GOP Ready To Raise Stakes On Foreign Policy

U.S. Marines take a break during a patrol in Sangin, south of Kabul on Nov. 3.

U.S. Marines take a break during a patrol in Sangin, south of Kabul on Nov. 3. President Obama has set a July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, but new GOP members of Congress generally remain committed to a strong military effort there. Dusan Vranic/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Dusan Vranic/AP

Republicans recognize that President Obama will continue to play the leading role when it comes to setting the nation's course on foreign policy. Nonetheless, emboldened by gains in the Nov. 2 elections, the GOP is prepared to challenge the administration on a broad range of security issues.

Congressional Republicans are skeptical about Obama's diplomatic efforts with Iran, Russia and the Israelis and Palestinians.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida — the first Cuban-American elected to Congress and the presumptive next chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — is expected to put the brakes on any attempts to ease travel and trade restrictions with Cuba.

And GOP members of Congress, by and large, remain committed to a strong military effort in Afghanistan and oppose what they regard as Obama administration efforts to establish a date for U.S. troops to end their mission there. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, last week restated his opposition to any withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

The GOP And Obama: Some Areas To Watch

Afghanistan. Few Republicans want a troop withdrawal, but it's possible their numbers will grow in the new Congress.

Arms control. Obama will have to lobby Republican senators to get the new START treaty with Russia ratified, either in the lame-duck session or the next Congress.

China. Relations may get testier, given disputes about currency and territory along the South China Sea.

Defense spending. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has proposed some cuts but Republicans warn that the military needs more support, not less.

Foreign aid. GOP budget hawks are more likely to cast a wary eye on humanitarian aid than defense spending.

Iran. The GOP remains skeptical about Obama's attempts to use diplomacy to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Latin America. New House foreign relations chair opposes opening to Cuba, while GOP views Venezuela as a threat.

GOP Split on Afghanistan?

Obama has set a deadline of July 2011 for beginning a troop withdrawal, although it's never been clear whether he would reduce forces by a considerable amount or only at the margins.

As Republicans take control of the House in January and gain power in the Senate, analysts are pondering just how the support for Tea Party conservatism shown in last week's elections will play out in policy matters. Will campaign rhetoric to balance the budget and limit foreign entanglements have real consequences on Capitol Hill?

There has been some speculation that Republicans elected with Tea Party support will join with liberal Democrats in voting for the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan. Some newcomers to Washington, such as Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky, are opposed to nation-building efforts in general. They may be less willing to keep open the government checkbook indefinitely.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that any notion that the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan any time soon was mistaken. He said that the U.S. would maintain an active presence in Afghanistan long after combat troops had left.

"We are all convinced we have to stay in Afghanistan and remain a partner even after most of our troops are gone," he said. "We don't see this as a relationship that ends when the security transition is completed."

Republican defense hawks, such as former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, say that the newcomers in Congress will back a strong military and will not be eager to accept defeat on a central battlefield in the war against terror.

"The Tea Party has gotten a bit of a bad rap," William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said at an American Enterprise Institute forum on Friday. "There's very little evidence that any of them were running on an isolationist platform."

Not A Campaign Issue

There's very little evidence that Republicans — or Democrats, for that matter — were running on any sort of a foreign policy platform during the recent campaign season.

"Has there been any serious exchange between any candidates — Tea Party, Republican, vegetarian, libertarian, Democratic — about what we should be doing with Iran?" Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked plaintively during a speech before the election. "Have you seen one commercial about whether or not our Afghan strategy is good or bad?"

With 100 Republicans newly elected to Congress last week, any guess about whether the party will present a unified front on defense and foreign policy issues is just that: a guess.

"All the people making predictions about how the Congress is going to position itself — actually, they don't know," Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, the conservative think tank, said in an interview.

"I don't want to say that the members coming in are tabula rasa, but we don't know what a lot of them think about national security issues."

Obama's Diminishing Wiggle Room

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and Cuban-American

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and Cuban-American, is in line to become the next chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She is expected to block any attempts to ease travel and trade restrictions with Cuba. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Pletka predicts that Republicans in Congress will push back if Obama continues his policy of seeking diplomatic engagement with Iran, as that nation continues to pursue its nuclear ambitions. She and other observers also expect that the bulk of the Republican Party will oppose any significant drawdown of troops in Afghanistan.

"Even if Obama wants to get out of this war, it's much more difficult now because Republicans will insist on giving Gen. (David) Petraeus more time, and Petraeus has enormous political credibility," says Rajan Menon, a political scientist at City College of New York.

Similarly, Menon suggests that Obama will be boxed in to some extent by an aggressive GOP stance regarding Israeli security. There are fewer members left in Congress open to the idea of the administration pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a deal with the Palestinians.

"His ability to be a major factor in the peace process, even if you assume that Netanyahu wants to make some kind of offer, has been degraded," Menon says.

Looking Overseas Politically

With Obama likely to get little satisfaction from a Republican-controlled House on his domestic agenda, there's been a good deal of talk in Washington in recent days that he will try to burnish his leadership image through victories abroad over the next two years.

Obama is currently on a previously planned trip to Asia, where he will attend two summits geared toward trade and global financial issues.

"Foreign policy is in fact a relative strength of his," says Michael O'Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution. "American presidents in general are stronger abroad when doing poorly at home."

But both O'Hanlon and Menon stress that Obama will not emphasize foreign policy at the expense of his primary political mission, which is boosting the U.S. economy.

And Republicans, while prepared to show more deference to Obama on foreign policy than they have on domestic legislation, will only back the president in so far as he pursues a course that they largely agree with.

Otherwise, they will look for openings to make their own voices heard. Republican members of Congress will seek issues on which their party can begin outlining its defense and foreign policy positions as the 2012 presidential campaign gets under way.

"I hope we can lay the basis for a bigger change," says Talent, the former Missouri senator, "if and when a new administration takes office in January 2013."

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