The Republican victory in the 2014 midterms is less than 24 hours old. But already, the hawkish wing of the GOP is planning an ambitious battle plan to revamp American foreign policy: everything from arming Ukraine’s military to reviewing the ISIS war to investigating the U.S. intelligence community’s role in warming relations with Iran.
In an interview Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he has already discussed a new national-security agenda with fellow Republicans Bob Corker and Richard Burr, the likely incoming chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“Burr and Corker and I will be working closely together on everything,” McCain said. “For example, arms for Ukraine’s [government], examination of our strategy in the Middle East, our assets with regard to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in the region, China’s continued encroachment in the South China Sea.”
You could call it the neoconservatives’ revenge or the year of the hawks. But it has produced an interesting moment in Washington, where even the dovish side of the Republican Party now acknowledges the midterms were a win for their party’s American exceptionalists.
As Ron Paul, the isolationist father of Sen. Rand Paul, tweeted Tuesday evening: “Republican control of the Senate = expanded neocon wars in Syria and Iraq. Boots on the ground are coming!” William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, was in rare agreement with the elder Paul. “I think Ron Paul told the truth,” Kristol told The Daily Beast. “And the truth is that his son had a bad election season and the Republicans who were elected are various species of hawks and not Rand Paul-like doves.”
Those hawks include some new faces in the Senate like Tom Cotton, the Republican from Arkansas whose campaign was boosted in its final month with ad buys from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel.
Other hawks like McCain have been around for years, but are now back in control of the powerful committees that exercise oversight of the Executive Branch’s foreign policy and war fighting.
McCain said his first order of business as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee will be to end the budget rule known as sequestration, which requires the U.S. military to cut its budget across the board. “I want to start an examination of our policies in the world and then find out whether we have the capability to meet these expectations,” McCain said. McCain also said he would use his chairmanship to root out overspending at the Pentagon, but he emphasized his desire to reverse sequestration.
Another major issue for the new Republicans will be a potential Iran deal. President Obama was circumspect Wednesday at a press conference on the current nuclear negotiations between Iran and six major powers that are set to expire in November.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican likely to replace Rep. Mike Rogers as the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast Wednesday that he would like to begin digging into the administration’s Iran talks—in particular, the role played in those talks by the U.S. intelligence community.
“There is going to be real scrutiny from the House and Senate in what’s taken place on the entire Obama administration’s tenure dealing with the Iranians,” Nunes said. Nunes said he was interested in following up on why U.S. intelligence officials who briefed his committee did not acknowledge their role in negotiations with Iran when asked by the committee’s chairman, Mike Rogers, earlier this year.
Nunes would not get much more specific. The Republicans will not likely choose committee chairmen in the House until next week. But the interest of Nunes, who is currently a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, in the role of U.S. spies in Iran talks is significant.
For years the CIA and the State Department have relied on interlocutors as channels to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2007, 2008, and 2009, the U.S. intelligence community participated in talks led by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad with representatives of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force and the man reported to be helping lead Iraq’s ground campaign against ISIS.
To date, much of the details of the diplomacy and even the interim deal between Iran and the West are shrouded in secrecy. Before November 2013, when the current talks were announced, the State Department and the White House kept from the press the private discussions with Iranian counterparts taking place in Oman.
Gary Samore, who served as the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction in Obama’s first term, said the Oman discussions were kept quiet at the request of the Iranians. “We were happy to have this be an open meeting,” he said. “Meaning that it would be public knowledge that it would take place. The Iranians insisted on secrecy, for them the sensitivity about meeting bilaterally with Americans is very acute.”
If Nunes pushes further on the details and extent of the Iran talks as chairman of the House intelligence panel, he will be taking a very different tack from some of his colleagues.
Republicans and Democrats this year tried to pass new sanctions on Iran aimed at taking effect after talks expire if Iran does not dismantle its nuclear program. The White House was able to kill the sanctions bill this year and persuade key Senate Democrats like Sen. Robert Menendez, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to hold off on pushing for a vote.
Recent reports say the United States would be willing to allow Iran to keep thousands of its centrifuges in place, if the machines were disconnected and incapable of producing a cascade of enriched nuclear fuel.
Nunes said he thinks the deal being contemplated could lead to disaster.
“Shouldn’t the Congress be concerned about the Iranians getting a nuclear weapon,” he said. “They are going to be close to getting a nuclear weapon because of this deal, this should matter to the American people.”
McCain said he, Corker, and Burr are also interested in pursuing more vigorous oversight of the Iran deal as well. “The Iranians are helping [Syrian dictator] Bashar Assad,” McCain added. “They are the ones that got the 5,000 Hezbollah guys into the fight [against Syria’s rebels], they are gaining more and more influence in Baghdad. And we somehow believe we make a nuclear deal with them and that will lead to other areas of cooperation.”
One silver lining for Obama may be on the issue of a new congressional authorization for war against ISIS. Earlier this year, when Obama began bombing targets in Syria, his administration said the legal authority for the new war stemmed from the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that specifically targeted the people, groups, and states responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Many legal scholars found the rationale for the war specious because while ISIS was at one point a franchise of al Qaeda, it has for nearly a year been in open warfare with al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.
On Wednesday Obama said he would ask Congress to vote on the new war against ISIS during the lame-duck session of Congress that starts in December.
“I think it’s time for an AUMF, I do,” McCain said. “The one passed after 9/11 specifically talks about the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and ISIS has exceeded that definition.”