Rep. Eliot Engel and President Barack Obama didn’t always see eye-to-eye on issues of foreign policy.
The New York congressman, as staunch a Middle East hawk as there currently is in the Democratic Party, was the most high-profile House Democrat to oppose Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, the biggest foreign policy initiative of his presidency.
Now, Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is fighting for his political life amid a primary challenge to his left from Jamaal Bowman, a former high school principal. Obama administration alumni want him to know they haven’t forgotten his vote—and that they don’t especially like what he’s gotten done since.
As some key figures in the party establishment, from Hillary Clinton to Speaker Nancy Pelosi to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have lined up to support Engel, high-profile former Obama advisers, some of whom have immense sway with liberals nationwide through the popular podcasts from Crooked Media, have joined forces with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in an effort to eject him from the House.
“Bowman is the kind of progressive, exciting young leader that Democrats should be electing,” said Tommy Vietor, co-host of Crooked’s Pod Save America podcast and a former Obama national security spokesman. “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.”
“We need fresh thinking on that committee,” Vietor wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
On a June 10 episode of “Pod Save the World,” co-hosts Vietor and Ben Rhodes, the former top Obama foreign policy hand, encouraged their listeners to check out Bowman. “Despite my briefings—I hope not because of them—he opposed the Iran nuclear deal,” Rhodes said of Engel. “He’s taken a pretty conventional line on issues related to Iran, Saudi, the Middle East more generally.”
As Engel’s primary becomes the party’s next big proxy battle, virtually no one is projecting that if Engel loses on June 23—an outcome seen as increasingly possible in Democratic circles—it will be because of his hawkish foreign policy views. At a June 3 event in his district, Engel was caught on a hot mic saying he “wouldn’t be here” if he didn’t have a primary. In May, The Atlantic reported that he’d ridden out the worst of COVID-19 in his Maryland home, not in the New York City-area seat he represents, which was one of the hardest-hit places in the country.
The toppling of the Foreign Affairs Chairman, however, would reverberate far beyond his district. “There’s a pretty profound desire in Democratic foreign policy circles for a more progressive approach, and that’s not where Eliot Engel is or who he is,” a former Obama official told The Daily Beast. “He’s not bad—he’s not creatively moving us in the direction a lot of us would like to go.”
Over his 31 years in Congress, Engel has become one of the eminent voices in either party pushing for a hawkish view on Middle East policy. In 2003, he supported the invasion of Iraq. In 2004, he led a group of lawmakers pushing for cuts in the U.S. contribution to the United Nations office that aids Palestinian refugees. In early 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave an address to Congress that Democratic lawmakers either boycotted or excoriated as an “insult” to them and to President Obama. Engel, however, called Netanyahu’s speech “compelling” and said he communicated “legitimate concerns.”
When Engel announced his opposition to the nuclear deal later that year, he said that the agreement Obama had worked at “may in fact strengthen Iran’s position as a destabilizing and destructive influence.” He was one of 25 House Democrats who voted against ratifying it.
That record has earned Engel the ironclad support of pro-Israel groups—several of which have rallied to the 16-term incumbent in an expensive last-ditch effort to save him. The political action committee for a group called Democratic Majority for Israel, for example, has dropped over $1 million in ads boosting Engel and attacking Bowman—including a Wednesday spot that hit the challenger over a years-old unpaid tax bill. At least two other pro-Israel groups have run ads in support of Engel on social media.
“He’s been both a champion and a leader of pro-Israel efforts in the House,” said Mark Mellman, president of Democratic Majority for Israel. “He would be much missed and that’s why we're making a real effort to keep him in office.”
Obama’s own views and vision on Middle East policy, meanwhile, earned him a famously icy relationship with the right-wing Israeli government and this constellation of American pro-Israel groups—such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has ties to the PAC now bankrolling Engel’s rescue. At their annual Washington convention one year during Obama’s tenure, AIPAC delegates had to be told not to boo the sitting president.
Engel and Obama didn’t prioritize the same things when it came to foreign policy, according to a former Obama official, who said that the congressman’s opposition to the Iran Deal “colored private perceptions” of him through the end of the Obama presidency.
“I think the important thing is what got Eliot Engel to that vote. It was the opposite of what President Obama stood for.” And that vote, the official added, “was not the first sour taste he left in the prior administration’s mouth.”
As chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel has used his perch to contribute to Democratic investigations of President Donald Trump, from the Ukraine-driven impeachment inquiry to probes of Secretary Mike Pompeo’s handling of the State Department. That side of Engel’s record is the one more frequently touted by big-name endorsers such as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the lead prosecutor of the case against Trump in the Senate impeachment trial.
“Ever since Trump took office, Eliot has helped expose the abuses of his administration, and hold this lawless president accountable,” Schiff said in his endorsement of Engel.
Bowman, for his part, has not made Engel’s foreign policy record a centerpiece of his campaign, though he has criticized the incumbent’s positions and has touted endorsements from progressive foreign policy groups that oppose Engel’s hardline stances. Ironically, if Engel were to lose, it’s possible he’d be replaced as chairman by another hawk, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who also voted against the Iran deal and is currently the next most senior Democrat on the panel.
Obama alumni insist that their enthusiasm for ousting Engel is nothing personal; many of them like him.
“The real story here is he’s got this energetic, charismatic, young challenger who talks about a lot of the issues that are at the heart of today’s progressive agenda,” said a former administration official. “It’s not that he lost people on foreign policy, but despite being chairman… the Obama wonk foreign policy constituency is not lined up for him.”