January 3rd, 2019 marks the beginning of a new Congress, the 116th, with the House of Representatives under the control of the Democratic Party and the Senate further entrenched in Republican hands. This will be a whole new experience for President Donald Trump, who enjoyed two years of unified GOP control in Congress and largely went through the first half of his term with not so much as a pretense of “checks and balances” under a united Republican government.
A Democratic-controlled House all but guarantees a reconstitution of the separation of powers—which, to some, have arguably been nonexistent during the Trump Administration. Many on the president’s side sense that Democrats will leverage their newfound majority to make life miserable for Trump. To be sure, Democrats in the House have much more say now in setting the domestic political agenda for 2019, but it is worthwhile to explore whether the change in party rule of one chamber will fundamentally alter who drives foreign policy plans. When it comes to US policy in the Arab world and the broader Middle East, therefore, who will be steering its course in 2019?
President Donald Trump
As a result of structural factors inherent in the office of the presidency, as well as personal reasons unique to Trump himself, it is no surprise that the commander-in-chief will almost certainly be the foremost arbiter of Washington’s Middle East policy. First, the US Constitution confers on the president a tremendous amount of power to execute the country’s foreign affairs, so President Trump has broad latitude in dictating the terms of US policy abroad. Second, Congress has gradually and consistently ceded to the president much of the power it has had over foreign policy during the past few decades. Trump has therefore largely operated unchecked by Congress in his first two years (it is worth noting that this trend is not unique to this president).
As a result of structural factors inherent in the office of the presidency, as well as personal reasons unique to Trump himself, it is no surprise that the commander-in-chief will almost certainly be the foremost arbiter of Washington’s Middle East policy.
The results of the recent power struggles between the executive and legislative branches over foreign affairs portend that any US president has the final and most important say regarding US policy around the globe. Responses to Trump’s December decision to withdraw troops from Syria provide useful examples. According to most reports, Trump opted to announce the decision without consulting his own advisors; indeed, he blindsided nearly everyone in Washington. Individual lawmakers have expressed their dismay at the decision, but there is not much they can do—other than plead with him—to change his mind.
President Trump also has a unique ability to drive media coverage and stoke public discourse in a way that makes it that much harder for Congress to push any meaningful agenda. “Wag the dog” conspiracy theorists might point to last year’s strikes on Syria, which followed a week of news about the president’s personal lawyer being swept up in a federal criminal investigation—thus turning attention away from Trump’s personal problems. However, one must not be so cynical to understand that Trump seems to be preternaturally talented in his ability to dictate the national narrative. Whether it is through Friday news dumps, surprising tweets, or any other action that can help distract from unflattering media coverage, the president has the exceptional ability to steer the topic of conversation in the direction he sees fit. A notoriously slow-moving Congress—especially one that will be nearly paralyzed by partisan divisions—will have a hard time keeping up with Trump’s agenda, never mind trying to control it.
While President Trump will be the most capable player in dictating Washington’s foreign policy this year, House Democrats do have the motivation and certain tools at their disposal to help determine the public discourse on the topic—even if they cannot force the president’s hand. Their efforts will be most clearly on display on domestic issues, but House Democrats’ investigative and subpoena powers and their role in funding the government can keep the White House busy and slow down the abilities of executive agencies to execute decisions that lawmakers find most problematic. Forcing administration officials to testify publicly on issues important to the Middle East (e.g., the nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State or the legal authorities for military involvement in any number of Arab states) could also draw more public attention to these issues and ostensibly force President Trump to address the public’s concerns.
House Democrats’ investigative and subpoena powers and their role in funding the government can keep the White House busy and slow down the abilities of executive agencies to execute decisions that lawmakers find most problematic.
The Full Senate
All 100 senators stand to play a greater role in determining the US foreign policy agenda this coming year. The Senate is different from the House in some important ways: it is comparatively less partisan; it is ascribed unique tasks that give it more leverage over the executive branch; and individual senators have more authority to slow executive branch actions to a halt. As illustrated by the unprecedented votes in the Senate regarding Saudi Arabia and its involvement in Yemen at the end of the last Congress, the Senate does have the ability to rebuke the president’s foreign policy priorities if sufficiently prompted. In addition, senators have to weigh in on proposed arms sales and the nominations of political appointees, both actions an individual senator could threaten to scuttle in order to extract policy concessions from the White House. Further, due to its relatively small number of members and comparatively more deliberative nature, the Senate—more than the House—could more efficiently mobilize against White House policies that members find unappealing, like steep cuts to diplomacy funding or nuclear cooperation agreements.
Friends, Allies, and Partners in the Region
The last, but arguably no less important, players in the US foreign policy agenda are not Americans. Indeed, President Trump is very impressionable and holds a number of the Middle East’s strongmen in high regard. Therefore, US foreign policy could easily be determined by persuasive arguments by the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, or Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Erdoğan reportedly helped persuade Trump to abandon Syria’s Kurdish fighters with a pledge to eliminate the remaining Islamic State fighters in Syria. In early 2018, Netanyahu made an attempt to sway Trump’s decision on whether to continue abiding by the Iran nuclear deal, and MbS has dangled the prospect of stepping up arms purchases from the United States in exchange for favorable policy positions from the Trump Administration. As long as President Trump sees the Middle East as a set of transactions to be negotiated, America’s regional friends, allies, and partners will continue to have a role in this year’s foreign policy agenda.