By Hisham Melhem
1 November 2014
Next Tuesday, many voters participating in the mid-term elections will find themselves on the horn of a dilemma. Trying to square an impossible electoral circle, many will decide on how to punish President Obama and his party, while not rewarding the Republicans. Welcome to dysfunctional America circa 2014.
President Obama’s approval is around 44%, and barely 21% of Americans approve of the way the Republicans in Congress are handling their job. Only 14% of Americans approve of how the divided Congress is handling its job. The mood of the electorate is downbeat, with a majority of Americans saying that they cannot trust the federal government in Washington to do what is right or its ability to solve the big domestic and international problems facing the country from the Ebola virus, to the new challenge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to Russia’s revival of Cold War tactics in the Ukraine and beyond.
At stake in Tuesday’s election are all 435 House of Representatives seats, 36 Senate seats and 36 governorships as well as 146 ballot initiatives in 42 states ranging from restricting abortion to legalizing marijuana, to providing additional information about what ingredients are in the food people consume. But the stakes go beyond the contested seats, because the elections are taking place at a time of growing internal and international uncertainty about American leadership and amid mounting questions about the ability of President Obama to lead the country and protect its vital interests and the interests of its allies during the last two years of his tenure.
We are accustomed to reading articles and books about the dysfunction in Washington caused by entrenched partisanship and parochial politics, but in the last few days we read a spate of articles about the dysfunction within the administration implying that Obama is presiding over a “team of bumblers”, lacking cohesion and clarity in the face of ISIS, and pursuing a disastrous policy in Syria.
Big Mo Belongs To the Republicans
Most opinion polls show that it is very hard for the Democrats to retain control of the Senate and that the momentum which was once dubbed by the late President Gerald Ford as “Big Mo,” belongs to the Republicans who are on the verge of capturing the Senate and even enlarging their majority in the House of Representatives, thus controlling both chambers of Congress for the first time during Obama’s presidency. The Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win a simple majority in the Senate and they have many paths that could lead them to winning 51 seats.
President Obama’s diminishing popularity, and his inability to pass any of his priorities in his second term from Immigration reform to raising the minimum wage, has made him radioactive to many Democratic candidates who shunned him and refused to appear with him on the campaign trail as if he should be quarantined at the White House until the elections are over. Senator Mary Landrieu (Democrat- Louisiana) waded into that forbidden territory of race when she said to NBC’s anchor Chick Todd “I will be very, very honest with you; the South has not always been the friendliest place for African Americans.” Of course, these Democratic candidates will always welcome the funds that the President has consistently raised from the Democratic base, which despite its disillusionment with some of his decisions, is still loyal to the promise of his 2008 campaign.
And once again, President Obama finds himself operating in the shadows of his former formidable opponent and later collaborator Hillary Clinton and that old reliable Democrat for all seasons Bill Clinton. And yet, watching the Democrats and listening to their pleas for funds, and their calls on the base to turn out and vote, given that many voters don’t bother with midterm elections, one senses that the prize, that is the Senate will be lost. In fact you can hear some Republican lawmakers and operatives sharpening their long knives and passing the ammunition for the kill. The hostility some Republicans in Congress harbours towards the President, some of it personal or related to his ethnic and social background more so than to his political views, will likely lead them to spend the next two years tormenting a president on the defensive, even if the spectacle of such a display of crass Schadenfreude is damaging to the national interest.
Decay and Dysfunction
In recent years, the political and ideological polarization within the American political system has reached its lowest levels since the 1850s when the Northern and Southern states could not resolve their differences over slavery (whether to extend the abominable institution to the western states) which was one of the fundamental reasons that led to the civil war, the bloodiest and most traumatic event in American history.
In a recent groundbreaking essay titled “America in decay”, historian Francis Fukuyama posits that political decay occurs when institutions fail to adapt to changing external circumstances either because of intellectual rigidities or because of the ability of entrenched elites to block change. Fukuyama believes that “this is precisely what has been happening in the United States in recent decades, as many of its political institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional”. He ominously adds, “And there is no guarantee that the situation will change much without a major shock to the political order.” Of course we don’t need a civil war to break the decay and dysfunction, but Fukuyama’s warning is well taken.
Such dysfunction will become more salient if the Republicans win a majority in the Senate. There are some analysts who would argue that the Republicans will be forced to become less ideological and will seek common ground with the president to avoid alienating the electorate in 2016. But if recent history is any guide, and if some tea party candidates are elected, their roar and intimidating power will immobilize any moderate Republicans seeking accommodation to pass important legislation. More ominously, a president who already suffers from a perception of leadership deficit will be weakened further in the eyes of his domestic opponents and his international enemies, when bereft of congressional cover. Even with a Democratic Senate Obama’s exercise of international leadership was hesitant, tentative and wobbly as we have seen in the case of Syria and the Ukraine.
