Does the election matter for the Middle East?

Dan Drezner’s going to bed early tonight because he doesn’t think the outcome of Congressional elections matters much for foreign policy. But at least on Middle East issues, that’s crazy. If the GOP takes Congress, it might overwhelmingly approve an Iran sanctions bill which ties the hands of President Barack Obama’s administration and undermines its efforts to ...

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562525_91467701_02.jpg

Dan Drezner's going to bed early tonight because he doesn't think the outcome of Congressional elections matters much for foreign policy. But at least on Middle East issues, that's crazy. If the GOP takes Congress, it might overwhelmingly approve an Iran sanctions bill which ties the hands of President Barack Obama's administration and undermines its efforts to construct an effective negotiation strategy. Or it might irresponsibly fail to confirm ambassadors to Syria and Turkey, two key players in the region, for no good reason. I could even see it slashing funding for the civilian mission in Iraq, forcing the administration to scramble to deliver on its promise of a long-term civilian and political commitment. Oh wait…

Seriously -- and with apologies to some of the good eggs in Congress who have played a constructive role the last few years, such as Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) at the SFRC -- there are real reasons to worry about the effects of a GOP-controlled Congress for Middle East policy, even beyond the… odd… views of some of the likely new members and committee chairs. Foreign leaders and publics may take the outcome of the election as a signal about what to expect from Obama in the next two years and craft their strategies accordingly. A GOP victory might embolden Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue stonewalling Obama and to stoke partisan opposition to his policies, for instance. Iran may conclude that it's pointless to do a deal with Obama if they think he can't deliver on his end. But those perception effects will matter mostly at the margins, I'd say, since the political struggles have been going on for such a long time that the election is already factored into their calculus.

That doesn't mean that a changeover would be irrelevant. I'm not looking forward to clownshow hearings with lunatics denouncing creeping sharia and whipping up anti-Islamic hysteria, which could undermine Obama's public diplomacy and counterterrorism strategies and do some real long term damage. I'm gritting my teeth in anticipation of the next Congress becoming a platform for Iran war hawks, hyping the issue even further in anticipation of the 2012 elections… look for another round of sanctions and some kind of Iranian Liberation Act on the horizon, regardless of how things are actually going for U.S. diplomatic efforts. A GOP-controlled Congress may not go for the big $60 billion arms sale to the Saudis, what with that whole "sharia" thing. Endless harassing subpoenas and investigations and the inevitable impeachment attempt may be a wee bit distracting. But overall I think the effects are more likely to be domestic than on foreign policy or the Middle East.  

Dan Drezner’s going to bed early tonight because he doesn’t think the outcome of Congressional elections matters much for foreign policy. But at least on Middle East issues, that’s crazy. If the GOP takes Congress, it might overwhelmingly approve an Iran sanctions bill which ties the hands of President Barack Obama’s administration and undermines its efforts to construct an effective negotiation strategy. Or it might irresponsibly fail to confirm ambassadors to Syria and Turkey, two key players in the region, for no good reason. I could even see it slashing funding for the civilian mission in Iraq, forcing the administration to scramble to deliver on its promise of a long-term civilian and political commitment. Oh wait…

Seriously — and with apologies to some of the good eggs in Congress who have played a constructive role the last few years, such as Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) at the SFRC — there are real reasons to worry about the effects of a GOP-controlled Congress for Middle East policy, even beyond the… odd… views of some of the likely new members and committee chairs. Foreign leaders and publics may take the outcome of the election as a signal about what to expect from Obama in the next two years and craft their strategies accordingly. A GOP victory might embolden Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue stonewalling Obama and to stoke partisan opposition to his policies, for instance. Iran may conclude that it’s pointless to do a deal with Obama if they think he can’t deliver on his end. But those perception effects will matter mostly at the margins, I’d say, since the political struggles have been going on for such a long time that the election is already factored into their calculus.

That doesn’t mean that a changeover would be irrelevant. I’m not looking forward to clownshow hearings with lunatics denouncing creeping sharia and whipping up anti-Islamic hysteria, which could undermine Obama’s public diplomacy and counterterrorism strategies and do some real long term damage. I’m gritting my teeth in anticipation of the next Congress becoming a platform for Iran war hawks, hyping the issue even further in anticipation of the 2012 elections… look for another round of sanctions and some kind of Iranian Liberation Act on the horizon, regardless of how things are actually going for U.S. diplomatic efforts. A GOP-controlled Congress may not go for the big $60 billion arms sale to the Saudis, what with that whole "sharia" thing. Endless harassing subpoenas and investigations and the inevitable impeachment attempt may be a wee bit distracting. But overall I think the effects are more likely to be domestic than on foreign policy or the Middle East.  

And who knows — maybe the polls are wrong. I don’t think I know anyone who actually answers a home phone showing an unknown number on Caller ID, but I also know that I’m not the least bit normal, and far be it from me to question the geniuses over in the polling bureaus. Guess we’ll find out tonight. And what would be the effect of a surprising Democratic performance and relative Republican failure after all this buildup? Beats me. But unlike Drezner, I don’t think I’ll be going to bed early tonight.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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