America First or America Alone?

At the outset of President Donald Trump’s term, he and his administration made “America First”—the idea that they would work to secure US interests first and foremost—the linchpin of their policy calculus. But early on, the administration realized that crass self-interest was not conducive to successful relations in an international community that is now more interconnected than ever. Therefore, the administration readjusted, claiming that “America First” did not mean America alone.

This week in Washington, the juxtaposition of these two contradictory positions was on stark display. First, the administration was lauding its multilateral engagement as it welcomed dozens of state officials to Washington for meetings on Middle Eastern and North African security. On November 14, the State Department hosted ministers representing the countries that make up the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared before the gathering and Ambassadors Jim Jeffrey and Nathan Sales participated in the meetings, which ultimately concluded with a joint communiqué detailing the group’s resolve to carry out the fight against IS. The United States also sanctioned nine individuals and entities ahead of a meeting of the Counter ISIS Finance Group in an effort to spur that coalition to further isolate the terrorist organization financially.

In addition to the anti-IS coalition meeting, Washington held smaller, also multilateral, meetings with officials of countries committed to stabilizing Syria and the Arabian Gulf. In both instances, the Trump Administration attempted to empower multilateral institutions—the United Nations in the case of Syria and the Middle East Strategic Alliance in the Gulf—to bring stability and security to both areas.

It is clear that President Trump and his administration’s embrace of multilateralism comes from an “America First” style of self-interest. His aim of bringing other countries on board for mutual security concerns and for solving the crisis in Syria does not stem from a belief that this is the most efficient or reliable way to reach mutual goals; rather, it is because he fundamentally believes that allies take advantage of the United States so he would prefer to extricate Washington from those arenas. Indeed, if the president only sees places like Syria as “sand and death,” he will gladly turn to multilateral institutions to solve the problems there.

Contrast those situations to others where the president—for personal or political reasons—has an interest in acting unilaterally. For instance, this week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stood before the press and stated that the administration was reversing decades of US policy regarding the illegality of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank according to international law. In its declaration, the administration purposefully stood in opposition to international law—which is inherently a form of multilateralism—to assert a unilateral policy. As another example of undermining multilateralism, the administration chose to terminate a civil nuclear cooperation waiver that, as a key pillar of the Iran nuclear deal, allowed foreign states to work with Iran to develop its civilian nuclear power program.

It is clear that when convenient for the president and his administration, they are happy to embrace multilateralism to pursue their goals. But when international actors do not agree with Washington, the administration will instantly disregard mutual cooperation to pursue interests alone. With the president’s frequent and unpredictable oscillations on issues relevant to the Middle East, Washington’s partners in multilateral institutions are growing weary—and wary—of cooperating with the United States. “America First” does not mean America alone—that is, until it does.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Terminate Certain Waivers of Sanctions on Iran. On November 14, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a bill, S. 2874, intended to end the president’s ability to waive some sanctions on Iran. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) introduced a House version on the same day. The bills specifically deny the president the ability to issue waivers for civilian nuclear cooperation at facilities like Fordow and Arak and prohibit waivers for the transfer into Iran of enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor.

Recognizing the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. On November 14, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Michigan) introduced H. Res. 705 to recognize the international coalition that was created to defeat the so-called Islamic State.

Amend the War Powers Resolution. On November 13, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) introduced a joint resolution to amend the War Powers Resolution to narrow the scope of the law and provide more clarity. The War Powers Resolution has notably been used recently in an attempt to force the president to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen.

US-Israel Anti-Killer Drone Act. That same day, Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) introduced H.R. 5063 to enhance cooperation with Israel in developing mutually beneficial technologies to counter unmanned aerial systems.

Requiring Declassified Information about Saudi Arabia Assisting Fugitives. On November 15, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) introduced H.R. 5128 to “require the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to declassify any and all information relating to whether the government of Saudi Arabia assisted a citizen or national of Saudi Arabia in departing the United States while the citizen or national was awaiting trial or sentencing for a criminal offense committed in the United States.”

