Politico recently claimed that Middle East politics and foreign policy could impact the 2020 presidential election, thereby affecting the re-election chances of incumbent President Donald Trump. In its article, headlined, “‘Let them!’: Trump gambles his presidency on a chaotic Middle East,” Politico said Trump’s foreign policy is “a risky stance.”
The line read, “It’s a risky stance that could come back to haunt him in the November 2020 election. Yet even as he faces mounting bipartisan criticism over his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria, the president is projecting nonchalance.”
Politico’s claim is based on the ongoing back-and-forth between Trump, Republican Party lawmakers in the Senate, and Democratic Party lawmakers on Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from Syria. The withdrawal was a response to Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish-held territory in Syria. The Kurds have been longtime allies of the U.S. since the first Gulf War when the Kurds helped the Americans fight the government under then-dictator Saddam Hussein. The Kurds have long vied for an independent Kurdish government and state, which has been opposed by the governments in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey.
Regardless of this foreign policy move and how one feels about it, the influence of foreign policy on presidential elections is minimal. Looking at presidential elections in the 2000s, only one featured foreign policy as the crux of the presidential election. As Foreign Policy noted, the 2004 election’s exit polls found that terrorism was one of the top concerns that year. The 2004 election was the first presidential election since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and those attacks weighed heavily on the minds of voters.
Since then, in 2012 and in 2016, foreign policy took a backseat to domestic issues. Mitt Romney, challenging President Barack Obama, tried to make Obama’s catering to Russia a focal part of his campaign. But Romney lost the election on domestic issues. In 2016, Hillary Clinton campaigned on maintaining the status quo in foreign policy and lost the election to Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign strategy.
Although Politico later made a compelling case on how Middle East foreign policy boosted or derailed presidential elections or re-elections, it is difficult to argue against recent electoral history which demonstrated the hierarchy of concerns for American voters: First come domestic issues such as the economy, and then foreign policy.