By Bridget Johnson - 11/07/10 09:00 PM EST
President Obama began his term with promises of hitting diplomatic reset buttons, increasing nuclear security and repairing relations with the Muslim world.
Nearly two years and one Nobel Peace Prize later, awarded just months into his term not for achieving concrete foreign policy goals but for "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," the president finds himself with crumbling Mideast peace talks, a looming drawdown deadline on the heels of his surge strategy in Afghanistan, a START treaty with Russia that might get nuked in Congress and relations with nuclear-fueled Iran as strained and toxic as ever.
"Foreign policy will be a much bigger issue in 2012, whatever Obama does," former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, who served under President George W. Bush, told The Hill. "The lack of attention to gathering threats is going to come back to haunt him."
Obama declared Thursday that one of his top priorities is ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Sixty-seven votes are needed in the Senate, and the White House was reportedly scrambling last week to have a vote on the treaty during the lame-duck session as opposed to when there are six more Republicans in the upper chamber.
One incoming senator, Rand Paul of Kentucky, panned the treaty Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "I think we need to have more discussion on it, but it doesn't sound like I'm probably going to be in favor of that," Paul said.
"I think there will be an effort to delay or derail it, get certain requirements attached to it," former NATO Ambassador Robert Hunter, who served under President Clinton, told The Hill.
Russian media seized on the future of the treaty Wednesday, following Democrats' drubbing in the midterms; Pravda declared START "trapped in the claws of U.S. 'hawks.'"
Bolton predicted START could be one of the most immediate and visible ways in which the new environment of the Congress collides with Obama's overall direction of foreign policy, which he's not expected to change.
Bolton also sees impact as the chairmanships of key committees with subpoena powers change hands, but he said "the biggest difference may come in the budget area." Foreign aid could be defunded, as could foreign policy initiatives.
"The House will have the capacity to stymie requests for money in the [Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review]," Hunter said. "That is going to be more difficult."
Likewise, new congressional leaders could heap on the pressure in terms of U.S. involvement at the U.N. To the chagrin of many in Congress, Obama decided the U.S. would join the Human Rights Council, which boasts members with tarnished rights records such as Libya, China and Cuba.
On Friday, the likely incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), called for the U.S. to leave the council.
"The U.S. should walk out of this rogues’ gallery and seek to build alternative forums that will actually focus on abuses and deny membership to abusers," she said in a statement.
Hunter, now a senior adviser at RAND Corp., predicted the new Congress will also sound "more vocal support for continuing a deep engagement in Afghanistan."
"That is not something the Congress can really affect; the president has a lot of latitude there," Hunter said, but it could make "building support for a coherent strategy more difficult."
A more Republican House will also put more pressure on the administration to ratchet up its efforts against a nuclear Iran, and Hunter predicted "more concern that Israel's interests and preference not be compromised by the United States."
Whereas many congressional Democrats are expected to align with Republicans in pressing for harsher sanctions against Iran, Bolton expects the current Iran policy to have "zero" impact on the Islamic Republic's budding nuclear program.
"I don't think stronger Iran sanctions by the U.S. are really going to affect Iranian behavior," Bolton said.
And as if Democrats didn't take enough of a beating on Tuesday, Iran's Judiciary chief on Saturday tried to use midterm election results as the latest smack at the White House.
"Democrats lost 70 seats in the U.S. congressional elections as a result of Obama's wrong policies," said Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, according to official media in Iran. "It was an apparent defeat; we hope they learn a lesson from it."
Bolton said he hopes Obama concentrates on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism threats moving forward, but noted that broader questions of relations with China and Russia still linger.
"I just don't think he even gets to them," Bolton predicted. "His reset button with Russia is just about broken at this point."
On the China front, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed in the next few weeks to take up a currency manipulation bill passed by the House before the campaign recess, though some analysts predict agreements by the G-20 to steer clear of currency devaluations for trade advantage will likely keep the bill from coming up in the lame-duck session.
As Congress gets into the post-election session, Obama goes to Lisbon, Portugal, on Nov. 19-20 for the NATO summit, which is expected to focus on the way forward in Afghanistan and looming security challenges, and the U.S.-European Union summit on Nov. 20, which will tackle everything from economic issues to missile defense against Iran.
And though Obama's trip this weekend to Asia was planned long before election returns came in, both ambassadors agreed it gave a president facing gridlock on domestic issues time to get away and dip his toes into international issues.
"Presidents prefer getting wined and dined abroad rather than having to deal with Capitol Hill," Hunter said. "It's endemic to the office."