Midterm elections could affect US Mideast policies

Experts said Trump’s weak standing may result in Democrats winning control of the lower chamber for the first time since 2008.
Thursday 18/10/2018
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with House Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) n Capitol Hill in Washington. (Reuters)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with House Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) n Capitol Hill in Washington. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - The November elections for the US Congress could affect America's policies in the Middle East and weaken President Donald Trump's ability to pursue foreign policy initiatives.

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are being contested November 6. Experts said Trump’s weak standing may result in Democrats winning control of the lower chamber for the first time since 2008. If that happens, Democrats could pressure Trump to reduce or even bar arms sales to Saudi Arabia, analysts said.

“I think there’s going to be much more scrutiny of US policy towards Saudi Arabia and Yemen,” said Gregory Aftandilian, a former Middle East analyst for the US State Department and a regular contributor to The Arab Weekly. “I see Congress maybe blocking some arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the fact that so many Yemeni civilians are being killed with American munitions.”

Democrats pledged to investigate Trump, particularly his personal finances, suspected ties to Russian investors and whether he illegally avoided paying taxes on his real estate empire and inheritances from his father. Although Democrats stopped short of saying whether they would take steps to oust Trump, their investigations will preoccupy Washington and leave little room for foreign policy initiatives.

“From Russian collusion to emoluments to the myriad scandals of the Trump cabinet, administration officials can expect to spend so much time testifying before Congress that they might as well move cots into the halls of the Capitol,” conservative analyst Michael Tanner wrote for the Cato Institute.

A Democratic victory in the House of Representatives could signal to leaders around the world that Trump is politically weak in the United States and that his foreign policy agenda lacks support.

“For all those [international leaders] who have found reassurance in the idea that this is a temporary aberration and that America will go back to its regularly scheduled programming soon, it would be an argument for starting to recalculate,” Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, the executive editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, told the news website FiveThirtyEight.

If the Republican Party keeps control of the House of Representatives, Washington’s foreign policy agenda is unlikely to change. Republicans would push an aggressive domestic agenda that focuses on scaling back government programmes such as health care and aid to the poor.

In the US Senate, 35 of the 100 seats are being contested on Election Day and Republicans are expected to retain their narrow edge over Democrats. However, prominent Republican critics of Saudi Arabia are likely to gain influence in the Senate with the recent death of Republican Senator John McCain and the retirement of Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida who ran for president in 2016, has been sharply critical of Saudi Arabia on human rights and will have increased influence, Republican strategist Ed Rogers wrote recently in the Washington Post. Another Saudi critic, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, will be a “dominant voice on national-security issues in Congress,” Rogers added.

If Democrats take control of the House, they are likely to name Representative Eliot Engel as chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, where he would likely target the US support for the Saudi-led coalition supporting the Yemen government against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. On September 26, Engel and 22 other House members introduced a resolution calling for an end to US military involvement in Yemen’s civil war.

“Children continue to die from explosives, disease, and malnutrition. Too many civilians have lost their lives. The time to end the violence is long overdue,” Engel, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement.

Engel also expressed scepticism -- shared by many Democrats -- about US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s certification that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were taking sufficient steps to protect civilians and infrastructure in Yemen from harm in a bombing campaign. Congress required Pompeo to provide the certification to continue supplying weapons to the coalition. If Democrats control the House, they could push for more restraints on sales.

“On the Yemen war, we are already seeing bipartisan discomfort with the high level of civilian casualties. I would expect that to grow,” said Barbara Slavin, a Middle East analyst at the Atlantic Council think-tank.

US-Saudi relations could be further strained by the fate of missing US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote for the Washington Post and was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish government has accused Saudis of killing Khashoggi, which they have categorically denied.

On Syria, Democrats have voiced concerns that the US military and diplomats have no coherent strategy to resolve the 7-year war and that the US military might be overstepping its authority by fighting Iran-backed militias in Syria.

“If [US] casualties were to mount in Syria, there could be more calls within Congress to pull our troops out,” said Aftandilian. For now, the small number of US deaths in Syria have minimised concerns in Congress about US policy.

Democrats are unlikely to push for change in other foreign policy areas, such as Iraq, where there is broad agreement in Washington on the US policy of maintaining a military presence as long as necessary to stabilise the country after the expulsion of the Islamic State (ISIS).

The removal of ISIS from Iraq and Syria by a 79-nation coalition is widely seen as a success in Washington, where both Democrats and Republicans support continued efforts to weaken the extremist group.

Although Democrats have criticised Trump’s policies restricting the admission of immigrants and refugees to the United States, they would have little power to reverse those policies. The US Supreme Court has upheld the Trump administration’s ban on travel to the United States from seven countries, including Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen.