Foreign Policy in the Midterms

What Kyiv, Moscow, Tehran, and Riyadh can expect if Republicans take control of the U.S. Congress.

By , the executive editor at Foreign Policy.
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If, as predicted, the Republicans gain control of the U.S. Congress, the consequences will be felt all over the world. Will U.S. support for Ukraine continue apace? Will a beleaguered President Biden get tougher on China and Saudi Arabia? And with the Republican Party itself increasingly splintered, will its more isolationist wing win out? I put these and other questions to Foreign Policy’s team of reporters in an interview conducted on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript. Subscribers can click on the video atop this page to watch the full discussion.

Amelia Lester: The Republicans are likely to launch multiple investigations if they regain majority control of Congress. Amy, what do those mean for the government and its ability to govern, and what are the larger implications of having these types of investigations, including potentially impeachment-style investigations, for U.S. standing in the world?

Amy Mackinnon: I think, at the moment, based on what we’re hearing from members and candidates, it’s really a question of what they won’t be investigating, if the Republicans do succeed in taking the House [of Representatives]. After four years of the Democrats having the gavel, the Republicans are really champing at the bit.

If, as predicted, the Republicans gain control of the U.S. Congress, the consequences will be felt all over the world. Will U.S. support for Ukraine continue apace? Will a beleaguered President Biden get tougher on China and Saudi Arabia? And with the Republican Party itself increasingly splintered, will its more isolationist wing win out? I put these and other questions to Foreign Policy’s team of reporters in an interview conducted on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript. Subscribers can click on the video atop this page to watch the full discussion.

Amelia Lester: The Republicans are likely to launch multiple investigations if they regain majority control of Congress. Amy, what do those mean for the government and its ability to govern, and what are the larger implications of having these types of investigations, including potentially impeachment-style investigations, for U.S. standing in the world?

Amy Mackinnon: I think, at the moment, based on what we’re hearing from members and candidates, it’s really a question of what they won’t be investigating, if the Republicans do succeed in taking the House [of Representatives]. After four years of the Democrats having the gavel, the Republicans are really champing at the bit.

There is a lingering perception, very widely across the board among Republicans, that Trump was unfairly investigated.

On the domestic front, both public and private entities are going to be investigated. And there’s been talk of probes into so-called woke culture, as some would view it among these large corporations. Hunter Biden is certainly going to be a focus for the House Oversight Committee—his business ties abroad. There’s been calls for the impeachment of the Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas. Immigration will be a big focus.

On the foreign-policy front, the big priority will be Afghanistan. We have not seen any kind of detailed accounting from the Biden administration of what went wrong, why the Afghan government collapsed so quickly and the Afghan military melted away like it did. We’ve already seen some early hints of this from the interim report from the House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans. And I think the other strand on the foreign-policy front—they’re really going to dig into the origins of COVID-19 and the Biden administration’s response to that as well.

AL: How big of a deal are the midterms if I’m sitting in Kyiv right now? Where does this discussion leave support for Ukraine?

AM: The midterms are going to be very closely watched in Kyiv, but also in Moscow as well. My sense from speaking to Ukrainians is that they do feel that the support here in D.C. is very much bipartisan, and there is a good deal of confidence that the military aid that they have had thus far will continue. But the question of U.S. military aid to Ukraine is very much existential. The U.S. is the largest military donor to Ukraine by a long shot. There is no other country which could make up the shortfall if the U.S. was to step back from this, and so just given the magnitude of it, I think they will be watching this closely.

AL: At times, it feels like the Biden administration is continuing former U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggressive policies when it comes to China. The administration continues to slap sanctions on Beijing. They’ve dramatically expanded controls on technology flowing to and from the country. Jack, how has this greater push for decoupling with China featured in the midterms?

Jack Detsch: In the Rust Belt and these post-industrial places across America where the 2020 election between Biden and Trump was really fought, we’re seeing in those states just a major push for decoupling with China, particularly in the Ohio Senate race. Both candidates there—J.D. Vance, the Republican pro-Trump candidate, and his rival on the Democratic side, Tim Ryan—are pushing for more of a trade war, pushing for the Biden administration to put teeth into the so-called Chips Act that will onshore more semiconductor manufacturing, put more of those jobs back in the United States or back in allied countries.

