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‘The Joe Manchin Of Foreign Policy’: Menendez Case Could Mean Sea Change For Democrats On National Security

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) spent years as the top Democrat on the powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, wielding tremendous influence over Congress, the White House and government agencies. With Menendez facing the biggest crisis of his career ― federal corruption charges and calls for his resignation from a growing number of his fellow Democrats ― he is almost certain to lose that position for good.

The upshot would be dramatic, involving big changes to the Democratic Party’s approach to international relations and to Washington’s national security establishment.

“The foreign policy implications are extremely significant,” one Democratic congressional aide told HuffPost. Referring to the West Virginia Democratic senator notorious for challenging his own party, the aide added: “You can’t overstate the extent to which Bob Menendez was the Joe Manchin of foreign policy.”

Menendez holds hawkish views on many global questions, notably Middle East matters such as diplomacy with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as Latin American dilemmas like how the U.S. should deal with unfriendly governments in Cuba and Venezuela. Through public advocacy and private pressure, he has pushed for U.S. policy to reflect those opinions ― even when such shifts clash with most Democrats’ preferences and risk conflict or human rights violations.

Though Menendez largely supported Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden on domestic issues, he broke with both of them on foreign policy in high-profile ways.

“For him to be the one who determines the caucus’ foreign policy agenda is pretty bizarre,” said Matt Duss, who served as the foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) from 2017 to 2022.

“When you know that the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee has these very hard-line views, that constrains your concept of the possible ― especially when you have an administration that doesn’t want to spend a whole lot of time arguing about foreign policy,” continued Duss, who is now the executive vice president of the Center for International Policy think tank.

Menendez temporarily stepped down from his role as the committee’s chairman last week due to the criminal charges against him, which allege he took bribes in exchange for official favors that benefited Egypt and New Jersey businessmen. He maintains his innocence and his ultimate fate in the Senate remains unclear.

Nearly all Democratic lawmakers broadly share a vision for the U.S.’s role in the world: being engaged and powerful but not overbearing, championing democratic principles and encouraging other nations to do the same, and bolstering America’s network of alliances and global coalitions to address concerns like climate change. If Menendez is permanently replaced as the committee’s chair, his successor could be more focused on promoting that agenda ― and mend intra-Democratic rifts on international matters.

“He was, under both Obama and Biden, in the way of a ton of Democratic Party priorities,” the Democratic congressional aide said. “No matter who replaces him, the door opens for a much saner policy towards Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and down the line to Taiwan.”

A Tense Tenure

On the coattails of Biden’s 2020 election victory, Democrats captured the Senate for the first time since 2014, and Menendez rose from ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee to its chairman.

He quickly signaled that he would not help Biden achieve one of the president’s chief foreign policy promises from the campaign trail: reentering the international pact to limit Iran’s nuclear program. When Obama helped craft the deal in 2015, Menendez was one of only four Democratic senators to vote against it.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) opposed President Barack Obama's Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) opposed President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

Three years later, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement. Iran drastically increased its nuclear capabilities in response. Most Democrats and many national security experts said Biden should prioritize ratcheting down tensions.

Yet administration officials knew Menendez had influence over many of the president’s other priorities, too. They ultimately took a more modest approach to diplomacy with Iran than most observers expected. Today, they are far from resurrecting the Obama-era deal, with Iran’s nuclear development continuing to defy restraints. Menendez was not the sole reason for that choice, but his influence was an important factor, observers said.

“There is a feeling among many in the foreign policy community that … the Biden administration did not initially pursue a reentry to [the Iran deal] because they feared retribution from Chairman Menendez, specifically that he would not move quickly to put their nominees through the confirmation process or retaliate by tying their hands,” said a national security advocate who requested anonymity to speak frankly about a senator who has openly boasted about remembering and seeking revenge against his critics.

“One of the reasons why the administration chose to slow-walk rejoining the deal — which was a disastrous decision in my view — was they wanted Menendez’s cooperation. We now may very well lose the [deal] altogether,” Duss said.

Menendez also opposed another signature Obama policy reversed by Trump: greater U.S. engagement with Cuba.

The son of Cuban immigrants who fled the country, Menendez argues easing American sanctions on the island nation only empowers its authoritarian regime ― and rejects the argument that sanctions largely hurt regular Cubans, not Havana’s leaders.

Menendez’s views on Cuba and his similar take on Venezuela made it trickier for the Biden administration to forge a softer policy than Trump to address migrant flows and reduce U.S. friction with key Latin American governments.

