US & Canada

Obama's foreign policy headache after mid-term losses

(From left to right): US President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi
Image caption For now President Barack Obama has certainly chosen to look abroad with a 10-day tour of Asia

Whenever America goes to the polls, the world watches closely for clues about what the results will mean for the rest of us. BBC state department correspondent Kim Ghattas looks at how last week's mid-term election losses may impact on President Barack Obama's foreign policy priorities.

Mr Obama's election two years ago was greeted with jubilation in many countries. The neo-cons were out, multilateralism was back and - depending on where you lived - hopes for "change" were unrealistically high.

Expectations, whether positive or negative, often don't match reality, so some of the dire predictions about the impact these elections will have on President Obama's agenda of engagement, his ability to press allies or deter foes, are probably exaggerated by dejected Democrats or Republicans hoping to stymie the White House's plans.

Writing in the Washington Post, David Broder suggested that Mr Obama could recover from the "shellacking" he got at home by being tough abroad and challenging Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"As tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve," wrote Broder.

The proposition was dismissed by many other analysts as a bad idea, but it underscored a problem Mr Obama may face during this second half of his first term - the perception that he is a weakened president at the helm of a country weakened by economic woes.

In Israel, some reports indicated the poll results were welcomed by the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had a difficult relationship with Mr Obama.

A member of the Mr Netanyahu's party in the Knesset, Danny Danon, said the election had brought an influx of "dozens of strong friends of Israel who will put the brakes on the consistently dubious, sometimes dangerous policies of President Obama regarding Israel these past two years".

In many parts of Arab world, the immediate reaction was concern that Mr Obama would no longer have the power to put pressure on Israel to make the needed sacrifices required to advance peace talks.

'Struggle for privilege'

Somewhere in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, members of al-Qaeda were probably rejoicing because their cause of anti-American militancy is better served by a perception that neo-cons once again shape American foreign policy.

But beyond perception, the reality is that the president of the United States still has the upper hand when it comes to making foreign policy, and tenets of American foreign policy remain mostly constant, though Congress could prove an annoyance.

Edward Corwin, a leading authority on the American constitution from the early 20th Century, often wrote that the constitution was an "invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy". The struggle is between the president, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

"But which of these organs shall have the decisive and final voice in determining the course of the American nation is left for events to resolve," wrote Mr Corwin.

One of the events in this instance is the mid-term elections, and the impact is amplified by the personalities of the newly elected members of Congress and the line-up of Republican heads of committees in the House of Representatives.

Iraq pullout

The Senate ratifies treaties with a two-third majority, so the ratification of the new Start agreement with Russia - opposed by a number of Republicans - may run into trouble; this could undermine one of the Obama administration's main foreign policy achievements - improved relations with Russia.

Image caption Eric Cantor (left), probably the new majority House leader, wants to protect US aid to Israel

The House holds the purse-strings, so funding for foreign aid or development money may face cuts.

Republican members of the House of Representatives can call hearings to challenge the president's policies, especially on issues like Syria or China. And they'll have the majority needed to push legislation, including further sanctions on Iran and North Korea, or to halt the easing of restrictions on Cuba for example.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida may become the new head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

She has suggested cutting US funding for the UN and for the Palestinian Authority. A Cuban-American, she'll also try to stop the administration's plan to ease restrictions on Americans to travel to Cuba.

Texas congresswoman Kay Granger, who may chair the House Appropriations subcommittee for state department and foreign operations, is keen on cutting back on foreign aid.

Eric Cantor, from Virginia, is likely to be the new majority leader in the House, and wants to protect US aid to Israel by separating it from the foreign operations budget.

The new House may also push for a slower pace of withdrawal for the remainder of troops in Iraq.

The administration's plan to start bringing out some troops from Afghanistan next summer may prove contentious.

A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen David Petraeus, knew now that if he could show progress, however minimal, he would get strong support from a Republican House to maintain or augment troop levels, putting enormous pressure on the president.

Asia tour

But Mr Obama is not the first president to see his party lose control over Congress during a mid-term election.

Like others before him, Mr Obama could choose to focus on foreign policy while his opponents at home limit his ability to manoeuvre on domestic issues.

After the 1994 mid-terms, Bill Clinton oversaw a major US military intervention in the Balkans and was heavily involved in the Middle East.

After the 2006 mid-terms, George W Bush went for a surge of troops in Iraq, despite a hostile Democratic Senate and House.

In Washington, in the media and in the world of think-tank analysis, opinions were divided between those, like former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron Miller, advising Mr Obama to "Go small and stay home" and others arguing that he should look for success abroad.

President Obama could go either way, but he'll be mindful of the fact there are no obvious low-hanging fruit in foreign policy.

For now he's certainly chosen to look abroad with a 10 day-tour of Asia, with business and trade topping the agenda - an effort to help the economy back home.