- By Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Now that the final rounds of primaries are over and November midterm elections approach, many signs point to huge Republican gains in Congress. Seven weeks is still a long time in politics, so the GOP shouldn’t pull a Leon Lett and start celebrating yet. But many independent analysts see a GOP takeover of the House of Representatives as likely, and a potential pick-up of seven or eight seats in the Senate. Such prospects are no doubt causing some serious heartburn in the Obama White House. However, here’s a different thought: the Obama administration’s national security team should actually welcome major GOP gains in Congress.
While the president’s roles as commander-in-chief and diplomat-in-chief give the Executive Branch the lead responsibility on defense and foreign policy, Congress also plays essential parts, especially on spending allocations and scrutiny (in support or opposition) of White House policies. On some of the most important national security issues, a Republican Congress would probably be more supportive of the Obama administration’s policies than the current Democratic majorities on the Hill.
Admittedly, foreign policy doesn’t seem to be a major concern in the current electoral climate, which is focused on the moribund economy, a dubious health care bill, and the colossal budget deficit. This is certainly the case with the Tea Party movement, and as Peter Baker has described, the Tea Partiers aren’t united by any particular foreign policy position.
Nevertheless, the 112th Congress will still have to address a number of national security concerns. If the GOP does take the House and make substantial Senate inroads, here’s what it will likely mean for several key issues:
- Afghanistan: Republicans in Congress have generally been more supportive of the Obama administration’s troop surge and ongoing deployment in Afghanistan than Democrats (and likewise with the continuing force presence in Iraq). As Afghanistan enters the crucible of the next several months, Congressional Republicans will bring much scrutiny of the administration’s policy, but at the end of the day will be much more likely to support and — crucially — fund continuing military operations there.
- Iran: Judging by the overwhelming congressional vote in June for tighter economic sanctions on Iran, there is considerable bipartisan concern over Iran’s nuclear weapons program and support for confronting it. Yet in the unfortunate but real chance that the sanctions regime fails and some type of military action becomes necessary, congressional Republicans will also be more likely than Democrats to support the administration.
- The Defense Budget: With exploding budget deficits posing a serious threat to the nation’s short and long-term economic health, the next Congress will have no choice but to take a hard look and meaningful action on government spending. This will not spare the Pentagon budget, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is already ahead of the curve in identifying spending cuts and program cancellations. But cutting fat is one thing; cutting muscle and bone is another. When faced with the need to trim the federal budget, congressional Democrats are more likely to prioritize cutting defense over trimming domestic programs. A GOP Congress would be more willing to make deeper cuts in domestic spending while aligning with Secretary Gates’ priorities in maintaining a robust defense budget.
- Free Trade: The White House has given lip service, but taken little action, on pushing for congressional ratification of Free Trade Agreements negotiated and signed by the Bush administration with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. This is partly because of the administration’s anemic trade policy, and partly a bow to the political realities of Democratic opposition on the Hill. A GOP Congress would be much more receptive to ratifying these FTAs and supporting other free trade initiatives — and see whether the administration is willing to translate its words into deeds.
On other national security issues — terrorism, arms control, China, Russia, democracy and human rights — a more Republican-leaning Congress would probably bring more scrutiny on certain Obama administration policies. But it is hard to foresee the Hill forcing any dramatic policy changes in those areas (with one wild card being the possible ratification of the New START treaty, which if not completed during this Congress could face renewed scrutiny from new GOP Senators, as Bob Joseph and Eric Edelman point out).
Still, all things considered, if Republicans win big in November, amid the gloomy faces at the White House, there should be a few surreptitious smiles from the national security team.