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Democrats House win may alter Trump foreign policy

November 8, 2018

By seizing control of the House, Democrats have set the stage for a power struggle with President Trump that will reverberate around the world, foreign policy experts said Wednesday.

U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere are likely to come under scrutiny, raising fears abroad that Republicans’ electoral losses could spur the president to lash out even more against NATO, China and other perceived adversaries.

Although Democrats will be limited in their ability to alter Mr. Trump’s foreign policy especially given that Republicans strengthened their grip on the Senate in the midterm contests presumed incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her allies surely will call hearings, conduct investigations and demand more information on how Mr. Trump is handling crises from the Middle East to the Pacific.

House Democrats are expected to take a harsh look at the effectiveness of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the strategy to eradicate the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the American relationship with Russia, foreign aid and the State Department’s budget, denuclearization efforts with North Korea and Iran, and U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal military campaign against extremists in Yemen, analysts say.

But the Democratic offensive is unlikely to limit Mr. Trump’s bold actions on the global front, scholars predict. Unlike the White House’s domestic agenda, which will hit serious roadblocks over the next two years, there was a growing expectation Wednesday that Mr. Trump will feel liberated to act more aggressively in the foreign policy realm.

Some analysts predicted that aggression could manifest itself most in the U.S. relationship with Beijing, perhaps in the form of ramped-up military tensions in the South China Sea or escalations in the trade war with China.

“If I were you looking at the United States, I would say a more besieged President Trump who has not succeeded in midterms is likely to act more erratically, more aggressively and potentially more dangerous for your part of the world,” political scientist Ian Bremmer said Wednesday in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

“The likelihood that you get surprises out of the second two years of the Trump presidency is very high,” said Mr. Bremmer, founder of Eurasia Group.

Across the Atlantic, there is concern that Mr. Trump will ratchet up his pressure campaign toward NATO, the European Union and leading Western allies such as Germany, which the president has accused of not spending enough on defense.

“The formidable executive powers of the president, notably in foreign policy, remain untouched,” Norbert Roettgen, head of the foreign affairs committee in the German Bundestag, told Deutschlandfunk radio. “We need to prepare for the possibility that Trump’s defeat [in the House] fires him up, that he intensifies the polarization, the aggression we saw during the campaign.”

Concerns were similar in Israel, where political pundits feared that Mr. Trump could try to score a major win ahead of his 2020 re-election effort by securing the “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians.

“What worries me is that presidents often shift to foreign policy after midterms, when they lose the House, and so I think it is likely that Trump will look for successes there since he can’t take away Obamacare now or advance his tax plans,” said Shmuel Sandler, professor of political science at Bar Ilan University just outside Tel Aviv. “We can look at a scenario where he tries to push forward his ‘deal of the century plan.’”

‘Hit the ground running’

The Democrats’ playbook for handling Mr. Trump’s foreign policy approach hasn’t been finalized. It wasn’t even entirely clear Wednesday who would take helm of key committees inside the House responsible for oversight of foreign affairs, the military and the CIA.

But analysts say Democrats will act quickly. In addition to calling hearings on more traditional foreign policy matters such as the war against Islamic State and the complex geopolitical rivalry with China, Democrats also will face pressure to investigate the more personal sides of Mr. Trump’s approach to global affairs.

Democrats will pay attention to his private conversations and personal relationships with leaders such as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin, son-in-law Jared Kushner’s role in negotiating a Middle East peace deal, and whether high-ranking officials from around the world have tried to curry favor with the president by staying at his properties in New York and Washington.

“They should all hit the ground running in January,” said an analysis Wednesday by Obama administration veterans Brian McKeon and Caroline Tess, now senior director and senior fellow, respectively, at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.

“To begin with, they should hold hearings on U.S. policy toward Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Central America; the impact of tariffs on economic and foreign policy; and growing transnational threats, particularly climate change, cybersecurity, and terrorism,” they wrote.

“The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will likely spend a good portion of its time investigating the Trump family businesses,” they said.

“It should prioritize taking a close look at the Chinese and Russians who have bought Trump properties in New York and elsewhere, as well as the lavish spending by foreign governments at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.”

“There’s so much to the Trump administration that could be investigated, it’s an unprecedented situation of major business entanglements around the world,” Dana Allin, senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Associated Press. “It’s very difficult to rule out the idea that foreign policy decisions are not being kept separate from business interests.”

Democrats, however, could overplay their hand if they press too hard, too early.

“From a political point of view, the challenge for them is will they use [their investigatory power] in a subtle way ... or are we going to see another set of Benghazi hearings and they go overboard?” said Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In Russia, top officials openly predicted that the Democrat-controlled House would reach too far and spur more confusion and chaos in the U.S.

“I’m afraid that the U.S. political system will be among losers, becoming even more unbalanced and unpredictable, up to attempts to launch the impeachment procedure,” Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told Russia’s Tass news agency.

But there was also a measure of fatalism that the political earthquake in Washington will have little impact on Mr. Trump’s disruptive foreign policy, in Russia and around the globe.

“It would be hard to make [the relationship] even worse,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday.

Staff writer Dan Boylan in Washington and stringer Jacob Wirtschafter in Cairo contributed to this report.

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