Prohibiting the Department of Defense from Deploying Strategic Assets in Turkey. As Congress continues to be frustrated with Turkey, Rep. Grace Meng (D-New York) introduced H.R. 5182 to bar the Pentagon from staging any strategic US assets in Turkey. That means, ostensibly, that the United States could no longer keep some of its nuclear arsenal in Turkey, as it has since the Cold War.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Democracy and the NATO Alliance: Upholding Our Shared Democratic Values. On November 13, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment held a hearing to assess the state of democracy among states in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The panelists overwhelmingly focused on the state of affairs in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, three states that are experiencing varying degrees of democratic backsliding. The hearing took place the same day that President Trump hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House, so subcommittee members were particularly interested in understanding Turkey both as a US partner and as a member of NATO. Citing President Erdoğan’s crackdown on activists and domestic critics, his consolidation of power (which one witness described as “autocratization”), and some of Ankara’s troubling foreign policy decisions (e.g., aligning with Russia or carrying out military operations in Syria), the panel largely described Turkey as a troublesome member of NATO. In fact, one witness even suggested that the United States and NATO both begin the process of reducing support for and dependence on Turkey as a partner and orienting away from working with Ankara.

What’s Next for Lebanon? Examining the Implications of Current Protests. On November 19, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a hearing to understand the ongoing protests in Lebanon and explore the implications of the movement. There was near consensus among both the subcommittee members and the panel of experts about what the United States’ posture toward Lebanon’s protests should be. In short, one speaker summed up the preferred US approach by paraphrasing the old adage, “first, do no harm.” The witnesses all generally agreed that there is space for Washington to support the protesters in their demands, but that overt and tangible assistance could ruin the appeal of the expansive and popular protests.

The panelists largely recommended US actions that focused of stabilizing Lebanese institutions, including the banking and financial sectors along with the Lebanese Armed Forces. They also proposed that the United States partner with regional and international partners to call on the Lebanese government to initiate governance reforms and implement early elections. Interestingly, one witness argued that the United States should sanction Hezbollah’s government allies as it does the designated terrorist organization itself. Specifically, this speaker urged Washington to sanction President Michel Aoun, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil for their ties to Hezbollah.

3) Nominations

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Acts on Nomination for New Secretary. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is set to resign his position in the near future and President Trump tapped current Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette for a promotion. This week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a nomination hearing at which Brouillette testified, then the committee voted to move his nomination to the full Senate for consideration. Brouillette is likely to be confirmed once more—he received 79 votes from the body when he was considered for his current position—and he will likely take his cabinet seat before the end of the year. Though he did not touch on the subject during his confirmation hearing, many senators are eager to understand Brouillette’s position on US-Saudi nuclear cooperation. Previously, the deputy secretary held that the United States would not aid in the development of a Saudi nuclear program that could yield nuclear weapons. Ahead of his hearing, four Democratic senators who do not sit on the Energy Committee wrote to Brouillette asking him to clarify his positions on several issues regarding US-Saudi cooperation.

Trump Taps Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Maghreb and Egypt as Ambassador to Jordan. On November 19, President Trump formally nominated Henry Wooster, a career foreign service officer and current deputy assistant secretary of state, to serve as the United States’ next ambassador to Jordan.

4) Personnel and Correspondence

Israeli Ambassador Visits Capitol Hill. On November 13, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, paid a visit to Capitol Hill where, according to a tweet, he was thanking members for their support for Israeli security amid renewed fighting with groups in the Gaza Strip. Dermer met with several lawmakers, with Rep. Mark Green (R-Tennessee) as the one who was specifically named.

Rep. Slotkin Discusses Iraq, Iran, and Syria. On November 19, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Michigan) appeared at an event with Al-Monitor to discuss the ongoing protests in Iraq, Iran’s influence in that country, and the US posture toward Syria. She expressed support for Iraqi protesters and explained that Iraqi officials and others in the political establishment are finding it difficult to effectively address the situation. On Syria, Slotkin indicated disappointment with the decision to move US troops away from the northeast. In the congresswoman’s words, that decision was a “strategic mistake.”

