The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) and Al Jazeera Centre for Studies hosted a panel discussion on November 20, 2018 to discuss the significance of the recent U.S. midterm elections for Donald Trump’s presidency and Middle East policy. The panel addressed the following questions: How will the Democratic majority in the House impact Trumpian politics and provide a check on power in the White House? How will these elections impact Trump’s foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East? What do the results of the midterms reveal about the presidential elections in 2020?
The panel comprised a group of distinguished experts, including Mohammed Cherkaoui, senior researcher at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies; Phillip W. Gray, assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University, Qatar; Clyde Wilcox, professor in the government department at Georgetown University (via satellite video); and Adnan Hayajneh, professor of international relations at Qatar University. Salem Almahrokey, presenter at Al Jazeera Mubasher, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media communities.
Clyde Wilcox kicked off the discussion by stating that the midterm election was a serious defeat for Trump and a resounding victory for the Democratic Party. He noted that, even as Republicans gained two seats in the Senate, they lost by 11 million votes. Wilcox posited that the split government would push the Senate to become more involved in foreign policy, while enabling the Democrats to pursue investigations into Trump’s finances, foreign policy issues, and obstruction of justice charges.
Wilcox clarified that, while the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs can hold hearings about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other Gulf issues, ultimately, Congress has limited power to act on these affairs. Additionally, many of the senators who might previously have opposed Trump’s actions are no longer in office, leaving him with supportive or indifferent Republicans. Wilcox indicated that this dynamic will likely provide Trump with a significant amount of leeway to enact his own political initiatives.
Phillip W. Gray noted that he does not expect to see major changes to Trump’s domestic policy approach in the wake of the midterm elections. He added that he would not be surprised if Trump became more forceful on issues that appeal to his voter base, especially those that can serve as “wedge” issues against politicians in the opposing coalition. With respect to foreign policy, Trump may focus more closely on issues such as trade with China, where he can sidestep the House, or perhaps start governing by executive order.
On a separate note, Gray indicated that the conclusion reached by the CIA in its recent report on Khashoggi’s murder is not likely to put significant pressure on the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. He added that issues such as the Khashoggi case and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis do not carry much weight domestically and are unlikely to affect the outcome of the 2020 elections.
Mohammed Cherkaoui said that Democrats and Republicans will primarily be fighting over domestic issues for the next two years, rather than over foreign issues. Following the midterm elections, the U.S. political system will be returning to a state of “checks and balances,” meaning that Trump will have to pursue political consensus. The recent elections witnessed the highest electoral participation rate in over 70 years, at more than 60 percent. Cherkaoui posited that the large numbers of women, youth, and minorities who participated in the recent midterms indicate that Trumpism is on the decline.
With respect to the murder of Khashoggi, Cherkaoui emphasized that the issue has become a huge scandal and could result in a reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship within the Republican Party. He noted that, while the Republican Party has traditionally protected the relationship between the two countries, there are now politicians who oppose Trump on various issues and want to sever the ties between he and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Cherkaoui added that the Khashoggi case has cut through the clamor of foreign and domestic issues facing the United States, drawing attention to a range of Middle East issues.
Adnan Hayajneh pushed back against the idea that the midterm elections indicate the decline of Trump’s power, pointing out that, historically, the president’s party has lost in midterm elections. As such, he does not view the Democrats’ gains in the midterms as surprising and thinks that, if Trump were to run in the upcoming general election, he would win. He added that, even if Congress does not support Trump’s initiatives, the president has demonstrated that he is ready and willing to deploy executive orders.
Separately, Hayajneh stressed that the Democratic Party is not especially concerned with Middle East issues and is more likely to focus on the upcoming presidential elections and domestic issues, such as immigration and healthcare reform. He noted that Saudi Arabia is key to U.S. foreign strategy, as it is well-placed to put pressure on Iran and play a role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the strength of Saudi Arabia’s influence and credibility is currently threatened by the crisis in Yemen and the Khashoggi case. Hayajneh also questioned why the United States insists on supporting MBS when it could pursue its interests in the Middle East without him.
The subsequent question and answer session focused on the implications of the various issues discussed for the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the U.S. political system. The speakers noted that Trump’s support for MBS is primarily driven by two factors. The first is the potential role of Saudi Arabia in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as any resolution of this conflict would be a major boon to Trump’s anticipated re-election campaign. The second is Trump’s close relationship with his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, who supports MBS. They noted that the potential indictment of Kushner during the ongoing Mueller investigation could lead Trump to withdraw his support for MBS in the future. Lastly, the speakers emphasized that the current U.S. electoral system advantages the Republican Party and has enabled it to gain control of the Senate and the presidency, despite the Democratic Party winning the popular vote. In general, the session drew attention to the tenuous nature of Trump’s relationship with MBS and the challenges facing Democrats under the U.S. electoral system.
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