The World from The Hill: Five key foreign policy issues to watch in the new year

Unresolved issues and new challenges face President Obama on the foreign policy front in 2011, including a new Republican House with lawmakers raring to confront what they see as failing policies.

Republicans can’t do much to change Obama’s direction on foreign policy, but they do hold the purse strings to fund the administration’s operations. Fresh off their midterm rout of Democrats, Republicans have expressed their intentions to use that capability.

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Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), none too popular with rogue and leftist regimes  — Fidel Castro has called her a "ferocious she-wolf," while North Korea calls her "human scum"), takes the gavel at the Foreign Affairs Committee from Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

The Foreign Affairs subcommittees are also expected to take on a greater, more prominent role in a GOP House.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), one of Congress's most vocal human-rights advocates, will lead the subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights; Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a stern critic of China and staunch illegal immigration opponent, takes the gavel at Oversight and Investigations; Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who has long been critical of the administration's handling of North Korea, will lead the subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade; and Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), reviled by the same Latin American leftist regimes that detest Ros-Lehtinen, will helm the Western Hemisphere panel.

Less will change on the Senate side, where Democrats' majority will be reduced by six.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and ranking Republican Dick Lugar (D-Ind.), a centrist who is in the sights of many conservatives come 2012, worked hand-in-hand on a number of high-profile issues in the last Congress, including a multibillion-dollar aid package to Pakistan and shepherding the START nuclear arms treaty with Russia to ratification.

Here are five key issues expected to be before lawmakers and the White House in 2011:

Iran

As Obama prepares for a reelection battle, Iran remains the great unresolved foreign policy concern of his term.

The White House’s diplomatic efforts to urge Tehran to abandon its nuclear efforts led to a fresh round of sanctions through the United Nations Security Council in June, but only after the sanctions were watered down enough that veto-wielding members Russia and China would participate. Meanwhile, Iran has loaded its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant with fuel and it's expected to become operational soon.

Tehran has scoffed at the effectiveness of sanctions, and The New York Times revealed at the end of December that the Treasury Department had approved some 10,000 exceptions to sanctions over the past decade, allowing companies such as Kraft to keep exporting items like chewing gum and hot sauce into the Islamic Republic under humanitarian aid provisions.

In 2010, some of the most unlikely teams in Congress joined hands to put pressure on the administration to get tough on Iran as it barrels toward its suspected goal of nuclear weapons capability.

Reps. Jesse Jackson (D-Ill.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) spearheaded an April letter to the president signed by hundreds of lawmakers that called on Obama to “fulfill your June 2008 pledge that you would do ‘everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,’ ” to “rapidly” implement the sanctions legislation when it comes out of conference and use whatever presidential powers at his means to impose “punishing measures” on Tehran.

With the GOP leading the House, these bipartisan efforts are expected to intensify. Ros-Lehtinen has also vowed to put Iran at “No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3” on the Foreign Affairs Committee's to-do list in 2011.

Oversight

The greatest immediate impact on foreign policy from having Republicans rule the House will likely be in oversight, as the new Foreign Affairs chairwoman promises hearings on how foreign policy dollars are being spent.

“The executive branch believes that foreign affairs is their prerogative,” Ros-Lehtinen told The Hill in December. “And they resent intrusion of the legislative arm into what they consider their ball of wax. Well, we control the purse strings in the House and in the Senate so we should have a lot to say about the implementation.”

Efforts will go beyond arm-twisting the president’s agenda to extending the GOP's Pledge to America cost-cutting promises throughout foreign affairs, and even trimming the committee’s budget itself.

What could be on the chopping block? Everything from foreign aid and the State Department to agencies such as USAID. One area “ripe with fraud and waste and abuse” that Ros-Lehtinen said she would like to tackle is the United Nations's Human Rights Council, which boasts Cuba and Libya as members, as well as general U.N. funding. Obama put the U.S. back on the council despite objections from many lawmakers.

