Republican Congress unlikely to change Obama’s Middle East policy

The midterms were by far the loudest public rebuttal of Obama’s track record since he came to office in 2009

Joyce Karam

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There is no question that the “Republican wave” sweeping the U.S. Congress this week is a setback for the Obama administration and will make life much harder for the 44th President. But it would be unrealistic to expect dramatic implications on the U.S. policy in the Middle East, due to divisions within the Republican party, and the White House maintaining the executive upper-hand to push its policy including a potential deal with Iran.

The midterms were by far the loudest public rebuttal of Obama’s track record since he came to office in 2009, costing his party 7 seats in the Senate, 13 in the House, and the majority of the governors’ races.

But contrary to those in 2002 and 2006 where the war on Al-Qaeda and the Iraq quagmire were central in deciding the outcome, U.S. policy in the Middle East took the back seat this time and local concerns about the economy and governance prevailed. There were questions about the decline of U.S. leadership, and the spread of radicalization in the Middle East, but these were not deciding factors for the electorate.

Hawks and isolationists

The Republican takeover of the Senate will bring a more hawkish tone and different optics to the policy debate on the Middle East in Washington. The ascendance of hardline Republicans such as Senator John McCain and Bob Corker to the head of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees will grant the GOP a louder microphone to criticize the White House.

The midterms were by far the loudest public rebuttal of Obama’s track record since he came to office in 2009

Joyce Karam

It is important, however, not to overstate the power of the interventionist wing inside the Republican party. If the latest vote on Syria in the Senate is any evidence, more Republican Senators than Democrats (12-9) opposed last month training and equipping the Syrian rebels. Of those opposing are two Republican presidential hopefuls Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, whose voices will only grow louder as the 2016 Presidential campaign approaches, and in order to draw distinction with Obama and with Hillary Clinton whom Rand Paul described as a “war hawk.”

The Syrian opposition also lost a key supporter with the retirement of Democrat Senator Carl Levin who last year advocated a No Fly Zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. Yet, the new makeup of the Senate brings former army veterans Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst to the Republican ranks, in a way that could make it easier for Obama to ask for ground troops in Iraq but only if the administration decides to go down that path.

Israel and Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands to gain the most from the Senate reshuffle. Netanyahu, who is traditionally closer to the Republican party, will get more leverage to challenge Obama on his own turf, making the administration think twice before adopting or abstaining from vetoing any pro-Palestinian resolution at the United Nations.

Netanyahu’s leverage could also play out in building on the wide divergence between Obama and the Republicans on Iran. While Senate Democrats were reluctant to impose new sanctions so as not to jeopardize fate of negotiations and embarrass their president, it is unlikely that Republicans will have that concern. Such a move while would certainly complicate the talks, it does not necessarily seal their fate. Obama can opt to waive new sanctions on Iran, and can delay a vote on any deal until later stages of its implementation.

Defiant Obama

Obama’s tone did not promise any compromises on his foreign policy agenda. The president in his one-hour-long press conference yesterday dodged a question on whether he would seek Congressional approval for a deal with Iran.

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Obama said, prioritizing getting to a deal with Iran before engaging Congress. “If we do have a deal that I have confidence will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and that we can convince the world and the public will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, then it will be time to engage in Congress,” he added. This approach does not bind him into seeking approval from Congress, and shows his willingness to take political risks if the deal meets the international parameters.

On Syria, Obama’s desire to keep distance from the internal strife will continue in the next two years. His emphasis was repeatedly on Iraq, while declaring that “our focus in Syria is not to solve the entire Syria situation, but rather to isolate the areas in which ISIS can operate.”

For a president who has pursued from day one in office a peaceful resolution for the Iranian nuclear issue and built a big part of his legacy on averting and ending wars in the Middle East, it is unlikely that the electoral shift in the U.S. will change his trajectory. Getting to a deal with Iran, stabilizing Iraq and containing the ISIS threat remain the overarching goals for Obama in the Middle East, and any significant changes will have to wait for his successor.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.