By Arab News
By Dr. Amal Mudallali
As the Middle East stands on the edge of the abyss, with the specter of a long and bloody war underway, the US Congress is frozen without a speaker and the political dysfunction in Washington is worrying lawmakers and officials alike. This feeling was captured in an article in Foreign Affairs by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates titled “The Dysfunctional Superpower.” Gates wrote: “Dysfunction has made American power erratic and unreliable, practically inviting risk-prone autocrats to place dangerous bets.”
Congressional leaders expressed worry over the weekend that they cannot move fast enough to respond to the deteriorating situation in the Middle East because of the vacant seat at the helm of Congress. But this is not all. A number of American ambassadors to Middle Eastern countries have been waiting for months to be confirmed by Congress, including the ambassadors to Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Oman and Kuwait. This leaves American diplomacy in the region weakened at a very fraught time, according to diplomats.
The situation with military appointments is no better. Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s hold on about 300 military nominations is also continuing, depriving high-level and sensitive posts of their leaders, while the government is living on borrowed time before the next threat of a government shutdown on Nov. 17.
The Democrats hope that the situation in Israel will convince their Republican colleagues to “put their act together” and vote in a new speaker this week. With the exception of a handful of hard-liners in the Republican Party, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed a sense of urgency regarding the situation in the Middle East and the importance of presenting a show of unity.
The attack on Israel united Congress and its members, unlike the issue of aid to Ukraine, which is facing an uphill battle because a group of Republican lawmakers believe that this money would be better spent at home. It was this Ukraine aid that was at the heart of last month’s fight in Congress that threatened to shut down the government. Republicans who oppose the aid vowed to vote against the proposed funding bill, causing the government to be shut down, if the money was not dropped.
This same small group of Republicans led an upheaval at the US Capitol when they orchestrated the historic ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy over the budget, even though the temporary funding deal that he struck with the Democrats dropped the Ukraine aid and avoided a government shutdown. It was the first time in history the House of Representatives had voted to remove its leader. The removal of the speaker and the looming battle among Republicans over who will take the top job in Congress created a sense of dread as the Middle East entered the fray.
Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is worried about the message this sends to the world about America’s ability to govern. He said: “I look at the world and all the threats that are out there, and what kind of message are we sending to our adversaries when we can’t govern … How does (Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) look at this, knowing that we cannot function properly? And I think it sends a terrible message. We have to get a speaker elected this week so we can get things to the floor like replenishing the Iron Dome.”
Congress is also readying a resolution to condemn Hamas and McCaul said it cannot wait. “We have to get that message out as soon as possible,” he said. Some members of Congress are calling for action to support Israel even without a new speaker.
Dropping the Ukraine aid from the government funding bill was a setback for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who visited Washington a few weeks ago and requested the aid. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said after meeting Zelensky: “There was a single sentence that summed it all up, and I’m quoting him verbatim. Mr. Zelensky said, ‘If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war.’”
The alarm about Congress dropping the Ukraine aid came from both sides of the Atlantic, and it freaked out the Europeans. Europe has always been concerned about the impact of American domestic divisions on the country’s support for Ukraine. Some voices even questioned whether Europe could count on America as a reliable ally if there was a change in Congress or of administration. The BBC called the move by Congress a “budget fiasco.”
But there is another danger that also has strategic implications for America’s standing and credibility in the world. The Biden administration’s request for funds to scale up the capacity of the World Bank and other international financial organizations “faces an even steeper uphill battle,” according to Politico. Republicans in Congress, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, who orchestrated the ouster of McCarthy, are opposing more aid for Ukraine, but at the same time are blocking US aid to the World Bank and other international financial institutions because the two are “lumped together.”
Those World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials who are meeting in Marrakech this week will be disappointed, but their dismay will be negligible compared to that of the White House. President Joe Biden made reforming, “reshaping and scaling up” the World Bank and the IMF his focus at the recent G20 summit in India and promised millions of American dollars to bolster the World Bank’s capacity to help developing countries.
The US is facing a major challenge from the BRICS nations and the Global South to encourage a fairer international order and to reform the World Bank and the IMF to make them more responsive to the needs of developing countries. The US administration vowed to increase its support for these institutions and make them more representative. The White House sees these efforts as part of its strategy to counter China’s growing influence in these institutions and its challenge to the international world order that the US built following the Second World War.
If Congress does not approve the White House request for these funds, America’s standing and credibility will be damaged.
The divisions in Congress between Republicans and Democrats, and within the Republican Party in particular, are proving to be the biggest challenge to the White House and US foreign policy. This week could prove crucial: Will congress come together and choose a speaker quickly, end the gridlock and unlock the hold being placed on political and military appointees, as well as approve the needed funds to support the administration’s foreign policy agenda, or will it continue with business as usual? America’s credibility and its strategic competition with China depends on a positive outcome.
• Dr. Amal Mudallali is an American policy and international relations analyst.