And on Israel-Palestine, an issue on which Democratic voters and lawmakers have shown a striking shift, Menendez has maintained a traditionalist view that largely jibes with conservatives in Israel and the U.S.

“He’s typically the lead Democratic member on legislation that actually works against U.S. interests in moving [Israel and Palestine] towards a two-state solution and countering deepening occupation,” the national security advocate said.

When hard-line Israel advocates rallied against Biden’s pick for the top human rights job at the State Department, Sarah Margon, and Republicans refused to support her, Menendez declined to bring her up for a Foreign Relations Committee vote. Margon withdrew her nomination earlier this year.

The human rights position is now widely expected to remain unfilled for the rest of Biden’s time in office, and many progressives working on national security say the episode sent an alarming signal to their community.

Amid Washington’s highest-profile foreign policy debate, over how far to ramp up U.S.-China competition, Menendez distinguished himself as one of the Democrats most supportive of demonstrating strength to Beijing regardless of the risks. The New Jersey senator pushed a bill to drastically upgrade U.S. links with Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its territory. The Democratic aide recalled hearing from military contacts that they viewed it as dangerous.

Under Menendez, Democrats’ approach to international affairs was also defined ― and sometimes undercut ― by his style of operating, people who worked with the senator and his team say.

“It’s not just that Menendez was hawkish — it’s that he threw his weight around to an extraordinary degree,” a former Senate staffer told HuffPost on condition of anonymity.

The current aide described Menendez’s team as dealing with even an administration of their own party in a way that “is always Jersey, kind of a shakedown: ‘the chairman will be angry if you do this.’”

“Even with people who agree with him on politics or policy, it’s very hard to imagine who would miss him,” the aide continued.

Building A New M.O.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has temporarily taken over as chair of the foreign relations panel.

Bringing stability to the critical committee is the immediate challenge for Cardin, given the scandal over Menendez’s alleged corruption and discontent over his chairmanship.

“The committee’s culture needs to change and that will be hard with legacy staff there,” said a current Senate staffer who would only speak on the basis of anonymity.

“It’s not just that Menendez was hawkish — it’s that he threw his weight around to an extraordinary degree.”

– Former Senate staffer

The staffer noted that Menendez’s charges “brought into question the committee’s integrity” because they focused on foreign matters, specifically illegally helping the Egyptian government.

Critics of the regime in Cairo like Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and former Rep. Tom Malinowski (D) want officials to probe Egypt’s interference in U.S. policymaking and the possibility that Menendez shielded the Egyptian regime for corrupt reasons. Analysts say there are signs the alleged scheme implicated Menendez and the committee in preventing accountability for Saudi agents’ murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Those questions are linked to a key overall question: how far Democrats and the committee will go now in reconsidering Menendez’s record. One aide noted a contrast between Menendez’s years of demanding justice for Khashoggi and his alleged crimes, “However good he may have been, he was running interference for the Egyptians on their part, so that taints it.”

Additionally, Democrats will need to address fears among some core constituencies who appreciated elements of Menendez’s records.

“He’s a staunch defender of foreign aid and a robust and expanding diplomatic corps and arguably one of the best on immigration policy,” the national security advocate told HuffPost. “There are those in the progressive foreign policy community for whom this is a real, real difficult moment particularly because he has amassed such power and sway and has been good on these issues.”

Still, many Democrats and people who work with them largely see a moment of possibility in Menendez’s expected ouster, given the likelihood of fresh leadership that channels the range of views in the party.

U.S. and Iranian officials are inching towards a return to nuclear diplomacy that could be especially vital given the risk of a second Trump term come 2025. “That’s going to be a lot easier without Bob Menendez,” the national security advocate said.

Additionally, a new chair could promote “some better conversation” regarding Biden’s push for an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel that involves U.S. promises that most Democrats see as unpalatable, Duss said. He hopes the committee will be clear “it’s not a Saudi-Israel normalization deal ― it’s a Saudi-U.S. security pact.”

Cardin will retire in 2025. Eventually, Democrats on the panel will likely be led by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) or Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), though there could be a bid by a younger alternative like Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

Nearly any successor to Menendez would give Democrats more breathing room to be creative around foreign policy ― even a more centrist figure, as the example of Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) has shown in the House of Representatives. He defeated a progressive challenge to become the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee but has often worked with more liberal colleagues.

We have a moment where it’d be great to have someone in this position who is more representative of where Democrats are generally,” in terms of supporting diplomacy and opposing military intervention, Duss said. “Whoever it is will be taking the gavel at a time when the progressive wing of the party is growing more powerful and we’ve only started to see that on foreign policy.”

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