President Joe Biden is only months away from his first midterm election as commander in chief, and with many analysts projecting potentially historic losses for Democrats, he is likely to enter 2023 with a Republican-led Congress that will adamantly oppose nearly every aspect of his domestic agenda. Given that he is currently battling poor approval ratings, a skyrocketing cost of living, and an unpredictable domestic political landscape, it is not at all improbable that President Biden will turn to foreign affairs in an effort to cobble together a record worthy of touting to voters in the run up to his potential 2024 reelection bid.
President Biden was either chair or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 12 of his 36 years in the United States Senate and has been described as “famous, or infamous, for his personal connections to world leaders.” It is logical, then, that he might find it easier and more comfortable to pursue foreign policy “wins” if he finds himself working against a Republican majority in Congress. Observers have read his upcoming travel itinerary—with visits to Palestine, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—as a sign of his desire to finally wade into Middle East politics.
If the Democrats lose their congressional majority, it is logical that President Biden might find it easier and more comfortable to pursue foreign policy goals that he can wins.
However, even if a modest pivot away from domestic politics to foreign affairs is in the offing, Biden may experience roadblocks for his preferred policies from both sides of the aisle, but perhaps most jarringly, from his own party. With several primary contests still to take place, President Biden will likely find himself at the center of a long-standing intraparty fight between leftist and progressive Democrats on one side and moderate and conservative Democrats on the other.
Progressives vs. Moderates
As the ostensible leader of the Democratic Party, Biden may have to tussle more with his own party than the opposition when it comes to dictating foreign policy in the Middle East. Democratic criticism of his policies has already come in droves, even before the winners of the party’s fierce primary battles—some of whom are extensively supported by Democratic groups that want to pursue a conservative, pro-Israel foreign policy—take office in January 2023. Progressives who are nonetheless establishment members of the Democratic Party like Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Reps. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Adam Schiff (D-California) have already decried the president’s planned meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). And other, more unabashed progressives of the caucus have long been vocal opponents of traditional US foreign policy, especially when it comes to Washington’s implicit support for Israel’s system of apartheid rule over Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank. Moreover, the entire progressive wing of elected Democrats stands in staunch opposition to centrists’ and conservatives’ desire to add tens of billions of dollars to the US military budget, pushing it ever closer to the astounding sum of $1 trillion in yearly spending.
Battles between different ideological wings of the Democratic Party and the redistricting of congressional House districts even in reliably “blue” states may result in a slate of elected officials who make it difficult for the president to freely set policy.
Adding to Biden’s woes, the combination of traditional primary battles between different ideological wings of the party and the once-in-a-decade redistricting of congressional House districts that has pitted incumbent Democrats against one another in some reliably “blue” states may result in a slate of elected officials who make it difficult for the president to freely set policy. And in addition to political shake-ups due to redistricting, there are several races where conservative Democratic incumbents are facing off against more progressive—and usually younger—challengers who do not ascribe to traditional ideas about foreign policy, especially when it comes to military spending, foreign intervention, and support for questionable US allies.
Some early primaries have already demonstrated the stark contrast between the various wings of the party. Some progressives, like Jamie McLeod-Skinner (D-Oregon), upset their moderate opponents with little attention having been paid to their positions on the Middle East. Others, like Summer Lee (D-Pennsylvania), overcame massive amounts of spending by groups aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to defeat more moderate competition. Elsewhere, moderates have enjoyed a high level of success in fending off progressive challengers, bolstered in part by campaign contributions from groups in the pro-Israel camp. The most notable case came in Ohio’s eleventh district, where incumbent Shontel Brown (D-Ohio)—who actually identifies as progressive—defeated challenger Nina Turner, her success due in no small part to massive financial support from political action committees started by AIPAC and the Democratic Majority for Israel.
Rep. Marie Newman (D-Illinois), meanwhile, lost her reelection bid by a huge margin. And in Kentucky and North Carolina, AIPAC sided with comparatively more moderate candidates over their progressive challengers. Moderates are now poised to make significant wins in Michigan, where progressives Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Andy Levin (D-Michigan) face opponents who are supported by the more conservative wing of the pro-Israel camp. These Democrat-on-Democrat battles have prompted prominent progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) to criticize AIPAC and the Democratic Majority for Israel for promoting moderates over progressive challengers and incumbents alike. Whatever happens during the rest of this year’s primary season, the outcomes of these races are certain to go a long way in determining the direction and policy priorities of the Democratic Party over the next few years.
Palestine and Israel
Nowhere is the battle over the direction of the party more contentious than on the issue of US policy toward Palestine and Israel. This campaign season, groups like J Street, the Democratic Majority for Israel, Urban Empowerment Action PAC, and multiple political action committees affiliated with AIPAC have spent millions in tumultuous primaries with the goal of elevating candidates who support Israel and eschew any criticism of its policies.
