The Midterm’s Mantra of Fear and Loathing

Don’t kid yourselves; from the Islamic State to Ukraine to Iran, foreign policy mattered in Tuesday's elections.

Win McNamee
Win McNamee
Win McNamee

"They" say elections rarely turn on foreign policy. And mid-term elections, "they" say, are almost never a referendum on the president. Well, take that, whoever "they" are. This election turned on foreign policy big time. But not the way you might think. Foreign policy was not on the ballot; nor is the United States losing a war or in a titanic struggle somewhere.

"They" say elections rarely turn on foreign policy. And mid-term elections, "they" say, are almost never a referendum on the president. Well, take that, whoever "they" are. This election turned on foreign policy big time. But not the way you might think. Foreign policy was not on the ballot; nor is the United States losing a war or in a titanic struggle somewhere.

But foreign policy is the lurking shadow in this election, nonetheless. The witches’ brew, fired up by Republican candidates, contains the "eye of newt" (fear), stirred together with the "toe of frog" (loathing). Together they have given the Republicans control of the Congress. The question now is whether this reversal of fortune will lead to dramatic changes in foreign policy and the resources behind America’s international engagements. Not as much as you think, it turns out.

The election outcome is clearly an index of fear. Americans are afraid of child migrants stealing into the country like the young girls of Salem, suddenly bewitching our schools and stealing the Halloween candy that belongs to our children. They howled in front of transport buses trying to bring those would-be immigrant children to safety. Americans are afraid that travelers from Africa will bring home a dreaded disease that will sweep through the country in the same way it has decimated Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. One sneeze on an American street corner, and everyone will have to run for safety. They are afraid a tall, dark, bearded Islamic terrorist will slip through an unguarded border, sword in hand, and chop off their heads, in a ghastly rendition of the tragic slayings of reporters who were beheaded by Islamic State (IS) militants in the Syrian desert.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It reaches into our reptilian brain, banishes the better judgment of the pre-frontal cortex, runs away with common sense. Fear works at a level reason cannot touch. Pollsters and campaign advisors love it, especially Republican advisors, as the turn toward fear-based messages in the campaign over the past two months shows.

Hope works at the emotional level, too, as Barack Obama proved in 2008. But we are a long way from 2008, and the other drumbeat the Republicans have steadily provided for the past six years is that the Obama administration should be loathed for its incompetence. Set aside the deliberate campaign the Republicans in Congress have mounted to prevent the president from achieving any part of his agenda — from health care to climate change to immigration. That’s a given. 

As with most administrations, there have been plenty of White House and departmental slip-ups and errors of management over the past six years, particularly the botched rollout of the health care website. And the international environment has not cooperated, either, leading to vocal accusations that Obama is on the verge of "losing" Iraq, Syria, and  Ukraine because he has not "done something" to prevent their loss. 

As the now electorally successful mantra has gone: he pulled out of Iraq too early, leading to the disaster we now face; he screwed up last year by not bombing Syria after saying he would (and undercut his secretary of state in the process); he is drawing down too deeply in Afghanistan, which will lead to a security disaster; he is conducting a feckless strategy of pitty-pat bombing on the most dangerous enemy America has faced since, well, since the Soviet Union; he is letting a dangerous thug claw away pieces of a sovereign state in Ukraine without stepping in forcefully; and he is about to hand the mullahs the keys to a nuclear capability in Tehran. All exacerbated by hiring a less than competent staff in the White House that stand in the way of letting the agencies do their jobs.

Those bombs in Iraq and Syria were aimed as much at the heart of this Republican challenge as they are at IS. The results make it clear: they missed their target. Put fear and loathing over incompetence together and you have all the "toil and trouble" necessary to turn the election into a referendum on the president and on his competence as a foreign policy leader. Overall, the mantra goes, he does not want to lead, does not understand leadership, and when he has tried, it has dribbled through his hands into the cauldron of failure.

There are edges of truth in this mantra, major slices of fiction, and not a small amount of ideological distrust, dislike, and even darker currents.

The bottom line is that this was a foreign policy election in the most fundamental sense. It was about fear and competence, however merited or unjustified. The question today is whether the outcome will have a significant impact on foreign policy and the resources to support that policy. Curiously, the answer is "yes, but probably not much."

