2012 Elections Analysis


By Morrie Amitay, JINSA Vice Chairman  


There has already been a great deal of concern expressed over President Obama's foreign and security policies in general, including the administration's future relationship with Israel. Given JINSA's unique agenda to strengthen U.S.-Israel strategic ties while supporting a credible U.S. defense posture, there will be a number of pressing issues that will merit close attention in the coming months. Congress will necessarily continue to play an important role in both defense and foreign policy. It is easier to predict the behavior of the new 113th Congress with regard to JINSA's concerns than what the president is likely to do. Like its predecessor, Congress can be expected to support measures and take initiatives designed to promote closer U.S.-Israel defense cooperation, while seeking to avoid the more serious consequences of sequestration.


As it has done in the past, Congress will likely approve funding for joint American and Israeli programs above administration requests. While there will be a large number of changes in the legislators serving on the relevant committees, initiatives to enhance Israel's security should continue to have firm support predicated on the belief that they also serve American national interests. However, as defense spending as a whole will undoubtedly have to absorb cuts, it is unreasonable to believe that Israel will not be somewhat negatively affected.


In the House Armed Services Committee, Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) will continue in his lead role, as will Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA). In the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, the Democratic side will bear some watching with the retirement of Ranking Member Norm Dicks* of Washington and the primary election defeat of Rep. Steve Rothman of New Jersey. But the majority GOP side should remain strongly supportive.


With regard to broader Middle East policies, the current term-limited Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, has been unrivaled in her activist role in promoting pro-Israel policies and initiatives. Either Representatives Ed Royce of California or Chris Smith of New Jersey will replace her. They are both veteran backers of policies supportive of Israel's security. With the defeat of California's Howard Berman and the retirement of Gary Ackerman of New York, the new minority Democratic lineup will most probably be headed by one of two other supportive members, Brad Sherman of California or Eliot Engel of New York.


On the Senate side, with Carl Levin (D-MI) chairing the Armed Services Committee and GOP Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma replacing Arizona's term-limited John McCain*, there should be no change in the Committee's pro-Israel orientation.


The Appropriations Committee, chaired by the iconic Sen. Daniel Inouye* (D-HI), should continue its vital support. And with the reelection of Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and the expected return to action of Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, new sanctions on Iran, and just as importantly stringent administration implementation of current measures, should remain on the front burner. Both of these legislators have been instrumental in promoting Iran sanctions legislation in the Senate by working through the Banking Committee, which is predisposed to be much tougher on Iran than the Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), and former Ranking Member Sen. Dick Lugar.


With Lugar's primary election defeat ending his six terms in the Senate, and with Kerry possibly taking a cabinet position, there could be important changes in the Committee. On the Republican side, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, just re-elected for his second term, is slated to take over the top minority slot. He has an undistinguished, yet positive, record on issues championed by JINSA during his first term, and has to be considered an improvement over Lugar, who invariably adhered to State Department policies. Should Kerry depart, Sen. Barbara Boxer is next in line in seniority. But it is believed that the Senator from California would probably want to retain her chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee. This could make Sen. Menendez chairman, a possibility that is definitely worth watching. What we do know already is that retiring Senators Joe Lieberman* and John Kyl* will be sorely missed.


With regard to the direction of the White House over the next four years, conventional wisdom holds that attention will first have to be paid to America's worsening economic situation and the impending "fiscal cliff" before the pursuit of dramatic foreign policy initiatives. But since the rest of the world won't go away, important decisions will have to be made. How prominent the Middle East will be as President Obama seeks to create his legacy is an open question. Right now, it is not known how much time and energy the president will have or want to devote to foreign policy problems as part of his legacy.


The number one national security problem looming is the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. With President Obama's reluctance to use force and engage our troops in yet another conflict, support for any military action by Israel will surely be lacking. Instead, we can expect a high-priority effort by the White House to work out some kind of accommodation with Tehran. But with the Iranian regime's record of interminable negotiations and cheating, such an approach poses great uncertainties for genuine success. Given Iran's unremitting active hostility to U.S. interests, its widespread support of terrorism, and, of course, its enmity to "the Zionist entity," any deal that could be negotiated must be seen as a leap of faith.


Close by geographically, the White House also has Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to worry about right now. Does this necessarily mean abandonment of plans to pressure Israel into an agreement with the Palestinians? In the short run, most probably yes. Given all the other serious issues President Obama must deal with, and with scant indication that the rifts with the Palestinians can be ended (along with continuing incitement and violence against Israel), one can hope that promoting a sham peace agreement a la Oslo - is not in the White House's legacy playbook.


Further afield, we can anticipate seeing some of the "flexibility" toward Russia that the president promised with regard to arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. Despite the White House's pivot to the Pacific we should expect a very cautious policy toward China given Beijing's holding of an increasing share of American debt. But the larger question here is how realistic is it to be able to pivot away from the pressing problems in the Middle East?


In the foreign policy arena where a president, not facing re-election, can act more independently from the electorate and from Congress, there is always the fear that he can abandon the pursuit of domestic accomplishment to go for a home run in the foreign policy field. Our Israeli friends must hope that they are not part of this calculus.  


Cautious pessimism is perhaps the wisest stance to take in predicting what the next four years will actually mean for America, our allies, and the rest of the world. We certainly do live "in interesting times"!


* recipient of JINSA's Henry M. Jackson Distinguished Service Award