As the Democratic Party becomes younger and more progressive, its left wing has grown increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s policies and Washington’s unflinching support of them.
President Biden has long been an ardent supporter of Israel. But as the Democratic Party becomes younger and more progressive, its left wing has grown increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s policies and Washington’s unflinching support of them. Since the midterm elections of 2018 swept a slate of unabashedly vocal progressives into Congress, Democratic legislators have written letters, introduced bills and resolutions, and otherwise advocated for policies that, until recently, were considered political suicide. Should the Democratic Party emerge from the 2022 primary and general elections with a greater number of progressives in Congress, President Biden will find himself tasked with mollifying the two fractious wings of the party, which are divided by an almost unbridgeable difference of opinion on US policy toward Palestine and Israel.
The president will ultimately wield the power to act however he sees fit—which so far has been measured support for Israel combined with a rapprochement of sorts with the Palestinians. But he will have to avoid antagonizing both progressives and moderates if he hopes to maintain party unity ahead of his potential reelection fight in 2024. This situation presents President Biden with a set of questions regarding how, or if, to facilitate normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, to condition Washington’s robust annual funding to Israel (which now boasts an economy that ranks in the top 20 worldwide), and to pursue policies that would benefit Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.
Posture in the Gulf
Beyond Palestine and Israel, Democrats have borderline irreconcilable opinions on US policy in the Gulf. Conservative Democrats generally stand in opposition to a renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran, while simultaneously supporting US cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates despite their dismal human rights records and Riyadh’s prosecution of a devasting war in Yemen. Progressives, meanwhile, have agitated for President Biden to renew diplomatic outreach to Tehran and, at a minimum, to end US support for the war in Yemen. The left wing of the party also wants President Biden to make good on his vow to treat Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler MBS as a “pariah.”
Progressives have agitated for President Biden to renew diplomatic outreach to Tehran and, at a minimum, to end US support for the war in Yemen.
How President Biden will walk the line between these stark policy differences—not to mention other heated issues like US military presence in the Gulf and the oil exporting policies of OPEC—is uncertain. Progressives have proposed legislation to block US arms sales to Gulf countries and end support for the war in Yemen, even suggesting that Washington effectively ground the Saudi air force by withholding necessary US assistance. Unlike policies toward Israel or the JCPOA, which can provide rhetorical fodder for political campaigns, oil politics can actually harm a president’s standing among the public when prices at the pump remain unbearably high for most voters. A herculean task therefore awaits President Biden if he seeks to get more involved in Gulf geopolitics.
Human Rights, Security, and the Rule of Law
President Biden may in fact face a reinvigorated progressive campaign to fundamentally reshape US policies toward the Middle East and North Africa should the left wing of the party make solid gains this cycle. Progressives have a long list of complaints: US support for unsavory regimes in Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere; a shadow war in Somalia, Syria, and Yemen that continues to result in civilian casualties; and policies that directly fly in the face of international law, such as US recognition of both Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara and Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.
Public opinion is firmly on the side of progressives, as the US electorate is generally wary of long-standing policies focused on national security and the use of force.
An ascendent progressive wing of the Democratic Party seeks to reorient US foreign policy away from the status quo, while moderate and conservative Democrats prefer Washington take a posture centered on the use of military might and interventionist policies. Here, public opinion is firmly on the side of progressives, as the US electorate is generally wary of long-standing policies focused on national security and the use of force. While President Biden is scarred by frightening scenes from Afghanistan following the US withdrawal and the return of the Taliban, he likely cannot afford to return to the status quo that has been in place at least since the 2001 launch of the “Global War on Terrorism” under George W. Bush. To be sure, progressives frequently campaign on getting the United States out of so-called “forever wars,” and in this regard the president may have to cater more to the liberal wing of the party. Failure to do so could dampen the support President Biden needs if he seeks reelection, and could perhaps even inspire an outright primary challenge.
A Tough Row to Hoe
There is always a chance that Democratic primary victors will align more closely with Biden the centrist than with the slightly more progressive Joe Biden who was on display during the 2020 Democratic primaries. But the fact is that progressives new to the field are even less likely to unquestioningly follow the type of US foreign policy that has predominated among Democrats and Republicans alike over the last six decades. That, in and of itself, will present a problem for President Biden if he seeks to unify the party in support of policies that boost US military involvement in the Middle East, that continue to support Israel’s system of apartheid, or that ignore domestic repression by despotic regimes.
With the prospects of a Republican takeover of Congress growing, President Biden may indeed turn his attention to foreign affairs in order to secure any possible wins that he can then tout to the electorate ahead of 2024. However, even if Democrats retain control of Congress, corralling an unruly Democratic Party that is currently undergoing a painful period of change presents the president with a host of challenges in crafting and executing foreign policy. What this means for the Middle East remains to be seen.