Senate loss could cripple Obama’s foreign policy

The implications of a flip in the Senate to the Republican side will have impact on other foreign policy issues

Joyce Karam
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If you think President Barack Obama had a rough summer between the gruesome murder of two American journalists in Syria and jihadists throwing a pool party at the U.S. embassy compound in Libya, things could get worse for the 44th president if his party loses the midterm elections in five weeks.Such a scenario could tie Obama's hands in achieving a deal with Iran, set in tighter budget controls for defense funding and bring more tension to an already strained U.S.-Russia relations.

The Washington Post and the New York Times today project a 77 percent and 67 percent chance for Republicans to relinquish control of the Senate for the first time in ten years. While those numbers could change especially with close races in Colorado, Arkansas and Alaska, the GOP is still favored to make gains in both chambers on November 4. Taking both majorities, however, will be a dramatic turn in Washington’s political operation and a troubling one for Obama in his last two years in office.


ISIS effect

Prior to June, very few had expected foreign policy to take center stage in the Congressional midterms elections. It was ISIS takeover of Mosul earlier that month, followed by a war in Gaza, and a continuation of the tumultuous transition in Ukraine, that reintroduced foreign policy and national security into the battleground races.

The next five weeks will be critical for U.S. politics domestically and for the Obama administration on the global stage

Joyce Karam

Oddly today, Obama stands in George W Bush’s shoes in 2006. Then, with Bush’s popularity taking a deep hit because of the Iraq war, the Democrats swept the elections and took six seats in the Senate. Today, Obama’s job approval is at 41.7 percent according to “Real Clear Politics” and drops to 35.6 percent on Foreign Policy according the Huffington Post. These are alarming numbers for the Democrats, that have kept Obama at arm’s length from the campaign trail and dispatched Bill Clinton or Joe Biden instead.

It is ISIS more than any other issue that has caught the Democrats off guard on the campaign trail and reshuffled voters’ priorities. Many of the Republican ads are tying the Democrat incumbents to Obama’s questionable strategy in fighting ISIS. This one in North Carolina claims that “while ISIS grew, Obama kept waiting and (Democrat Senator) Kay Hagan kept quiet”, and another one for Scott Brown in New Hampshire claims Obama is “confused” about the ISIS threat.

Implications: Iran and beyond

While most of the campaign rhetoric surrounds ISIS, the implications of a flip in the Senate to the Republican side will have more impact on other foreign policy issues such as the nuclear talks with Iran.

In practical terms, losing the majority in the Senate, will mean the Democrats ceding to Republicans control over the committees including the Senate Foreign relations and the Armed Services. This hypothesis will bring Senator Bob Corker to head the Foreign Relations committee and Senator James Inhofe on the Armed Services committee. Both Senators are very critical of Obama’s foreign policy, and have voiced plenty of skepticism on the Iranian nuclear talks. Corker is proposing an amendment to allow a vote on any deal the administration could reach with Iran in the Congress and threaten not to lift any sanctions without Congressional approval.

The timing of Iran talks could in the best case scenario for Obama conclude in a deal this November before a potential Republican majority takes over in January. If that does not materialize, the administration will be in for a rough ride with the Congress in selling any deal that does not include a significant cap on enrichment or dismantle Iran’s centrifuges. For a president that has put lot of effort from day one on the Iranian talks and changing the rhetoric between Tehran and Washington, squandering the deal will surely take away a legacy opportunity from Obama.

A Republican takeover in the Senate could also translate into a more hawkish policies towards Russia and increasing military aid to Ukraine. While confronting ISIS gets bipartisan support, certain elements of the bill that passed last month including the quarterly review to train and equip the Syrian rebels could become more contentious. A Senate turnover would give Republican Senators and presidential hopefuls Rand Paul and Ted Cruz a louder microphone and more influence.

The next five weeks will be critical for U.S. politics domestically and for the Obama administration on the global stage. The outcome of the six seats in the Senate could determine how much latitude Obama will have in chatting U.S. policy abroad, and whether the last two years will be one of a lame duck president or a transformational one.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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