Obama’s Top 10 Foreign-Policy Headaches

If the president turns to global affairs after his midterm shellacking, the newly emboldened Republican opposition isn't going to make life easy for him.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images,
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images,
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images,

Now that Republicans have taken back the House of Representatives and seem to be preparing to thwart U.S. President Barack Obama’s domestic-policy agenda, the White House may be tempted to look to foreign policy to achieve some victories in the coming year, as well as a means of achieving a measure of cooperation with a seemingly intransigent GOP.

But if that is the administration’s strategy, it’s likely to fall flat. On most, if not all, of Obama’s top foreign-policy action items, a more powerful, less accommodating Congress appears ready to throw additional roadblocks in his way.

As a top GOP congressional aide told FP‘s The Cable, “You are going to see more aggressiveness to push an agenda and not to defer to the administration.” 

Here are the top 10 foreign-policy issues Obama and his team will now have to work harder to move forward on when the new Congress meets in January.


Obama’s December 2009 decision to put 30,000 additional troops into the Afghan war effort stood out as the one foreign-policy issue on which the GOP and White House saw eye to eye. In fact, Republicans in Congress provided valuable support to the White House during the rollout of the “Afghan surge” decision, and conservative think-tank experts such as Frederick and Kimberly Kagan have been working closely with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan. But leading GOP lawmakers on military issues, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have been calling on the administration to back away from its promise to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next July.

The new GOP-led House stands to provide a venue for those who oppose the troop withdrawal to air their views. Expect new House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and new House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) to hold hearings with Petraeus — who has already not-so-privately aired his concerns about the proposed troop drawdown. It is likely that they will look for any indication that he needs more time or more personnel to complete the mission, boxing Obama into tricky political territory. On the civilian side, new prospective State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-Texas) is poised to use her control over civilian aid to press the case for taking a tougher line on Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as her predecessor Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) did in 2010.

Scott Olson/Getty Images


GOP calls for delaying a vote on Obama’s nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia are already in full song. Although the Senate did not change hands, the addition of a half-dozen new Republican senators next year would make reaching the 67-vote threshold for ratifying the treaty much more difficult for the administration and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is leading the charge for ratification. The administration is still hoping that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will schedule a vote in the lame-duck session, but GOP leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are signaling they won’t go along. Even in the lame duck, finding enough GOP senators to vote for the treaty if their leadership doesn’t change its mind will be a daunting task.

The administration has a two-track strategy for getting the treaty, dubbed New START, approved. The main plan is to offer a final package of incentives related to nuclear modernization and nuclear-stockpile maintenance to Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who is seen as the key Republican in the debate. If Kyl agrees, the majority of the caucus will follow suit. Plan B is to try to peel off moderate senators such as Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to reach the 67-vote threshold.

But a delay until next year could mean a wait until next summer as Congress reorganizes itself. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee would also have to approve the treaty again if no full vote is taken this year. What remains unknown is how new senators, including Tea Party members who could object to the $80 billion the administration is throwing at Kyl to garner his support, would vote. If the GOP kills the treaty, “the message we may be sending is that we’re not in the business of passing treaties anymore,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.



Iran has been signaling that it wants to return to the negotiating table before year’s end. If the mullahs want to strike a deal with the Obama administration over its nuclear program, they had better move fast. The new Congress is likely to press the administration to strictly enforce the penalties under the Iran sanctions legislation that Obama signed this year. While anti-Iran sentiment in Congress is bipartisan, Republicans are more inclined to press the administration to enforce penalties on third countries that do not go along with the sanctions, including Russia and China.

If Obama somehow reaches a deal with Iran, especially one that accepts a limited enrichment capability for Tehran as the price for greater verification and inspections, he will face intense blowback from a Republican House and Republicans in the Senate. The same goes for North Korea. If the administration ever does get back into talks with Pyongyang about its nuclear-weapons program and works out a deal, the GOP could criticize the deal as being too conciliatory to a brutal regime, even if it is less generous than that negotiated by George W. Bush’s administration in 2007.



Prior to the election, the debate was heating up over whether the United States’ worsening fiscal situation would lead to cuts in the defense budget, which has more than doubled since 9/11. Even some GOP lawmakers seemed to be entertaining the idea, and the president’s commission on the deficit is looking at the defense budget as well. Notably, neither Obama nor Defense Secretary Robert Gates is calling for overall cuts in defense spending at this point, but Gates is planning to announce another round of specific weapons-systems cancellations in February via the 2012 budget request.

The GOP-led House, led by new Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and the new head of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), is set to resist cancellations of any large weapons systems. There has been much speculation about whether the Tea Party caucus, soon to be represented by almost three dozen congressmen, would force the GOP to take seriously the idea of cutting the defense budget. But most incoming Tea Party members are poised to exempt defense spending from their calls for austerity, with the possible exception of Senator-elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has said defense budget cuts are on the table.



As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama promised to double the foreign aid budget within five years. Likewise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has promised to elevate development alongside defense and diplomacy as a key pillar of U.S. national security policy. Both those promises face increased resistance in Congress next year, as lawmakers look to make budget cuts in programs that lack strong domestic constituencies. “One of the main issue voters are talking about is out-of-control spending, and foreign aid won’t be exempt from cuts,” one GOP aide told The Cable.

Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has proposed holding up foreign aid to a litmus test related to recipient governments’ acquiescence to U.S. foreign-policy objectives and has even threatened to vote down the entire foreign-aid budget — after separating out aid for Israel — if he isn’t satisfied with how some countries are acting in conjunction with U.S. interests. And Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who will probably be tasked with writing the fiscal 2012 state and foreign operations appropriations bill, has said that countries that aren’t performing on issues like good governance should have their assistance packages reviewed.

