New Congress May Stall Obama’s Foreign Policy Priorities, Including Arms-Reduction Treaty

By Patrick Goodenough | November 1, 2010 | 5:15 AM EDT

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev chat at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va. on June 24, 2010. Some opponents of the New START treaty worry that the adminstration has quietly agreed to limits on missile defense to keep the Russians happy. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

( – Although the midterm election campaign has focused predominantly on domestic matters such as the economy, the anticipated Republican-led U.S. Congress would have a significant impact on the Obama administration’s implementation of some key foreign policy priorities.

From greater engagement with the United Nations to the complicated relationship with China, from to the troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace effort to the drawn-out standoff over Iran’s nuclear activities, from the “reset” with Russia to the Afghanistan-Pakistan entanglement and planned withdrawal of troops by midyear, President Obama is sure to face a more skeptical Congress come January.

With the Republican Party expected to regain control of the House of Representatives, some important leadership positions will go to GOP lawmakers with far more conservative stances on these issues than the Democrats they will replace.

These include minority whip Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), favored to become House majority leader; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), in line to chair the Foreign Relations Committee; and Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (Calif.), set to take the helm of the Armed Services Committee.

Cantor, whose functions as majority leader would include scheduling legislation for floor consideration, is a staunch supporter of Israel, unconvinced of the sincerity of Palestinian Authority leaders, suspicious of links between Lebanon’s U.S.-backed military and Hezbollah, wary of the administration’s outreach to Iran and critical of its approach towards Iran’s crackdown on the opposition.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, photographed here with Honduras’ then-interim President Roberto Micheletti on Monday, Oct. 5, 2009, has criticized the Obama administration on a range of foreign policy issues. (AP Photo)

Ros-Lehtinen has taken issue with administration foreign policy positions on numerous issues, including the United Nations, Israel, Iran, Cuba, Honduras, Russia and China.

McKeon supports Obama’s decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan but his criticisms of the policy include what he calls the administration’s “minimalist mindset” in fighting the war and its plan to begin transferring the troops out of the country from July 2011.

“I worry that our enemies will see the president’s announced date for withdrawal as more of a commitment to leave Afghanistan than a declaration that al-Qaeda will be defeated and the Taliban routed,” he said when the timetable was announced.

McKeon has also voiced concern about Obama’s nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, known as New START.

“Any plan to reduce this country’s nuclear arsenal should be met with a plan to strengthen our defense capabilities,” he said earlier this year. “Instead, the president has decided to reduce the nuclear arsenal, while neglecting to address the fact that our remaining weapons arsenal is in desperate need of modernization.”

‘Another Obama giveaway’

New START is one important foreign policy issue likely to feature prominently in the weeks ahead in the U.S. Senate, where the Republican Party is predicted to make at least substantial gains in Tuesday’s election.

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meet in London on April 1, 2009. (AP Photo)

Signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last April, the agreement aims to lower both countries’ limit on strategic warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200.

Supporters of the treaty, who include Defense Secretary Robert Gates, say it will bolster the international nonproliferation regime, strengthen the security of the U.S. and its allies, and hamper trade in nuclear weapons technology.

Critics, including Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), are concerned about the administration’s commitment to modernizing the U.S. nuclear stockpile. They say verification elements are inadequate and, despite White House assurances, worry about the implications for missile defense – particularly as the administration has not released full details of the negotiating record.

Russia has threatened to abandon the treaty if the U.S. upgrades its missile defense capabilities, and New START skeptics suspect the administration may have secretly agreed to limits on missile defense to keep the Kremlin happy.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved New START last September with the support of three Republicans – Sens. Richard Lugar (Ind.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).

The administration had hoped the full Senate would consent to the ratification of New START ahead of the election but with growing conservative opposition to the agreement the Democratic leadership was uncertain of the 67 votes necessary for the vote to pass – and leery of pushing for a debate and vote on an issue not likely to help Democrats in the contest.

“It’s a matter of orthodoxy to disagree [with New START],” Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry was quoted as telling an audience at Yale University on Oct. 25. “It’s the same orthodoxy that kept a single Republican from signing on to the climate energy bill.”

If candidates associated with the Tea Party movement do well on Nov. 2, that will add to challenge for New START proponents, because the senator who endorsed those candidates and whose Senate Conservatives Fund financed their campaigns, Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), is an outspoken opponent of the treaty.

During Foreign Relations Committee discussions on New START DeMint called the treaty “another Obama giveaway at the expense of U.S. citizens,” saying it would undermine U.S. security and citing the concerns about possible limitations on missile defense.

Lame-duck vote?

Facing the prospect of a strengthened and more conservative-leaning Republican presence in the new Senate, Kerry is pushing to have a vote on New START during the “lame-duck” session.

A memo by conservative leaders, published on the American Spectator blog last week, objected to Kerry’s plan for a vote before the 112th Congress convenes in early January, saying that “the rush to ratification undermines the important role of ‘advice and consent’ that the Senate must exercise on any treaty of this magnitude.”

Among other concerns, the memo noted that lame-duck action on New START will include newly-elected senators who will not have had sufficient time to consider the treaty.

(Three new senators will take their seats soon after the election rather than in January – the winners of special elections in West Virginia, Delaware and Illinois.)

“It would be utterly unconscionable to oblige [these three senators] … to cast uninformed votes on so complex and controversial a matter,” the memo said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow