President Barack Obama during a news conference in the White House. ‘What was the role played by countries like the US in the Arab Spring?’.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – For years, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill managed to keep relatively quiet their frustration with Barack Obama’s approach to the Middle East, careful to navigate his brokerage of a nuclear deal with Iran, his absence in Syria and his antagonistic relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by offering respectful criticism couched in commitments to party loyalty.
But the discomfort of these Democrats has spilled into the public as their president prepares to leave office.
The tipping point was the president’s decision to abstain from a UN Security Council vote condemning Israel’s settlement enterprise, allowing the resolution to pass. Several Democratic figures who long kept a lid on their criticisms of the White House let out steam, built over years of defending the Obama administration and its policies on Israel, Syria and Iran.
These are members who expressed aggravation over the president’s decision not to strike at Bashar Assad in Syria after he attacked civilians with chemical weapons in 2013, killing over 1,400 people; the anti-Iran deal Democrats who formed a bipartisan majority with Republicans in both houses of Congress opposed to the president’s signature foreign policy achievement. They are the leading Democrats on both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, and the new Senate minority leader, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York.
Obama urges Israel end occupation and Palestinians accept Israel
Several of these figures in the House – Eliot Engel of New York, Brad Sherman of California and Ted Deutch of Florida – are prominent Jewish representatives in Washington who were especially sensitive to the president’s handling of relations with Israel over the last eight years. They all sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, alongside Grace Meng, who together with them disapproved of the Iran nuclear accord.
Their counterparts in the Senate – including Schumer, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – have been consistently critical of the president’s concessional approach to Iran and its passive posture in Syria, where over half a million people have been killed since war broke out there in 2011, sparking the worst refugee crisis the world has experienced since the 1940s.
While they now sit in opposition to a unified Republican government, Democrats critical of Obama’s Mideast policies may find themselves voting alongside their Hill Republican colleagues on a host of policies they now hope will earn the support of incoming president Donald Trump.
On matters concerning Israel, they are likely to vote with the majority on a series of measures that Obama supported before his reelection in 2012 – specifically in favor of strict sanctions on the Islamic Republic over its malign regional activities, and for continued expansion of strategic cooperation with the Jewish state. In doing so, they will have the support of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has sought to maintain bipartisan consensus on Iran and Israel policy despite a concerted effort by the Obama administration to disrupt the lobby’s power over Hill members.
They will, alongside their Republican colleagues, be a part of a foreign policy center that will continue to lobby the White House to take greater action in Syria to stop Assad from continuing to slaughter innocents. Senators who have supported a gentler public tone with Israel and a harsher line on Iran have also advocated for a muscular US response to the devastation there.
Should the incoming Trump administration choose to proceed with legislation targeting Iran for its non-nuclear activities – a move allowed by the letter of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but that violates the spirit of the agreement, according to the Iranians – it will find in this group of Democrats potentially critical support, as 60 Senate votes are required to secure the passage of such bills.
A moderate congressional consensus on foreign policy has long brought together Democrats and Republicans opposed to corrupt autocratic and dictatorial rule in eastern Europe, violent strongmen in the Middle East, and aggression in the South China Sea. They have all been in favor of maintaining broad support for a Jewish state seeking to defend itself from Palestinian efforts to delegitimize its existence. They support the promotion of liberal democratic institutions and values around the world as in America’s national security interest.
Obama was not always a part of this longstanding bipartisan congressional consensus on how to maintain global security – and specifically, stability in the Middle East.
Yet Trump has also signaled he will stand apart from the consensus – if not on Israel and Iran, than certainly on Syria, where he considers the war a lost cause and the rebels fighting for Assad’s ouster a collection of terrorists, as the Russians do. How Democrats and Republicans work together to maintain their historic consensus – one that lobbied the Obama administration not for a softer line on Russian interference in Syria, but for a harsher one – will be a test of this foreign policy core that has long kept the worst of America’s partisan politics at the water’s edge.