Will a US Democratic Congress Influence Trump’s Middle East Foreign Policy?

Democrats Could Apply Further Legislative Scrutiny and Oversight on the Peace Process, Iran, and Yemen 

The Republican Party might have lost the US House of Representatives in midterm elections to Democrats, but the US Senate – the legislative arm that usually influence foreign policy – remains under Republican’s control. 
 
Historically speaking, midterm elections and changes in Congress have often prompted US Presidents to make foreign policy shifts and sometimes make significant changes or compromises. And President Donald Trump’s administration is also expected to make some shifts, but probably nothing major. While Congress will be much more focused on domestic policy, the Middle East Peace Process, Iran, and Yemen are the three main areas where Democrats could apply further legislative scrutiny and oversight. 
 
Representative Eliot Engel, the Democrat to head the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said they might seek congressional authorization for the use of military force in places like Iraq and Syria. But on some hot-button areas, like China and Iran, he acknowledged there was little they could do to change the status quo. In an interview with Reuters, Engel said that he doesn’t think they should challenge something just because it’s put forth by the administration. “But I do think we have an obligation to review policies and do oversight.” he told Reuters. 
 
Since they must still work with a Republican-controlled Senate to pass any bills, the Democratic majority’s greatest influence will be oversight, the ability to call hearings and, if necessary, subpoena witnesses, as they lead committees like Foreign Affairs as well as Armed Services and Intelligence.
 
On the Israel-Palestine problem, major shifts are not expected, especially that the pro-Israel sentiments in Congress cut across party lines. The move of the US embassy to Jerusalem won’t probably get challenged, and the relations between the US and Israel will most probably remain intact. 
 
But the administration might work to accelerate the schedule for its Palestine-Israel peace plan. This might create some anger, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman may have provided an opening for compromise. 
 
On Iran, although the Trump administration’s move to pull out of the deal and re-impose sanctions caused a stir, but now that sanctions are re-imposed and a strategy is in place to implement these sanctions, Congress is unlikely to disagree on Iran’s disruptive behavior in the region. In addition to demanding that Iran completely gives up its desire to enrich uranium, the administration insists that the re-imposition of sanctions will remain in place until the regime in Tehran renounces its missile development program and stops its “aggressive” meddling in the Middle East. 
 
Republicans and Democrats are mostly united when it comes to Iran’s regional actions, missile development, and uranium enrichment. In fact, the latest bills against Hezbollah, including the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments of 2018, were bipartisan bills, passed unanimously by Congress and Senate. 
 




U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for a rally at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium, May 29, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Getty)



 
In fact, although Democrats were frustrated by Trump’s withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Iran, there is little they can do to change the policy as long as Republicans occupy the White House. They are also worried they would seem too friendly to Iran. Although Netanyahu has worked increasingly closely with U.S. Republicans, strong ties to Israel remain a top priority for both parties. Democrats can ask or push the administration to work with European allies on Iran and other issues, but that’s all they can do. 
 
In Syria, two issues remain unclear. A Democratic Congress might not be all for keeping the US troops in the Tanaf military base southeast Syria, on the Iraqi border. The significance of this base is mostly to hinder Iran’s land-bridge that connects Tehran to Beirut via Iraq and Syria. Without the US troops, Iran’s mission to secure the land-bridge could be made less complicated.
 
The core of the issue lies in each party’s perspective on the main challenges in Syria. For the Republican Party and the current administration, the war rhetoric has shifted from the war on ISIS to containing Iran and its proxies, now that ISIS has been contained. However, the Democrats haven’t made this shift yet. Many Democrats don’t perceive Iran’s regional terrorism and disrupting behavior as dangerous as that of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. 
 
Accordingly, a Democratic congress might try to shift the narrative back from Iran to ISIS and use available tools such as hearings, investigations, and subpoenas to complicate things. 
 
A Democratic House could ask for greater oversight of US military operations in Africa and the Middle East in general. At a Defense News conference last month, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who will become chairman of the Armed Services Committee, vowed to increase oversight of US military intervention abroad. He specifically singled out Yemen as a “major problem.” But again, Republicans still have the Senate, which is endowed with more power on foreign policy than the house. 
 
Despite the limited margin Congress has to actually change policy, they can still make things difficult and hinder some actions. For the administration to move forward swiftly on rolling back Iran’s nuclear program, ensure a robust U.S. military presence in Syria, effectively pressure and incentivize the Palestinians to come back to the negotiation table, and to keep the relationship with Saudi Arabia on track, a less confrontational and more cooperative approach will be needed by both Congress and the White House. 
 
 


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