The midterm election results were a strong rebuke of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party's stewardship of political power, but they turned almost entirely on domestic issues, not foreign policy. Therefore, the foreign-policy implications of the election are likely to be indirect rather than direct.
Even when foreign-policy issues are an important factor in a midterm election -- think the public dissatisfaction with the Iraq War that helped fuel Democratic gains in 2006 -- it does not necessarily translate into a predictable change on those issues. The new Democratic-controlled Congress believed they had a mandate to force a rapid retreat from Iraq in 2007 and they tried very hard to impose that policy on the Bush administration. Former President George W. Bush interpreted the 2006 election as a partial rebuke of his Iraq policy, but opted for the opposite response, the surge, and very narrowly kept the surge alive long enough to show results on the ground. Democrats came very close to thwarting the surge in the summer of 2007, but they failed in their effort. Implication: A highly resolved president can prevail on a foreign-policy issue even against a highly motivated oppositional Congress.
The next Congress may well be oppositional, but it will not be singularly motivated on a foreign-policy issue. For starters, there is no clear foreign-policy mandate coming out of the election. So far as I can determine, exit polls asked about only two foreign-policy issues: Afghanistan and the recent attempted terrorist attack. Interestingly, of those voters who ranked these issues at the very top of their list of concerns, Democrats won: 57 percent-41 percent in favor of Democrats on Afghanistan and 55 percent -43 percent on the recent terrorist attempt. But only small portions of the electorate considered these their top issues: 8 percent on Afghanistan and 9 percent on terrorism.
But elections have consequences, and even though the consequences will be more dramatic on domestic policy issues, there will nevertheless be discernible implications for foreign policy. Here are three quick ones:
- President Obama will face an even more difficult time mobilizing Democrats to support his war policies. A majority of voters (54 percent) said they disapproved of the Afghanistan war and an even larger majority of those disapprovers (61 percent) voted Democrat. Obama is even more reliant on Republican support for his war in Afghanistan than he was this past year. Moreover, the departure of national security moderate Democrats from the House of Representatives combined with the freedom that being a minority party grants means that the Democratic caucus in the House will likely be even more stridently anti-war.
- Democrats lost their most respected voice on national security, Congressman Ike Skelton of Missouri. Some respected voices remain in the House, notably Jane Harman of California, but this election reverses a trend that could be traced to the party's response to the 9/11 attacks: the cultivation of a "strong on national security" wing among House Democrats. Skelton was uniquely respected on both sides of the aisle, in particular because he devoted time and effort to issues that were significant in a larger strategic sense but not hot-button electoral issues, such as professional military education, interservice rivalry, or the development of grand strategy. It will be harder to forge strong bipartisan positions on national security without more strong national security moderate voices from the Democratic side of the aisle.
- President Obama is likely to prioritize foreign-policy issues more in the next two years than he did in the previous two years. Obama faces the prospect of compromising with Republicans in order to get things done on domestic policy or focusing attention on areas where he can do what he wants while ignoring Congress. He may well choose the latter. The president's long trip to Asia could be both a symbol and a harbinger of this approach. There are plenty of foreign policy concerns to preoccupy him and he will certainly have a higher success rate of prevailing over Republicans on foreign policy than on domestic policy.
Bottom line: While foreign policy was not a front-burner issue in the run-up to the midterm elections, it could well re-emerge as a front-burner and contentious issue in very short order.