Exit polls from last week’s midterm elections challenged the conventional “it’s the economy, stupid” wisdom, as the number of voters who said the economy was the most important issue fell to just four in 10. The dark horse issue of the 2014 election was foreign policy.
Our experience campaigning on the ground in a battleground state reflected this reality. We were in Arkansas last week helping with get-out-the-vote efforts for Republican candidates. Foreign policy doesn’t usually make its way into campaign speeches, but this year’s midterm election cycle was different. At a rally the day before the election, Senate candidate Tom Cotton discussed international threats—ISIS and Iran—and the need for a strong national defense to combat these threats. And on election night, Congressman-elect French Hill talked about the need for American leadership in the world during his acceptance speech.
Candidates were talking about foreign policy issues because 2014 saw crises emerge in nearly every region of the world – and in poll after poll we saw the issues skyrocket to the top of voters’ priority lists in the weeks leading up to the elections. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from October ranked national security as the third most important issue to voters. Exit polls last week showed foreign policy was on voters’ minds on Election Day too, staying at third on their priority lists, behind only the economy and health care and tied with immigration. Nearly 3 in 4 Americans said they were worried about a terrorist attack on U.S. soil – the highest number since the post-9/11 elections.
Republicans in Arkansas and around the country benefitted from the increased emphasis on national security issues this election cycle. Exit poll data indicated that a majority of voters who said foreign policy was the most important issue voted for Republican candidates. Now that Republicans will have majorities on both sides of Capitol Hill in January, the question remains what if anything they will do to steer the direction of foreign policy.
When it comes down to it, the president makes U.S. foreign policy. Aside from some advice and consent from the Senate and budgets for aid and defense programs initiated in the House, America’s international affairs are in the hands of the executive branch. But there are things that Congress can do to shape foreign policy.
As Americans demonstrated when they went to the polls last week, the world is becoming an even more dangerous place. The proliferation of nuclear weapons, the return of great power rivalry, and the resurgence of terrorist networks have emerged as the greatest threats to American security. As these threats continue to grow, Congress has a role to play on all three:
The Obama administration has been negotiating with Iran over its illicit nuclear program since 2012. Thus far in the negotiations, the administration has given billions in sanctions relief to Iran, and Iran has yet to dismantle a single centrifuge. Recent reports revealed that American negotiators would allow Iran to keep centrifuges in place if they were to disconnect them—a move that is easily reversible. Concessions like this indicate that the administration is trying to achieve a deal at almost any cost. It is essential that Congress stands firm that no deal is better than a bad deal.
First, Congress should describe what it believes to be an acceptable final nuclear agreement with Iran and insist upon approval of any final agreement with Tehran. Congress should also approve sanctions-in-waiting should Tehran violate its commitments under the current interim deal. Under pressure from the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has not allowed a vote on Senator Menendez’s Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act, a bill that would provide a “diplomatic insurance policy” for negotiations with Iran. The Republican Senate should move to swiftly approve these sanctions-in-waiting if negotiations are extended. Iran is worried about the Republican majority in Congress—as they well should be.
Congress should also push the administration to develop a strategy on Iran for the rest of its nefarious activity. Despite Rouhani’s promise of reform, Iran is still a gross violator of human rights. The Iranians have also worked to keep Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power—sending in Quds Force and Hezbollah fighters to target not only ISIS but also moderate opposition forces fighting Assad.
Congress can take several steps to reassure European allies and send a harsh message to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Providing Ukraine’s military with much-needed weapons and other supplies would be a strong first step. Both the House and Senate currently have introduced bills to provide Ukraine with lethal assistance, the Ukraine Security Assistance Act in the House and the Ukraine Freedom Support Act in the Senate. Newly-elected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already vowed to bring this legislation to the Senate floor rapidly. Congress should press the administration to ensure that sanctions on Russia’s energy, mining, defense, and engineering sectors are strictly enforced.
The House and Senate should work together to quickly approve pending Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) export applications to allow the United States to export LNG to its allies. Congressman Cory Gardner’s legislation, the Domestic Prosperity and Global Freedom Act, passed the House earlier this year. In the Senate, he should continue to lead on this issue. Passage of this legislation would send a strong message that the United States will not let Russia use energy as a weapon to punish those who stand for democracy in Eastern Europe, and would benefit the American economy.
In September, Congress voted to authorize a train and equip program for moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. However, this train and equip program has yet to be implemented, and the current Congress must reauthorize the program when it expires on December 11. President Obama said in a speech last week that he would ask for Congressional approval on the war on ISIS in the final months of the 113th Congress. While the current Congress will debate the new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the next Congress should exercise vigorous oversight to ensure that the president’s strategy and tactics match up.
As few members of Congress are optimistic about the president’s current plan to counter ISIS, the new Congress should work to outline alternatives. With both chambers of Congress under Republican control, the new Congress can offer a more comprehensive plan to counter ISIS. Most importantly, the new Congress must keep an ear to the ground in this quickly shifting conflict and prod the president when his strategy doesn’t match the situation.
There are currently two major limiting factors to a robust and responsible U.S. response to the threats and challenges we face in the world: a lack of American leadership and the declining defense budget. Here too, the new Republican majority can help.
The 114th Congress should begin to reinvest in our national defense. It should start to rebuild our nation’s military, reversing the $1 trillion in devastating sequestration budget cuts and addressing shortfalls in military resources. To deter Iran, Russia, terrorist networks, and other potential aggressors, the United States must have the military it needs to stand up for our allies and against our enemies. An exciting crop of defense-savvy Republicans won seats last week, such as veterans Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst, former think tanker Elise Stefanik, and former CIA officer Will Hurd. Congress will certainly benefit from their experience and expertise.
Finally, the new Republican members of Congress should actively lead on foreign policy issues, keeping national security as a central focus. Given how foreign policy quickly rose to the top of voters’ priority lists this year, it’s no surprise that Republican candidates campaigned on the issue—it’s just smart politics. But the real test will be what kind of leadership Republicans offer once they’re in office—and if they can turn smart politics into good policy.