The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Time to govern

The midterm election handed control of Congress to the party whose traditional strength is national security. In developing its foreign policy agenda, the incoming Republican majority will face an American public newly focused on an array of international challenges, ranging from ISIS in Iraq and Syria to Russians in Ukraine and the spread of Ebola.  But Americans’ new focus on international affairs also represents an opportunity for the new Senate and House. 

Despite the limitations of divided government, Congress can employ legislation, the power of the purse, the nominations process and the bully pulpit to press a foreign policy agenda.  Leaders in both parties may shy from such activism: some Democrats will want to stymie Congressional action in order to campaign in 2016 against a “do nothing” legislature; some Republicans will wish to focus on the national security shortcomings of a Democratic president rather than seek ways to improve matters. But to allow such sentiments to trump active Congressional leadership on foreign policy would be a mistake.  Now is the time to take major steps to put the country on the right international footing.  

Here is what an ambitious and realistic Congressional foreign policy agenda should include: 

Reverse sequestration and embrace defense reform. Already, reduced funding levels and restrictions on how defense leaders can make required cuts have damaged the military’s readiness and ability to make long-term investments. Current law would re-impose sequestration in fiscal year 2016 – an outcome that the bipartisan National Defense Panel warned would result in serious further harm to our nation’s military strength and preparedness. The new Republican majority should push to lift sequester and give Pentagon leaders greater flexibility in spending choices. 

Part of this effort will require addressing unsustainable military compensation programs and basing infrastructure and embracing new efforts – like the Pentagon’s new “offset strategy” – that aim to maintain America’s military preeminence. At the same time, in light of a resurgent Russia and increasingly assertive China, the new Congressional majority should take the lead in exploring new options for access and basing of U.S. forces in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, as well urging greater attention to the aging U.S. nuclear weapons force. 

Pass Trade Promotion Authority and then the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP, which the United States is negotiating with 11 Asia-Pacific countries, would foster trade with the world’s most economically dynamic region and promote economic growth at home, while demonstrating American strategic leadership in the region. The first Congressional step toward TPP is to pass trade promotion authority, which Senate Democrats declined to do before the election.  The new majority should work with the President and Senate Democrats to pass both. 

Push for a more effective fight against ISIS. There exists a mismatch between the current U.S. goal – destroy ISIS – and the strategy and resources employed to achieve it.

No combat boots on the ground in Iraq and 5,000 Syrian rebels to be trained over the next year will be little match for a 30,000-strong ISIS army.  While the President as commander in chief will retain the lion’s share of policymaking authority, Congressional Republicans should press the United States and its allies first to contain ISIS and then to roll back its gains.  This will likely require more robust air strikes, the use of special operations and other tailored ground forces, and an expanded and accelerated effort to arm and train local forces in both Iraq and Syria. 

Push for a residual force to remain in Afghanistan post-2016. The United States should not allow its gains to Afghanistan to dissipate after the formal withdrawal of major combat forces in 2016. Developments in Iraq since the departure of U.S. forces there demonstrate all too vividly the downsides of a complete exit based on the calendar rather than conditions.  Congress should urge abandoning the current date-certain withdrawal timeline and favor a residual force in Afghanistan that can, among other tasks, keep pressure on transnational terrorist elements. 

Strengthen the American hand in Iran negotiations. Should the P5+1 and Iran fail to reach a satisfactory nuclear agreement in the near term, the United States should move to constrain Iranian options and avoid endless negotiations. Republicans, working with key Democrats who have already supported robust sanctions on Iran, should pass legislation that specifies a date certain – perhaps six months after passage – on which additional sanctions on Iraq would automatically take effect.  

In January, as the committee chairs shift and a raft of new senators and representatives is seated, members of the new Republican majority will face a challenging world, a politically weakened president, a concerned public, and an opportunity to shape foreign policy.  They should seize it. 

Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security, a national security think tank, where Colby is the Robert M. Gates Fellow. This article reflects their personal views.


Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More Foreign Policy News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video