A Republican Senate and Its Discontents
A Republican Senate will attempt to roll back as much as possible of President Obama’s legacy, including repealing his signature achievement; the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), even though this will be an exercise in futility as most analysts would say, but such exercise would appeal to the “hell no” wing of the Republican party. There will be efforts to force Obama to allow for more oil and gas exploration on federal land and expand off shore drilling, and push for a vote on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, which is opposed by environmentalists and something that President Obama has resisted so far. The proponents of these moves claim that such decisions will make the U.S. self-sufficient in energy production and end its dependence on foreign oil. The control of the Republicans of the committees of the Senate will give them the powers to subpoena any senior official to testify in front of their committees. These powers will make it practically impossible for the president to nominate judges or ambassadors that the Republicans deem too liberal or progressive. There is no reason to believe that the Senate that some Republicans dubbed a legislative graveyard will cease to be so under Republican control. Washington will be more toxic, acrimonious and paralyzed, for two more years, a period that would feel like an eternity.
A Republican Senate will propel some of President Obama’s harshest critics such as Senator John McCain into leadership positions. Senator McCain is expected to become the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee should Republicans take the upper chamber. McCain and the other Senate leaders will try to put more constraints on the ability of the Obama administration’s dealing with Iran and will insist on preventing Iran from enriching Uranium and will seek tougher sanctions on Tehran if the P-5 plus one negotiations with Iran collapse. In a Republican Senate, calls for arming the Ukraine, a policy opposed by the Obama administration, will be louder and will be supplemented by tougher sanctions on Russia.
But the biggest confrontation between the Republican Senate and the Obama White House will be fought in the fluid Syrian-Iraqi theatre where ISIS has been challenging America’s supposedly formidable deterrence. Senator McCain has criticized Obama’s limited military strategy against ISIS. He said recently that “we may be able to ‘contain’ but to actually defeat ISIS is going to require more boots on the ground, more vigorous strikes, more special forces, further arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and creating a no-fly zone and buffer zone in Syria”.
Recent press reports about the dysfunction within the Obama administration regarding Syria will provide ammunition for a Republican Senate to expose the inherent contradictions of the administration and its obfuscations about Syria.
A memo from the secretary of defence Chuck Hagel to National Security Advisor Susan Rice warned that the administration’s strategy towards the future of Syrian dictator Assad is not clear, and that this ambiguity would endanger the international coalition, since some Arab partners are seeking explicitly the demise of the Assad regime. Also the decision by the White House to write off the Free Syrian Army’s active forces fighting ISIS and al-Nusra Front and instead try to establish a new small force from scratch by recruiting fighters from refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan, and then not task this force with fighting ISIS or the Assad regime strikes many as another indication that the Obama administration is not serious about confronting the Syrian regime.
A recent report in the Wall Street Journal quoted a senior U.S. defence official working on Iraq as saying, “They [the U.S.] want to focus on ISIL [ISIS] and they are worried about antagonizing the Iranians, which they say may cause them to react –or the Shiite militias in Iraq to react –against our embassy and interests in Iraq and derail the [nuclear] talks,” He added “They are articulating in high-level interagency meetings that they don’t want to do anything that’s interpreted by the Iranians as threatening to the regime” of Bashar Assad. One could only imagine how senior Obama administration officials being grilled in congressional hearings organized by newly minted Republican chairmen.
Watching the numerous photos of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s commander of the Quds Force, a division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, smiling broadly with Peshmerga units and Iraqi Shiite militias, and observing his role in Syria and in Lebanon as the de facto commander of Shiite forces, one is tempted to call him Iran’s viceroy in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
If the U.S. and Iran are moving towards a new ‘détente’ as the Wall Street Journal is alleging, seeing a nuclear deal and the need to combat a new common enemy, ISIS as the basis of such a ‘détente’, then Washington should not be surprised if the Arab members of the international coalition see this arrangement as extending Iran’s borders to the Mediterranean and ceding Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to Iran’s political orbit. If the Republicans control the Senate, one would hope to see a serious probe into the reasons why the Obama administration has actually abandoned the Syrian people to the tender mercies of the monstrosities called the Assad regime, ISIS and al-Nusra Front. President Obama’s approach to the Syrian tragedy amounts to a massive, shameful criminal negligence.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya.