The 2016 U.S. Elections: Impact on the Middle East
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) and Qatar University’s Gulf Studies Program jointly hosted a panel discussion on May 27, 2015 regarding the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and their impact on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. The panelists were John Hudak, a Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and managing editor of the FixGov blog, and Abdullah Baabood, Director of the Gulf Studies Program. The discussion was moderated by BDC director Salman Shaikh and attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media communities.
Hudak opened the discussion by providing an overview of American presidential elections, which he described as a “complex, hard to understand, and overall crazy system.” In particular, he highlighted the lengthy two-year process by which candidates are currently elected, including a series of primary elections and caucuses across all 50 states, before proceeding to the general election. Hudak also noted the fact that the general election is not a “national plebiscite,” but rather the combined results of 50 state elections filtered through the votes of the Electoral College. He predicted that the Republican Party would field around 15 candidates for the primary elections, whereas “for the Democrats, you have effectively one candidate”—Hillary Clinton.
Hudak went on to underscore what he feels to be the unique feature of the upcoming election: the prominent role of foreign policy. Despite the preeminence of domestic economic issues in most U.S. elections, he held that the complex challenges facing the United States abroad would engender significant debate about U.S. foreign policy at home, especially given Hillary Clinton’s strong foreign policy background as Secretary of State during the first term of the Obama administration. As a result, Hudak argued that no candidate from either party would be able to run an effective campaign “without at least demonstrating an appreciation for foreign policy issues.” Ultimately, he said that this would force candidates to be candid in their foreign policy views over the course of the elections: “When foreign policy is at the forefront of the conversation, we will have a good idea of what they think about the Islamic State, Yemen, Afghanistan, military alliances with the EU, Russia, Israel, East Asia, and so on.”
Responding to Hudak, Baabood brought forth a number of key issues viewed in the region as major challenges for a new American administration to tackle. At the head of this list he placed the need to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict: “What is the U.S. interest in resolving [this] conflict?,” he asked, suggesting that the inability of an American administration to drive action on this conflict would continue to affect how the United States was viewed in the region.
Baaboud also noted that the region felt that the “Pax Americana” imposed by American security guarantees and relationships with governments in the region had failed to avoid the outbreak of numerous violent conflicts in recent years. He pointed to regional criticisms of the destabilizing role of the United States, either through the active dismantling of state power during the invasion of Iraq or through its reluctance to act in containing and addressing violence in Syria. Likewise, Baabood criticized the quick American withdrawal from Yemen in 2015 after the U.S. campaign of anti-terror drone strikes had helped to undermine the Yemeni government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its people.
Ultimately, Baabood pointed to the potential P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran as the clearest point of concern for the Arab Gulf countries, with some regional governments fearing that the United States might return to a “twin pillar” containment policy for the region’s conflicts, relying on both Saudi Arabia and Iran to maintain stability and order. While he later conceded that it was “too late” for Gulf leaders to have a meaningful impact on nuclear negotiations, he held that the recent Camp David meeting between President Obama and Gulf leaders had not addressed their fears. Baabood proposed that the U.S. administration was merely holding out weak security guarantees while fueling an arms race in the Gulf by suggesting that these countries invest more in their own defense.
Asked to discuss some of the presidential candidates in more detail, Hudak noted that the Republican contenders represented a wide range of foreign policy experience, from almost none to time served in key committees in the U.S. Congress. As for Hillary Clinton, whom he regarded as the presumptive Democratic nominee and likely winner of the 2016 elections, he stated that she should be held accountable for some of the foreign policies pursued under the Obama administration but that she was likely “more interventionist” than the current president. Hudak felt that a new administration, whether Republican or Democrat, would be more credible in its claims to enforce a potential nuclear deal with Iran.
In Hudak’s view, American voters will expect candidates who display an appreciation for the complexities of foreign policy. They “expect somebody who can take the stage and clearly state: ‘This is my policy view, this is how I view the world, and this is how I will fix these problems.’ People who present everything as black and white, who oversimplify, will not play well.”
Hudak pointed to U.S. policy towards Israel as one area where candidates would have to present a more nuanced view regardless of their leanings. In his view, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the American Congress had resulted in “skepticism toward Netanyahu … that I never expected to see” among the American public, even American Jews. He contended that “Republicans have overcommitted to Israel in a way that hinders the resolution of the Palestinian issue,” while even Democratic leaders would have to find a way to overcome the current “resentment” between Netanyahu and the Obama administration.
Both Hudak and Baabood pointed to the need for greater clarity in the formulation and execution of U.S. foreign policy. “You have to be frank,” stated Baabood. “You can’t claim to support democracy and then turn way when you don’t like the winner.” In a similar vein, Hudak concluded that “in [American] domestic policy, the public hates it when they do not understand what the president wants. Other countries can relate to this … the U.S. president, to some degree or another, impacts the lives of everyone in the world.”
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