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How will Republicans influence policy on Islamic State, Iran sanctions?

November 5, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
In the months before midterm elections, Republicans were highly critical of President Obama policies on the Islamic State, Iran sanctions and other challenges. How will the change in Congress affect U.S. policy abroad? Gwen Ifill gets analysis from chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner.

GWEN IFILL: One recurring theme in speeches, debates and campaign ads this election season, how the White House has tackled foreign policy from ISIS to Iran to Ebola. But was that just political talk or could last night’s results affect U.S. foreign policy and the way we are perceived abroad?

For that, we turn to chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner.

Margaret, one of the first things the president mentioned today in his news conference, and which other people have mentioned too in ads and everything, is this question about ISIS and ISIL and whether the U.S. can be pressured to be more about that.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Gwen, the Republicans were very critical of President Obama for not funding the so-called moderate Free Syrian Army earlier, so they could build a credible fighting force and the extremists couldn’t come in and fill the vacuum.


MARGARET WARNER: So, when the president finally ordered bombing attacks both in Iraq and Syria, the Republicans were supportive. At the same time, they didn’t want to vote, nobody wanted to vote before the election. So you really didn’t have a debate here.

As you said, the president’s said today that’s one of the top items on his agenda on Friday. He wants a new sort of updated authorization of military force, because the current law really applies to al-Qaida and its allies. But there’s a new sticking point, which is that Senator John McCain is expected to be chairman of the House Armed Services — Senate Armed Services Committees.

He’s arguing — and many others — that this bombing-only campaign isn’t enough, that you got to get U.S. special forces on the ground, you have got to get field advisers with the Iraqi and Kurdish troops. And you can expect that he will use his platform, as chairman of that committee, to hold some high-profile hearings really questioning the effectiveness of this bombing-only campaign.

GWEN IFILL: OK, second area, hot spot, Iran, where there’s been long ongoing discussion about sanctions and that coming to a head as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely, November 24.

Secretary Kerry and his Iranian counterpart have been working for nearly a year now. November 24 is the deadline to come up with a deal that would restrict Iran’s nuclear program, persuade the world it wasn’t going to get weapons, in return for lifting sanctions.

Now, during this lame-duck session, the Republicans and many hawkish Democrats have wanted to pass already a bill that has sort of a triggered sanctions mechanism, sort of saying to Iran if you don’t get serious and do a deal by X-date, Y will happen.

Harry Reid, the majority leader, held off because the White House said that will completely blow everything up with the hard-liners back in Iran. OK, I think that Secretary Kerry and even Republicans say he’s got still this two-month window during the lame-duck. They don’t expect Harry Reid to flip on that.

But Senator McConnell said over and over he’s going to hold such a vote. And so, Secretary Kerry, the negotiations aren’t done yet. He’s meeting with Zarif this week, later this week or weekend.

GWEN IFILL: The Iranian foreign minister.

MARGARET WARNER: The Iranian foreign minister.

But he’s got a little wiggle room for two months, but otherwise he’s going to face a Republican Congress that’s more hawkish, more suspicious and also more sensitive to Israel’s opposition to any deal.

GWEN IFILL: While in Ukraine, this Congress is also more hawkish when it comes to Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

What you have among the Russians is really I think a Cold War kind of distrust the Russians and of Putin, what he’s up to in Ukraine and where it could lead. And they have argued over and over, one, that the Obama administration should have given lethal aid, lethal military assistance to the Kiev government, not just MREs and night-vision goggles, and, secondly, that should have imposed much tougher sanctions on Russia than these targeted on individuals and subsectors.

I think, come January, if the Kiev government continues to request it, there will be a push to give them so-called lethal assistance and, secondly, that there will be a real push to impose sanctions on Russia. If Russia — Russian troops and its separatists stay in Eastern Ukraine, as they are now, there will be a real push~ to impose tough sanctions, sector-wide, that do not wait for Europeans to coordinate, as the president has.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly, are there any areas of agreement? The president mentioned — or I should say Mitch McConnell today mentioned international trade agreements.

MARGARET WARNER: And so did President Obama indirectly.

Yes, the president and the Republican leadership share the goal of actually concluding this Trans-Pacific Partnership.

GWEN IFILL: And the president is off…

MARGARET WARNER: And the president is off to Asia to look at that. And I think you may see some cooperation on that.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, as always, thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, as always.