Who Will Stand Between Obama and the World

10 Republicans who are about to become the new foreign-policy power brokers.

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Getty Images
Getty Images

Congress may not be in charge of making foreign policy, but it sure can influence its implementation. Since taking office in January 2009, members of Congress — drawn primarily but not exclusively from the ranks of the GOP — have slowed the Obama administration’s efforts to advance its strategy when dealing with Russia, Syria, Israel, Cuba, and a host of other relationships. And the midterm elections won’t be making things any easier for President Barack Obama.

GOP lawmakers stand to play a huge role in the upcoming debates next year over the promised July 2011 drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, whether to maintain or increase U.S. foreign assistance packages, and how strongly to press countries such as Russia and China to implement new sanctions against Iran.

If current polls hold, Republicans will make significant gains in the Senate and likely take the House of Representatives, elevating a set of lawmakers to new heights of power and complicating Obama’s efforts to execute his foreign-policy agenda.

“You can imagine an opposition controlled Congress raising a lot of hay. There will be a lot of static, a lot of flame throwing,” explained one senior Republican congressional staffer. “You’re not going to see the GOP giving the administration the benefit of the doubt.”

Here’s a list of 10 GOP figures in Congress who will be crucial actors on the foreign-policy stage when the dust settles after the Nov. 2 election.

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1. Eric Cantor

The Virginia lawmaker, currently the House minority whip, could very well become majority leader in a GOP-controlled House of Representatives if current minority leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is elected speaker of the House. Cantor, who is particularly active on foreign-policy issues involving Iran and Israel, could see his role expand significantly if he is given the power to set the House floor agenda and therefore determine which bills are considered, in what form, and when.

That could spell trouble for the administration’s foreign operations budget, which funds the State Department and sets levels for U.S. non-military assistance around the world. Republicans are threatening to withhold aid to countries they see as not being wholly supportive of the United States and Cantor told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the president’s proposed budget might have to be rejected outright if Republicans take power — after separating out U.S. aid for Israel, of course.

2. Jon Kyl

For months, Senator Kyl (R-Ariz.) has been the GOP’s de facto leader on a host of foreign-policy issues, not least of which is the ratification of the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia. Kyl is withholding his support of New START until he gets a litany of concessions from the White House, and he might not even support the treaty at all. If the GOP makes significant gains in the election, Kyl will have a strengthened argument for pushing the full Senate vote on the treaty to next year: he could very well argue that the incoming GOP senators have a right to vote on the treaty, complicating further the administration’s drive to secure the 67 votes needed for ratification.

An increase in the number of Republican senators will also provide Kyl with more leverage to bargain for all sorts of things, such as more money for nuclear modernization, before he releases other members of his caucus to vote in favor of the treaty. Kyl has also been involved in the ongoing GOP effort to hold up the confirmation of several nominees for ambassadorships, such as Robert Ford and Frank Ricciardone. Increased GOP numbers could force the administration to take more seriously Kyl’s demands for more access to State Department communications and more explicit statements on the administration’s foreign-policy positions if it wants to see these ambassadors confirmed.

3. Jim DeMint

DeMint (R-S.C.) has been carrying the Tea Party banner in the Senate, staking out foreign-policy positions in clear opposition to the administration and often to the right of the GOP leadership — such as his outright opposition to the new START treaty. He also uses his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to fight vigorously for his pet projects, such as a global U.S. missile defense shield. Most incoming Tea Party candidates don’t focus on foreign policy, but many will owe allegiance to DeMint because he has been filling their campaign coffers. They could be inclined to follow suit with his unilateralist, militaristic worldview, which many see as based on his neoconservative ideology rather than a realistic pursuit of U.S. interests in multipolar world order.

DeMint is also very active on Latin America policy, having interjected himself into last year’s debate over U.S. policy toward Honduras. He opposed ousted President Manuel Zelaya, and the State Department eventually followed suit. He is also a leading proponent of the Mexico City rule, under which foreign aid could be denied to international organizations that perform or educate women about abortions.

4. John McCain

The Senate Armed Services Committee has always been known as the one committee where Democrats and Republicans play nice together. But as this session of Congress winds down, that comity has all but disappeared. McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the panel, refuses to sign off on next year’s defense policy bill due to his objections to repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

But more broadly, he is poised to lead the Republican opposition to Obama’s attempts to significantly reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, starting in July 2011. He will be joined in this effort by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), who could become the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “If McCain or McKeon sniff out that [Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus wants even one more troop, they are going to go ape shit,” one GOP Senate aide predicted. McCain’s office is also at the forefront of congressional efforts to press China and Russia to get tougher with Iran, to oppose the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and to resist using the defense bill for non-defense-related objectives, such as passing immigration reforms, as the Democratic leadership currently envisions. In short, he could close off the Senate Armed Services Committee as a reliable tool through which the White House could execute its foreign-policy aims.

5. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

If Republicans take the House, Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) is poised to take over the House Foreign Affairs Committee and could drastically alter the committee’s agenda and priorities. For example, she is likely to scuttle the drive to ease sanctions and travel restrictions on Cuba, which current chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) supports. Born in Havana, she is an active member of the Cuban-American lobby and even reportedly said once, “I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people.”

