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18 June 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 1:23pm

What would it mean for US foreign policy if Eliot Engel loses his primary race?

A new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee won’t change US foreign policy, but it might shift the conversation.

By Emily Tamkin

I first went to write this piece — about what would happen to US foreign policy if Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, loses his primary — back in March as a freelancer for another publication. Engel was being challenged in the primary for his district, made up of the Bronx and Westchester, by a host of people. The two most prominent challengers, Jamaal Bowman and Andom Ghebreghiorgis, had explicitly presented themselves as being to Engel’s left on foreign policy, and particularly on Israel. But since, at the time, Engel was almost sure to win his re-election, my editor and I decided to shelve the piece. Why take readers’ time with a hypothetical that was almost certainly going to stay hypothetical?

In the last few weeks, though, a few events have made Engel’s victory on 23 June go from “almost certain” to “still likely” to “uncertain” to “oh, wow, he could lose this thing”.

First, Ghebreghiorgis dropped out and backed Bowman, a former school principal. Then Engel was caught on a hot mic. In a video clip, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. appeared to be telling Engel, at a news conference following protests against police brutality, that he had a list of names of people who had to speak. Engel then was recorded saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care”. Then a New York State Senator, Alessandra Biaggi, switched her endorsement from Engel to Bowman, saying, “We would be remiss not to have leadership of the future to represent this district”. Then Engel likened Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who pulled off her own stunning primary upset in 2018 against Bronx Democrat Joe Crowley — to a dictator because she had endorsed Bowman. Then Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren also endorsed Bowman. Then Hillary Clinton announced her first endorsement of the year was for Engel, sparking stories of how the establishment was rallying around him. Somewhere in here, The Intercept published a story that said that a Republican Super PAC was working to help Engel, who, again, is running in a Democratic primary. On 17 June — a week ahead of the primary election — Bowman was polling ahead of Engel, first elected in 1988, and the question of how foreign policy will change if Bowman beats Engel isn’t looking so hypothetical after all.

Back in February, I had reached out to Bowman’s campaign about why he thought it was important to centre foreign policy in his campaign and what specific issues he would work to change if elected. In a statement, Bowman pointed to Engel’s vote for the Iraq war and opposition to Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. He also pointed to a television hit in which Engel, speaking about US-Iran relations, said he wouldn’t want to tie the president’s hands over an individual strike (though in fairness, this was part of a longer quote in which Engel explicitly said the president must come to Congress before going to war with Iran).

Bowman also said, “I support a two-state solution and am pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, but we have to have honest conversations about the humanitarian crisis taking place through the occupation of the Palestinian people.

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“To sum up, I think Rep. Engel is too focused on hawkishness abroad and neglected a lot of our communities here in the district that need someone focused not on finding money for bombs and bullets, but for schools, health care and jobs.”

Engel, meanwhile, said through a campaign spokesperson, that he is “absolutely” a foreign policy progressive, that “the use of military force should always be a measure of last resort,” and that “I am a supporter of Israel’s right to peaceful self-determination and I don’t apologize for that. I am also a consistent advocate for a two-state solution, based on the principle of two states for two peoples”.

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“It’s easy for people with no experience as elected representatives to cherry-pick votes and apply simplistic labels. I’m more than happy to discuss my record, including areas where I’ve made mistakes and learned lessons,” Engel said through the spokesperson. “I believe the mark of a good leader is being able to reflect critically on the past and learn from it. Our world is often complex and dangerous, to our own citizens, to our allies, and to many innocent people around the world.”

The issues most at play, then, seem to be the relationship to the military-industrial complex and stance in the Middle East — and particularly on Israel. One member of Congress could not, by himself, change when and how America votes to go to war, or US policy toward Israel.

Democratic leadership in Congress could still be described as centrist or moderate when it comes to US foreign policy, and, even if Engel were to lose and Democrats were to keep the House, thus replacing Engel as chair, his replacement would arguably have more in common with Engel’s foreign policy preferences than Bowman’s; the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Congressional Progressive Caucus has very little overlap.

What’s more, the president will not be Bernie Sanders, but either Joe Biden or Donald Trump — that is, either a paradigm of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party or Donald Trump. Put another way: Ocasio-Cortez is in the House, but she and her fellow first term progressives have found themselves casting some lonely votes since 2018.

On the other hand, the conversation has indisputably changed since 2018. It’s shifted to the left, at least in the Democratic Party, on the issue of Israel. Democrats in Congress have made some effort to curb Trump’s military adventurism. And it is perhaps fair to say that a successful primary challenger from the left can — more than any single bill or hearing — further move that conversation.

“The people-powered movement for a progressive foreign policy for the United States constantly butts up against the militarized status quo perpetuated by the foreign policy establishment,” Kate Kizer, policy director at Win Without War, a network of activists and organisations dedicated to rethinking US foreign policy, wrote in an email. There are think tanks, and lobbyists, and defence contractors, and there are, it must also be said, people who have been in the job for a long time and think about things in the ways they always have. “For decades, this dynamic has prevented the interests and views of everyday people in the United States from being seen as having a legitimate role in national security decision-making — an exclusion that’s pretty ironic considering that the country’s founders vested so much power in the people’s representatives on matters of war and peace.”

That’s what a primary win can do. It can change who’s a part of the conversation on US foreign policy.

It’s not everything. But it’s not nothing, either.