Security Brief

U.S. Congress Readies for Bruising Lame-Duck Session

If Biden’s lead holds, the Trump administration could look to box in the next White House and extend its legacy on Middle East policy.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on March 26, 2019 in Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on March 26, 2019 in Washington. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief, and congratulations on almost surviving U.S. election week. As the results come in, don’t forget to follow FP’s election live blog, including deep dives on how the race affects U.S. foreign policy and dispatches from around the world.

What’s on tap today: As the United States awaits election results, Washington still has work to do on foreign policy, a potential civil war is brewing in Ethiopia, and Afghan peace talks totter after a deadly terrorist attack.

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Congress Braces for Lame-Duck Scenario

As key swing states continue tallying ballots in the United States, Capitol Hill is beginning to consider a lame-duck session that will include top priorities for both parties. The Trump administration and lawmakers have a few months of work left in 2020—regardless who wins the White House. Here’s a rundown of what we’ll be watching in the lame-duck session.

The coronavirus relief bill: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged that Congress would pass another coronavirus relief package by the end of the year after pre-election talks fell short. With Democrats losing ground in the House and failing to secure a Senate majority for now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are expected to have less leverage over the deal, which had been targeted for $2 trillion before Tuesday’s vote.

The massive defense policy bill: There is also potential for trouble with the Pentagon’s budget. Both the House and Senate versions of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act include language that would strip names of Confederate generals from U.S. military installations—which prompted veto threats from President Donald Trump over the summer.

And both chambers must hash out differences over how to counter China. Republicans have proposed a new fund to boost Pentagon operations in the Asia-Pacific, while the Democrats have preferred to focus on building up alliances in the region.

Cementing diplomatic victories on Israel: The Trump administration still has some diplomacy to do to cement a historic normalization deal between Israel and Sudan. Administration officials are working with Congress to negotiate outstanding issues on renormalizing ties with Sudan and helping the country climb out of a deep economic hole.

Trump administration officials are also trying to find ways to help the country’s fragile transitional government ease political tensions fueled by the news that Sudan may normalize ties with Israel in exchange for economic and aid benefits from Washington.

Locking in Iran sanctions: In the weeks leading up to the election, the Trump administration issued a raft of sanctions against Iran as part of its maximum pressure strategy to get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, which have become much more overt since the United States pulled out of the Obama-era nuclear deal.

Europe is waiting to see who wins the election to determine whether parts of the deal are salvageable. European diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they don’t expect a Biden administration to be able to hop back into the deal as it stood in 2016. Weeks before Election Day, Trump directed a snapback of U.N. sanctions against Iran, a move that was ignored by European countries, Russia, and China.

What We’re Watching

International election observers slam Trump. Trump’s unfounded allegations of voter fraud aren’t just causing Twitter to flag his tweets—they’re also drawing condemnation from international election observers in the United States. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on Wednesday that Trump’s remarks were “baseless” and that the election had been mostly well-run.

The OSCE sent 100 observers to 30 states at the invitation of the U.S. State Department.

Ethiopia’s conflict worsens. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has promised to carry out further military operations in the Tigray region after the regional government carried out an attack on federal government-controlled bases there this week. Concerns over a possible civil war in Ethiopia’s northernmost region—once dominant in the nation’s politics—have deepened since the government in Addis Ababa imposed a six-month state of emergency there.

Attack in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was rocked by another deadly terrorist attack this week at Kabul University. The attack was a grim reminder of how the Trump administration’s peace talks are teetering on the brink of collapse, as Taliban hardliners and other militant groups try to derail inter-Afghan negotiations.

If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the election, he’ll inherit an Afghanistan problem that looks much like the one President Barack Obama left behind in 2017: an unstable Afghan government, no clear path to a military victory, and overly optimistic hopes that peace talks could offer a way for the United States to finally withdraw.

Movers and Shakers

Biden and Trump gear up transition. The election may not be over yet, but both the Biden and Trump teams are gearing up for a possible transition, with Biden launching his own transition website last night.

Army appoints new civilian aides. Secretary of the U.S. Army Ryan McCarty added four new civilian aides during a virtual ceremony last week, the U.S. military service said in a press release.

Quote of the Week

“We are going to see disinformation about this election devolve into conspiracy theories that have a long shelf life and continue to be a strong undercurrent of American democracy. The fact is: we haven’t proven disinformation is not a viable political strategy in America.”

Graham Brookie, an expert on disinformation and director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab

Foreign Policy Recommends 

Biden will govern in Trump country. Biden may expect to take the White House, but Democrats should prepare for four years of governing in Trump’s country, Time’s Molly Ball writes. Tom Ridge, the former Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, said Trump’s impulse on his way out “might be to abuse executive authority,” and Democrats face a reckoning after underperforming with Black and Latino voters in key swing states.

Odds and Ends

Premature celebration. On Wednesday, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa issued a preemptive congratulations to Trump on his reelection and lavished praise on the Republican party—before many of the votes were even tallied. If Biden wins, it may put Slovenia in an awkward diplomatic spot.

A little friendly advice. From the Globe and Mail: African analysts offer advice on repairing the U.S. political system amid growing calls for reform.

That’s it for today.

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Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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