This past Tuesday was a rough election for many people, including supporters of a more peaceful foreign policy. While we know that there will be many more proponents of the war in Afghanistan and increased military spending in Congress, there are still a lot of questions about what specific challenges we face, and what opportunities will arise that we can take advantage of to move our agenda.
While people have all kinds of views about what this election means for foreign policy, there is a reasonable idea that the administration could turn greater attention to foreign policy because they will face such gridlock in the Republican-controlled House and a Senate with a smaller (and non-filibuster-proof) majority. The Democratic caucus is smaller, but now skews much more progressive, with the Congressional Progressive Caucus likely to make up more than 40% of sitting Democrats in the House. In the face of recalcitrant leadership, these Democrats may be more emboldened to speak out in favor of peace. This will depend, however, on how we take advantage of the leverage points we have on some of our top priority issues.
The Republicans’ use of the bully pulpit on the Afghanistan issue is not likely to be pretty. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is already calling for a “fresh look” at our nearly ten-year-old war in Afghanistan, which likely means calling for greater investment in a stale, failing strategy. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), incoming chair of the Armed Services Committee, has already stated that making sure troops have the time they need in Afghanistan will be a top priority for his committee. These Republicans could team up with military leadership who oppose starting a real withdrawal to hammer the administration on the plan to start withdrawing in July. They could also stage votes designed to make Democrats looks bad (the foreign policy version of Viagra for sex offenders), like forcing them to vote against the “I love the troops and mom and apple pie and hate Al Qaeda” legislation.
The major leverage point we can exploit next year is the extreme dissatisfaction with the war amongst Democrats. Recent polls have shown that only 20% of Democrats support the war in Afghanistan, and there is unlikely to be positive news that will convince them that the continuing cost in lives and dollars is worthwhile. According to Bob Woodward, President Obama has already said that he can’t afford to lose his base over the war, so we must work with our allies in Congress to link his electoral prospects and those of the Democratic Party with galvanizing the base through actions to end the war in Afghanistan.
Our immediate priority is to get a New START vote in the lame duck session of the Senate, which is scheduled to reconvene on November 15th. While time will be short, the administration and Senate leadership have already reiterated that ratification is a top priority for the lame duck session. A passing vote on what should be an uncontroversial treaty is certainly possible in the new Senate as the treaty has widespread bipartisan support, but waiting to get new senators up to speed means even more time without critical verification measure in place—measures that have been absent for 334 days since the first START Treaty expired.
Getting other things through the House and Senate could obviously be more challenging, which is why this would be a good opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate his commitment to a nuclear weapons free world by taking steps that don’t need congressional approval. There are a number of things that would put the US further on the road toward disarmament, from taking weapons off of hair-trigger alert to negotiating deeper reductions with Russia, that President Obama can undertake on his own.
Another of our major challenges in 2011 will be to push back against the administration’s misguided attempt to appease Republicans with exorbitant amounts of nuclear pork. The administration is projecting spending $80 billion over the next ten years on the nuclear weapons complex and $100 billion on updating delivery vehicles—money that will ramp up the US’s capacity for building new nuclear weapons despite this administration’s commitment to refrain from doing so. The conversation about the deficit and the need to cut wasteful spending could help us in this challenging fight to deprive nuclear hawks like Jon Kyl (R-AZ) of this unnecessary funding.
Overall, Congress has been no real friend to proponents of peaceful relations with Iran. While many members have clearly drawn the line at military confrontation, only eight representatives and ZERO senators voted against broad unilateral sanctions that are creating hardship for regular Iranians and resentment against the US’s approach. We may see a ramping up, especially since likely House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) will have “get tough on Iran” at the top of her to-do list.
Despite that, many people think that the Obama administration will be largely free to pursue its current course of negotiations if it can begin to show results. Their best bet for results will be to adjust their approach and engage in good faith negotiations and not repeat their routine of rebuffing Iran and then chastising them for failure to cooperate (with reciprocal cooperation from Iran). Of course, if the David Broders and John Boltons of the world, and their slightly saner counterparts, keep beating the drums for war, we will be ready to push back against what the administration hopefully understands would be a disastrous mistake.
To see some balance in our foreign and domestic priorities, we will need to engage in discussions about the military and foreign affairs budgets. Buck McKeon seems to think he and others were swept into power with a mandate to increase the military budget, despite a complete lack of evidence. However, the deficit commission will be coming out with recommendations later this year, and any serious conversation about cuts must include the Pentagon’s budget, which accounts for more than half of the discretionary budget. The Sustainable Defense Task Force has already identified $960 billion in cuts over the next ten years that would have no negative effects on American security. It will be time for us to see if the deficit hawks are all talk.
On the other side, the Obama administration has stated a commitment to elevating diplomacy and defense as key pillars of US foreign policy. This investment in nonmilitary tools for global engagement is critical if we want other avenues for addressing problems other than military force (not to mention that the military is now engaged in development work it shouldn’t be doing because of a lack of civilian capacity). However, this funding offers an attractive target for members of Congress who want to make cuts, despite the fact that diplomacy and development funding make up a measly 1% of the budget. Because Congress will go after money they don’t think has a domestic constituency, our challenge is to help create one. Most Americans support spending money on foreign aid, they just have misinformed ideas about how much we are all spending (they generally think 10% of the budget is a good number). Kay Granger (R-TX), who wants to take over the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Committee, is skeptical about the funding, so we must organize and point people elsewhere if they want to make cuts.
While this election is no cause for celebration, we also need not despair. As someone who started working at Peace Action West soon after the beginning of the war in Iraq, I have seen the amazing things we can accomplish up against difficult odds. It requires being smart, politically savvy, committed, understanding the political landscape, and having the backing of active supporters like you who make our work possible.