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Election Day Matters Overseas

CBS News reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News. He now covers the State Department.



No matter which candidates win today, the results from this year's midterm elections will have an effect on foreign policy considerations in the remaining two years of the Bush presidency.

While voters across the country may be happy that Election Day has finally come because it brings an end to the barrage of political advertising, foreign leaders and their policy advisors will follow the outcome for their own purposes.

If President Bush's policies are vindicated, as seen by the Republican Party holding onto control of Congress, then friend and foe alike will know the Bush administration will close out their remaining two years in office from a position of strength.

On the other hand, if Democrats win either the House of Representatives or the Senate — or both — Mr. Bush will be weakened and foreign leaders will take note.

In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice drew a distinction between politics and policy. "… Don't try and look at our politics to see where our policies are going," she said. "… we're a big democracy and we're going to have these debates, but that U.S. policy is U.S. policy."

That sounds good in principle but in practice the calculus of foreign leaders everywhere will be to see weakness if the Democrats prevail and they'll act accordingly. Mr. Bush is already a lame duck. If it's a bad night for Republicans on Tuesday, his diminished political clout could lead to more difficult challenges on a host of pending foreign policy issues.

While North Korea has already agreed to come back to the negotiating table, no date has been set and Pyongyang — under threat of U.N. sanctions — has not yet made any concession except for agreeing to return to talks.

Iran is still fighting against the imposition of international sanctions from the U.N., although it has clearly defied the international community by its refusal to suspend its nuclear weapons programs. The leadership in Tehran appears to have successfully split the Russians and Chinese away from Washington and its European partners on the issue of sanctions.

At the very least, any action has been put off until after the elections. Again, how Mr. Bush and his political allies fare will dictate how his policies are viewed in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran.

Presidents Asad in Syria and Mubarak in Egypt will be watching to see whether Washington still has the clout to push its policies of democratization on the Middle East. Ditto for the ruling regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, who is due to be at the White House next week, is watching to see if his biggest ally will be in a position of strength or weakness for the next two years.

Americans obviously have the biggest stake on the election's outcome but it is of no less interest abroad. Although Mr. Bush is not on the ballot himself, polling has indicated his handling of the war in Iraq is the biggest issue for American voters this fall.

While there are other issues of importance in individual races — immigration, taxes, stem cell research — this year may prove the exception to one of the basic rules of elections. For many voters the notion that "all politics is local" may take a backseat this time around to the larger national interest.
By Charles Wolfson

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