Bad blood will flow on foreign policy

Bad blood will flow on foreign policy
US Secretary of State John Kerry at the Washington Ideas Forum.

John Kerry, the perennially optimistic US Secretary of State, insists that the United States is not in retreat from global leadership. "We are as energised and flat-out as any administration in recent history," he said in a television interview over the weekend.

However, as a Republican triumph in this week's mid-term congressional elections appears inevitable, President Barack Obama and his officials look more besieged than ever, both at home and abroad. And it may be too late for Mr Obama to rescue his tarnished foreign and security policy credentials; both are "flat-out" as Mr Kerry put it, but on their backs.

The impending Republican victory is presented by Mr Obama's people in freak, natural disaster terms, with equally destructive outcomes.

This is nonsense: the Republicans, who won the last two congressional elections, have controlled the House of Representatives for 16 out of the past 20 years. Far from being an exception, Republican control over the US legislature is the norm.

Nor should Congress be blamed for "obstructing" the President. The US Constitution was written with that explicit assumption: confrontation is not reprehensible, but the essence of American "check and balance" politics.

A key task for any US president is to shape debate on foreign and security matters by cajoling and compromising with legislators. That's often simpler to achieve than getting consensus on domestic issues, because a president's constitutional prerogatives in such matters are clearer, and because foreign and security policies usually enjoy bipartisan support.

Yet Mr Obama has gone out of his way to alienate Congress on precisely these matters. Administration officials criss-crossed the world preaching the virtues of democracy and strong parliaments in other countries, but then rubbished their own Congress, oblivious to the fact that this undermined their arguments.

Mr Obama himself has shown only contempt for Congress' role in foreign and security policy matters. When he did not want to launch air strikes against Syria last year, he pretended that congressional approval was required for any action, but then did nothing to get it. Yet when the President decided this year to launch a far more extensive air campaign in Syria and Iraq, he argued that he possessed all the powers to do so without consulting Congress.

Iran, another critical security matter, was handled in a similar way. Mr Obama came to office urging Congress not to strengthen the sanctions on Iran. But when Congress ignored him and Iran ultimately relented by returning to the negotiating table, Mr Obama claimed that "his sanctions" brought about this outcome. And now that a deal over Iran's nuclear weapons is in the offing, the White House is suggesting that it has the powers to lift some of the sanctions, even if Congress is against relaxing them.

Critics also say that while the National Security staff accountable to the President has expanded to 270 employees (a third more than those appointed to the National Security Council by President George W. Bush), they have sidelined the Pentagon and the State Department on foreign and security issues, yet lack their capacity to manage events.

The result is an administration invariably behind the curve in global events, which responds by talking first, and only then thinking of the consequences.

Equally bad have been the gaffes, including the President's own when he reportedly described his foreign policy as "don't do stupid stuff" - hardly a guiding principle for any nation, let alone a superpower.

Mr David Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine and the author of a new book on American Leadership In The Age Of Fear, put it well when he recently urged Mr Obama's officials to stop treating national security as a television talk show in which "the message" is more important than substance. "It's fine not to say anything if, in fact, you have nothing to say," he wrote in a biting commentary.

Pundits in Washington predict that Mr Obama will reshuffle his foreign and security teams soon after the mid-term elections. And with just two years remaining to his term, the President may well reinvent himself as an international statesman.

But the bad blood between the President and Congress will continue to flow. And, as senior officials begin to desert his administration in search of new jobs and start publishing their memoirs, more unfavourable revelations about the President are likely to surface.

The Obama presidency is unlikely to go down in history as a glorious episode for US diplomacy. But it should not be considered as symptomatic of an irreversible American decline on the global stage either.

While the US is no longer the only superpower, it is still, by far, the most formidable single military and economic entity, and the only country able to marshal a global system of alliances of like-minded nations. Its military budget may be going down, but the US is still responsible for two-thirds of the world's spending on military innovation, and its technological lead in such fields is, if anything, expanding.

And, while it is true that the US public is tired of foreign interventions, it is also true that American voters hate to see their country pushed around: my bet is that foreign policy will be a critical plank in the next presidential election, and that presidential candidates will emphasise their readiness to use force when required.

Nor should one underestimate what a president can do to turn an isolationist mood around: just recall Mr Ronald Reagan who, a mere five years after America's humiliating retreat from Vietnam, persuaded his nation to launch its biggest rearmament programme, a plan which hastened the Soviet Union's collapse.

So, a turnaround in US foreign and security policy is not merely possible, but very likely. Although that may have to wait till Mr Obama's departure from the White House.

Possible Republican Congress may be good news for trade in article

Two writers assess the outlook for United States foreign and trade policies, as the Republicans look poised to sweep the Nov 4 mid-term congressional elections.

A nightmare scenario for those frustrated with Washington gridlock is for Republicans to sweep the mid-term elections, take over Congress - and then spend the next two years sabotaging an outgoing Democratic president intent on legacy building.

With mid-term congressional elections due tomorrow, opinion polls point to the United States headed for this dire outcome. That would mean a Republican-controlled Congress passing Bills that either undermine or repeal the agenda of President Barack Obama's administration, and a president who vetoes everything that lands on his desk from the legislature.

The latest projections are that the Republican Party will hold on to its majority in the House of Representatives. It is heavily tipped to gain 51 seats in the 100-member Senate.

But amid the fears of policy paralysis, there is at least one potential bright outcome from a Republican-controlled Congress: trade.

The US is currently engaged in negotiations on the two largest free trade agreements in its history - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union, and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) with 11 Pacific Rim countries that Singapore is a party to.

While an administration's foreign policy tends not to depend too much on the whims of Congress, trade policy needs to clear lawmakers. In recent years, there has been little evidence to suggest it would be able to.

But a Republican-controlled Congress after the mid-terms might change that. That's because much of the opposition to those trade agreements has come from within Mr Obama's own party.

The Democrats' top two lawmakers, Senator Harry Reid and Representative Nancy Pelosi, have come out to say that they would not grant fast-track negotiation authority to the President on the trade pacts. Their position has been that such free trade deals would hurt local jobs and industry and erode support for Democrats at the coming polls.

Such a measure, known as the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), would force Congress to either approve or reject a trade deal without making amendments. A TPA typically helps speed up negotiations abroad as partners are more willing to bring their best offers to the table.

A Republican-controlled Congress would improve the odds of getting the trade deals through, so long as Democrats opposed to the trade agenda don't gang up with Republican congressmen to scupper their own president's deal.

What's of more pressing concern is whether Congress and the president can see eye to eye on anything to sign it into law.

Already, signalling their oppositionist intention, Republican ads and speeches on the campaign trail are touting the idea that a stronger conservative presence is needed in Washington to block President Obama's agenda.

Immigration reform, an increase in minimum wage and environmental protection are all items on the administration's agenda that will surely be doomed if the Republicans held sway over both houses of Congress.

Hopes of passing reform to fund the operating budget of the International Monetary Fund would all but evaporate.

But free trade could be an exception. This isn't just because Republicans have historically had a more pro-trade platform.

What's more important is that the trade issue presents one of the very few options they have for any sort of legislative achievement in the coming year - one of a small handful of issues where there is some alignment between President Obama and the Republicans. And the Grand Old Party, or GOP, does need something to show for its years in Congress.

The Republican Party can't continue to be a "party of no" if it hopes to win the presidential election in 2016, since it will be difficult to nominate a Republican senator for president who has spent two years without a single significant legislative achievement to his name.

As for the right-wing Tea Party movement, it will likely continue its anti-Obama agenda, but the pressure of having to boost its chances at a general election will force the Republican Party to reclaim influence from right-wing ideologues.

For the Obama administration, the TPP is that elusive missing piece of its Asian pivot strategy, but sealing the deal with Congress will require commitment and compromise.

Dr Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security, said the administration has to treat it almost the way it treated the healthcare reform issue in President Obama's first term.

"You're going to have to make even more compromises if the Senate is run by the Republicans. But these are Republicans who want trade in general. Eighty per cent of them want these trade agreements. So you've got a possibility of a deal," he said.

"From the White House perspective, you can get TPA and TPP passed some time in the next 12 months if you make this one of your top two or three priorities, like health care was in the first term. If you don't do that, it will not pass and it will be left to your successor."

Doing deals with your opponents is never appealing, but for a president struggling with a Middle East in flames and a failed Russian "reset" in relations, an agreement on free trade can be a rather attractive way to burnish his legacy.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


This article was first published on November 3, 2014.
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