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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

US midterm results could constrain Trump’s Middle East agenda

President's policies on Iran, Yemen and Middle East could be affected if Democrats make gains

President Donald Trump waves during a campaign rally in Columbia, Missouri. AP Photo
President Donald Trump waves during a campaign rally in Columbia, Missouri. AP Photo

With polls and election projections predicting a Republican loss of majority in the US House of Representatives on Tuesday, the Trump administration is bracing for pressure from Democrats that could affect its Middle East policy agenda.

Democratic control of the House for the first time since 2010 could unleash investigations, subpoenas and endless hearings over the administration’s performance, including its record and policy trajectory in the Middle East. Former US officials and experts who spoke to The National named Yemen, the Middle East peace process and policy towards Iran as the top three areas where Democrats could apply extra legislative scrutiny and oversight over the White House.

The change of party leadership in the House will also bring change at key committees that deal with Middle East policy. Democratic replacements to head these panels include congressman Adam Smith for the House Armed Services Committee, Eliot Engel for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Adam Schiff, a particularly fierce critic of Donald Trump, for the Intelligence Committee.

The passing of the gavel could complicate Mr Trump’s agenda in curbing Iran or pressuring the Palestinians ahead of rolling out the US peace plan. The president will have to depend on Congressional help “to roll back Iran’s nuclear programme, maintain a US military presence in Syria, effectively pressure and incentivise the Palestinians to come back to the negotiation table, and to keep the newly troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia on track”, said Daniel Shapiro of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Mr Shapiro, who was ambassador to Israel under Barack Obama, said a Democratic House “will almost certainly demand an end to support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen and restoration of some Palestinian assistance programmes”. A Democratic majority could also be reluctant to help the administration pressure European allies to scrap the Iran deal, he said.

Mr Trump would have to “build bipartisan support in Congress for controversial foreign policy initiatives”, he said.

Updates: Follow our live coverage of the midterms

But Matthew Brodsky, a senior fellow at the Security Studies Group, did not see the limitations as having a crippling effect on Mr Trump’s Middle East policy.

“The constitution gives the executive branch and the president wide latitude to conduct foreign policy so that the US can be nimble and respond to challenges abroad,” he told The National.

Mr Brodsky acknowledged, however, that the Democrats could pursue budget constraints and upping the ante on Saudi Arabia, especially in limiting the US role in Yemen. The secretaries of state and defence, Mike Pompeo and James Mattis, both called for a cessation of hostilities in the war earlier this week.

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Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill in Congress calling for a withdrawal of the US support role in Yemen. But although House Democrats can censure the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, "they can’t stop the refuelling and ammunition delivery” from the US, said Barak Barfi of the New America foundation.

And while Democrats “cannot hold up nominees for presidential appointments in the Defence and State Departments, they have some arrows in their quiver”, he told The National.

Those include “subpoena power and the ability to hold hearings on controversial aspects of the administration’s policies, such as pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal”, Mr Barfi said.

Those arrows are on the minds of senior Trump officials. Bloomberg, Vanity Fair and CNN have all reported this week that senior US officials could leave their positions if the Democrats win the House. Some of the names that are reportedly expected to jump ship and exit the government are Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.

Mr Trump has said that his defence chief “may leave” his post, but Mr Mattis has not so far given a clear indication that he is on his way out.

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