America’s neo-cons are back

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The Republican sweep of Congress does not augur well, neither for Obama nor for the Middle East.

Now that the Republican Party controls both houses of Congress, how will that affect our part of the world? Immigration, Obamacare, the Keystone pipeline, the Supreme Court, and every regulation the GOP wants to stop are issues alien to our region. What we here would like to know is how, as Republican leaders take stock of their sweep of Senate seats in last week’s midterm elections that will hand them a clear majority in the chamber on 1 January, this new-look Congress will change, if anything, America’s Middle East foreign policy.

Let it be known from the start that as a whole, Republicans are just not that much into Muslims. Poll after poll and time after time it has been shown that a majority of Republicans have unfavourable views of Muslims. Republican sentiment toward Muslims always produces the highest negative results, with more than half of respondents in any given poll saying they had unfavourable opinions.

If a Muslim is also an American, the Republican view softens, but not by much. It seems that the Republican Party does not want any Muslims in its ranks, does not like Muslims outside its ranks and does not trust Muslims in government or outside of it, and it is quite content with that.

This clear Republican Party bias against Muslims and Arabs shows in its presidents. Ronald Reagan never visited Egypt in his eight years as president. Bush Jr led a neo-con troika of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, the likes of which the White House and the world had never seen before.

By contrast, Democrats hold favourable views of Muslims by margins of at least 20-35 percent and that, too, shows in America’s leaders. Jimmy Carter put his hand on that of Sadat and Begin. Bill Clinton got Arafat and Rabin shaking hands, while Obama at least tried to change the damage Bush had caused in the ruptured ties between Arabs and the US.

But in his last two years, Obama will now deal with Republicans with hawkish instincts waiting to put their mark on his foreign policy approach, which they, to a person, consider to be weak and ineffectual. They are preparing to stake their place in US foreign policy by populating key committees with members known for their hawkish views.

So, for example, however much Obama may wish to get tough with Benjamin Netanyahu and sanction Israel for its continued flouting of international law by constructing yet more illegal settlements, Congress seems certain to stand in his way. No formal sanctions have a chance of passing into law.

In the fight against the Al-Assad regime in Syria and the confrontation with Islamic State there and in Iraq, Republican leaders may start pressing for an upgrade of US military activity. Some in the party have made no secret of their belief that American troops left Iraq too early. They say that they want US boots back on the ground. They have also damned Obama for failing to follow through with his threat to attack Al-Assad the minute he used chemical weapons against his people.

The administration may be closing in on a deal with Iran on taming its nuclear agenda before a deadline set for later this month. But for that to happen, Obama must be able to assure Tehran that US sanctions against it will be lifted. That, however, will eventually need congressional support and most Republicans remain deeply sceptical of Iran and any deal with it.  They also hear Israel’s distrust of it.

Because Obama only has a couple of years left he will be unable to do as much on the domestic front as in foreign policy. He will as such doubtless look to the world stage to continue to exert his authority.

In this respect, previous US presidents in Obama’s shoes have worked closely with Congress on domestic issues but often acted independently in foreign policy. And like other presidents, he may try to reach diplomatic milestones during his last years in the White House.

Even when the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives, it was all uphill for Obama. He promised big change, not least in the Middle East following his Cairo speech. But far from rewriting America’s electoral map, as Obama claimed, Democrat politicians began to challenge him even as he struggled to lift the US economy out of the deep hole into which the mortgage scandal had tipped it. His first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton ran up a phenomenal stash of air-miles as she jetted around the world, to no great purpose. By the time John Kerry took on the job, the immense goodwill and trust that Obama had won when he spoke in Cairo had largely dissipated.

That’s when the Democrats ruled. Now Obama faces a newly unfriendly Republican Congress which is going to frustrate the president’s last two years in office. Meanwhile, if push comes to shove, he is going to exercise his veto to kill Republican bills that challenge his political achievements, not least his pivotal healthcare program.

So what will Republican control of both Houses mean for the Middle East over the next two years? At one time the US Zionist vote was largely committed to the Democrats. Under Bush senior, the support shifted toward the rising neo-con Republicans, who gained total control under George W. That catastrophe led to the catastrophic results of the Afghan and Iraq invasions which fostered regional mayhem.

The Republicans have hawkish views and are prepared to flex biceps. Mitch McConnell, who is certain next week to be elected the majority leader come January, will have considerable influence, as will Senator John McCain. One of Obama’s most relentless critics, he is likely to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

America’s exercise of foreign power is likely to be affected by the fallout from the elections. Obama has yet another mountain to climb.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.