Saturday, November 23, 2013

'Kerry will have to carry the major burden of foreign policy, on a tight leash from White House'

'The hemorrhage to President Obama's political standing as a result of the troubled healthcare reform launch is showing few signs of being staunched. Added to this, the already rancorous relationship between the two political parties on Capitol Hill took a further turn for the worse following the adoption of new majority voting rules in the Senate that will ease this and future Administration's ability to obtain the judicial and executive appointments it wants. As a result, what minimal residue of good will that existed between the parties has evaporated. The spillover on domestic policy will, in the words of a White House political adviser to whom we spoke, be “ugly.” Foreign policy will not be spared. On any issue on which cooperation with the Senate is required – relief on Iran sanctions, the draft post-2014 security pact with Afghanistan, major trade agreements like the Transpacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment, and others – Republicans will be intent on making life difficult for the Administration. Without a Congressional grant of trade promotion authority, commercial deals become very difficult to finalize. Traditionally, when the going gets tough on the home front, US presidents have turned to opportunities overseas where they are less constrained politically. We do not sense that Obama will follow this path. White House contacts tell us that, while Obama would respond to any international crises with the necessary engagement, his main focus will be to fix health care – where his legacy is invested – and to reform immigration where he believes he can wrong foot the Republicans. Consequently, Secretary of State Kerry will have to carry the major burden of foreign policy, albeit on a tight leash from White House officials unwilling to allow him to take any steps that might endanger Obama's domestic agenda. Further, Obama's engagement will be episodic and crisis-driven. This means that the scope for bold foreign policy breakthroughs is very limited. Foreign observers of US foreign policy should expect no more than incremental changes. We have mentioned above some of the short-term challenges faced by the Administration that will now become more difficult, but for the longer-term the most important implication may be on relations with China. If a strong counterbalance from the Administration is absent – a not unlikely scenario – the the existing dynamics – for example, those represented by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission – in military, cyber, and trade circles calling for a less accommodating approach may turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.'

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