President may seek to leave legacy through foreign policy

President may seek to leave legacy through foreign policy

Foreign policy, in particular the US rebalance to Asia, could be potential bright spots for President Barack Obama, who now faces an uphill battle to score any sort of landmark achievement in the final two years of his tenure.

Washington pundits agree that a president faced with obstacles in Congress will be more than likely to turn his attention to foreign policy, given that he can deal with much of it on his own without the need for cooperation of opponents on Capitol Hill.

And when he does look to Congress on foreign policy matters, he is likely to find that taking action to engage in Asia presents a path of least resistance.

While Congress might obstruct Mr Obama on matters such as a nuclear deal with Iran or sanctions against Russia, they may well leave him alone to pursue a stronger relationship with China and the region at large.

"Their focus is more oppositional in other areas. I think, by itself, the Republicans are not opposed to that," said Dr John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Centre in Washington.

"The broad sense that Asia has become a much more important part of the world and our defence and foreign policy needs to take account of that, is understood by Republicans, so it's not that much of a divisive issue between the parties."

One concrete form of support for the rebalance may come in the form of fast track authorisation to pursue free trade deals. Analysts say that deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) may be easier to push through with pro-trade Republicans now in charge of Congress.

Said Dr Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security: "Everyone knows that the TPP is the sine qua non of any comprehensive rebalance policy, one that does not simply rely on diplomacy and defence alone. With mid-term elections out of the way, the White House should be willing to elevate trade high on its agenda."

He warned, however, that any breakthrough on free trade could still be "torpedoed" by "posturing or linkage to completely different issues".

Concerns remain, for instance, that a faction of Republicans may block trade simply to prevent anything that may look good for the President.

The one area where a Republican-dominated Congress might give the administration a hard time is in terms of military spending in Asia.

Republican Senator John McCain is now largely expected to take over as the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a body that controls defence budgets. The party that holds the Senate majority gets to appoint the chairs of the various Senate committees.

US military deployment in Asia has in recent years been hampered by harsh budget cuts as well as shaky support from its treaty allies.

The two problems often feed into each other - uncertain US investment and a lack of a clear military strategy for Asia can fuel resistance from local governments already unhappy about the presence of US bases.

The ongoing plans to relocate the US air base on the Japanese island of Okinawa have been the subject of many protests by locals. With Senator McCain holding the purse strings, he will be reluctant to invest in base improvements until he is content with the overall Asia strategy and is convinced that the US has the support of the affected locals.

It is also unclear if US plans for base improvements in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands will get the green light. The Asia-Pacific aside, the President may also find more allies among Republicans than Democrats should he feel a need to pursue a more aggressive military strategy against ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In recent months, it has been mainly top Republicans who have urged Mr Obama to reconsider his "no boots on the ground" policy.

While this may not be something that they will push for actively as a first priority, they will likely be supportive if the President changes his mind.

Former Republican presidential nominee Ron Paul captured this sentiment when he tweeted: "Republican control of the Senate = expanded neocon wars in Syria and Iraq. Boots on the ground are coming!"

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 06, 2014.
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