The result of the Congressional elections this week probably will have little direct effect on U.S. foreign policy. As Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner have pointed out, the executive branch still is the prime mover in setting that policy, and the biggest problems the president will face in foreign relations will be the same old intractable ones overseas, regardless of who has a majority in the House of Representatives. To the extent that U.S. domestic policy weighs on the making of foreign policy—most obviously with the influence of the Israel lobby—the effect is felt in both parties and again does not depend on who has a majority in the House.
A slightly less direct effect that some have raised as a possibility, however, is that a frustrated President Obama, unable to accomplish much on his domestic agenda, will devote most of his energies toward goals overseas. Grover Norquist remarked to Jacob Heilbrunn on election night that the only thing left for Obama is to become a “foreign policy president.” Aaron Miller sees the same possibility, describing it as a temptation that it would be best for Obama to avoid. However frustrating will be the domestic politics of the next two years, says Miller, it would be better to deal with John Boehner than with Hamid Karzai and other “foreign policy impossibles.”
I disagree, mainly because I am profoundly pessimistic about the president's ability to reach many workable accommodations with Congressional Republicans, at least the current batch of Congressional Republicans under current circumstances. How much room for accommodation is there when the Republican leader in the Senate already has unashamedly declared that his top legislative priority is to make sure Barack Obama does not get re-elected? Boehner made a few soothing noises on election night, but his conduct as minority leader in the House indicates his priorities are similar to Mitch McConnell's. The voters' dominant theme in this week's election was rejection—of Obama, of Congress, and of both parties. Although some experienced Republican voices are counseling a constructive approach by the new House majority, the more natural and more likely reaction will be for the Party of No to keep saying no.
I agree with Heilbrunn that a strong case can be made that the United States needs to husband its resources and to avoid more costly commitments overseas. But such retrenchment is not to be equated with a less energetic foreign policy by the U.S. president. To the contrary, effective and safe retrenchment will tend to require more, not less, expenditure of presidential time, attention, and political resources. In Afghanistan, the path of least resistance would be to keep slogging away at the counterinsurgency, with nothing more than minimal withdrawals to meet the previously stated commitment for a pull-out to begin in July 2011. To stanch this drain of blood and treasure and redirect course would require a major effort by Obama in contending with Karzai and with the foreign policy impossibles in the Pentagon and in pushing a more active regional diplomacy to enlist all the neighbors in the cause of stability in Afghanistan. Likewise with policy toward Iran, where the path of least resistance would be a continued focus on pressure and more pressure. It would require a major presidential effort to chart a more constructive and effective course here—one in which there would be less chance of winding up in a dead end with increased risk of an even bigger drain on American resources in the form of a war with Iran.
Then there is the Middle East peace process. I have long thought that the only hope for progress would lie with a second-term U.S. president, one freed from any thought of the domestic political consequences of his actions for his own re-election. That still may be true. But Heilbrunn is right that Obama is in trouble and that this week's election could turn out to be a dress rehearsal for the one in 2012. The president needs to do some serious, albeit private, thinking about the relative feasibility and importance of things like re-election and long-term legacies. (One thing he might ponder is which of the two George Bushes will be treated more respectfully by future historians—the one-term president who skillfully presided over a successful conclusion to the Cold War, or the two-term one who put the United States into the Iraq quagmire and also ruined the public finances, limiting the tools required for dealing with the deep recession that began in his final year in office.) I would love to see President Obama make an all-out push during the next two years for an Israeli-Palestinian deal on final settlement issues. In doing so, he could borrow a technique from Bill Clinton in applying his best judgment to those issues while making it clear that whatever he puts on the table will not only be off the table but dead whenever he leaves office.
That is a hope; it is not a prediction. It is more likely that achieving re-election will be as important a goal for Obama as preventing it will be for the Congressional Republicans, that foreign policy will stay closer to the paths of least resistance than to any more creative paths, and that efforts to create bipartisan understandings on domestic issues will continue even though they will largely fail.