Dr Maleeha Lodhi
The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.
When the economy is in trouble, voters exact their revenge on those in power. This is what happened in America's midterm Congressional elections in which the Republican Party seized control of the House of Representatives and reduced the Democrats' majority in the Senate to a sliver.
A humbled President Barack Obama acknowledged that public frustration with the slow pace of recovery produced the drubbing at the polls. With one in ten people out of a job, the electoral outcome was inevitably determined by the anaemic state of the economy.
The Republicans saw their tidal victory as empowering them to roll back Obama's policies – especially on healthcare – while the president cast the vote as disillusionment with the pace, and not the substance, of his agenda. This clashing interpretation of the mandate presaged a bitter confrontation ahead between the Republicans and the White House.
It would be a mistake to read the setback for President Obama as an irreversible weakening of his position that dooms his chances for re-election in 2012. President Bill Clinton faced a similar challenge at the mid-point of his first term when the Republican electoral onslaught in 1994 handed the party control of both chambers of Congress. But he used the gridlock caused by the opposition to win voters to his side and make a comeback that secured him another term.
Of course, a significant difference between then and now is that Clinton's resurrection came on the back of a thriving economy, while Obama has much to do before a febrile economy turns around.
Nevertheless, he has an opportunity to reset his presidency and fashion a mid-course correction that includes explaining his policies better and reconnect with the American people who, polls suggest, find his leadership aloof and detached. That he got little credit for preventing a deeper recession has much to do with his administration's inability to effectively project its measures.
His political fortunes will also depend on how the Republicans wield their newly won Congressional authority. If they engage in obstructive and hyper-partisan politics, as former House speaker Newt Gingrich did in the Clinton years, rather than cooperate in governing, this could help Obama plot a comeback.
President Obama isn't the only one under pressure. The Republican leadership has to respond to pressure from the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement. A challenge that will preoccupy the Republican establishment is managing this populist movement that reflects voter anger but has no positive agenda other than an anti-taxation and anti-government spending platform.
What about the impact of the Congressional elections on the conduct of US foreign policy? Will the transformed political landscape constrain Obama's freedom to manoeuvre? Can divided government in Washington make foreign policy less predictable?
The election was entirely about domestic issues. The outcome therefore has a much greater bearing on domestic public policy than on foreign affairs.
Moreover, foreign policy is primarily an executive prerogative. Congress has a voice when its implementation relates, say, to war spending, foreign aid or treaty ratification. It can also call hearings and generate pressure by shifting emphasis and setting different priorities. The opposition can ensure tougher Congressional oversight of spending overseas, including on war. But the president formulates foreign policy.
There is bipartisan consensus on major foreign policy issues which limits the impact that electoral and political shifts have on America's foreign relations.
This does not mean that election outcomes have no implications for foreign policy. These can be indirect and fuel uncertainty about its conduct.
One consequence could be less focus on foreign relations as President Obama concentrates on the pressing task of improving both the economy and his chances to win another term. But usually when presidents find themselves blocked at home, they look to the world stage to play global statesman.
President Obama could well pay more attention to foreign relations if he saw this as a promising avenue to show leadership and make a difference. President Clinton, for example, turned to Middle East diplomacy when he found himself stymied at home.
A degree of uncertainty has already been engendered about certain areas of US foreign policy, including, importantly, Afghanistan. This comes at a pivotal moment for the fate of America's Afghan mission with two key timelines looming: the December review of strategy and the July 2011 deadline for American troops to start pulling out from Afghanistan.
Preparations for the review are already underway in the US administration, as are consultations with key allies. The question is whether new complications have been injected into this process by the Republican surge. Given the in-house divisions over policy – laid bare in Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars – will the shift in the balance of power in Washington affect the course and conclusion of this review?
It is much too early to say. But among the imponderables that will now be in play is a House Republican majority whose members have been critical in the past of the July 2011 timetable. They can be expected to support the stance of the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen David Petraeus, who apparently wants more time for the military surge to work. He has recently been offering rather upbeat assessments of the war to position himself for the review.
Sen John McCain recently warned Obama against a hasty exit. A Republican Congressman tipped to be the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee sharply criticised the July 2011 deadline, even as another top member indicated that his party will not try to amend that date.
On the other hand, as many moderate Democrats lost the election, President Obama will have to contend with the more liberal party members who want a quicker drawdown and a speedier end to a war that is increasingly unpopular with the public.
President Obama will have to respond to these conflicting pressures as he also struggles to reconcile the polarised positions of his civilian national security team that evidently wants to start transitioning to a political strategy, and the military which wants time to step up operations to improve its bargaining position for eventual talks with the insurgents.
Just when a shift was beginning in the administration's attitude towards considering negotiations to find a political end to the war, hawkish Republicans can put the president on the defensive and be a brake on efforts in this direction.
It will need a more resolute and determined president than Obama has been to stand his ground in the face of potentially hard-line views from hawks in the opposition. It is to be seen whether the midterm outcome makes him more cautious in determining the Afghan endgame, or more decisive. His heart does not seem to be in the war. But can he demonstrate the political courage to switch course at a time when the Republicans will be looking for every opportunity to assail him?
If in Washington's changed political terrain the review yields a compromise that delays shifting the focus from military escalation to a strategy of political accommodation, this would set back prospects for a negotiated and an early end to the war – to the discomfort of many of America's allies. Any prolonged pursuit of the Petraeus-directed military surge would jeopardise, if not compromise, the chances of a political solution that Washington acknowledges will be needed to bring the Afghan conflict to a close.
The Obama administration knows that continuing an unwinnable war that costs America $100 billion a year is unsustainable, especially in such dire economic times. It must also know that there are inevitable tradeoffs between fixing the economy and waging wars that have already cost America over a trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before he embarked on his Asian tour, President Obama wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he linked his foreign policy to his country's economic recovery. Rebuilding the economy, he said, meant finding markets and exporting more. Ending wars that have contributed to his country's huge deficit must surely be a priority in this effort.