The election was not so much about policy as it was about politics. And it produced a typical Washington muddle, exacerbated by the strong wave of political hostility between Republicans and Democrats, and the scorched earth ideological approach of independent political advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity.

First, control of the Senate changes hands, but the folks who come into office are not the seven or eight young Turks — they are people who have been around for a while. Leadership on the key committees will fall to known commodities, who are unlikely to change much when it comes to policy and money. The heir apparent to Buck McKeon as chair of the House Armed Services Committee is Rep. "Mac" Thornberry (R-TX), who has a reputation as a "policy wonk," strategic thinker, and critic of Pentagon inefficiency.

His competitor for the chair is Rep. Randy Forbes, much more of a Republican fire-breather, who is unlikely to prevail. So expect moderation and bipartisanship, to some degree, in that committee.

More significant, on the Senate side, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will assume command of the Armed Services Committee and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) becomes the ranking member. McCain sounds like a fire-breathing defense dragon, but he is unpredictable. Moreover he is a show horse, not a workhorse, who does not command action inside the Senate. Substantively, he has not differed greatly from the outgoing Democratic chair, Carl Levin.

Will the Armed Services committees matter? On two policy issues they might: the use of force and the Iranian nuclear program. In the first case — a vote on a new resolution authorizing the current use of force in the Middle East — do not expect a defeat for the president. Rather, look for an even more strident assertion of the importance of using American military power in the region. Even here, the president will make the policy; Congress will only have to decide whether to support it. 

The jurisdiction for that support will be shared with a more active Senate Foreign Relations Committee under its new chair, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who is apparently already at work drafting a new use of force resolution. Corker will share as well in what could be a more confrontational policy war — a debate over the president’s likely executive agreement with Iran to restrain its nuclear program. Republicans who resist such a deal may well combine with a large number of Democrats who tried earlier this year to strengthen the sanctions on Iran, but yielded temporarily to a president anxious to continue negotiations.

Money will be the other big national security issue in this Congress. But here, too, the leadership is already a known commodity. The money is not an Armed Services committee issue — it is a Budget Committee issue. The incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is a known hawk who has urged higher levels for defense than those provided in the Budget Control Act (BCA). And he will be joined in the House by a new Budget Committee Chair, Rep. Tom Price (R-GA).

For both of them, as for the Republicans as a whole, however, the budget issue is only partly about defense. The bigger budget debate will be whether the Republicans write a budget resolution that shifts resources from domestic spending to defense, as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) proposed earlier this year (which would require amending the 2011 BCA), or negotiate such a change with the White House. Obama is unlikely to agree to higher levels of defense at the cost of domestic spending, so a deal is going to be a hard push. And getting a budget resolution making this change through the Senate will take more than the 54 votes McConnell can count on.

How to navigate around this and get their wish for higher defense numbers? Use the reconciliation act process, which doesn’t require 60 votes, the way they did for Reagan back in 1981. The catch, of course, is that a reconciliation act, unlike a budget resolution, requires a presidential signature. So it is veto bait, unless they negotiate with Obama.

Which means the defense budget numbers may not change as much as some of the Republicans would like. (I say "some" because the Rand Paul wing of the party has not been a strong advocate for raising the defense budget). When it comes to the nitty-gritty of defense, though, there is an escape hatch. The Republicans may not get what they want in the base defense budget, and Secretary Hagel may not get what he wants either, which is more than the BCA would provide. 

But both are likely to fall back on the "magic money" of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, which they have been doing for the last few years anyway. Defense gets an "emergency" pass, unlike other federal agencies — extra money because, well, because they want extra money. Some of it is for operations, and expect a DoD request this month for more war money than they already asked for ($58.6 billion, given the problems of IS, Ebola, and Ukraine). And expect Congress to go along. They will just move money around in that OCO budget to make room for things they want at home (tanks, ships, etc.), the way they have the past two years.

When it comes to foreign policy, look for fire and brimstone, and maybe some trouble on Iran. When it comes to the money, the higher politics of the national budget will prevail over the demand to increase defense budgets. And, in any case, the "magic money" makes it OK — they can have it both ways. The real world won’t change much, but the mantra of fear and loathing will continue.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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