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Welcomes President Erdoğan to the White House. Last week, Arab Center Washington DC detailed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Washington. Shortly after publication, Erdoğan stood alongside President Trump for a joint press conference and later had a meeting with a small group of GOP senators and the US president. It is unclear, from the United States’ perspective, what Erdoğan’s visit accomplished; no tangible progress was made regarding Turkey’s military posture in neighboring Syria or Ankara’s willingness to work with Russia. From Erdoğan’s position, however, a photo-op at the White House is a boon for his popularity domestically, while President Trump parroted Turkey’s talking points, lending legitimacy to claims that are, at best, misleading and at worst, propagandistic. Moreover, Erdoğan was rewarded, despite a contentious meeting with GOP senators, when Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) left the meeting and blocked a Senate vote on a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, which Ankara disputes.

President Trump Speaks with Netanyahu. After Secretary Pompeo announced the new US position on the legality of Israeli settlements, President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone. The prime minister thanked the president for the administration’s reversal. According to the report, Netanyahu has been pushing for the decision for some time, so it is likely that he had some idea that it had been made. In addition, other reports stated that US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman contacted Netanyahu’s political rival, Benny Gantz, to alert him of the change before the official announcement was made.

2) Department of State

US and Libya Inaugurate Security Dialogue While Washington and Doha Hold CT Dialogue. This week the United States convened meetings with two Arab states to coordinate on critical problems facing the region. First, the United States and Libya convened the first joint security dialogue in an effort to end the fighting in Tripoli and bring peace and security to Libya’s borders. In addition, Ambassador Nathan Sales led the third US-Qatar Counterterrorism Dialogue in Washington.

Secretary Pompeo Meets with Saudi Foreign Minister, Warns Egypt of Potential Sanctions. This week Secretary Pompeo met with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud to talk about developments in the region, including in Turkey, Syria, and Yemen.

The Wall Street Journal also reported this week that Secretary Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper sent a letter to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi warning of potential US sanctions if Cairo purchases Russian warplanes.

Ambassador Sales, Assistant Secretary Schenker Travel to Europe. Ambassador Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, traveled to Belgium and Amsterdam this week to warn European Union states about the threats posed by Iran and Hezbollah.

Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker traveled to France and Italy to meet with officials of both countries and the United Kingdom about recent developments in the Middle East, more broadly, and the situation in Libya specifically.

Schenker garnered some attention this week when he told reporters that the Trump Administration views aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as a “good investment”—in opposition to the Israeli government’s position on the matter. Earlier this month it was reported that the United States was freezing roughly $105 million in aid to the LAF and—despite the State Department denying that the aid has not been frozen but that the department is simply reviewing the assistance—Undersecretary of State David Hale confirmed the freeze. Some inside and outside the government fear that any aid to the LAF will eventually end up in the hands of Hezbollah.

State, Defense Department Officials Travel to Dubai Air Show. This week, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord traveled to the United Arab Emirates to participate in the Dubai Air Show.

3) Department of Defense

General McKenzie Travels to the UAE. This week General Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, visited the United Arab Emirates. He met with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and other Emirati officials to discuss bilateral security relations.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Security Discusses Cyber Threats in MENA. On November 13, the Middle East Institute held a day-long conference to explore the pathways to stability in the coming year. One panel focused specifically on assessing how Middle Eastern and North African states can reduce the threat of cyberattacks and a broader cyber conflict. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Security Edwin Wilson participated in the discussion and offered his views on the cyber capabilities of Arab and other Middle Eastern countries. Much of the event focused on US capabilities in combating cyber threats from both state actors like Iran and non-state actors like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, which use technology to recruit new members and encryption technology to plan attacks. Iran and terrorist groups are disruptive forces in the region, Wilson noted, and he argued that the United States and its regional partners must work together to create the capacities to counter aggressive cyber campaigns that could destabilize states in the region or initiate broader, more kinetic conflicts.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here