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Analysis: New Congress to affect overseas ties

Analysis: New Congress to affect overseas ties

The Republicans' huge victory in congressional elections could crimp President Barack Obama's hopes of resetting relations with Russia and open the way for a new get-tough approach with China.
The shake-up in the congressional power structure after Tuesday's vote also could bring better backing for Obama's policies in Afghanistan but force the president to ease his demands that Israel make concessions to the Palestinians on settlement building in the West Bank, a crucial issue in stalled peace talks.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said the election results will not change the U.S. course abroad because "politics stops" at the nation's borders. Republicans and Democrats, she said, can "build coalitions" and "find allies on issues that are in America's interests."
Despite her words, the dramatic shift in the American political scene is bound to have a considerable effect both in fact and tone.
A stronger Republican voice in Congress may push the president to slow his plans to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July and badger him to be even tougher on Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program.
While the U.S. entanglement with Iran has been prominent, simmering conflicts with China probably are most open to quick U.S. action with Republicans holding a majority in the House of Representatives and more seats in the Senate.
Republicans traditionally take a tougher line on trade issues and imbalances and those clearly are central to relations with Beijing.
China is in the doghouse not only with the United States, but with many of its global trading partners over Beijing's routine deflation of the value of its currency. That practice makes Chinese goods cheaper abroad and inflates the price of imported goods in China.
That is partly to blame for the outsized U.S. trade deficit with the Chinese and an easy target for politicians in Washington who are frustrated by their inability to reinvigorate the American economy.
It now is more likely that Washington will impose some kind of trade penalties on Beijing for manipulating its currency.
More Republicans in office could help Obama on trade deals.
Many of Obama's Democrats are suspicious of an accord with South Korea to slash trade barriers on industrial goods and services, which has languished since it was signed in 2007 by George W. Bush's Republican administration.
The opponents in Congress want Seoul to do more to deal with its surplus in auto trade and allow more access to American beef.
Obama now backs the deal as a way to improve American exports and strengthen ties with an important U.S. ally and has directed his trade officials to settle differences before the Group of 20 economic summit Nov. 11-12 in Seoul.
Obama's foreign policy could take a battering over his effort to improve relations with Russia. Many conservatives have not shed their Cold War distrust of Moscow, making it even more difficult for the administration to win Senate ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April.
While Republicans did not seize a majority in the Senate, they strengthened their position in the upper chamber that must ratify the treaty with 67 affirmative votes.
That may be unattainable in the next Congress, but the interim lame duck session that begins Nov. 15 offers a chance for ratification. That session will include senators who have lost their seats Nov. 2 and may be less politically motivated.
The Russians have made it clear that Obama's vow to improve relations, while theoretically beneficial to both countries, hangs on his ability to win ratification of the New START treaty. The pact calls for big reductions in nuclear weapons.
Even though Washington is engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those expensive and bloody ventures have drawn little attention this election year. While Democrats are losing patience with the Afghanistan conflict, now in its 10th year, Obama probably will find backing for his war policies from Republicans and pressure to limit or put off plans to begin withdrawing in July. Republicans normally take a more aggressive line on issues of war and peace.
The Iraq war, barring an outbreak of extreme violence, has faded from the American consciousness as the last combat forces left in this year and all troops are scheduled to be gone by the end of next year.
In the Middle East, strong Republican gains probably will cost Obama some maneuvering room in his sponsorship of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The president has put considerable pressure on the Israelis particularly to stop their West Bank and Jerusalem settlement building projects.
Even so, Obama may find that his dealings with Iran and its suspected nuclear weapons program gain ground from the improbable and quiet convergence of national interests that Arabs and Israel share concerning Iran.
Israel feels directly threatened by Iran, whose leaders have said the Jewish state should be eliminated. Arabs are deeply concerned that a nuclear-armed Iran would upend the balance of power in the Middle East.
The intersection of those worries could create greater pliability on both sides and grease the negotiating process with the Palestinians, who rely heavily on fellow Arabs for backing.
On the global environment, the election campaign already has hurt Obama's chances of passing legislation that would curb climate-warming emissions. In a sign of the legislation's unpopularity, candidates from both parties railed against proposed legislation as antibusiness at a time of high unemployment and slow economic growth.
With poor prospects for U.S. legislation on reducing emissions, it is unlikely that Obama can lobby effectively for a global pact that would bind the countries to limits on greenhouse gasses. The issue has become a political loser domestically.
Interestingly, Obama is leaving the country this week on a much-delayed tour of Asia, which will give him a chance to put himself back on the world's radar after a long and bitter political season at home. With the American economy still the prime concern of U.S. voters and the presidential election now just two years away, however, Obama is unlikely to be able to retreat to a focus on foreign affairs.
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Steven R. Hurst has covered foreign affairs for 30 years.