Democrats’ House victory means more scrutiny of Trump’s Mideast policies

While not bringing about dramatic change, Democratic control of the House of Representatives is likely to cause Trump problems in pursuing his Middle East policies.
Sunday 11/11/2018
A view from the US Senate side shows the US Capitol dome (L) in Washington.  (Reuters)
New balance. A view from the US Senate side shows the US Capitol dome (L) in Washington. (Reuters)

Although the outcome of the US midterm elections was mixed, with Republicans retaining control of the US Senate and the Democrats taking over the House of Representatives, the latter result is likely to lead to more questioning and perhaps some blocking of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East policies.

Human rights concerns in the Middle East will likely become more prominent in Congress. Take, for example, US aid to Egypt. Although some Republicans, such as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have been critics of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s crackdowns on dissent, most criticism of Egypt has come from Democrats.

Republicans have generally given Egyptian authorities a good deal of leeway because of their antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Although many recent detainees in Egypt have been dissidents of secular-liberal backgrounds, many Republicans in Congress, particularly in the House, have evinced sympathy for Sisi in what they see as his campaign to hold the line against Islamists of various stripes.

With Democrats soon in control of committees in the House, especially key ones such as Foreign Affairs and Appropriations, they are likely to join their Democratic colleagues in the Senate. Because of rules peculiar to the Senate, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has been successful in tying some portion of US military assistance to Egypt to human rights considerations.

Therefore, it is probable that Congress will not only voice more criticism of Sisi’s government but will also cut a portion of the US aid to Egypt and will not buckle to the Trump administration’s request to include a national security waiver to restrictive legislation.

Congress is likely to be tougher on the US role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. There is House legislation in the works to invoke the War Powers Resolution. It has at least 50 co-sponsors, including members of the Democratic leadership and the next likely chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel of New York.

The resolution states that Congress never authorised US support for the Saudi-led coalition and directs Trump to withdraw US troops from “hostilities” against the Houthis. Engel has said that, while he was concerned about Iran’s support for the Houthis, “three years into the civil war in Yemen, the parties to the conflict seem no closer to a political solution… Children continue to die from explosives, disease and malnutrition.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion several months ago that the Saudi-led coalition was taking meaningful steps to end civilian casualties in Yemen was met with derision from Democrats in Congress as well as those running for congressional seats.

Part of the Democrats’ opposition to the war in Yemen has been due to increased criticism of Saudi Arabia following the Khashoggi affair. A poll conducted shortly before the midterm elections indicated that 74% of Democrat-leaning voters said the United States should reduce its ties with Riyadh if it is determined that the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was ordered by Saudi leaders, compared with 38% of Republican-leaning voters.

On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the trend is that Democratic voters have increasingly evinced more sympathy for the Palestinians than have Republicans. Polls by the University of Maryland revealed that Democrat support for an independent Palestinian state rose from 39% to 51% from 2015-16 and almost two-thirds of Democratic respondents said they oppose Israeli settlement construction, compared with less than one-fifth of Republicans. Also, 69% of Democrats asked said the United States should lean towards neither side in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and pursue a more even-handed policy.

Progressive members of the Democratic Party, such as newly elected Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have criticised Israel for its “occupation of Palestine,” a term that has drawn the ire of pro-Israeli groups. Although such progressives are a minority in the party, they are becoming more numerous and a force to contend with that the Democratic leadership cannot ignore.

This does not mean that congressional support for Israel in the form of military assistance will be reduced because Israel retains strong support from Republicans and most Democrats but there is likely to be pushback to Trump’s uncritical support for Israel from more Democratic members of Congress, especially if he unveils a “Deal of the Century” peace plan that is rumoured to be counter to Palestinian national aspirations.

While not bringing about dramatic change, Democratic control of the House of Representatives is likely to cause Trump problems in pursuing his Middle East policies.