What Do the Midterms Mean for U.S. Mideast Policy?

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by Mitchell Plitnick

There are still a few races to be decided, but the overall results of the 2018 midterms are clear. The hoped-for “blue wave” turned out to be a blue trickle, but Donald Trump’s era of completely unfettered action is over. Voter suppression and gerrymandering stack the deck in favor of Republicans, yet there was enough disgust with Trump and congressional Republicans to swing about 30 seats in the House of Representatives to the Democrats. Republicans still gained at least two—probably three—seats in the Senate, despite the fact that Democrats got nearly 13 million more votes in the Senate races. That’s not a great indicator for the state of democracy in the United States.

It wasn’t the rebuke of Trump’s behavior and policies that some hoped for, but given the ongoing strength of the U.S. economy, the Republican losses still mean something. Democratic control of the House creates a check on Trump’s worst excesses, at least domestically.

In foreign policy, the gains will be more meager and harder to gauge. Congress still holds considerably more power over domestic affairs than foreign, and that is even more true for the opposition party in a divided Congress.

House Democrats will certainly try to press Trump to mend fences with longstanding allies in Europe and Canada, will call for stronger support for NATO, and will push for a more contentious stance toward Russia. In all of these arenas, they have a decent chance for success, especially since they could get notable Republican support on those issues.

In the Middle East, the prospects of a Democratic House leading to a substantial change in course are much more dubious. In some areas, there are some real, even important, possibilities for change. In others, there are some possibilities to moderate some of Trump’s harsher policies, but no chance at all for fundamental change.

Yemen

On Yemen, Democrats can lead a call for change, can reasonably expect some Republican support, and can have real impact. The sharp downturn in the United States of Saudi Arabia’s image and, even more, that of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has shone a spotlight on the devastating humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan bill to stop funding the Saudi war on Yemen was defeated in the Senate by a 55-44 vote, hardly a major rejection of the idea. Ending the war in Yemen could also be a quid pro quo for moving on from the scandal of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. But after surprising statements in that direction from both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the target date to begin peace talks has already been pushed back from the end of this month to the end of the year. Meanwhile, the fighting will continue, and will be particularly devastating around the port of Hodeidah, the entry point for much of Yemen’s food, medicine, and other aid and commercial goods.

Democrats can renew the effort to stop funding and aiding the Saudi war effort. Sadly, by the time they come into office in January, Yemen could be much worse off than it is even today. Against that backdrop, a call to cut off logistical support and to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia until the Yemen war is ended stands a very good chance of making it out of both houses of Congress.

The “Arab NATO”

This very dangerous idea of Trump’s is another place Democrats might want to assert themselves on foreign policy. Trump has proposed a Sunni alliance against Iran that the United States would finance and arm but that would lessen the need for actual U.S. military deployment.

In the best-case scenario, it’s a recipe for deadly instability. The Gulf states have been buying U.S. weapons for many decades, but until recently, they rarely used them. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have become much more aggressive militarily in recent years and have not been able to parlay their superior armaments and funding into either tangible gains or a more stable, peaceful Middle East. Now Trump wants to turn up the volume on that support and bring in the rest of the Gulf countries as well as Egypt. Iran, naturally, is going to respond with a firmer defensive posture. The chances of an unprecedented regional war go way up in that scenario.

The “Arab NATO” faces many obstacles. Trump himself threw a wrench into the works by encouraging MbS to initiate a “cold war” of sorts against Qatar, but that nation, as well as Oman, would have had some difficulty in joining an explicitly military, anti-Iran alliance. Bahrain, too, would be taking a significant risk of stirring up domestic tensions by joining, and Iraq, though not part of the GCC, could be pushed even closer to Iran by such a union.

There has been only sparse public discussion about this idea of Trump’s, despite its regional ramifications. Democrats are not going to push back significantly on confronting Iran, but they can certainly argue against this method of going about it. Finding Republican allies on this issue may be harder but certainly not impossible—if the Democrats decide to start such a debate.

Iran Sanctions

The Trump administration’s unilateral violation of and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was an unpopular decision. Still, even with a Democrat in the White House, there was still a great deal of unease among congressional Democrats over President Barack Obama’s approach to Iran. Those Democrats are not going to want to appear soft on Iran now.

Yet most Americans have not viewed the Trump administration’s handling of this issue positively. Trump can’t be pushed into re-entering the deal, but Democrats could make enough noise about his clumsy handling of the issue to slow the administration’s march to war with the Islamic Republic.

Democrats are likely to have tools to work with if they can muster the political will to take on the issue of sanctions. While Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Pompeo, and their pro-regime change  talk about the damage they are doing to the Iranian economy and cry crocodile tears for the Iranian people, innocent Iranians are suffering under the sanctions and Iranian hardliners gain strength from them. Democrats can hit Trump hard on the foolishness of this decision, if they’re willing to suffer a response from Israel.

Israel and the Late, Lamented Peace Process

Some saw a major setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in this outcome, but that is a flawed assessment. Yes, Netanyahu made Israel a Republican issue, and showed enormous disdain for the liberal Americans—Jewish and non-Jewish—who supported Israel for decades, and who, unlike their right-wing counterparts, strove to find a future for Israel that included an end to its horrific occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

But the Democratic party has no shortage of hardline “pro-Israel” partisans, and some of them will be in key positions in the new House. Elliot Engel and Nita Lowey—two New York Democrats who can match a good many Republicans in their blanket support for Israeli policies—are probably going to chair the Foreign Affairs and Appropriations committees, respectively. No doubt, they will urge Trump not to take steps “that would harm the peace process,” happily ignoring the fact that there hasn’t even been a sham of such a process in years. But they will not be pressing for major changes in either U.S. or Israeli policy.

