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Republican Gains in Midterm Elections Could Alter US Foreign Policy

US soldiers of the 82nd Airborne aim at the entrance to a cave outside the village of Malakay, Afghanistan (FILE).
US soldiers of the 82nd Airborne aim at the entrance to a cave outside the village of Malakay, Afghanistan (FILE).

Experts say the state of the U.S. economy is sure to dominate the November midterm elections - not foreign policy concerns such as the build up of U.S. forces fighting alongside NATO in Afghanistan.  But if Republicans make gains on November 2, political observers think the new political lineup could have have an impact on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy over the next two years.  

Battlefield conditions permitting, President Obama has said he would like to begin drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan by the middle of next year.

"The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground and our support for Afghanistan will endure," Mr. Obama said. "But make no mistake.  This transition will begin, because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's."

Afghanistan remains the Obama administration's top foreign policy challenge, and even though U.S. casualties have increased in recent months, domestic support for the war effort remains stable, says Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown.

"Interestingly, the groups that are most supportive of the president's war policy are Republicans and conservatives, who are less likely to support anything else on his agenda."

If Republicans gain seats in the November elections, as analysts expect, that could solidify support for the Afghan war in the short term.  But it could also create the potential for conflict in Congress if Democrats press for the beginning of a withdrawal next year.

Republicans are emphasizing economic issues in their campaign platform, especially tax and spending cuts. But their agenda does include a pledge to remain tough on terrorism and to press for a more comprehensive missile defense system, according to Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas.

"We are committed to standing by our friends and our interests," Thornberry said. "We will restore full funding for missile defense and push for tough enforcement of sanctions against Iran."

Republican gains in the House and Senate could strengthen the hand of conservative critics who charge that the president has not been tough enough when it comes to denying Iran a nuclear weapons potential. One such critic is Henry Nau from the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"I doubt seriously if sanctions are going to bring them around on stopping their nuclear program," says Nau. "That is, of course, Obama's view of the way the world works and they are going to continue to make trouble."

But in general the debate over foreign policy is not likely to matter much during this year's election campaign, says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

"Interesting from my point of view is that there has been relatively little discussion of foreign policy in the midterm elections.  Issues like Iraq, even Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, are talked about at the edges but are in no way central to the campaign itself."

If Republicans do gain seats in November or win back a majority in one or both chambers of Congress, they could be in a position to at least try to steer U.S. foreign policy in a more conservative direction.  For example, conservatives could press the Obama administration to be more assertive in dealing with Russia and China.

Activists from the grassroots Tea Party movement are pushing the Republican Party to the right.  That could have an impact when President Obama deals with a new Congress early next year, says the Council on Foreign Relations' Charles Kupchan.

"The centrist wing in the Republican Party is not likely to gain because a lot of the winners of the Republicans are going to be more Tea Party members who are also not centrist liberal internationalists," says Kupchan.  "They tend, I think, to hail to what you might call the neo-isolationist wing of the Republican Party."

Republican gains in the Senate could also complicate efforts to ratify a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia.  The START-ONE treaty expired in December of last year and the Obama administration wants a vote in the Senate on the successor treaty soon.  But observers say that Republican gains in the Senate could embolden conservative critics of the treaty who argue that its ratification would weaken U.S. defenses, a notion that President Obama and Senate Democrats reject.  

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