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The last few weeks have offered some hints of what we can expect in terms of foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular as Washington's new, post-election reality settles into place.

That new reality has three elements to it: A Democratic president moving into re-election mode, a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and a Senate in which Democrats are still in control but with a reduced majority.

Let's start with the Senate. The upper chamber's chronic dysfunction has emerged over the last year as one of the most talked-about issues on America's left (Republicans, obviously, view holding up things in the Senate differently… more as a patriotic duty). A super-majority is not actually required to pass laws in the US Senate (treaties excepted — those require a two-thirds vote for ratification).

The Senate is governed, however, by arcane and complex rules that, in recent years, have effectively made this the case.

The Republican leadership's demand for Westminster-style parliamentary discipline among its senators — and their success in achieving it — is something new in American politics and has enabled them to drive the Senate's agenda, despite their minority status. Since the Democrats now need to pick off even more Republicans to get anything done, (and picking off even one or two was often impossible in the last Congress) expect the gridlock, in the near-to-medium term, to get worse.

In the House, however, a majority is a majority. Since a Republican House cannot, by itself, make law we can expect to see it make a lot of high-profile statements: Passing laws it knows the Senate won't touch but which make the Republican base feel good and President Barack Obama and the Democrats squirm uncomfortably.

Good faith

And what of the President himself? He is, at the moment, torn. Republicans say their election triumphs are proof that Obama must move towards the centre. Obama's liberal base, meanwhile, fervently believes that moving to the centre to accommodate Republicans who refuse to negotiate in good faith is what got him into his present predicament in the first place.

Obama himself has been at pains to point out that the compromises he has made have enabled him to enact more sweeping social legislation in two years than any president since Lyndon Johnson.

In some ways that is the problem. Democrats are unhappy with many of Obama's legislative victories because of the compromises that were necessary to win. Republicans are angry because however watered-down those victories may have been they were still, in the end, Obama victories.

As Obama moves into re-election mode the inevitable conflicts with his foes in Congress will become more numerous, more fraught and, ultimately, harder to solve. One can debate whether the first sin in Obama's relationship with the Republicans was that he offered no real compromise and never sincerely sought their input (the GOP version) or that he failed for far too long to realise that they were bent on his destruction from Day One (the Democratic version).

What is undeniable is that — regardless of topic — with each day that brings us closer to Election Day 2012 the Republicans will have less incentive to compromise and, by doing so, grant Obama any victory, no matter how small.

All of which leaves those of us who care especially about foreign policy, and about the Middle East… where?

The real tests are likely to come concerning Iran and Israel — issues that, for many Americans, are linked. Congressional Republicans are hardly alone in believing Iran to be an eminent threat to both the US and Israel. The difference is that when the Democrats were in charge critical voices within Obama's party could, sometimes, be persuaded to mute themselves in the interest of party solidarity. The Republicans, obviously, have no such incentive.

It would be simplistic to say all of the incoming Republican Freshmen are cut from the George W. Bush ‘America-should-throw-its-weight-around-because-it-can' school of thought, but the early indications, frankly, are not good.

Thus, the already great pressure on the White House for military action in Iran will increase.

Coupled with this will be increased pressure — again, from both newly empowered Republicans and from newly unfettered Democrats — to see the Middle East the way Israel wants it seen.


This attitude tends to manifest itself especially in the claim that America should put no pressure on Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians because to do so distracts everyone from the Iranian threat that looms just over the horizon. Expect to hear a lot more rhetoric along these lines.

The closer we get to 2012, the harder it will be for Obama to ignore talk of this sort.

Making sensible policy in the face of such arguments has long been difficult in Washington. Starting in January, it is going to get a lot harder.


Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator who has covered the Middle East for ABC News, CNN and Fox since the 1980s. He teaches Middle East Politics at the University of Vermont and has taught Islamic History at Emerson College.