What the U.S. Presidential Election Means for the Middle East

On February 24, 2016, John Hudak, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director at the Center for Effective Public Management Governance Studies–Brookings Institution, delivered a CIRS Focused Discussion titled “What the U.S. Presidential Election Means for the Middle East.” Hudak, an expert on U.S. elections and campaigns, stated that it is difficult to gauge the positions and policies of the U.S. presidential candidates on the Middle East region since they are often vague and variable, especially during the primaries.  Compared to previous election cycles, however, the 2016 elections are unique due to the rise of foreign policy as a critical issue for both parties’ candidates. Hudak also discussed the foreign policy credentials of the Republicans and the Democrats, and explored which party has generally seen itself as the bastion of U.S. foreign policy goals.

The first part of Hudak’s talk focused on describing the convoluted nature of the U.S. presidential elections. Before running for the general election, presidential candidates have to participate in a competitive primary campaign to become the party’s standard-bearer. During the primaries, candidates compete with each other for delegates who represent the constituents of the states. As the results of different states emerge, starting with Iowa and New Hampshire, it becomes a little clearer to see who is better positioned to become the party’s representative. However, the 2016 race has still not been decided since some candidates can surge while others sink. “If we take a step back one year and look at what our expectations were about this race, they are entirely turned on their head,” said Hudak, “the realities of the election this year are very different than what expectations were in February of 2015.” By the end of July 2016, the winning candidates will be announced at the parties’ national conventions and will begin the rapid race for the general election.

After familiarizing the audience with the intricacies of the election process, Hudak shifted the discussion to the factors behind the increased prominence of U.S. foreign policy in the 2016 elections. Hudak attributed this shift to two main points: the topical interest in the Middle East’s crises—particularly the conflict in Syria and the rise of Islamic States—and the fact that both parties view foreign policy as the winning issue in this general election. “There are a lot of serious conflicts in the world where either the U.S. is involved, or there is an expectation for American leadership,” said Hudak, “either to help ameliorate the challenges, or to fix the problem.” The level of interest in foreign policy usually increases when such situations arise; the most recent example was the 2004 election when John Kerry and the incumbent president, George W. Bush, fought a contested election that hinged on the decision to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan. In contrast, the elections of 2008 and 2012 focused on domestic policy and the economy, particularly after the 2008 recession.

In most election years, “the Republicans, in terms of polling, are typically much more trusted in terms of dealing with policy issues than Democrats are,” said Hudak. Democrats, on the other hand, focus more on the “bread and butter” issues that concern domestic affairs, such as the economy, jobs, and issues of social justice and equality. In 2016, however, both parties approach foreign policy as their winning issue, and both parties have candidates with strong stances. Hillary Clinton believes she is well versed and experienced with the major foreign policy issues from her time as Secretary of State, and this makes her unique among Democrats. She also sees it as a benefit for her candidacy because she is a woman, and foreign policy is commonly seen as the purview of men. “In that sense,” Hudak reasons, “she sees it as a transformational thing, both for herself, gender, and her party […] that is the thinking within the campaign.” While Clinton has not focused as much on foreign policy as she would have liked, she will likely prop up her foreign policy credentials again in the general election. In contrast, the Republicans pride themselves on their traditional focus on foreign policy, and their campaigns have especially focused on pointing out the disastrous aftereffects of Clinton’s time as Secretary of State.

Finally, Hudak concluded by discussing potential areas of foreign policy interest for the next president such as Syria, Israel, and Iran. After taking the presidential oath on January 20, 2017, Syria will be priority for whoever is elected. Hudak stated that either the new president will dramatically change course from Obama’s policies or mildly alter them, depending on whether a Republican or a Democrat emerges victorious. Regardless, Americans can be sure that there will be a change in policy, and foreign policy will remain one of the most vital issues in the first 100-200 days in office. Other important foreign policy issues on the president’s mind will be alleviating the U.S.’s strained relationship with Israel—one area both Democrats and Republicans agree on—and working out the next steps for the nuclear deal with Iran.

John Hudak is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director at the Center for Effective Public Management Governance Studies, Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. His research examines questions of presidential power in the contexts of administration, personnel, and public policy. Additionally, he focuses on campaigns and elections, bureaucratic process and legislative-executive interaction. You can access his complete bio, click here.

Article by Salman Ahad Khan, Senior Publications Intern at CIRS