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It’s bad politics for Democrats to be hawkish on foreign policy

Eliot Engel’s stunning primary defeat should be a wake-up call for House Democrats for when they choose who will lead on foreign policy.

For three years, my organization, Win Without War, and others helped pro-diplomacy activists make their voices heard in Congress in support of President Obama’s diplomatic efforts with Iran. Hundreds of thousands of them had done just that — signing petitions, writing emails, making phone calls, and meeting face-to-face with their representatives and senators in Washington and their hometowns. At every step of the way, congressional offices told us that pro-diplomacy voices had outweighed those opposed by ten-to-one. But then something strange happened. Suddenly, the calls for and against the Iran nuclear deal were coming in at an equal rate. 

It was unlikely that the success of having achieved a historic diplomatic nuclear agreement with Iran, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as its formally known, had suddenly made the U.S. public swing against diplomacy. Yet as paid TV ads attacking the JCPOA started popping up and the anti-diplomacy phone calls came pouring in, a dangerous mindset started to spread throughout the halls of Congress: It was going to be bad politics for Democrats to stand with the president and against a small cohort of powerful, deep pocketed special interests.

This was going to be a fight. Determined to defend diplomacy, progressives went all in, but so did anti-diplomacy forces. We now know, for example, that one organization alone, an AIPAC front group called Citizens United for a Nuclear Free Iran, spent $8.3 million on paid phone calls, most likely the very calls causing Congress to suddenly think the public’s opinion was mixed. Millions more were spent on television ads offering a dire preview of what would await any member of Congress who voted to support diplomacy. 

And in the heat of the long, hot summer, Rep. Elliot Engel, then the highest ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced he was breaking with President Obama, and would oppose the JCPOA. At the time, Congressman Engel no doubt thought he was making a safe political choice. His allies flooding the airwaves and phone lines against the deal would surely be there if he ever needed them in an election. Yet this past week, five years later, it’s likely that that decision — and what it said about Engel’s preference for conflict over diplomacy — cost him re-election. 

Much has already been written about Engel’s stunning primary loss to first time candidate Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal in the Bronx. Pundits argue that Bowman’s high profile endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocascio-Cortez, Engel’s absence from his New York district at the height of the spring’s pandemic, and Engel’s embarrassing hot mic moment  (which helped send Bowman’s fundraising into overdrive) propelled Bowman’s victory over Engel. And there’s no doubt these factors played significant roles in the historic upset. But had it not been for Engel’s deep discord with his own party on foreign policy, there may never have been a primary challenge to capitalize on those moments and endorsements in the first place. 

It says something about House Democrats that they would let their most senior foreign policy position be filled by someone who, like Engel, was so at odds with the Democratic caucus on numerous foreign policy issues. But that is fundamentally what happened when Engel took over the gavel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

He was one of only two dozen House Democrats out of 188 who ultimately voted against the Iran deal. Just one year later he would join with an even smaller group of Democrats to give the Republicans a narrow majority and defeat an effort to stop selling Saudi Arabia cluster bombs, bombs they were then dropping on civilians in Yemen. And of course this all followed his enthusiastic support for the Iraq War. Bowman made all of these issues central to his campaign and attacked Engel directly on this record. 

Others have laid out the full history of Engel’s awful record, so there’s no need to recount it all here. But what stands out is that on these issues, the biggest foreign policy questions of the day, the chosen Democratic foreign policy leader was, in some cases quite dramatically, at odds with the majority of his party. For years, the conventional wisdom was that such heresy simply didn’t matter if it was confined to foreign policy. The Democratic primary voters of New York’s 16th Congressional District just helpfully reminded everyone just how wrong that particular conventional wisdom was. 

The truth is that this is hardly the first, and likely won’t be the last time that voters send a Democratic member of Congress home for being hawkish. For instance, members of Congress who voted for the Iraq war were, over time, more likely to have been given the boot by their voters than those who opposed it. Meanwhile, despite the fever dreams of many political prognosticators in the summer of 2015 as attack ads about the Iran deal hit the air, no incumbent Democrats lost an election because of their support for the JCPOA. It turns out that being on the same page as the overwhelming number of Democratic voters is actually good politics. 

And now that the voters have spoken, House Democrats will face their own decision. Shortly following the November elections, the incoming Democratic caucus of the 117th Congress will gather in Washington to select its new leadership. Of course, like with all elections, the jockeying and campaigning doesn’t wait until the final vote and indeed is already well under way. Though the question before Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and others is clear, will they once again allow their highest ranking foreign policy position to be filled by someone at odds with their own caucus and their voters, or will they heed the calls of change? 

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