03/17/2009 - 09:11

Congress and President Obama's national security agenda

John Isaacs

John Isaacs

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A key bellwether vote in the new Congress came on February 13 when only three Senate Republicans broke ranks from their party and voted with Democrats for President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill.

If support from three Senate Republicans seems sparse, try comparing it to the House of Representatives, where not a single Republican voted in favor of the stimulus. This opening salvo was followed by subsequent unified Republican opposition to an expansion of health care for children, an employment discrimination measure, and a housing foreclosure bill.

These votes, which brought unity to a Republican Party badly dispirited after consecutive election losses, signaled the GOP's direction for the next two years--nearly unanimous opposition to Obama administration proposals. It's a strategy similar to one Republicans used in 1994, when congressional Democratic majorities were swept away by a Republican landslide despite President Bill Clinton's victory only two years before. If past is predicate, the GOP is hoping that 2010 will be 1994 all over again.

If Republicans continue to rally around "no," there will be important implications for national security issues in the next two years. As I see it, there are three broad groups of executive-legislative national security topics: (1) extremely challenging issues for the Obama administration that will require a two-thirds Senate vote for approval; (2) merely "tough problems" where Congress has the power of the purse and can complicate and occasionally reverse administration decisions; and (3) topics about which Congress will do little more than grumble.

Extremely challenging issues

Republican unity in opposition could seriously impact treaties sent to the Senate for advice and consent. In order to gather the constitutionally required 67 votes needed for approval, Senate Democrats will need to secure 8-10 GOP votes. This barrier is tremendous, especially when you consider the difficulty Democrats had in obtaining just three "yes" votes for the stimulus package.

It probably will prove most burdensome when attempting to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). And unfortunately, one of the engineers of the CTBT's ignominious defeat in 1999 is even more of a major player in the Senate today--Arizona Republican Sen. John Kyl, the assistant minority leader. Kyl and Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee, have made it clear that their opposition to the CTBT hasn't lessened over the past decade. To win approval, the Obama administration will have to cut some sort of deal with the Senate Republican leadership. Another option: CTBT ratification could be delayed until more favorable conditions emerge if Democrats win even larger Senate majorities in 2010.

An agreement between the United States and Russia to reduce the number of their nuclear weapons--a follow-on to the landmark 1991 Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START)--also could face obstacles. At a recent meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, both countries pledged to complete work on a new agreement by December 2009, at which time START expires. At her March 6 press conference with Lavrov, Clinton announced: "We intend to have an agreement by the end of the year. This is at the highest priority to our governments."

But again, there remains the constitutional barrier of 67 Senate votes. While the usual suspects such as Kyl and Sessions haven't made their views known, many other Republicans, including key figures in the nuclear establishment, have spoken publicly in favor of reducing stockpiles. This includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, and former secretaries of defense James Schlesinger and Frank Carlucci. Still, given the amount of Republican cooperation that is needed to achieve the winning number of votes in the Senate, a treaty further reducing the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles isn't a slam dunk.

Merely "tough problems"

Two Obama administration proposals that could face difficulties in Congress include negotiations with Iran and reducing missile defense funding. The Obama team is preparing a new opening to Tehran and already has invited Iran to participate in a conference to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan. The White House also has been skeptical about deploying a new missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic until it proves workable and cost-effective.

In contrast, during the last eight years, Congress was almost as reflexively anti-Iran as former President George W. Bush. Lawmakers repeatedly tried to enact tougher sanctions against Tehran. And ever since President Ronald Reagan promised in 1983 to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" through a "Star Wars" missile defense system, Republicans have been fervent advocates of anti-ballistic missiles. Combine a hard-line stance toward Iran with staunch support for missile defense and you'll find a Republican Party fundamentally opposed to President Obama's plans.

Republicans' strongly held views on Iran and missile defense came to a head after a March New York Times article reported that Obama wrote a secret letter to Russia's president offering to back off missile defense deployment in Europe if the Russians would help stem Iran's nuclear ambitions. Already unhappy over reports that the Obama administration's budget for the upcoming fiscal year would cut roughly $2 billion from missile defense programs, Republicans went ballistic (pun intended) over the secret offer to Russia. More than 35 GOP House members immediately fired off a letter to Obama warning, "It is unwise and premature to offer such a concession" and suggesting that the Russians are abysmal partners for such a deal. They further argued that the policy "does not adequately recognize the threat posed by Iran" and undermines the proposed European anti-missile deployment.

While Congress cannot force the administration to deploy a missile defense in Europe over executive branch opposition, it can cause mischief both for any new opening to Iran by promoting new sanctions and by trying to increase spending on missile defense.

Nothing more than a grumble

While treaties may require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, other Obama initiatives are less susceptible to congressional influence. U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan are two examples. Members of Congress may oppose Obama on these policies, but ultimately they're in no position to block them.

On February 27, Obama announced the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by August 2010. An overwhelming 80 percent of the U.S. public supported this timeline according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Lawmakers from both parties also were broadly supportive. Most Democrats accepted the decision as bringing a sad chapter in U.S. history to a close. Even McCain, who during the presidential campaign bitterly criticized Obama's "cut and run" strategy, endorsed the policy. So did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner.

But broad support for the withdrawal timeline didn't carry over to Obama's strategy (or lack thereof) for potentially leaving up to 50,000 residual U.S. forces in Iraq beyond the August 2010 deadline. Democrats from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on down suggested that they were wary of leaving so many troops in Iraq for an extended period of time. Numerous anti-war organizations also urged the Obama administration to completely remove all U.S. forces from Iraq as promptly and responsibly as possible.

As for U.S. policy in Afghanistan, many lawmakers have expressed concern about Obama's February decision to send an additional 17,000 troops to help stabilize the country. For many, the Afghanistan morass brings disturbing echoes of the Vietnam War. House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, a powerful opponent of the Iraq War, declared he was "uncomfortable" with the Afghanistan decision. And a number of anti-war politicians in both parties circulated a letter opposing the new Afghanistan deployments.

Yet on matters of war and peace, Congress tends to grumble, hold hearings, and pass resolutions, but rarely finds the votes needed to overturn presidential decisions. This general impotence means there is little reason to expect that Congress will make any meaningful changes to Obama's Iraq and Afghanistan policies.

Despite facing a determined, but small, GOP opposition, President Obama has moved--and will continue to move--full-speed ahead with a number of dramatic changes in U.S. policy. In the process he already has kicked over the Republican hornet's nest. The question in the months ahead will be whether Republicans will merely buzz around angrily in opposition or in some cases actually block decisions.