Copyright: Defense One, November 6, 2014. With Janine Davidson.
As Democrats lick their wounds following Tuesday’s midterms, President Obama will no doubt be contemplating the messages the electorate was trying to send. Breaking gridlock and “getting stuff done” might be a good place to start. This seems to have been where President Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush started eight years ago following a similar shellacking in the midterms during his second term. Bush seized the moment for one of the most significant foreign policy shifts of his tenure. It’s worth the look back as we contemplate the Obama administration’s next steps.
The 2006 midterm elections were a disaster for the Bush administration and wider Republican party. A deeply unpopular president—sitting at an approval rating of 37 percent—saw his party’s control of Congress completely eroded. The GOP lost thirty-one seats in the House and six in the Senate, swept out by wide-ranging discontent with particular focus on foreign policy and the strengthening insurgency in Iraq. If you tuned in for Tuesday evening’s Democratic “massacre” (in the words of the Economist), you know that 2014 has followed a very similar script.
If the 2006 midterms have proven a good guidepost so far, we should consider what happened next. Although Democrats rode strong anti-war sentiment to victory (just 20 percent of Americans thought the United States was “winning” Iraq by election day), the result of the elections was not sudden, unilateral withdrawal. Instead, President George W. Bush—safe in lame duck status and freed from many domestic political pressures—instituted significant foreign policy changes. He fired Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and oversaw a major strategy shift in Iraq, including a troop “surge” and adoption of counterinsurgency doctrine. Bush did not collaborate significantly with the Democrats in doing all this, but he did treat 2006 as demand for a major course correction.
Looking ahead to the next two years, it’s easy to see a similar series of events unfolding. Although the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), has drawn up aggressive plans to challenge the president on everything from expanding the fight against ISIS to providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian government to jettisoning nuclear talks with Iran, there is even less foreign policy unity among the “exceptionalist” and “isolationist” wings of the current Republican party than there was among the dovish Democratic majority of 2006. This means that, although the 114th Congress may muster a significant amount of sound and fury, the overall voice of defense policy is unlikely to shift to the Hill.
Indeed, President Obama will be free—should he desire—to implement an array of foreign policy “course corrections” via executive action. Obama can unilaterally set a policy regarding the U.S. stance toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (something urged by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel). He can revisit the glideslope for U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, as informally recommended by the general in charge of forces there. The president can ensure the signing (though not ratification) of a comprehensive Iranian nuclear agreement. He can even pursue unilateral action to extend the special immigration visa program for Afghan translators who have supported U.S. service members.
If there is one issue on which the new Congress may influence the president, it will surely regard escalation of operations against ISIS. The Islamic State became a significant campaign topic in the last weeks before the election. A growing chorus of voices within the Pentagon have likewise expressed their criticism of a fight “micromanaged” from the White House. On Friday, the president will be meeting with senior congressional leaders to discuss progress against ISIS, including a briefing by CENTCOM Commander General Lloyd Austin. This discussion, tied up with likely debate over a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), leaves open the possibility for a more public conversation (or confrontation) about the deployment of U.S. forces to join the fight and the strategy to stabilize the situation in the region.
Ultimately, the pace of White House action on national security issues has the potential to accelerate during President Obama’s final two years in office, just as it did under Bush in 2006. There are a number of crises on which the president, if he so chooses, can act unilaterally and in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief to address. Will he use the political breathing room afforded by the Republican victory (and his own lame duck status) to do so?