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How the midterms outcome might shape US foreign policy

GOP control of Congress could affect U.S. strategy toward Russia, Iran.

November 3, 2022, 5:02 AM

While domestic issues such as inflation, crime, and abortion access have dominated the run-up to the midterm elections, how Americans cast their ballots may also have consequences for a host of pressing international concerns, including Vladimir Putin's ruthless campaign in Ukraine and Iran's rapidly accelerating nuclear program.

ABC News spoke to foreign policy and national security experts and former officials about how the outcome of the midterms vote might drive the country's foreign policy for the next two years.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), accompanied by Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, oversees the 'Vostok-2022' military exercises at the Sergeevskyi training ground outside the city of Ussuriysk, Sept. 6, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), accompanied by Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, oversees the 'Vostok-2022' military exercises at the Sergeevskyi training ground outside the city of Ussuriysk on the Russian Far East on Sept. 6, 2022.
Mikhail Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Support for Ukraine, resistance to Russia

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the leading candidate for House speaker if Republicans take control of the chamber, warned last month that his party wouldn't "write a blank check" to Ukraine, suggesting a Republican red wave might mean rolling back support for Kyiv's efforts to fend off Russia's invasion.

Scott Anderson, a former U.S. diplomat and a visiting fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says opposition to major aid packages for Ukraine could build in a Republican-run House -- but it's unlikely to happen overnight.

"I suspect it is going to be a slow, gradual shift over the course of the next Congress. Generally, support for Ukraine seems pretty popular right now," he said. "I don't think Republicans are going to want to run headlong against that."

But Anderson says McCarthy's comments likely resonate with at least some Republicans who have remained mostly quiet through the Ukraine crisis so far -- a group closely aligned with former President Donald Trump.

"It's the contingent that was most vocally opposed to Ukraine in the first impeachment, that was more skeptical of Volodymyr Zelenskyy -- who is now broadly seen as a pretty heroic figure -- and more friendly to Vladimir Putin, who is coming out of this not just looking like a villain, but looking like an incompetent villain," he said. "So, it's been very embarrassing for them to talk about, but those underlying views haven't really changed."

Those lawmakers could soon become louder, according to Anderson.

"Because it's a wing tied to Donald Trump and his political support base, it's tied to a lot of people who right now are some of the biggest funders and most active organizers in the Republican Party. So, they have a kind of outsize influence, because they're the ones who can help House races and members of Congress fight in competitive elections," he stated.

PHOTO: Ukrainian servicemen prepare a self-propelled howitzer to fire toward Russian positions, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, on a frontline in Mykolaiv region, Ukraine, Nov. 2, 2022.
Ukrainian servicemen prepare a self-propelled howitzer to fire toward Russian positions, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, on a frontline in Mykolaiv region, Ukraine, Nov. 2, 2022.
Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Recently, Democratic politicians have also cast doubt on whether their party will remain united behind the Biden administration's approach to Ukraine. In late October, a letter signed by 30 House progressives was released calling for the White House to link aid to Kyiv with movement towards a negotiated end to the conflict, but withdrew it after they faced significant blowback.

Anderson says the letter was poorly timed, but illustrative of a faction that could ultimately break with President Joe Biden even if Democrats hold onto the House.

"They frame themselves more as noninterventionist -- folks who are worried about promoting conflict or exercising too much malign influence overseas," he said, adding that if the tides change in Ukraine during the months to come, those lawmakers may feel embolden and more aggressively advocate for a different approach.

Both Anderson and Anthony Cordesman, the Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former national security assistant to GOP Sen. John McCain, argue that economic woes could eventually challenge support for Ukraine across the political spectrum.

"When you really look at the money going abroad, it so far is still pretty limited compared to what we were spending on Afghanistan," Cordesman said. "But if there is a steady increase in inflation and economic problems, there may be pressure for civil spending at the expense of defense spending."

Cordesman thinks the economy would have to suffer a few more blows to get to that point, but it "doesn't mean that there won't be a lot of noise" about money flowing abroad coming from Capitol Hill when the new Congress is sworn in in January.

PHOTO: Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military personnel parade under an Iranian Kheibar Shekan Ballistic missile in downtown Tehran during a rally commemorating the International Quds Day, also known as the Jerusalem day, on April 29, 2022.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military personnel parade under an Iranian Kheibar Shekan Ballistic missile in downtown Tehran during a rally commemorating the International Quds Day, also known as the Jerusalem day, on April 29, 2022.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Iran threat

A Republican-dominated Congress could push the Biden administration to pay more attention to another thorn in its side: Iran.

Originally, the president's approach to curbing Iran's nuclear program was dominated by its efforts to coax it back into the Obama-era pact that Trump exited in 2018. After months of sputtering negotiations, that aim has been all but abandoned -- but the White House has not officially declared that the talks are dead.

"The Biden administration has signaled that the nuclear deal is not its priority, but there is a significant disconnect between its actions and its words on the Iran threat," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who argues there is a persisting perception that the U.S. remains eager to resurrect the agreement in exchange for rolling back other penalties against Tehran.

"If there is a change in control of Congress, because of how partisan unfortunately a lot of Iran policy has become, there would be more pressure--given that the current administration and many Democrats in general campaigned on resurrecting a deal and engaging with Iran," he said. "There certainly will be desire for more scrutiny and oversight."

Regardless of which party is in the driver's seat, Taleblu says the next Congress' first order of business should be demanding a clear strategy from the White House on combatting the blooming partnership between Iran and Russia.

"There is a lot to unpack there, and in order to move forward on policy, Congress needs answers first," Taleblu said.

PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Prime Minister Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks as he receives the Saudi soccer team, ahead of their participation in FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 23, 2022.
Saudi Arabia's Prime Minister Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks as he receives the Saudi soccer team, ahead of their participation in FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 23, 2022.
Saudi Royal Court via Reuters

Saudi Arabia: friend or foe?

After OPEC+ announced last month it would cut oil production, potentially hurting Democrats' chances at the ballot box, members of the party started calling for its de facto leader -- Saudi Arabia -- to be punished, calling for a block on arm sales to Riyadh or for the U.S. to pull troops from the country.

President Biden has promised "consequences" for the kingdom but slow-walked any action, while administration officials have stressed the U.S has a range of interests in Saudi Arabia extending beyond energy needs.

Anderson says no matter the outcome of the elections, any sharp retaliation is unlikely.

"Even if you see Democrats being more vocal and threatening sanctions for Saudi Arabia, they aren't going to disagree with the Biden administration. They're just playing bad cop to the Biden administration's good cop, and trying to encourage Saudi Arabia to take a little bit of a different tack," he said.

But Taleblu predicts that if Democrats have enough momentum and the votes to follow through on their proposals next year, the measures could prove detrimental when it comes to stamping out mutual threats in the Middle East.

"Ally maintenance is sometimes harder than adversary maintenance, especially when it intersects with partisan politics," he said. "If the relationship with Saudi Arabia and other states in the Persian Gulf are further politicized and the dividends of the existing national security relationships are not appreciated, Washington could be shooting itself in the foot."

Cordesman argues that regardless of how the midterms play out, how bitter things get with Saudi Arabia depends on whether winter brings surging energy costs.

"The more prices rise, the more people may find themselves feeling that more pressure should be put on Saudi Arabia other Gulf exporters to go back to the higher levels of export," he said.

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