WASHINGTON -- Foreign policy was so irrelevant in the midterm election that the first sentence of this column -- unwisely beginning with the words "foreign policy" -- is likely to weed out many readers looking for juicier bits of election reaction.
But invisible things such as oxygen, God and foreign affairs can still be consequential. And last week's election will have the scariest kind of influence on America's role in the world: massive and unclear.
Any president facing gridlock on domestic policy is propelled toward the international stage, where the spotlight shines on him alone. Every new House Republican committee chairman will be the ruler of a budget kingdom. Only one American at a time is commander in chief. And the coming debates on budget cuts and repeal of health care reform may make the Middle East conflict appear solvable in comparison.
But this method of establishing relevance is unlikely to work. It is the cherished myth of the diplomat that global challenges exist because they lack attention. Actually, most international problems exist because of internal dynamics that have little to do with a failure of American focus. Palestinian leaders are divided -- unable to deliver on the agreements they are too weak to make in the first place. Israelis feel relatively safe behind security walls, uninclined toward risky compromise and concerned mainly about Iran. An increasingly militarized Iranian regime sees a strategic advantage in both dangling the prospect of talks and relentlessly expanding its nuclear capabilities.
There is one area where presidential attention is decisive -- the threat and use of military force. But once a threat is made -- say, against Iran -- it is the enemy that determines the course of the confrontation, through compliance or defiance. When a president threatens force, he also loses control. And Barack Obama seems to be a man who values control.
The president's daily conduct of foreign policy will also be complicated by the Republican wave. Precisely because there is no clear tea party foreign policy ideology -- Sen.-elect Rand Paul's isolationist tendencies could hardly be more different from Sen. Jim DeMint's internationalism -- the enthusiasms of individual congressional leaders will play a large role. Obama's softening approach toward Cuba is unlikely to survive the elevation of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, particularly since Ros-Lehtinen once expressed her openness to Fidel Castro's assassination. Most Republicans will to defer to Sen. Jon Kyl's judgments on the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia. If the Russian conflict with Georgia flares, Sen. John McCain, a strong critic of Russian conduct, will have the lead.
Even without a developed tea party foreign policy, the center of gravity on Capitol Hill is likely to shift in a Jacksonian direction. Historian Walter Russell Mead describes this potent, populist foreign policy tradition as "an instinct rather than an ideology." Today's Jacksonians believe in a strong military, assertively employed to defend American interests. They are skeptical of international law and international institutions, which are viewed as threats to American sovereignty and freedom of action. Jacksonians are generally dismissive of idealistic global objectives, such as a world free from nuclear weapons. Instead, they are heavily armed realists, convinced that America operates in an irredeemably hostile world. In particular, according to Mead, Jacksonians believe in wars that end with the unconditional surrender of an enemy, instead of "multilateral, limited warfare or peacekeeping operations."
The Jacksonian ascendancy on Capitol Hill is likely to mean resistance to foreign assistance spending as well as undermining engagement with the United Nations. Who was foolish enough to schedule, immediately after the midterm election, a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in which Cuba, Iran and Venezuela scrutinized America's human rights record? Even without such provocations, Jacksonians will urge more forceful policies against Cuba, Iran and Venezuela -- along with Russia and China.
But the largest test case will be Afghanistan. Here Obama faces a rare challenge. His base of support for the Afghan War lies mainly in the opposing party, making Republican attitudes toward the war decisive. As Obama's July 2011 deadline for beginning the withdrawal of American troops approaches, any hint of civilian-military divisions on strategy could dramatically erode Republican support. Jacksonians like to win wars. But if Obama appears reluctant, they could easily turn against a war the president does not seem determined to win.
No one cares about foreign policy -- until a foreign policy crisis overwhelms every other issue. Or until a drifting, demasted foreign policy begins to offend the Jacksonian pride of the nation.