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Analysts: More Talk, Few Changes for US Defense After Elections

President Barack Obama is briefed by members of his national security team in the Situation Room of the White House, in Oct 2010 (file photo)
President Barack Obama is briefed by members of his national security team in the Situation Room of the White House, in Oct 2010 (file photo)

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Virtually all of the campaigning for this week's U.S. midterm congressional elections focused on domestic issues, but the outcome also will affect national security. Still, experts do not expect the incoming Republican Party majority of the House of Representatives and major gains in the Senate to have a significant impact on the war in Afghanistan or other key U.S. defense policies.

When American voters went to the polls on 2 Nov 2010, analysts say most made their decisions based on issues such as the economy, government spending and health care policy. When they woke up on Wednesday morning, though, to news that come January the House will be controlled by the Republican Party - and the Senate, by a narrow margin, by President Barack Obama's Democratic Party - they found a situation in which national security policy might become more contentious.

"Perhaps the biggest single impact is that it's going to be even harder for the U.S. government to speak with a clear voice on national security issues that have a legislative component," said Analyst Heather Hurlburt of the Washington-based National Security Network.

Hurlburt said those issues include the defense department budget, which the Congress has tried to use to influence war policy, but with limited success.

Loren Thompson of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute does not expect that to change. He said both major political parties are internally split on the war issue and that there are no funds available to increase defense spending as Republicans often want to do.

"You know, because Republicans can't throw more money at defense given the lack of resources available from the treasury, a lot of the fights over defense are going to be symbolic in the new Congress," said Thompson.

Thompson notes that President Obama is allowing defense spending to increase slowly anyway. He said the president's decision to sharply increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and to begin a gradual, conditions-based withdrawal next July might be politically acceptable to most lawmakers in both parties.   

"That war has begun to lose support in both parties," said Thompson. "And consequently, the timetable President Obama set out when he did the surge is actually going to be welcomed by both parties."

Thompson notes that as when former President George W. Bush expanded the Iraq war in defiance of congressional and public opposition, a president can do what he or she wants on war policy, at least in the short-term.

"If the president wants to keep prosecuting the war and he is willing to take the public opinion burden of that, he can do so," said Thompson. "On the other hand, if he wants to walk away, Congress can't really stop him from doing that."

Similarly, Thompson said that with the focus on domestic issues, the plan to end the U.S. troop presence in Iraq by the end of next year likely will not generate much congressional opposition.

Hurlburt said there is another issue, however, about which the Congress likely will be more vocal - Iran. "There's a considerably more hawkish view on the Hill [i.e., Capitol Hill] on both sides of the [political] aisle than there is in the administration. And there's somewhat more cynicism about the value of engagement and maybe less willingness to let events take their course and let pressure against the Iranian regime ratchet up naturally."

But Hurlburt said that does not necessarily mean a move toward military action to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. "You will see more loud talk about that. I'm skeptical that it moves any closer to reality. But overseas, I think it's going to be a little difficult to differentiate between what's just talk and what's actually meaningful."

Analysts said that might also be true of other defense issues on which Republicans generally disagree with the president, including his plans to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention center and to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military.  

The president said he might use the final session of the current Congress to try to change the law on gays in the military. He also might use it to try to gain Senate ratification of the New START treaty that further reduces U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Thompson said many Republicans who have engaged in firey rhetoric against the president on those and other issues might moderate their views now. "You know, it's an easy thing when you're out of power to call upon an administration to do things that are controversial. It's quite another matter, once you're in power and have to take responsibility for an action, to continue pushing that point."

On Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said defense policy is traditionally bipartisan and he does not expect any particular problems with the new congress.

"We fully expect that the strong bipartisan cooperation on national security issues that we have enjoyed over the years will continue under this new Congress," said Morrell.

Hurlburt warns, though, that as with domestic policy, making U.S. defense policy in a politically divided government will not be easy. She said that likely may cause confusion overseas as members of Congress and administration officials make conflicting pronouncements on various defense issues. But Hurlburt said the result probably will be no significant changes in broad U.S. national security policy.

"No one's going to wake up one morning and find that something in their security umbrella has changed from before because that's not how our politics work, and that's not anyone's intention," said Hurlburt.

Hurlburt also said that Washington's focus on strengthening the U.S. economy is important to America's allies because without a strong economy, the United States will find it difficult to maintain its military strength and its international security commitments.

At the same time, she said defense commitments might need to be adjusted to match what the United States can afford. "The challenge in front of us on defense spending is:  How do we spend money to meet our security obligations to our own citizens and our allies in a way that's respectful of our economic base and the economic sources of our strength?"

With more conservative Republicans coming to Congress looking to reduce the federal budget, analysts say some might be tempted to look at the defense budget. But they say that cutting defense is always difficult, especially in war time, because no one wants to reduce money for the troops and because components for defense equipment are built at factories in every state and virtually every congressional district across the country.

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