As China gets more and more aggressive economically, that’s actually led to some hawkishness in the upper chamber. Certainly, Republicans centered around [Sens.] Josh Hawley [or] Tom Cotton and this new generation of Republicans that could come in, J.D. Vance among them in Ohio and then Blake Masters in Arizona—if he succeeds in toppling [Sen.] Mark Kelly—these are folks who could really push the gamut of trying to arm up countries like Taiwan to try to make the region more resilient.

AL: Amy, from left to right, do you think a Republican takeover in Congress might mean even more confrontational policies when it comes to Biden’s approach in dealing with China?

AM: I think we’ll broadly see a continuation. One of the interesting things about the transition from the Trump to the Biden administration is, actually, there was a lot of continuity on China policy. When we were reporting on the new administration’s national security strategy, which came out a couple of weeks ago, one of the people I spoke to said that they actually felt it was even more hawkish on China than Trump had been, which is really saying something.

AL: How might the midterms impact what the Biden administration does next in terms of its relationship with Saudi Arabia?

JD: I think it’s safe to say you’re not going to see another fist bump between Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It’s fascinating that Saudi Arabia is kind of this linkage issue in the political spectrum. It’s where [Sen.] Bernie Sanders progressives and Trump Republicans almost meet in the middle. And we saw that going on years back, with the pressure that both of those forces in Congress put on the Trump administration to cancel U.S. refueling of the Saudi-led coalition that was fighting in Yemen, a war that a lot of people thought was unjust, that they didn’t want American hands in.

But this is going to be difficult for Biden, because going back to [former President] Jimmy Carter, there are a lot of pressures within the Democratic Party to press against human rights violations. And in the Middle East [the U.S.], doesn’t have a convenient best buddy, stable democracy, like a Canada or a Switzerland, and it’s going to be a challenge to Biden’s more realist foreign-policy tendencies that are sometimes pushed within his National Security Council. Of course, [Middle East and North Africa coordinator] Brett McGurk seems to be a spearhead for things like the Abraham Accords, always controversial within the Biden administration. But they really wanted to push that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Now, that’s much more difficult to do even when [bin Salman] does come into power as the king. So this is just going to be sort of a canker-sore relationship for the Biden administration here.

AL: The chaotic exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the immediate takeover by the Taliban last summer was a debacle for the Biden administration. How are Republicans going to use that against the president and the Democrats?

Robbie Gramer: When I was looking at the RealClearPolitics polling average, the last time that Joe Biden had above a 50 percent approval rating was the day that the Taliban took Kabul. And so I think this is a really interesting topic where foreign policy has really had a direct impact on the midterms. And what the debacle in Afghanistan did was poke holes in one of Biden’s most powerful arguments when he was working against Trump in the 2020 elections. And that is, I am confident I’m the “adult in the room.” I will bring competency, good management, responsibility back into the realm of U.S. foreign policy, and Afghanistan completely erased that. So in the future, I think you’ll see the Republicans hit this.

There [are] definitely going to be some congressional investigations, particularly if Republicans take the House. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who put out an interim report investigating what led up to the final chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, has made it no secret that he wants to do some really deep investigations into what went wrong, including subpoenas on some Biden administration officials from the [National Security Council] and State Department. So if they take the House, there [are] definitely going to be some contentious political battles about what these investigations will look like and the extent to which the Biden administration will cooperate and play ball with Republicans.

AL: What about Iran? Will the Republican takeover further impede movement in terms of reaching a nuclear deal?

RG: The nuclear deal at this point is dead on arrival. Biden’s top Iran envoy just a couple of days ago said we’re not going to waste our time on the nuclear deal at this point. I think Republicans are always going to use Iran as a talking point to hit Biden, saying that they’re too soft on Iran. But interestingly, Iran has sort of put itself into a corner with another part of the Biden administration now on Europe, and it’s drawing the ire of all the Russia hawks. Russia is increasingly, as Jack has reported, relying on Iranian drones and munitions to fund its flagging war efforts in Ukraine. And I think that’s really altering the calculus of the Biden administration of how much leeway they’re willing to give Iran in the negotiations on the nuclear deal. That’s in addition to the massive and widespread protests going on in Iran right now against the regime’s very brutal crackdown on women’s rights.

Amelia Lester is the executive editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ThatAmelia

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