Mere hours after American citizens journeyed to the ballot box to cast their votes in the first midterm elections of the Trump Presidency, Gulf International Forum’s luncheon panel event “Congress & The Shaping of US Policy in the Gulf,” brought in a panel of experts to discuss both the role of Gulf-related foreign policy issues in determining the election’s outcome, as well as the impact the newly-elected congress will have on the United States’ foreign policy in the region. GIF’s very-own Strategic Advisor Ambassador Patrick Theros moderated the discussion between the Honorable Former Congressman James P. Moran, and Dr. A. Trevor Thrall, a professor at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
Having been prepared to frame the discussion within many possible scenarios, the results of the night ultimately resonated with the outcome most-expected by pollsters and pundits: A Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and a Senate that remained under Republican control. Such a change does not take experts to understand that the new Democratic control of the House will bring big changes to how US Foreign Policy, (particularly that of President Trump) is conducted abroad. Even with many important races still having not been called, enough information was available to set some basic parameters for how this shift in governing would impact American Gulf-policy decision-making. First, prominent committees such as Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Intelligence and Oversight will now be chaired by House Democrats who will bring with them different perspectives on issues such as the War in Yemen and US-Saudi Relations, as well as a perceived mandate to serve as a check on the President. Second, largely due to the cozying that occurred between President Trump and some of the more influential Gulf States over the first two years of his tenure, the Gulf region’s unintentional alienation of these newly empowered Democrats may now result in a self-inflicted backlash. These attitudes toward the President, in conjunction with how Democratic foreign policy differs from that of Republicans in general, means that despite certain constitutional limitations, from election-season through the tenure of a sitting Congress, foreign policy does indeed play a role in determining who governs such policies and how congresspersons are able to serve as a check on a sitting President’s foreign policy primacy.
Midterm Elections – Rarely a Referenda on Foreign Policy
Drawing upon his expertise in examining how presidential administrations are able to garner popular support for their respective foreign policy decisions, Dr. Thrall began by outlining both the direct and indirect ways in which foreign policy influences the tendencies of the American voter during midterm elections. According to Dr. Thrall, only on the rarest of occasions do foreign policy decisions have a direct effect on the outcome of midterm elections. As lone examples of when this occurred Dr. Thrall pointed to the 2002 midterms when voters were motivated to cast ballots in support of President Bush’s post-9/11 invasions in the Middle East, as well as in 2006 when the war’s decrease in popularity motivated many of these same voters to voice their frustrations at the polling station. Where Dr. Thrall insists foreign policy does matter in the case of midterm elections are the so-called indirect forces that shape how the voters view a sitting president and his or her party. While no individual may quite be able to put their finger on why they dislike or support a given political figure, the totality of statements and actions on issues such as the War in Iraq, the handling of the JCPOA or even the Qatar crisis each in their own way inform the so-called ‘Commander-In-Chief Test.’ To back up his statement Dr. Thrall pointed to the correlation between Trump’s historic overall unpopularity and the disapproval of his foreign policy decisions specifically. Dr. Thrall remarked that President Trump’s ‘America-First’ rhetoric is unique in that it seems to merge domestic policies with how America conducts itself in the world. Offering an alternative view was Congressman Moran who humorously quipped, “Foreign policy did not matter one iota in these elections.”
Changes For US-Saudi Relations
However, despite this initial difference both panelists agreed that even if unintended by voters, the new congress would have significant ramifications for how Trump is able to conduct American policy abroad. Congressman Moran first addressed the changes in the senate, including the retirement of Tennessee Senator Bob Corker who will be stepping down as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. However, the real changes will be due to the Democrat’s newfound control of the House of Representatives. While admitting that his being a Democrat certainly influences his view, Congressman Moran expressed his belief that a democratic House Foreign Relations Committee will signify a return to foreign policy in the tradition of Presidents Bush Sr., Clinton, Obama and even Reagan. In this regard Congressman Moran expects to see a return to support for democracy-building and collaboration across departments such as State and Defense.
Politely disagreeing, Dr. Thrall argued that President Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric is just that: a mere rhetoric that has yet to translate into any tangible foreign policies that significantly separate him from recent predecessors. In fact, Dr. Thrall pressed to hear the Democrat’s foreign policy specifics that they would hope to institute given their newfound power and answered his own question by arguing that there is not significant daylight between Democrats and Republicans as it relates to Syria, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Taylor. Instead Dr. Thrall surmised that the biggest foreign policy debates on the horizon will not take place between the two parties, but instead will be from internal democratic divisions related to how the so-called ‘Hillary’ and ‘Bernie’ wings of the party view America’s place in the Gulf.
Impending Changes for US-Saudi Relations
Given the bipartisan condemnation from the congress in response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the conversation naturally turned to questions surrounding congress’s ability to react to these issues. Congressman Moran, while admitting that very few in congress actually pay attention to Gulf issues, argued that this void only works to compound the credibility of congresspersons, such as Senator Chris Murphy (D-CN) who do speak passionately about such issues. Each panelist seemed to be in agreement that President Trump’s ‘if not us then who?’ defense of US-GCC weapons sales would not stand-up to democratic congressional scrutiny, as Democrats are aware of the reality that it would take years for the Saudis in particular to readapt their processes to accommodate Chinese or Russian weaponry.
Additionally, both panelists brought up major questions concerning the relationship between President Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and questioned if the newly elected congress could at all influence the relationship of these two world leaders. Given that the midterms were largely framed as a referendum on President Trump, Congress (particularly House Democrats) will be able to influence foreign policy by resisting the policies of a President they believe is historically unpopular. Congressman Moran expressed a belief that such an attitude could result in House resistance to the vision of White House Special Advisor Jared Kushner, who under the last Congress worked with near impunity to bring MBS and President Trump closer in terms of policy and vision. Such freedom will now result in deeper scrutiny by Democrats with oversight authority and could feasibly result in changes to the overall relationship between the two nations.
A Final Defense of the JCPOA
As it relates to Iran, given that the JCPOA was implemented under a democratic president, democrats in the house now feel emboldened to fight for the agreement’s legitimacy. Dr. Thrall commented that President Trump’s attempts to reinstitute sanctions in hopes of reaching a better nuclear-deal will be fruitless as the United States lacks global support, will not be able to apply sanctions nearly as tough as those that previously brought Iran to the table, and has failed to set an explicit standard on which Iran could aim in order to ultimately buck global isolation.
Wondering at all if the congressional results would change President Trump’s overall global strategy, or even his demeanor both panelists were also in agreement that the answer is no. Dr. Thrall presented some enlightening statistics pulled from Google search data, nearly proving that issues that seem of the utmost importance in the foreign-policy community, (ie. The Qatar Crisis, the JCPOA) barely cross the minds of the American voters – a sad but necessary truth that all politicians certainly take into account while campaigning and governing.
Given the enormity of both GIF’s region of focus, as well as the topic in general, certain ongoing crises such as the War in Yemen or the blockade of Qatar were only able to briefly be addressed by panelists, however given the logics that were presented by our speakers it is easy to assume how congress can and will behave toward these issues. How Trump responds to the new check on power? That is a question that for the time being still goes unanswered.
Gulf International Forum