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:
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.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.