significant for Republicans, the administration has been making clear that if it makes a deal with Iran, that deal will include sanctions relief – with no request for Congressional authorization or approval,” May said.

Majority Leader Reid has blocked a bipartisan bill sponsored by Democrat Menendez and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois that would apply tougher sanctions on Iran to force them to abandon their nuclear buildup. A Republican controlled Senate would likely bring up that bill -- which would pose a serious challenge to the President and potentially derail the negotiations.

Elizabeth N. Saunders, an assistant political science and international affairs professor at the George Washington University School of International Affairs, agrees that a turnover of power in the Senate would escalate tensions between Congress and the president on the conduct of foreign policy. 

However, she sees the looming clash more as a matter of tone than substance, because it is unlikely that Obama would risk seeking congressional approval on his remaining foreign policy and military decisions. 

“All presidents as they approach the end of their second term tend to turn towards areas where they can get things done without getting formal congressional authority and that tends to involve foreign policy,” she said. “So it will be interesting to see whether president Obama tries anything, such as seek congressional approval of a nuclear deal with Iran.

“I do think that for any foreign policy issue for which the president needs formal congressional backing, it’s difficult right now and it would be difficult if the Republicans take over,” she added. “So in that sense you’re going from a situation that is difficult to more difficult, and in that sense it wouldn’t make that much difference.” 

Related: The Rand Paul Doctrine: Don’t Get Involved 

One thing that could seriously undermine a tough Republican challenge to Obama in his handling of the war on ISIS, his dealings with the pugnacious Putin and the nuclear talks with Iran is the growing rift within the GOP on national security issues. 

In one camp, McCain, Corker, Inhofe and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina favor bold U.S. action oversees, with McCain long calling for military intervention and assistance to help the Ukraine government push back the Russians and their proxies and assisting moderate rebels in Syria combatting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This hawkish McCain wing of the party has urged a much more aggressive stand against ISIS, and has frequently urged military action to address problems and threats abroad

In the other camp, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and other libertarian and Tea Party adherents have championed what some view as an isolationist movement that sets a very high bar for further U.S. military activity overseas and increased defense spending.  In a speech last week at the Center for the National Interest, Paul outlined his evolving doctrine of “conservative realism.” 

“Americans yearn for leadership and for strength, but they don’t yearn for war,” said Paul, a likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate. “Yes, we need a hammer ready, but not every civil war is a nail.”

“Some of the issues where you might expect Congress to be involved are areas where the parties are divided among themselves,” Saunders said. “There’s not likely to be that large of a shift in policy” if the GOP takes control of the Senate.

“Obviously if there were a big landslide that would make a difference, she added. “But the likelihood is that we will end up somewhere pretty close to 50-50 in either direction.”

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: