It's time for consensus

Yesterday's election was notable for many reasons -- rejection of President Barack Obama's agenda, the largest opposition pick up in 80 years, the perks of incumbency outweighed by anti-establishment sentiment among voters. Also notable is that although the country is fighting two wars and foiled a terrorist plot just days before the election, national security had almost no place in the contest. To the extent national security was even mentioned, it was in terms of our strategic vulnerability due to massive debt.

But now that the dust is settling on the dimensions of Republican victory, what is it likely to mean for the wars we are fighting? The president has picked up support for winning the wars, although the president himself is hesitant to use the word. Republicans elected yesterday will be concerned about the cost of the wars, but they are basically Jacksonians. They will provide the votes for the president to persevere, and to reverse his damaging timeline for drawing down forces in Afghanistan.

Walter Russell Mead perfectly captured the principled, strong armed, anti-establishment populism of this line of thinking in U.S. foreign policy. His article on the Jacksonian Tradition in the Winter 1999/2000 issue of The National Interest should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand where the 112th Congress is likely headed. The president himself might also want to read former President George W. Bush's soon-to-be-released memoir, in which he considers a premature drawdown of troops in Iraq to have been one of his biggest mistakes.

Where the election will complicate President Obama's war policies is that moderate Democrats were turned out of the House in large numbers; the president has a Democratic caucus in the House significantly more liberal than the Democratic Party. This could limit the president's ability to let slide his end game for Afghanistan, especially if he is forced to trim his sails on other liberal shibboleths.

But the president is not going to carry liberal Democrats on the wars whether or not he sticks to his politically-driven 2011 drawdown. "Ending combat operations" in Iraq has not been the improvement in security the president promised, as Tuesday's bombings sadly illustrate, and the president can ill afford such an outcome in "the good war." Liberal disaffection was less a problem for Democrats than the stampede of independents to the right; moderating his timeline to achieve the objectives of the war would likely appeal to them.

Working across the aisle on the wars may help build confidence between the White House and Republicans, providing a basis for compromise on other pressing issues, like debt reduction and entitlement reform. Americans like divided government. We are a people made great by distrust of our own government, a fact the Washington establishment often forgets.

Perhaps the lesson Democrats ought most to take from yesterday's drubbing (and Republicans from the unsuccessful bids by some of our most divisive candidates) is Thomas Jefferson's caution that great innovations should not be forced by slim majorities. A desire for consensus is fundamental to our political culture, probably the result of our great diversity. As a European once pointed out to me, "you Americans prize individuality, but you all dress alike."

Congressional Republicans are off to a good start with House Speaker John Boehner's poignant decline to grandstand, instead taking the message that voters want Washington to get to work. And much work needs to be done to bring President Obama's national security policies into better alignment with our interests.

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Shadow Government

How the Republicans can advance U.S.-Asian relations

While U.S. voters were not particularly interested in foreign policy (certainly not Asia policy) during this election, Asia is always interested in U.S. voters. The economic growth of countries such as China and India, and the technological and innovative dynamism of much of the rest of Asia, are significantly impacting the structure of the U.S. economy. Newly elected Republicans have a chance to help the United States continue to benefit from Asia's growing prosperity.

Though the election was not about foreign policy, it is worth noting that former Vice President Dick Cheney's early 2009 critique of Obama's counter-terrorism policies first exposed the chinks in the administration's armor, demonstrating signs of life for a Republican Party declared dead and providing moral support to others in his party who soon voiced their own powerful critiques. Still, this election was about economics and the size and structure of government, not foreign policy. So, I am about to practice economics and politics without a license.

While voters still do not seem to trust the GOP, the party can regain their trust by reclaiming the mantle of economic leadership. Newly-elected Republicans can insist upon free market, pro-free trade policies that can push the president to create a friendlier climate for foreign investment in the United States as well as to ratify a free trade deal with South Korea and pry open other Asian markets for U.S. investment and exports.

By committing to fiscal responsibility, Republicans can provide a more credible case for the global rebalancing that economists agree needs to happen. A collective economic rebalancing, rather than a trade war or legislating punitive tariffs, is the answer to our current economic troubles with China. And a broader commitment to U.S. leadership in trade liberalization throughout Asia will contribute to setting the United States back on the road to economic growth and low unemployment.

But the United States is on the horns of a dilemma in Asia, one that new Republican leaders must resolve. Our huge debt and uncertain fiscal position calls into question our ability to sustain a robust diplomatic and military presence in the region; if fiscal austerity includes cuts to the defense budget, Asians will continue to conclude that we are not going to be present in Asia for the long haul. In the context of Asia policy, then, the key challenge for Republican leaders both in Congress and aspiring to the presidency is to strike the right balance between pursuing long-term measures to restore fiscal health without making short-term cuts on defense spending that create deep regional unease.

The first chance for Republicans to reconcile long and short term goals with respect to Asia is during Obama's trip to the region. They should pledge to work with him if he agrees to ratify the FTA with Korea, hold his feet to the fire if he panders to special interests on the issue of outsourcing to India (or what I like to call trading based on comparative advantage), and pledge to support him if he commits to keeping our alliances strong by making the military investments we need to keep the region stable.