Analysis, Americas

OPINION - After 2018 US midterm elections, what’s in store?

With Bolton as key influence and military the main US actor in Syria, Turkish observers should not expect drastic changes

OPINION - After 2018 US midterm elections, what’s in store?

By Adam McConnel

- The writer teaches Turkish history at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He holds an MA and PhD in history from the same university.


“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

-- Winston S. Churchill, speech in the House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947

Once again a United States election cycle has come and gone, and once again the election’s aftermath is characterized by claims of fraud and vote suppression as the results take days, in some cases weeks, to be finalized. Once again, the society that has long promoted itself as the illustrious prototype for humanity’s emerging modern democracies presented a less-than-perfect -- in some cases downright ugly -- face to the world. Once again, America’s balloting systems, a mosaic of different types of voting methods and machines, proved wobbly at best and downright flawed or of questionable security at worst.[1]

But in the end, two years after the 2016 U.S. presidential election defied opinion polls with Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, the 2018 midterm elections played out almost exactly as predicted. The Democratic Party won back control of the House of Representatives by gaining 40 seats. The Republican Party solidified its hold on the Senate, picking up two seats. Neither of those numbers are completely final, though, because a number of races are still undecided. The most interesting outcomes occurred in the various gubernatorial races in the country, in which the Democrats achieved a surprisingly strong result by capturing seven state governorships that had previously been Republican.

First Muslim women in US Congress; Rohrabacher ousted

In the hours after vote tallies began to be more concrete, several themes emerged. Most prominent was the election of two Muslim women, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to the U.S. House of Representatives. This marks the first time that a Muslim woman will serve in Congress, and Omar will also be the first woman to wear a headscarf (hijab) there. But the event is even more notable because of Trump’s and the Republican Party’s purposeful use of anti-Muslim rhetoric as a campaign tactic.

On the other hand, one should also keep in mind that both women were elected in staunchly Democratic districts. Tlaib, whose parents are Palestinians, ran unopposed in Michigan’s 13th congressional district, which is entirely in Detroit, a city well-known for its Arab and Muslim population; the 13th district traditionally votes heavily in favor of Democratic candidates.

Omar, a Somali American, was elected in Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, also a heavily Democratic district that includes Minneapolis, Minnesota’s largest city. Omar succeeds Keith Ellison, who was the first Muslim to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. In other words, the election of both women is positive, but one should not expect a rapidly growing number of similar candidates. Local demographics made their victories possible. In general, women candidates garnered novel successes in the 2018 midterm elections.

One extremely welcome midterm election outcome for Turkey was Democratic Party candidate Harley Rouda’s victory over incumbent Republican Dana Rohrabacher in California’s 48th congressional district. Rohrabacher was one of the most vocal Congressional proponents of Fetullah Gulen, the leader of the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), the group behind the 2016 defeated coup.

What should Democrats do with control of the House?

The other themes revolved around what the Democrats should do with their newly won House majority. One viewpoint is to pursue any bipartisanship possible on issues such as infrastructure renewal or criminal justice reform in order to realize positive accomplishments. This would, ideally, begin reconstructing the relationship necessary between the two dominant parties for a better-functioning political system. That viewpoint depends on a Republican Party willing to engage in bipartisan projects that would also reflect well on the Democratic Party. Currently, such a Republican Party does not exist.

Infrastructure, for example, has already been shot down as a possible bipartisan issue despite the desperate need for infrastructure work across the country, and despite the fact that infrastructure spending would stimulate the economy. On Nov. 14, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican senator from Kentucky) told the press that the Republican Party was “not interested” in funding infrastructure projects. Criminal justice reform also sees Republican opposition in the Senate even though Trump supports it and the Democrats are enthusiastic about the issue. [2]

A more aggressive viewpoint argues that the Democratic House majority, upon taking control in January, should immediately utilize the House’s legal powers to subpoena President Trump’s financial records, which he has refused to disclose. Trump added fuel to that fire by firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions immediately after the midterm elections and making Matthew Whitaker his acting replacement. Whitaker had previously expressed negative views of the ongoing FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. This move immediately sparked heated claims that Trump had openly violated the U.S. Constitution. Rising speculation also suggests that Robert Mueller’s investigation is on the verge of events bearing serious political repercussions. [3]

Previously, when the House was under Republican control, none of this would have worried Trump, but a Democratic House majority has the ability to subpoena FBI employees to discuss what they know about such ongoing investigations. The upcoming months, subsequently, look to feature even more domestic political turmoil than the rollercoaster ride experienced in the first 22 months of Trump’s tenure.

