US midterm elections and Middle East policy: Divided government, divergent priorities
There remain only two weeks until the 2022 US midterm elections. Candidate lists in most races are set and early voting is underway in several states.
The Democratic Party has managed to produce a spate of legislative wins over the last two years, which, in combination with the galvanising force of a highly controversial Supreme Court decision on women’s reproductive rights, might mitigate the number of losses it is predicted to face.
However, at this point, both conventional wisdom and the historical record suggest that at the very least Democrats will lose their majority in the House of Representatives. With a 50-50 split in the Senate and momentum typically favouring the party not currently occupying the White House, Republicans would usually be expected to retake that chamber as well.
At this time, the overall race is unpredictable, but polls suggest that Republicans remain the favourites to secure control of the House, while Democrats are odds-on favourites for keeping control over the upper chamber, thanks in part to GOP primary voters in a number of battleground states having selected problematic candidates.
"Democrats and Republicans are largely united in their desire to maintain or to even grow an already gargantuan military budget and to provide military aid to Washington's allies abroad"
Divided government in the United States is always messy. Further complicating matters, the end of the midterm cycle marks the unofficial beginning of the 2024 presidential election cycle. Questions abound about whether former President Donald Trump will seek another term, and if he does not, about who will be selected as the GOP standard bearer. It also is still unclear if President Biden will seek reelection, and if Vice President Kamala Harris will be the clear Democratic frontrunner should Biden choose not to run.
All of these factors will influence policy priorities in both the White House and Congress during the next two years. However, the way in which the outcomes of the midterms will influence US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa is an altogether different question.
There are some areas where President Biden and a GOP majority in Congress could find common ground. However, there also are a number of policies on which Republicans will adamantly oppose the administration.
Preserving the war machine
One facet of US foreign policy that even a divided government will not change is defence spending. Democrats and Republicans are largely united in their desire to maintain or to even grow an already gargantuan military budget and to provide military aid to Washington’s allies abroad.
The details and policies of where that money goes might be up for debate, but billions in funds and weapons are expected to continue to flow to Israel and other countries in the region. Moreover, Democratic proposals to reroute Saudi defence supplies to Ukraine will likely be a nonstarter, especially if a thin Republican House majority is filled with Trump-style legislators who have been vocally opposed to supporting Kyiv in its fight against Russia.
However, depending on how the makeup of Congress shakes out, there could be some consensus on limiting weapons sales to states like Saudi Arabia. But if Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the ongoing war in Yemen, its domestic repression (including of US citizens), and its meddling in the global oil economy are not enough to dissuade the US from selling arms to Riyadh, it is unlikely that anything would.
President Biden is currently drawing comparisons to former President Jimmy Carter, a one-term Democrat who was thrust into an oil and gas crisis thanks in part to tumult in the Middle East. After a moment of reprieve from high prices at the gas pumps, the cost of oil is rising, and doing so at a politically unfavourable time for Democrats.
Republican circles are no doubt cheering the fact that Riyadh has led OPEC+ in a decision to cut oil production, potentially handing the midterms to the Republicans, as one analyst has suggested. Even if the move was primarily driven by economic considerations—as OPEC+ maintains—those in Washington, and particularly Democrats, view it as a brazen attempt to harm Biden and boost Republicans.
This development is part of a larger problem for President Biden, since Saudi Arabia—and to a lesser degree the UAE—have sought to antagonise President Biden since he first took office. Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in particular has proven to present a problem for President Biden. But even if MBS gets his way and Republicans recapture Congress and act as a roadblock for the Biden administration, oil politics will not suddenly disappear.
"President Biden may have options to act unilaterally in order to bring down oil prices, although it seems that there are few available or appealing choices to force the Saudis or OPEC+ to alleviate the price spike"
If OPEC+ continues to manipulate oil prices, some Republicans may come to support a proposed bill nicknamed “NOPEC,” which Republican Senator Chuck Grassley has been pushing during the last few congressional sessions. The bill would open Saudi Arabia and other nations up to lawsuits under US antitrust law, though it is unclear what effects, if any, the bill would have on prices.
President Biden may have options to act unilaterally in order to bring down oil prices, although it seems that there are few available or appealing choices to force the Saudis or OPEC+ to alleviate the price spike. Even if he does pursue that route, Biden may face GOP opposition if his actions do not include other policy considerations, such as deregulating the domestic oil market.
Palestine and Israel
At the moment, it is unclear how willing President Biden and his team are to engage either side regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially since Israeli domestic politics have lurched so far to the right that even stalwart defenders of Israel have reservations about the potential makeup of its next government.
The peace process has been comatose for years now, and it is unlikely that Biden will put much political capital into reviving it. Uncertainty in both Israeli and Palestinian politics only helps to make that decision easier. But could the Biden administration seek to expand the Abraham Accords, which normalised relations between some Arab countries and Israel? The truth is that there are few obvious candidates on the Arab side.
Normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be the crown jewel of the initiative, but a modest agreement to open Saudi airspace to Israeli aircraft seems to be the furthest that Riyadh is willing to go at this point. Perhaps the Biden team will attempt to convince Tunisia, Kuwait, Oman, or Qatar to join the accords, but there is little enticement for these states to make such a move.
Regardless of what the Biden administration attempts to do to integrate Israel with its regional neighbours, there is one area where a GOP-held Congress would undoubtedly oppose the president, namely on the issue of Palestine. With control over appropriations and other powers, Republican lawmakers would be expected to throw up roadblocks at every turn if President Biden sought to engage more with the Palestinians.
Some aid might still be allowed—albeit with major conditions—but a GOP majority would try to hinder any moves seen as too accommodating of the Palestinians, unless, of course, they were tied to decisions that are beneficial to Israel.
It is also important to note that individual states are holding legislative and gubernatorial races during this midterm election. The results of these races could dictate whether state governments enact, amend, repeal, or otherwise address statutes and regulations that prohibit various forms of participation in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
A majority of US states currently have some kind of anti-BDS law in place, and even where courts have struck down the statutes, new legislatures could enact additional laws or change unconstitutional ones to circumvent judicial scrutiny.
A revival of the JCPOA?
Much as former President Obama did following the 2014 midterms, President Biden would also face unified opposition from a Republican Congress regarding his pursuit of a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.
While the 2015 Iran nuclear talks also provoked Democrat opposition, even hardliners like Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) appear more open to a deal this time around. However, ongoing popular protests in Iran have mobilised many in Washington in opposition to a deal, with Menendez arguing for a pause in talks to prepare for the fall of Iran’s government.
What form, if any, a new JCPOA will take is uncertain, but it is clear that a Republican House and/or Senate majority would mobilise against any deal with Tehran and would push for (likely nonbinding) votes opposing an agreement.
"What form, if any, a new JCPOA will take is uncertain, but it is clear that a Republican House and/or Senate majority would mobilise against any deal with Tehran"
In Washington, no one ever really knows
President Biden no doubt hopes to maintain his governing majority in his first midterm election cycle. If the president and his party are able to do so, domestic priorities will remain at the forefront of the agenda and his team will continue to press for its preferred foreign policy goals, including renewing the JCPOA and further integrating Israel into the region.
However, should Washington yet again be faced with a divided government, Republicans in Congress will no doubt seek to hamper the administration, particularly on policy decisions related to Palestine, Iran, and energy.
With voting already underway, uncertainty still remains regarding what to expect for 2023 and beyond.
Marcus Montgomery is a former Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Centre Washington DC.
Follow him on Twitter: @marcuscmontgo
This article was originally published by the Arab Centre Washington DC on 25/10/2022 and was republished with permission