The congressional drive to pass a wholesale reform of foreign-aid distribution has also been dealt a blow due to the GOP takeover of the House. The most comprehensive bill on this front was written by outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) — but his bill failed to move out of committee, and it’s unlikely that his successor, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), will take up the cause. Expect congressional Republicans to also resist large increases in the budget for the State Department, which is taking on increased roles all over the world, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan. The State Department’s budget for fiscal 2011 is still under consideration.



It’s no secret that Republicans on Capitol Hill have been unhappy with how the administration has been conducting its drive to ink new civilian nuclear deals with a host of countries. After finishing the Bush administration’s deal, known as a “123 agreement,” with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Obama administration lauded uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing prohibitions in the deal as the “gold standard” for future agreements. The UAE agreed to forgo enrichment in exchange for the deal. But the White House is having trouble getting Vietnam and Jordan to agree to such restrictions, and Republicans on the Hill are sure to hold up such shortcomings as increasing the risk of nuclear proliferation.

Later this month, the Russian 123 agreement, originally brokered by Bush, will go into force if Congress doesn’t move to stop it. Cable sources say that there’s probably not enough interest in the GOP at the leadership level to thwart the Russia deal at this stage. But incoming House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) was infuriated when the administration didn’t even bother to send someone to the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in September on the Russia deal, and she is likely to hold thorough and investigative hearings for any future pacts. She could also lead an effort to amend the Atomic Energy Act to give Congress increased oversight of international civilian nuclear agreements. Another key lawmaker to watch on this is Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), due to his personal interest and expertise on the issue.

Alexandra Beier/Getty Images


Republicans have been calling on the administration to publicly clarify its Syria policy for months. Obama’s outreach to Damascus does not seem to be bearing fruit — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to support Hezbollah, interfere with Lebanese politics, and deepen his country’s friendship with Iran. The GOP has been holding up the nomination of Robert Ford to become ambassador to Syria, in part because they haven’t gotten full explanations from the administration about what the U.S. government knows about Syrian arms transfers to Hezbollah.

Syria’s nuclear ambitions are also a key concern of lawmakers. Some in the International Atomic Energy Agency want to use its special inspection authorities to increase the agency’s presence in Syria, but Damascus isn’t likely to allow such intrusiveness. So the Obama administration will eventually have to decide whether that’s an issue worth taking to the U.N. Security Council. Apparent Syrian violations of other sanctions relating to arms transfers are also an issue that lawmakers, especially Republicans, will be pressing the White House and State Department to deal with. “People are worried that Syria is not being held up to account,” one GOP aide said.



The Obama administration has been quietly but steadily moving to loosen travel and trade restrictions on Cuba in advance of what rapprochement advocates would hope to be an eventual repeal the comprehensive sanctions on Havana that have been in place since the 1950s. On this matter, don’t expect the GOP to budge much. Ros-Lehtinen, the incoming House Foreign Affairs Commitee chairwoman, is a hard-line Cuba hawk and is set to thwart any additional moves to ease Cuba sanctions or travel restrictions. A Cuban-American from Miami, she even once called for the assassination of former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

“The right is the enforcer on Cuba,” one Republican congressional aide explained to The Cable. Berman, the outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, had a bill before his committee to further ease restrictions on dealing with Cuba, but he never brought it up for a vote because he never thought he had enough committee support to pass it. “That was a major issue for Berman. If he had the votes to pass it, he would have done it,” the aide explained.

GOP aides say that the Cuba issue is indicative of what could be a rising chorus coming from Republicans on the Hill about issues of freedom and human rights. “We’re going to start to see that it’s OK to be vocal about democracy,” one aide said.



The administration’s drive to sign new free trade agreements across the world could be bolstered by the results of last week’s midterm elections. The Democratic House caucus, led by Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), didn’t move at all to support Obama’s free-trade agenda due to opposition from the labor movement. Senior House Republicans, such as incoming Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), are already working to make passing trade deals a focus of their work in the next Congress. In the Senate, personnel changes also seem to favor the drive for free trade. The Senate will have a strong new advocate for free trade in Ohio senator and former U.S. trade representative Rob Portman. A major opponent to free trade agreements was also unseated when Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) lost his re-election race.

The administration is working hard to capitalize on this change and hopes to iron out remaining differences in the free trade agreement with South Korea following his current trip to Asia. Existing deals with Colombia and Panama also await congressional approval. The question is whether free traders in Congress will be able to sway enough fellow House lawmakers to pass the deals. Portman faced significant criticism in Ohio during his campaign from those who think free trade agreements are equivalent to shipping jobs overseas. And even if the House passes the deals, Senate Majority Leader Reid will have to pass them in the Senate, with Republican support, over the objections of some in his own caucus. Lastly, if Obama pushes forward with free trade and ultimately Congress does not support him, he will have spent valuable political capital on a losing battle and have lost credibility with foreign governments.



Senate Republicans have been holding up the nominations of scores of administration officials. The most visible holds are several U.S. ambassadorial nominees, such as Robert Ford to Syria, Frank Ricciardone to Turkey, Matthew Bryza to Azerbaijan, and Norm Eisen to the Czech Republic.

The nominations are held up by different senators for different reasons, some personal, some political. The increased GOP presence in the Senate won’t directly affect these nominations, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will have to approve the nominations again if they are not acted on this year.

Republicans won’t have control over the Senate agenda completely, but they could use stalling nominations as one more tactic to advance their stated goal of making Obama a one-term president. There’s already a sense inside the administration that its work on foreign policy just got more difficult. “The primary impact [of the midterm elections] will be on domestic policy, not foreign policy. But that doesn’t mean we in the administration won’t face significantly more frustration, delay, and outright pain,” one administration source told The Cable.


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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