But even if House Democrats do not succeed in carrying out legal attacks on Trump’s presidency, Trump’s prospects for reelection in 2020 continue to dim. According to multiple reports, Trump spent more than a week, including his disastrous trip to Europe, moping and displaying petulant behavior due to the election’s results. This suggests that his public victory declarations were even more shallow than usual, and that Trump is awakening to the possibility of defeat in 2020. New polls also indicate that voter support for Trump continues to weaken. [4]

Ramifications for US policy towards Turkey or its region?

Exactly a week after the midterm elections, Trump chose to announce his choice for the vacant U.S. ambassadorship to Saudi Arabia. Choosing John Abizaid, a retired four-star general who held high-ranking positions at U.S. Central Command during and after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, is actually less important than the timing.

The U.S. representative post in Riyadh has been vacant since January 2017, when Trump took office. But despite the ongoing scandal over the grotesque and horrific murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul Consulate, and despite the increasingly energetic but clumsy attempts by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s retinue to cover up and obfuscate the issue, Trump chose this moment to announce his nominee. What does that indicate? “Stay the course”! In other words, Turkey’s region will see two more years of exactly what it has seen so far from Trump’s administration, but now with foreign policy firmly steered by National Security Advisor John Bolton’s fell hand.

In the weeks following the midterm elections, Trump made several public statements concerning Turkey that were less combative or threatening than even two months ago. Undoubtedly, the reason is the gigantic wrench that the Khashoggi murder put into Trump’s plans. But no one should be deceived by Trump’s more subdued tone. As long as Bolton is at his side, Trump will be pushed to pursue rapacious policies that clash with Turkey’s interests. The primary target of Bolton’s malevolence is Iran, but any country that does not display total and complete subservience to Bolton’s imperatives can become a quasi-enemy, as Turkey experienced firsthand in August.

Last week, U.S. press rumors asserted that the Trump administration had approached Turkish officials with offers of extraditing Fetullah Gulen in return for quietly giving up on the investigation into the Khashoggi murder. My guess is that someone connected to the Trump Administration leaked those rumors for public relations reasons, maybe even as a trial balloon.

However, no one should expect the Turkish government to engage in such a bargain simply because the two issues are entirely unrelated. Gulen is wanted for numerous crimes committed against Turkish society, including the deaths of 251 people during the July 2016 failed coup attempt and, regardless of any other consideration, should be shipped back to Turkey to face justice. The Khashoggi murder was a gross violation of international diplomatic norms and human rights. Trump and those around him, who have made heavy bets on Crown Prince bin Salman for the promotion of U.S. interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, are clearly looking for an exit strategy from the scandal surrounding Khashoggi’s murder. They should realize that the only possible solution is to appropriately punish those who instigated and perpetrated the crime.

In Syria, joint Turkish-American patrols have begun around Manbij, but the U.S. shows no sign of finally recognizing that partnering with the PKK’s Syrian branch is a dead-end street. James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, even accepts on the record that the PYD/YPG are integral parts of the PKK, but this does not mean that the U.S. is about to fundamentally alter its approach.

Just the opposite, all signs indicate that U.S. officials are committed to cooperation with an organization that is designated “terrorist” by the U.S. government. In parallel, Turkish officials are now making more frequent references to the region east of the Euphrates in northern Syria, so it looks as though Turkish patience with the PKK/PYD’s presence there is wearing thin. A Turkish operation to remove the PKK/PYD’s presence does not seem imminent, but expectations are mounting.

Overall, the U.S. midterms will likely have little influence on the Trump administration’s policies towards Turkey. Because Bolton remains the formative influence on U.S. foreign policy, and because the U.S. military continues to be the most important U.S. policy actor in Syria, Turkish observers should not expect dramatic changes in American behavior.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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[4] [] Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.
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