Russia

Stressing the importance of “reset” relations with Moscow, Obama and Democrats staged a frenzied 11th-hour push in the lame-duck session to secure ratification of the New START nuclear arms treaty that Obama had signed with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April. Russia's lower house of parliament — the State Duma — gave tentative approval to the treaty, but it signaled full ratification wouldn't take place until mid-January “at the earliest.” Russian lawmakers signaled apprehension toward two amendments passed by the Senate, on missile defense and a requirement to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and are now proposing their own.

“We don't have the right to leave their interpretations unanswered,” Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee, said on Christmas Eve. “Otherwise, it may give additional advantages to our American partners — or, possibly, opponents. We need to balance those advantages.”

Medvedev said afterward that he hoped the treaty battle hadn’t soured Americans on a “reset” relationship with Russia. But the treaty's prominence in the news cycle, fueled by concerns on Capitol Hill over START's language, ignited fresh suspicion in many minds about the intentions of the Kremlin, which continues its alliance with Iran and arms sales to Venezuela.

In addition, the Helsinki Commission, the birthplace of much foreign policy legislation, is expected to get even tougher on Russia over concerns about the country's deteriorating human rights and press freedom.

Smith will take over as chairman, while Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) will become co-chairman. Cardin, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as co-sponsor, introduced the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act of 2010 just before the midterm campaign recess. The legislation calls for the State Department to revoke visas and slap financial sanctions on those individuals involved in a whistleblower's death behind bars until Russia has thoroughly investigated the incident and “brought the Russian criminal justice system into compliance with international legal standards.”

Moscow should be none too pleased with the legislative pressure as criticism that Russia is backsliding to the Soviet era grows in Congress.

North Korea

Here comes the son, and with that a whole new dimension of saber-rattling.

Ailing dictator Kim Jong-il’s youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, was made the equivalent of a four-star general in September, just months after North Korea sunk the South Korean ship Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 sailors. In November, a Security Council report was released detailing brazen North Korean activities intended to circumvent multilateral sanctions and assist regimes including Iran in its nuclear program, raising fresh alarm on Capitol Hill. On Nov. 23, the North fired a barrage of artillery rounds at South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, killing four and ratcheting up tensions on the peninsula to a level not seen in decades.

Many experts expect the North to stage more nuclear tests or attacks in an effort to establish credibility for the young Kim. And many lawmakers are prepared.

Legislative efforts to put pressure on the regime — and on the White House — are expected to find new life in the Republican House. For example, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, introduced the Protect the Homeland from North Korean and Iranian Ballistic Missiles Act after North Korea's May 2009 nuclear test. The bill was never given a hearing under Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

In line with his support for “absolutely draconian sanctions,” Franks said he will “consider” introducing a bill in the 112th Congress that would apply to North Korea but would use the Iran sanctions in his Peace Through Strength Act of 2009 as a model. “Time will tell what will happen here in another couple of months,” Franks told The Hill in November.

Sudan

One of the sharpest yet perhaps least expected foreign policy crises of the new year could crop up just days into 2011.

Southern Sudan is holding a secession referendum on Jan. 9 as part of a 2005 peace agreement to stem bloody civil war between the Muslim north and Christian south. A fear on Capitol Hill is that the referendum could send the country spiraling back into conflict that could affect the entire region.

Sudan Caucus co-chairmen Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Obama at the beginning of December asking that he send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former Sen. John Danforth to Sudan “as soon as possible” to let leaders there know that the U.S. “will not tolerate anything less” than full implementation and respect of the peace agreement.

The quartet spearheaded a bipartisan letter to Clinton in April expressing concern about Sudan's first national election in nearly 25 years, as well as continuing violence against refugees from the Darfur genocide.

That was followed Sept. 23 by a letter to Obama that included Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) among the signatories, encouraging “the Administration to take additional steps to define its strategy on Sudan, including delineating benchmarks, timelines, and commitments to support both the South and Abyei referenda and post referenda scenarios.”

McCaul, who told The Hill in October that the administration is providing “a lot of carrots but really no sticks,” warned of reprisal from the North if the vote doesn't go its way. Obstacles to dividing the nation include the allocation of resources from the oil-rich South.

“You could have a Darfur-type situation happening all over again with genocide,” McCaul stressed.

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