Washington The Republican gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections say a lot about how the American public wants the government to rule here at home, but very little about what it should do abroad.
Unresolved wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking their toll in American lives and capital, nuclear tensions are simmering with North Korea and Iran. But voters weren’t asked to either approve or reject President Barack Obama’s view of the United States’ role in global affairs.
It wasn’t on the ballot.
“I can’t think of an instance in recent times in which foreign policy was less prominent,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
The president, meanwhile, was in India on Saturday, opening a 10-day Asia trip to promote U.S. policy and commerce and to meet with foreign leaders.
Terror strikes from abroad are the clear and present danger, as shown by the discovery of two package bombs headed to the U.S. from Yemen. But across the country, candidates offered little of substance on how the U.S. should respond to those threats.
There was little discussion during the campaign of a landmark arms control deal with Russia, which the Senate must ratify to take effect. Nor was there serious debate about the wisdom of withdrawing remaining U.S. forces from Iraq or starting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next July.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, said “foreign policy hardly mattered” in the campaign and election.
“The principal reason,” he said in an interview, is that “most Americans are preoccupied with their economic circumstances. People voted on the basis of butter, not guns.”
Haass said a major crisis might restore the prominence of foreign policy in national affairs, but it would have to be “something big and bad,” such as a war with Iran or the collapse of Afghanistan or North Korea.
The Senate is considering a treaty with Russia to reduce stockpiles of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear weapons, the first major arms control deal in years between the world’s two leading nuclear powers.
The treaty still needs to be ratified by the Senate, where Republicans have balked at supporting it.
Now with the Democrats’ Senate majority eroded, the treaty’s fate is in question. But it never became a major issue in the campaign.
It wasn’t always like this. President Lyndon Johnson’s pursuit of the war in Vietnam turned the public against him and he ultimately decided not to run for re-election.
Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center said that unlike Johnson, Obama is perceived as trying to end the conflicts he inherited.
“It can change if the president becomes risk-ready rather than risk-averse,” Miller said, though the Republicans will be looking for stumbles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.