Her ascendancy could also spell doom for Berman’s bill on foreign-aid reform. She argues often for more vetting of foreign aid in the hope of finding cuts, and she has also introduced legislation to cut U.S. funding for the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority. She is also highly skeptical of the civilian nuclear agreements that the Obama administration is negotiating with Vietnam and Jordan. A vocal critic of what she sees as the Obama team’s cool approach to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ros-Lehtinen could use the committee as a sounding board for those who want changes in the Obama administration’s approach to Middle East peace. “She’s no Dick Lugar,” said one House aide, referring to her temperate Senate counterpart. “She and her staff often go for the jugular. You’ll probably see a lot of contentious hearings.”

6. Richard Lugar

The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lugar (R-Ind.) will see his foreign-policy role increase not because he stands opposed to the Obama administration’s policies, but rather because he will be needed to defend them. Lugar, a noted moderate and six-term veteran, stands as the only GOP senator to promise a “yes” vote on New START, and his advocacy will be crucial if the final vote is a close one, as many expect it will be.

Lugar will also be increasingly alone as other GOP Senate moderates, such as Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah), retire. His ability to serve as a bridge between the administration and the increasingly conservative Republican rank-and-file will be crucial as the White House continues to push its foreign-policy agenda next year. Another scarce GOP Senate ally for the administration will be Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) who, like Lugar, supports new START and robust foreign-aid budgets.

7. Kay Granger

Although not certain, it’s likely that Granger, a Texas Republican, would take over the chairmanship of the House Appropriations subcommittee for State Department and foreign operations if the GOP wins the House. That would give her a large role in writing significant sections of the State Department’s funding bill. Although she supported the bill put forth this year by current chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), she criticized the increases for the foreign-ops budget, saying, “We also face the continued concern in our own country about our economy and the devastating effects of skyrocketing deficits and debt.” She’s a strong supporter of a balanced budget amendment, which doesn’t bode well for foreign-aid funding in this dismal fiscal environment.

Granger also serves on the defense subcommittee, placing her at the intersection of the debate over how to balance the national security budget and shift resources from defense to diplomacy and development. Here she seems to favor the Pentagon, saying in June, “I want to be sure that we aren’t increasing foreign aid at the expense of our troops.” Her lack of support of international organizations was criticized by the group Citizens for Global Solutions, which gave her an “F” in its 2007 to 2009 rating. Granger is also on board with efforts to eliminate aid to countries that are not performing on internal reform, as she explained when expressing opposition to funding of the Senegalese government through the State Department’s Millennium Challenge Corporation. “We can’t just give out money and say we will put up with whatever you are doing,” she said.

8. Thad Cochran

As the lead Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Cochran (R-Miss.), along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), will be key in choosing five new members of the State Department and foreign operations subcommittee. That’s right, all the Republican members of the subcommittee except for McConnell are leaving the Senate: Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), and George Voinovich (R-Ohio).

There’s no budget resolution for fiscal 2011 and there’s no assurance that State and foreign ops funding will be completed during this congressional session, so Cochran and the new subcommittee members he chooses will be in the position to either defend or attack the version of the bill that’s already on the table. Senate appropriators often sit on several subcommittees at once, meaning that their allegiance to any one budget is never assured. Moreover, the State and foreign ops budget is not one of the larger pots of money and has no real local constituency, making it harder to defend than others, such as interior, agriculture, or defense funding. New subcommittee members will have less experience with this funding so will be in a less advantageous position to defend it in the near term. And, after February, they will already face the job of vetting the administration’s foreign-ops funding request for 2012, which is when big debates over foreign-aid funding, the civilian role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the role of the U.S. government in international fora will all come to a head.

9. Olympia Snowe

When Bond leaves the Senate for his retirement, he will make vacant the top GOP seat on the Select Committee on Intelligence. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is said not to be in line to take the post due to his other committee leadership assignments, leaving Snowe as the prospective GOP leader on the panel. The Republican leadership might not be crazy about placing a moderate like Snowe (R-Maine) in such a key position, but it doesn’t want to alienate her either as the margins in the Senate become slimmer. As a rank-and-file committee member, Snowe has pushed for expanded congressional oversight of the intelligence community and has repeatedly called for reforms in intelligence gathering in the wake of high profile failures, such as the misleading intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Snowe is known for generally working well with Democrats, and helped complete the first Intelligence Authorization bill in several years. In the past, she showed her independence by calling for the Bush administration to explain revelations of domestic surveillance activities.

Snowe is being courted heavily by the administration to make the difference on several other issues facing the Senate, including lifting the military’s ban on openly gay service members and New START, which she has not yet indicated whether she will support. If Snowe gets the committee chairmanship, she will be one lawmaker that both Democratic and Republican leadership will be eager to woo.

10. Ed Royce

Royce (R-Calif.) is symbolic of Republican House members who are active on foreign policy and could change the tone of the foreign-policy discussion if the GOP takes over the House. He very well could become chairman again of the House Foreign Affairs Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade Subcommittee, where his staff could hold hearings on the Middle East, Africa, the war on terror, Afghanistan, and any other region sensitive to the administration’s national security goals.

Other GOP Republicans whose foreign-policy interest could gain steam if the House turns over include Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) on homeland security, Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) on nuclear issues, Mike Pence (R-Ind.) on budget issues, and Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) on intelligence. “You’re going to see a lot of hearings,” one GOP staffer warned. “Everything the administration will want to do on foreign policy will get harder, and the tone of the discussion on Capitol Hill will pitch up and to the right.”

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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