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What the GOP victory means for Obama’s foreign policy

Americans in battleground states weren’t the only ones who tuned into midterm elections this year. Overseas, US allies and enemies also watched the news. For Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is trying to seal a deal with the Obama administration over Iran’s nuclear program by Nov. 24, the election raises questions about Obama’s ability to hold up his end of an agreement, if one is reached. Obama can waive sanctions toward Tehran in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program, but only Congress can permanently wipe those laws off the books. So far, Congress has shown little appetite for that. Indeed, Iran sanctions have been one of the few bipartisan issues on Capitol Hill. For hard-liners in Iran, the midterm results serve as a reminder that Obama and his party could be out of power in two years, putting any deal that rests solely on the White House in jeopardy. Iranians will be less likely to make concessions for a deal that could simply fall apart. But if one is struck, and wins support from Congress, it will be more durable than any agreement Obama cuts by himself.

The Republican victory in the Senate also carries serious implications for Syria, and could lead to deeper US military intervention in the conflict. Arizona Republican John McCain, who has called for a no-fly zone in Syria, more vigorous airstrikes, and US troops in Iraq, is now slated to become chair of the Armed Services Committee. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who will take over the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has voiced support for similar measures.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no doubt celebrated the Republican victory against Obama, who has pressed Israel over the construction of settlements. The GOP victory could make the Obama administration think twice about pressuring Israel with more public gestures, such as withholding the automatic US veto that protects Israel from unfriendly resolutions at the UN Security Council. But the core of the US-Israeli relationship is unlikely to change. Support for Israel has long been a bipartisan policy. Despite the personal bad chemistry between Netanyahu and Obama, US-Israeli military cooperation is stronger now than ever before. Iron Dome, the air defense system that intercepts rockets from Gaza, is a truly joint venture. Recently, Israel awarded Raytheon the contract to produce vital components for it.

The GOP victory could actually make life easier for Obama in some areas. For instance, Republicans are far more supportive of granting Obama fast-track “trade promotion authority” that gives the administration the power to negotiate two huge free trade agreements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes 11 countries from Japan to Peru, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which includes the European Union and the United States. So far, the biggest obstacle Obama has faced has come from liberals in his own party, especially Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. That’s one roadblock that just disappeared.


Nearly all presidents suffer losses in midterm elections, but they still find ways to make their mark on foreign policy in their final years in office.