The 2018 Midterm Elections: What Do They Mean for the Middle East?

The 2018 midterm elections loom ahead and Americans across the country have already begun casting their votes for local, state, and congressional candidates. At the federal level, most mainstream statistical forecasts give Democrats a strong chance of taking control of the House of Representatives, while Republicans enjoy a similarly strong probability of maintaining—if not expanding—their majority in the Senate. What might the new January 2019 Congress mean for US foreign policy toward the Arab world and the broader Middle East?

Trump Will Likely Contend with a Divided Congress

Statistically speaking, it is very likely that the Democratic Party will pick up the 23 seats needed to control the majority of seats in Congress’s lower chamber. Republicans have vacated dozens of seats in the House (many opting to retire or pursue higher office) and over 100 races are considered “competitive” according to election forecasters. Recent political history indicates that the sitting president’s party generally loses seats in the midterms. In addition to the windfall of donations that Democratic candidates across the country have secured, this will make conditions ripe for a Democratic Speaker of the House in January.

In the Senate, despite the energy and fundraising prowess of several solid Democratic candidates, it is statistically probable for Republicans to maintain their majority in the upper chamber. In fact, it is more probable that the GOP will broaden its razor-thin majority (currently at 51-49), if only by one or two seats. If President Donald Trump is forced to govern alongside a Democratic majority in the House and a GOP-held Senate, modern electoral history shows that he would join only Presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan as executives who were handed a “divided” Congress. In a few rare occasions, a president and a divided Congress were able to score legislative wins; however, the GOP’s inability to govern without struggle under a “unified” government, in addition to extreme polarization in the country and President Trump’s unpopularity among a sizable population of voters, do not portend smooth congressional operations over the last two years of Trump’s term.

If Republicans maintain control in the Senate, committees are unlikely to hold as strenuous and comprehensive oversight of the president’s policies as their counterparts in the potentially Democratic-dominated House.

A divided Congress—where the majorities in the House and Senate are represented by two different political parties—also means there will be a lot of turnover and leadership shakeups in both chambers. In the House, should the Democrats take control, committee chair positions will be assumed by most of the current committees’ ranking members, barring some kind of internal Democratic uprising that effects major changes in the ranks of the Democratic caucus’s leadership. As Republicans lose retirees and vulnerable incumbents, the hypothetical Republican minority would also have to reshuffle its leadership in the House, elevating newcomers—or more anti-establishment members—to seats as ranking members of committees. The Senate will not have as noticeable a shakeup in leadership and personnel, but the retirement of Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) will open a vacancy for the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). There will also be jockeying for positions in the Senate majority hierarchy, with at least one member leaving his leadership post due to caucus term limits. All of these pending personnel changes will likely throw the already complicated relationship between Congress and the White House into further disarray.

Middle East Policy Implications of Divided Government

If Republicans maintain control in the Senate, committees are unlikely to hold as strenuous and comprehensive oversight of the president’s policies as their counterparts in the potentially Democratic-dominated House. One critical example will be Corker’s expected replacement as SFRC chair, Senator James Risch (R-Idaho), who rarely, if ever, criticizes the president’s policies. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Risch barely convened a single hearing during Trump’s first two years in office. Corker was much more willing to involve Democrats and hold public hearings about Trump’s Middle East policies, but it is uncertain whether Risch and the rest of the conservative members of the GOP will be even nominally as critical.

Democrats in the House have indicated that if they win a majority in the chamber, they would hold hearings about the legal justifications for US military involvement Libya, Yemen, and to a lesser extent, Syria; the US relationship with autocratic regimes like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and even the administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Moreover, the likely chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland)—has discussed investigating whether President Trump and his family have profited financially from his presidency. Further, any investigations into the Trump family’s “myriad business pursuits around the world” and whether that makes the president “particularly prone to conflicts of interest” could very well ensnare wealthy Gulf Arab states.

More specifically, some of the following issues will likely be contentious should Democrats take over at least one chamber in the 116th Congress.

The United States and Israel/Palestine. Much has been made about progressive liberal Democrats’ purported distancing from the historically strong bipartisan support for Israel. After the New York Times opined that the new progressives poised to storm Capitol Hill are not as unconditionally pro-Israel as members of both parties have been historically, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) decided to dispute this assumption. In addition, a number of other prominent Democrats reiterated their pro-Israel bona fides and refuted the idea that the much vaunted progressive candidates who are on track to take seats on Capitol Hill this January are able to move the needle on the Democratic Party’s longstanding support for Israel.

The underlying point of the New York Times article—that new age progressive and liberal Democrats may be more inclined to embrace a fairer, more just relationship between Israelis and Palestinians—was actually underscored by the rushed and vociferous denials that the Democratic pro-Israel old guard felt compelled to issue. Data shows that younger Americans, and younger Democrats in particular, are more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians than any other demographic, so it is no surprise that some of the most recognized progressive Democrats—namely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Leslie Cockburn—have been unusually critical of Israel for its occupation of the Palestinian territories and the Israeli military’s reported human rights abuses.

Data shows that young Americans, younger Democrats in particular, are more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians than any other demographic.

Some progressive liberals make sound-bite quips about Israeli “apartheid” and tweet about massacres occurring under the occupation. However, few—if any—of them have made public an ardently anti-Israel sentiment. Instead, soon-to-be representatives like Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez have been more vocal about the need to protect vulnerable Palestinians; but confronted with some pressure, they have softened their rhetoric on the subject. In this sense, the progressive wing of a potentially Democratic-held House is not that different from the Democratic would-be lawmakers who could be inaugurated in January.

