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Don't Expect Big Foreign Policy Shifts

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., delivers a foreign policy speech on the campus of DePaul University in Chicago, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007.
AP
Charles Wolfson is CBS News' State Department Reporter.

A tidal wave may have washed across the political landscape of America but it does not follow that big changes in the Obama administration's foreign policy are on the horizon. Voters were upset because of the economy, not because of President Barack Obama's policies on the Middle East or North Korea.

Jobs-or the lack of them-mattered in the voting booth; Iran's nuclear ambitions did not.

Having a Republican controlled House of Representatives may make the White House's task a bit more difficult here and there on its foreign policy efforts but not to any significant degree.

The election results will not change Mr. Obama's plan to begin pulling American troops out of Afghanistan next July nor should they affect the ongoing drawdown in Iraq. The billions of dollars in American aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan may be in for closer scrutiny by the new House GOP leadership and committee chairpersons but big aid packages still are likely to be passed.

Iran has not shown much interest in this administration's willingness to engage diplomatically and if any progress is made on that front it will be done along with our European allies in the so-called P-5+1 group. Even when the leadership in Tehran says it is willing to talk the result is often just another stalling tactic.

The effort to accelerate the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks picked up a little steam with a push from Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in early September but, after only two months, it has stalled over Israel's settlement policies. House Republicans generally lean more towards a pro-Israel position but on this issue it is not up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the presumptive Speaker, Rep. John Boehner, to make progress.

Palestinians are considering the possibility of self-declaring an independent state of Palestine and asking the United Nations to approve. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will visit the U.S. next week and he'll meet with Vice President Joseph Biden in New Orleans where both are speaking at the same convention. Where this initiative goes is very much
up in the air as all parties reassess their positions.

China's policies on its currency's valuation and its current spat with rival Japan over control of several small islands are real and serious problems but they are not anywhere near the top of the list of differences between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

One place where the Obama administration may have to trim its policy ambitions is Cuba. Despite several small steps taken under Mr. Obama to expand and open up the U.S.-Cuba relationship there has been no serious effort to end the trade embargo as long as a Castro regime is still in power. Now, with Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen likely to become head of the House International Relations Committee the possibility of further openness is diminished at least for the short term.

With many assuming Washington will be in political gridlock for the next two years it has been suggested Mr. Obama may turn to his foreign policy agenda to look for ways to move ahead with success. It is not a new idea and may be a strategy the White House will attempt. Mr. Obama, in fact, leaves for a long-scheduled trip to Asian later this week.

But, as the President has already learned in his first two years in office, dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians, the Iranians and the Iraqis, and the Russians and Chinese is not exactly a path without its own peril. Even if the administration achieves a big foreign policy victory or two that alone will not solve the problem at the core of this week's shattering political defeat. Mr. Obama needs to fix the economy and put out of work Americans back on a payroll before his own political future begins to brighten.