Steven Cook comments on the effects of partisan polarization on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East:
It is now possible to divide the Middle East between “Republican Party countries” and “Democratic Party causes.” This is a phenomenon of at least the last decade, but it has become more pronounced during the Trump era. Aside from Jordan—there is almost no one in Washington who does not like King Abdullah—the lineups are clear: Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are Republican in the sense that the party’s leaders and voters are sympathetic to them or more sympathetic to them than Democrats are. At the same time, Democrats tend to identify with the Iran nuclear deal and the Palestinians.
There’s a certain amount of truth to all this, and to the extent that it is true it does not reflect well on the GOP. The four states Cook mentions are increasingly aligned with Republican hawks because the hawks are more than willing to give those states whatever they want and ask for nothing in return. They treat all four clients as if they were some of our most important allies, and more than that they assume that U.S. foreign policy in the region should revolve around indulging the clients’ wishes. The client governments can see this, and so they have cultivated closer ties with Republican politicians and now that Trump is in power seek to curry favor with him personally as much as possible. Republicans promise the clients “no daylight” between the U.S. and their respective governments, they make no demands of them, and they place no conditions on support. When the clients commit crimes and abuses, Republican hawks are always most likely to make excuses for the outrages themselves or they rationalize why the U.S. should continue business as usual anyway. What client government wouldn’t want to have such volunteer yes-men on their side?
The current gap between the parties shouldn’t be overstated. There is still broad bipartisan support for maintaining all of these relationships. There is much more criticism of the Saudis and the UAE because of the war on Yemen, and rightly so, but even most of the opponents of the war in Congress are not prepared to dismantle the relationships with these states. I think they should support cutting off these clients entirely, but that is not how most of these members of Congress see it. There is sharp disagreement along partisan lines over the nuclear deal, and that has been true since its inception. Not a single Republican member of Congress supported the deal when it was negotiated, and none of them supports it now. There is much more unified Democratic support for the JCPOA, and Trump’s decision to renege on it has helped shore up that support, but for the most part that doesn’t translate into a serious rethinking of U.S. Iran policy. Despite partisan polarization, there is an overall consensus for now.
The division between the two major parties in the region has become much clearer in the last two and a half years since a Republican took control of the presidency. Partisanship and a Republican in the White House have made Congressional Democrats both much more critical of the Saudis and the UAE and at least somewhat more supportive of the nuclear deal than they were when Obama was in office. It has taken Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of the war on Yemen and his relentless hostility to the nuclear deal to get all Congressional Democrats on the same page on these issues. There was no comparable Republican opposition to the Saudi relationship when Obama was selling them an unprecedented quantity of weapons and began the disgraceful policy of enabling the war on Yemen. Republican hawks probably consider this reflexive loyalty to clients a point of pride, but it is actually an indictment of their terrible judgment.
The downside is that there is a real danger that a lot of this newfound Congressional opposition to the status quo with Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and to a lesser extent with Egypt and Israel, will wane and disappear if a Democratic candidate wins in 2020. Once the incentive to criticize a Republican president is gone, there will still be some principled Democratic critics of the Saudis and the UAE and Israel’s illegal occupation, but there won’t be as many as there are now. All of these client states will want to repair relations with a Democratic administration up to a point, and depending on how serious the next administration is about changing these relationships they may be successful. That won’t stop Republican hawks from accusing the next administration of “abandoning” the clients and “appeasing” Iran, because this is what they said about Obama and it is the kind of thing they always say about Democratic presidents.
As ridiculous as this back-and-forth is, I’m not sure there is anything that can be done about it when the two major parties become increasingly self-contained social and political groups that rely on different sources of information and regard one another with growing distrust and loathing. Because foreign policy is the area where the president has the greatest discretion and it also what most voters care about least, the seesawing between opposing policies abroad as party control changes will keep happening. It seems likely that presidents will pay only small political costs as a result. Insofar as foreign policy positioning has become a front in the culture war, we should expect polarization on these issues to increase over time and as a result U.S. policies will become ever more erratic.
Foreign policy polarization can be a problem, especially if it causes the U.S. to zig-zag between supporting and abandoning negotiated agreements depending on which party happens to control the White House. There is really nothing to stop a future Republican administration from pulling the U.S. out of the JCPOA again if a Democratic administration rejoins it in 2021 (assuming that it is still around by then). If the next president negotiates any controversial agreement (and partisanship will cause every agreement to be controversial), it probably won’t survive the following administration. U.S. diplomacy can’t function if this keeps happening, and over time it will make the U.S. a completely unreliable negotiating partner.