An example is Conor Lamb. He won a seat in a special election in a rural heavily Republican Pennsylvania district where a candidate cannot be overly pro-Palestinian because they are largely supportive of Israel. In fact, Lamb had to repeatedly stress his support for Israel after some raised concerns about past comments regarding Israel’s wartime actions in Gaza. However, since taking office, Lamb has scored comparatively less pro-Israel (i.e., his support is less than unconditional) than someone from his district might be; in fact, he has signed on to letters advocating for Palestinian rights and received the endorsement of more liberal pro-Israel advocates—positions that conservative pro-Israel lobbies like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) consider hostile toward Israel.

Many Democratic candidates have received endorsements from the J Street political action committee and/or have taken a fairer position between the sides, supporting Israeli security aid while speaking up for Palestinian human rights. In addition, Republican district Democrats have taken political cover in their more balanced stance to the conflict from an unlikely group: millennial Evangelical Christians. The Evangelicals as a group are among the strongest and most vocal supporters of Israel, including its right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party. However, millennial and grassroots Evangelicals who are averse to the president and his policies have traveled the country campaigning for Democrats and for supporting human rights and justice for Palestinians.

Overall, however, the likelihood of a Democratic House taking a wildly radical position away from Israel and toward the Palestinians is unlikely; but these developments represent incremental steps in Washington. Progressives could garner support to pass resolutions expressing support for Palestinians. Moreover, newcomers could also lend their support to Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) and her bill that would prohibit Israel from using US taxpayer dollars to detain and abuse Palestinian children (though the bill would almost certainly die in the Senate).

US policy toward Saudi Arabia. It has been one month since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. The ensuing bipartisan uproar in Congress indicates that the US relationship with Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be put under the microscope if Democrats take back the House. There has been bipartisan anger over Riyadh’s murder of Khashoggi, but Democrats in Congress—particularly progressives—have long been critical of Washington’s unconditional support for Saudi Arabia, even before Khashoggi’s death.

Democrats in Congress—particularly progressives—have long been critical of Washington’s unconditional support for Saudi Arabia, even before Khashoggi’s death.

While there are only limited measures Democrats could implement with control over only one chamber, outspoken critics of Riyadh, Khashoggi’s murder, and the brutal war in Yemen could push through nonbinding resolutions to shame the Saudis and hold hearings that expose some of the more misleading claims regarding the benefits of Washington’s coziness with Riyadh. Democrats could also have the votes to force the president’s hand regarding kinetic military support and arms sales to the Saudis; it is unclear, however, if enough GOP senators would be willing to oppose President Trump on these issues.

Development aid versus military aid; reemphasizing human rights. In a similar regard, with Democrats in control of the budget-drafting committees in the House, the Middle East might see a reorienting of US financial support. Instead of signing off on massive amounts of money intended for fueling arms sales and focusing on counterterrorism and anti-Islamic State efforts, Democrats might leverage their power to appropriate funds that more efficiently address allies in the region.

For example, instead of allowing Egypt to purchase conventional military supplies that do not address its legitimate counterterrorism struggle, Democrats could write appropriations bills with strict limits on how funds can be used. For other allies like Jordan, the billions spent for aid could be reconfigured to contribute more to the development of critical infrastructure programs in order to help put Amman on a more sustainable long-term path. Still, however, and despite the fact that Democrats in the House may be more willing to use US assistance to address development and humanitarian concerns rather than provide military and security support, it is important to remember that many Democrats are just as eager as their Republican counterparts to underwrite billions every year to Middle East partners for military aid.

The Trump Administration’s willingness to overlook human rights violations for the purpose of tackling mutual security concerns has given states like Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia a sense of impunity.

Democrats in the House also appear more willing than Republicans to force President Trump’s hand on addressing human rights concerns. Arab partners like Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have long been poor guarantors of global principles of human rights, but the Trump Administration’s willingness to overlook human rights violations for the purpose of tackling mutual security concerns has given states like these a sense of impunity. Democrats have already hinted that if they take the House, they would try and regain leverage over these countries, tightening the human rights requirements for states receiving US assistance.

Authorizations for the Use of Military Force. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington), who would take over as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is in favor of holding hearings on the administration’s legal authorities for using military force in many countries such as Libya and Yemen. This issue has picked up steam in the Senate over the last year; however, like punishing the Saudis, it is uncertain if the more deferential Senate would challenge the president if his administration pushed back on constraining US military adventures in the region. Democrats could potentially raise the topic in the public forum, much like their Democratic predecessors did with George Bush in 2006, thus applying pressure on the president.

US Policy Toward Syria and Iraq. A Democratic majority in the House likely would not drastically depart from bipartisan orthodoxy regarding Iraq and Syria. Both parties see the need to fund operations against the so-called Islamic State in the two countries, and Democrats are in lockstep with many in the GOP about the need to support Iraq’s fragile government. Where the two sides may differ, however, could be in the debate over development and reconstruction aid to Syria. Democrats are more sympathetic to helping internally displaced persons and refugees return to their homes, but like Republicans, they are suspect of providing any aid to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. If anything changes, it could be that they try and force Trump to reinstate previously appropriated funds for Syria.