Despite the keen interest shown across the region on the results of the US midterm elections, the American electorate voted overwhelmingly on domestic issues meaning little is going to change in Washington’s policies toward the Mideast, writes Makram Rabah
Perhaps one of the most frequent questions I was asked over the preceding week – other than the obvious regarding the Lebanese cabinet formation – was whether the US midterm elections would have any effect on US foreign policy, particularly on the Middle East and Lebanon. The rudimentary answer to this quandary is simple, or at least in my opinion.
The Trump administration’s evolving foreign policy doctrine will not suffer by the Republican loss of the House or by the fact that the Democrats are adamant on derailing Trump’s plans for reelection. My assumptions are simply based on a number of considerations; some are part of domestic US affairs while others have to do with facts transpiring in the region.
“Perhaps a very small number of the 113 million voters had Yemen, Iran, Iraq or even Israel on their mind when they cast their vote”
With over $5.2 billion spent in the recent elections, the majority of voters looked at their ballots as a way to improve their domestic affairs, such as tax cuts, healthcare, immigration, gun control and economy, rather than a vote on Trump’s foreign policy. Perhaps a very small number of the 113 million voters had Yemen, Iran, Iraq or even Israel on their mind when they cast their vote, but they were certainly not vexed by the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi nor by Hezbollah’s growing rocket arsenal in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
On a regional level, contrary to what US opponents are trying to peddle, the US sanction on Iran and its assortment of militias, is the product of bipartisan collaboration in Congress. The recent Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act, signed by President Trump on October 25, 2018, has the full endorsement of all parties across the aisle in both houses, and there is nothing to indicate that this support will falter anytime soon. The days of the Obama administration drawing and then erasing red lines are long gone. While Trump has no real intention to commit any troops to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, he is fully convinced that these sanctions will cripple Iran and curtail its expansionist project.
“The recent Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act,… has the full endorsement of all parties,… and there is nothing to indicate that this support will falter anytime soon.”
Be that as it may, what is certain is that the House Foreign Affairs Committee will most probably be chaired by veteran congressman Eliot L. Engel, one of the few Democrats who refused to endorse Obama’s faustian deal with Iran in 2015. While Engels might put pressure on the Trump administration on an array of issues and regions, he will possibly show support to what Trump is doing vis-à-vis Iran.
In the case of Lebanon, which unwillingly provides Hezbollah with political and financial cover, the US Treasury and its successive warnings and directives made it clear to the Lebanese monetary authorities that any attempt to help Hezbollah avoid sanctions will be met with punitive actions. While the Lebanese banking sector has taken these warnings to heart, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, genuinely believes that he can co-opt them to do otherwise, and allow his party to continue to move money in and out of Lebanon, using illicit and lawful means.
In his most recent televised speech, Nasrallah confirmed that the formation of the next cabinet, which has stalled for nearly six months, hinges on reaching an understanding that the Lebanese government will not fully endorse the sanctions. If such an arrangement is indeed reached, the Lebanese economy will be the target of US sanctions and Lebanon will lose the little supports it still enjoys from the international community.
The people of the region will continue to look outside for answers for their socio-economic challenges and will continue to mistakenly look towards the West, or perhaps elsewhere, to eventually honor their empty promises. However, what is certain is that change and reform, for both the Lebanese and their region, will only occur when real elections and accountability are the norm rather than the exception. Maybe then they would stop looking elsewhere for salvation, and actually stop caring about who voters in Iowa voted for or what POTUS had for breakfast.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975.