Charles Krupa / AP

After midterms, the world sees a weakened Obama

Disappointed with US foreign policy, the world views GOP wins as the end of any real action from the president

While Democrats search for signs of hope after their party suffered devastating losses in yesterday's midterm elections, international headlines on Wednesday spoke of an overnight insurgency against the president's party and highlighted the GOP takeover of Congress.

“Republicans capture control of Senate,” read a headline in China Daily, while the Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed, “Republicans sweep to control of Congress, training their guns on Obama.” The Italians were even more descriptive: “The United States slaps Obama,” declared La Repubblica.

“Washington wakes up Wednesday morning to a new political reality, with a weakened president and a battle-shocked liberal wing, on one side, and a belligerent Congress and emboldened ultra-Conservative flank on the other,” reported the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

But the reality, in terms of U.S. foreign policy, may be somewhat more subdued. The perception overseas is that, with even less room for President Barack Obama to maneuver, his remaining two years in office will yield very little international action.

“One guy said to me: I feel sorry for Barack Obama,” said Daniel Serwer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, in Washington. “I think there’s a feeling that throughout the Arab world, or at least in the friendlier parts, that they want to see the U.S. playing a stronger role, and they’re not happy to see a weakened president.”

On many international challenges — the chaos in Syria and the broadening reach of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), tensions between Ukraine and Russiaand the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — Obama is expected to do less, not more.

On one front, however, the election results may bring some real consequences, says Matt Kroenig, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The administration faces a deadline later this month for a final agreement with Tehran over a nuclear accord, but significant disagreements between the two sides still remain.

Republicans in Congress "have threatened to pass sanctions if negotiations broke down or Iran was caught cheating on the interim agreement, but the administration lobbied hard not to bring it to a vote,” said Kroenig. “It’s much less likely this time that the administration’s concerns will stand in the way. They might go even further now that it’s been a year since the interim agreement.” 

The White House and Tehran, said Kroenig, have been able to work around opposition on Capitol Hill, and a new Republican stamp in the Senate may provide an added incentive to move forward on the negotiations.

They may decide “it’s better to negotiate now before the [November 24] deadline, before the Senate comes to power,” said Kroenig. “They have an opportunity to wrap this up before the end of the year.”

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "expected to launch a major effort to incite Congress against any deal at all with Iran,” reported Haaretz, while warning that the Israeli premier might be “forgetting that when it comes to foreign policy, the ability of Congress to restrict the president is nearly zero. It is equally possible that, particularly after a Republican election victory, Obama will feel he has nothing to lose.”

Elsewhere around the world, others speculated about how a Republican-led Congress would affect them.

The Moscow Times voiced fear that the GOP would move to pass sanctions against U.S businesses operating in Russia. China Daily, meanwhile, focused on Obama’s visit to Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC] summit next week. In light of Tuesday’s midterm results, the paper questioned how those meetings might seek to improve relations between the two governments.

The president may have some help from a Republican Congress in one area, argues Serwer: trade. Washington is hammering out two major trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with Asian partners, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), with European countries.

“Those are probably favored by this outcome,” said Serwer. “I won’t be surprised to see the president turn in that direction and turn towards things … where there are large areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans.”

Stephen Biddle, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said that, for the most part, Congressional gridlock will continue. But the president has always had more latitude in terms of foreign policy, according to Biddle, and that will remain the case for the remaining two years of his presidency. 

Congress may stall the confirmations of any new Obama administration appointments, he said, which “is going to make it even harder for the executive branch agencies to have a real influence over policy.”

“A strong argument can be made that historically this has been a very centralized administration when it comes to ISIL or Ukraine or any major foreign policy issue,” said Biddle. “This administration has tended to make decisions within a small circle rather than relying on the State and Defense Departments."

Any opposition the administration might face from Congress during the confirmation process, said Biddle, would only centralize that decision-making process even more.

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