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Today’s primary election in New York’s 16th congressional district sees insurgent candidate Jamaal Bowman challenge 16-term incumbent congressman Eliot Engel. While they’re both Democrats, a review of Engel’s foreign policy record shows just how much he has in common with the Republican Party.
Last week, The Intercept reported that a Republican-aligned super PAC funneled $100,000 to another super PAC, Democratic Majority for Israel, which itself has spent more than $600,000 attacking Bowman and promoting Engel.
Engel and the GOP have repeatedly worked together to further an interventionist, pro-Israel foreign policy. In 2010, Engel held a press conference with now–Vice President Mike Pence, in which they opposed any UN investigation into the Israeli government’s raid on a flotilla operated by activists seeking to provide humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Israeli commandos killed nine people, whom Engel dismissed as “violent protesters.” Republican Representatives Peter King, Eric Cantor, and Ted Poe joined the press conference to voice their support.
Engel’s enthusiasm for Israel is not something he hides. A review of Engel’s otherwise unremarkable financial disclosure in 2019 shows that he possesses as much as $15,000 in Israeli government bonds. When President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—a move that prominent Democrats like Senators Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin criticized as dangerous and likely to foment unrest—Engel voiced his support.
But it’s not just Israel policy on which Engel sides with Republicans. In 2019, Engel expressed “outrage” at the Venezuelan government for blocking humanitarian aid—the same thing he defended when the Israeli government did it.
“We are outraged that Nicolas Maduro continues to block the entry of food and medical supplies into Venezuela,” Engel said in testimony before the foreign affairs committee. “We urge Maduro to immediately allow humanitarian aid to reach the Venezuelan people.”
Engel also supported the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela, even though Guaidó was never elected. (The UN has declined to recognize Guaidó.)
Engel was also a proponent of the Iraq War, saying on the House floor in October 2002, “It would be a monumental mistake not to support” it. When the US military found no chemical or biological weapons, Engel echoed a Bush administration talking point, arguing that it “wouldn’t surprise me if those weapons of mass destruction that we cannot find in Iraq wound up and are today in Syria.”
Senator Chuck Schumer and former senator Hillary Clinton have both endorsed Engel, a sign of Democratic leadership’s concern over the election. As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel receives classified briefings regarding foreign policy, which represents one of the few ways Congress can oversee the intelligence community.
The Foreign Affairs Committee is also able to question foreign policy officials, vividly embodied by Representative Ilhan Omar’s 2019 grilling of Trump’s special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, over his support for authoritarian regimes in Central America and his involvement in the Iran/Contra scandal. At the time, a congressional staffer told me that Engel tried to strip Omar of her committee assignment, though he was ultimately unsuccessful.
When the Bolivian military ousted President Evo Morales last year, Engel joined the Trump administration in welcoming his resignation, even as it was condemned by progressive leaders like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez as a coup. Engel justified the transition as necessary, citing Bolivia’s “flawed presidential election”—an allusion to allegations of vote rigging. But a New York Times report earlier this month found no evidence of fraud. (Engel has not publicly addressed the report.)
Bolivia’s military coup was not the only one Engel soft pedaled. In 2013, he issued a joint statement with Republican Representative Ed Royce backing the Egyptian military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first elected leader.
Engel clashed with the Barack Obama administration on a variety foreign policy issues. When Obama sought to hold the Egyptian military accountable by suspending military aid, Engel, bristled. “I am disappointed that the Administration is planning to partially suspend military aid to Egypt,” Engel said.
The statement was significant: US law mandates a suspension of military aid to coup regimes, but the law can be circumvented if Congress recognizes the government. As the Democrats’ then-ranking Foreign Affairs Committee member, Engel’s statement held sway, and Congress would later certify the legitimacy of the new government.
Engel also joined Republicans in opposing the Iran deal. When in late 2016, the Obama administration simply abstained from a largely symbolic UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements, Engel excoriated Obama. “It’s a parting shot out the door,” Engel said of the abstention.
In 2016, Engel was one of just 16 Democrats to join with 200 Republicans to defeat legislation that would have outlawed the export of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. Cluster bombs are banned by over 100 countries because of their indiscriminate nature. Many also do not detonate and can pose a threat to civilians decades later.
After Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly ordered the grisly murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, many high-profile Democrats called for the Saudi leader to be held accountable. But again, Engel sided with the Trump administration, saying that he did not want to see the leader punished.
Several prominent Obama administration officials have voiced support for Engel’s challenger. A recent report by The Daily Beast quotes Tommy Vietor, a former Obama administration spokesperson, as saying, “We need fresh thinking on that [Engel’s] committee.”
Vietor added: “I also think that [the Foreign Affairs Committee] should be more progressive when it comes to oversight, fighting annexation [of the West Bank], supporting diplomacy like the [Iran deal], and unwinding parts of the U.S.-Saudi relationship that allow for the continued humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.”
The report also quotes Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser under Obama, criticizing Engel for his opposition to the Iran deal.
While it would be unfair to call Engel a Republican—he recently came out in support of Medicare for All—his positions on foreign affairs stand out for their alignment with the Republican Party.