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Election results will not affect Trump’s foreign policy agenda

Nov 13,2018 - Last updated at Nov 13,2018

If, as it is said, politics is a blood sport, then it has just got ten bloodier in the wake of last week’s US congressional midterm elections. It was a half victory, half defeat for both parties. The Democrats recaptured the House of Representatives, after eight years in the political wilderness, while the Republicans bolstered their control of the Senate; thus ending the latter’s firm grip over Congress. The outcome, for now, is that President Donald Trump’s open-ended agenda for America, and the world, has hit a major snag.

The contrast between Trump’s first two years in the White House and the remaining two years of his first term will be stark, to say the least. The Democrats will do their best to derail the president’s legislative programme; thus crippling his freedom to implement his domestic agenda. Moreover, it will be up to the Democratic-led House of Representatives to initiate investigations into Trump’s finances and personal life, making it difficult for the president to follow through on most of his objectives. The coming two years will deepen America’s divisions and mobilise voters before the decisive 2020 presidential elections.

But the question is how will last week’s election outcome affect Trump’s foreign policy agenda? The Democrats have been critical of Trump’s nationalist, isolationist and confrontational approach to foreign challenges. In fact, even America’s closest allies have been on the defensive as Trump lambasted decades-old military alliances, multinational trade deals and America’s role and mission in a largely unipolar world. Trump has diminished the US influence in dealing with global challenges, such as climate change, the environment, human rights, free trade and other issues. He has had an infectious effect on far-right movements and extreme nationalist politics in Europe and elsewhere. His “America First” mantra continues to be a polarising, galvanising and divisive tool not only in the US, but across the world.

There are two contrasting views on how the midterm elections will affect Trump’s foreign policy programme. One believes that he will be enmeshed in domestic political wrangles over the coming two years that he will hardly have time to follow his broad foreign policy objectives whether on Iran, North Korea, Russia or the Middle East. One year from now Trump will be busy preparing for his re-election battle; one that will be crucial for the majority of Americans and indeed the world.

The other view says that a divided Congress will end up crippling Trump domestically and that Democrats will derail his grand designs to build a wall along the borders with Mexico, reduce taxes further and tighten immigration laws, among others. One area where Congress can do little, and that remains debatable, is in the realm of foreign policy where the president can push freely on issues, such as containing Iran, negotiating regional peace between Israel and its neighbours and attempting to reach a deal with North Korea. In fact, there are those who believe that Trump will seek to build a legacy by forging an ultimate peace agreement in the Middle East before the end of his first term.

Both views are partially right. Trump is a counterpuncher and he will not take the Democrats’ challenge to his presidency sitting down. He will fight back and appeal to his core base by demonising his political opponents. The Democrats will buy time by derailing his legislative agenda and harassing the president through investigations, while avoiding a path to impeachment.

But the president will still enjoy free rein in handling foreign policy. For the region, there are a number of issues that Trump can still influence. The most immediate one is containing Iran’s regional ambitions. We are yet to see the effect of the latest batch of US sanctions on Iran’s economy and domestic politics. The US continues to be a major player in Iraq, Syria and the Arab Gulf region.

But a final deal between Israel and its neighbours remains Trump’s most controversial regional goal. The region awaits the unveiling of Trump’s peace offer to Israel and the Palestinians; one that the White House team entrusted with putting it together says it is now ready and will be made public soon.

But time is not on Trump’s side. He has between now and the end of the year to bring his plan forward. In January, a new Congress will convene and Trump may get entangled in domestic challenges. Furthermore, there is a slight possibility that scandal-tainted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may call for early elections to bolster his position. It goes without saying that neither Netanyahu nor President Mahmoud Abbas are in a hurry to deal with Trump’s peace plan. The prospect of an early election in Israel will force Trump to defer announcing his plan.

Trump maybe weakened internally in the wake of the midterm elections, but there is little evidence that his foreign policy agenda will be affected by it. The world will continue to deal with his divisive and confrontational approach for some time to come.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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