Not all is lost, however. Even hard-line Democrats will push hard to avert the sort of humanitarian catastrophes that, for example, cutting off aid to UNRWA, the United Nations agency that serves Palestinian refugees, can cause. That is an easier sell, as restoring humanitarian aid to the Palestinians has a great deal of support in the Israeli government and even more in the Israeli military and intelligence divisions.

But the Democratic leadership is going to pursue a rapprochement with Netanyahu. He is not likely to want to get back to true bipartisanship, but the midterms have probably convinced him that it is unwise to put all his chips in the Republican basket. He is likely to throw the Democrats a few crumbs, perhaps in the form of talking more about a two-state solution that, in fact, promises far less than a state for the Palestinians, or some other gestures that he has rarely felt compelled to grant under Trump and full Republican control of Congress.

Israel’s own sharp right turn, not Trump, caused the country’s shift away from the Democrats and more centrist U.S. liberals. Netanyahu grew tired of concessions to American Jews and American Democrats. He will only take small, grudging steps back in that direction. And the main Democratic leadership, eager for pro-Israel political support, will take what it can get. The election of a few young progressives won’t change that. Yet.

The Progressive Democratic Wave

It’s too soon to look toward the young, progressive, new members of Congress for signs of change. If newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley try to fight uphill battles on foreign policy on the Hill, they will be isolated, and that goes double for policy toward Israel. The more important task for supporters of Palestinian rights in Congress will be to build the already significant grassroots support in the party for such positions.

Instead of grandstanding on bills or initiatives that cannot possibly succeed in the House, working towards broadening the internal party discourse while being strategically critical of Israeli positions will open space for progressives who have stayed far away from this issue or have moved toward more pro-Israel positions (someone like Beto O’Rourke, for instance) to stand more strongly for Palestinian rights. Until the grassroots of the Democratic party is unified around Palestinian rights, and around making equal rights the basis of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, centrists will continue to marginalize progressives who stand up for those rights.

But those progressives have a surprising ally in Netanyahu. As Israeli actions and policies make it harder and harder for liberals to turn a blind eye, an ethical, progressives will gain more and more traction. But they must be able to defend their seats in two, four, six years against efforts to defeat them, especially in the primaries. The new progressives can keep those seats safe and advance the cause of changing the Democratic stance on this and many other progressive issues, foreign and domestic, by building up the power of the progressive wing of the party to the point where it can defend them when they take a stand.

Changing the Democratic Party’s willful blindness to, and even excuses for, Israel’s intransigence and human will require patience. But it can be done.

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. His writing has appeared in the New Republic, San Francisco Chronicle, New York Daily News, Haaretz, Times of Israel, +972 Magazine, Jordan Times, UN Observer, Middle East Report, Global Dialogue, Die Blaetter Fuer Deutsche Und Internationale Politik, among other outlets. He also published regular columns in Tikkun, Zeek, and Souciant Magazines, as well as his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. He has appeared in many news outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, and CNBC Asia. Plitnick graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in Middle Eastern Studies and wrote his thesis on Israeli and Jewish historiography. He earned his Masters Degree from the University of Maryland, College Park's School of Public Policy. Twitter: @MJPlitnick

SHOW 3 COMMENTS

3 Comments

  1. ‘What Do the Midterms Mean for U.S. Mideast Policy?’

    Somewhere between little and nothing. The House is largely in the postion of a kid asking santa to please, please bring – whatever.

    The House has the power of choice – the Senate, President and associates have the power of decision,. which rules. And they aren’t about to chagne a single thing, As for whatever reasosn of State or other, they enjoy and profit from what they’re up to, and hang every one else. Besides, anything non-Trumpian must, if Democratic in orgin, be from Obama – if only in spirit.

  2. Mitchell Plitnick could only bring himself to write “Democrats could … slow the administration’s march to war with the Islamic Republic.” That he was not up to writing “stop the march to war” suggests he is resigned to accept that the U.S.-Iran 30-year “Twilight War” [David Crist] will transform from ongoing covert and cyber attacks into a hot war within the term of this American administration. As Plitnick writes, Netanyahu will now mount a big campaign to get Democrat support for war with Iran. So we will have to put our hopes on the American public’s wisdom in understanding that another unjustified war-of-choice by the U.S., with Saudi Arabia and Israel at our side, would really bring the end of respect for the U.S. in the world.

  3. “stronger support for NATO, and will push for a more contentious stance toward Russia”.
    This is not a good start if anyone had the slightest interest in peace. The “Democratic Party”‘ instead of showing concern for the population, tries to get closer to the Republicans and Israel, and progressive issues (ie normal things in democracies like health are and infrastructure, not to mention the environment and inequality) are not even addressed.
    Israel, fossil-fuel lobbies and “defense” have far too much control of the Congress to allow any real progress, and waiting 2,4 or 6 years is rather a risk when we see the present policies of the Trump maladministration.

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