Congress and White House Have Rival Plans for the Gulf

It is becoming apparent that the White House and Capitol Hill have different, and in some ways competing, policy preferences for US involvement in the Arabian Gulf. President Donald Trump and his administration have made their rationale unambiguous: Iran is the most troubling actor in the region and the United States must partner with any state or organization, no matter its shortcomings, if it supports the containment of Iranian influence. But lawmakers, and even members of the president’s own party, seem to be much more suspicious of possible US allies, even if these also share the American view that Iran is the premier menace in the region.

Iran, Iran, Iran

Trump Administration officials fanned across Washington once again this week to raise the alarm about Iran. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the week that marks the one-year anniversary since the United States reneged on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The White House itself announced yet another round of sanctions on Tehran, this time on its metal exports, and officials have reportedly been studying military contingency plans should Iran or its proxies target US assets in the region. In addition, Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook and Commander of US Central Command Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. spoke at separate think tank events, in part to share their perspectives on the need to push back against Tehran.

The administration––led by Hook, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo––argues that it is only logical to ally with Arab Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates if the United States’ interests lie in pressing Iran to modify its behavior. The argument is curious, however. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain certainly share the administration’s desire to coerce Iran into behaving more responsibly from their point of view. But their apparent militancy in achieving this goal contradicts the fact that the other prosperous Gulf states—Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman—have managed to “share the neighborhood,” as former President Barack Obama described it, with Tehran. Some would argue, even, that such a hardline and provocative approach makes the situation between Iran and its neighbors worse, elevating each side’s perceptions of threats and increasing the likelihood of escalation and miscalculations.

So why is it necessary, from the administration’s perspective, to unquestionably support the Saudis’ and Emiratis’ more militant approach to Iran as opposed to backing the likes of Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar as they try and de-escalate threat levels in the Arabian Gulf through dialogue?

Partners, Not Allies

Many in Congress are questioning the administration’s strategy and urging its officials to take a more nuanced approach to the United States’ posture toward the Arabian Gulf countries. This was the topic of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing this week, in fact; and lawmakers also spoke about Arab Gulf states in another hearing focused on Russia’s and China’s influence in the Middle East. While no single person advocated on behalf of Iran or dismissed its disruptive policies in the region, many members voiced concern about the administration’s seemingly escalatory policy, one that is applauded by officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

As one listens to House members questioning witnesses—which included Timothy Lenderking, the deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs—it becomes apparent that lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike, find the White House’s Gulf policy hypocritical. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) was most pointed in his remarks and expressed succinctly what other lawmakers merely intimated when he said that “Saudi Arabia is not a [US] ally.” He also questioned why Riyadh, and to a lesser extent Abu Dhabi, receive a much more glowing embrace than Tehran by this administration despite their own shortcomings regarding human rights, their countries’ lack of democratic institutions and practices, and their own problematic records of supporting terrorism. Malinowski and others understood that there are areas where US and Gulf states’ interests align; however, he said, this makes the sides partners and not allies that share underlying values. Even those mutual strategic interests, other lawmakers pointed out, are being undermined while some Gulf partners are developing sensitive military and nuclear energy relations with geopolitical rivals Russia and China.

Where the Trump Administration sees carte blanch support for some Arab Gulf partners as necessary for securing US national interests (like confronting Iran and potentially solving the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis), members of Congress—including some of the most powerful individual lawmakers—are proposing a recalibration of the US-Saudi relationship in particular. Eliot Engel (D-New York), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), said plainly that he wants to punish many of the Arab Gulf states and cut off support to them.

For those in the Gulf region—in addition to Israel—that are agitating for a conflict between the United States and Iran, times are good with this administration. But after 2020, if Democrats reclaim the White House and maintain a hold on at least one chamber of Congress, it stands to reason that this full-throated support is likely to end and a more nuanced approach to reducing threats in the Arabian Gulf would likely be pursued.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Opposing the Lifting of Sanctions with Respect to Iran. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) introduced S. Res. 195 opposing any efforts to lift sanctions on Iran without addressing a range of Iranian activity, including its nuclear weapons ambitions and ballistic missile program.

Condemning Iranian State-Sponsored Terrorism. A bipartisan group of House members introduced H. Res. 374 condemning Iranian state-sponsored terrorism and demonstrating support for the aspirations of the Iranian people.

Disapproval of a Proposed Sale to the Government of Bahrain. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which coordinates the transfer of major weapons to foreign countries, notified Congress that the State Department is approving potential deals with Bahrain (here and here), Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. These notifications begin a 30-day deadline in which lawmakers can offer legislation (known as a joint resolution of disapproval) and vote to block the proposed sales. Senator Rand Paul promptly took advantage of the legal provision and introduced S.J. Res. 20, 22, 25, and 26 in an effort to block the sales. If recent history is any indicator, Paul and other opponents of arms sales to the Arab Gulf states likely do not have the votes necessary to block these deals.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Congressional Budget Process. Committees in both the Senate and the House of Representatives are progressing in their attempts to craft and pass the fiscal year 2020 federal budget. To that end, appropriations committees in the Senate and House held hearings and markups for the Department of Defense budget and the budget for State and Foreign Operations, respectively. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also held a separate hearing to examine the fiscal year 2020 budget request for the US Agency for International Development.

The House budget for the State Department includes over $2 billion in funding that is more than last year’s enacted budget. It maintains high levels of support for partners like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Israel. There are also provisions for security and humanitarian assistance that will affect Iraq and Syria. The budget also prohibits the administration from selling nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.

Lawmakers Discuss Defense and National Security Issues off Capitol Hill. On May 8, three members of Congress—Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), Michael Waltz (R-Florida), and Elissa Slotkin (D-Michigan)—attended a full-day conference to discuss US defense and national security interests across the globe, including the Middle East.

National Security Action Forum. On May 10, five Democratic members of Congress participated in a conference that explored how the Democratic Party could formulate a stronger, more progressive foreign policy and national security strategy.

Oslo: What’s Next? On May 12, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) participated in a panel discussion on the current American and Israeli political climates and the prospects of Middle East peacemaking. Raskin decried the current administration’s role in seeking a so-called peace deal, and while he noted that he understood the rights-based argument for a one-state solution, he said that he believed a two-state solution is still the best option for giving Palestinians and Israelis hope for self-determination and better lives.

Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs. On May 14, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), the third-ranking Republican in the House, attended a Hudson Institute event to discuss, among other things, the future of the Middle East. Cheney spoke at length about the need to confront Iran in the region. She also continued her broadside against what she considers the Democratic Party’s deep-seated anti-Semitism, citing a recent interview by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan). Interestingly, when asked about the US posture toward the region’s pursuit of democracy and human rights, Cheney paid lip service to the ideas but wrote them off as principles that are not important to US interests at this moment. Her comment harkens back to the orientalist view that the region and its Arab citizenry are not ready for democracy.

3) Correspondence

260 Members of Congress Write to Trump About Threats in Syria. A congressional letter previously noted by ACW has now reached 260 signatures from members of both chambers. The letter asks Trump to be attentive to addressing the threats in Syria.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump to Nominate Acting Secretary Shanahan for Top Defense Post. Though it is still unofficial, President Trump has indicated that he will tap current Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to head the Pentagon full time. There are questions about Shanahan’s capabilities and his ties to defense industry corporations, but in all likelihood Senate Republicans will vote to confirm him.

2) Department of State

The UN vs. Israel: Strengthening U.S.-Israeli Relations in the Age of Trump. On May 9, the Hudson Institute hosted Kevin Moley, the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, to discuss how the United States supports Israel at the United Nations. Moley struck an imperious tone, lauding the Trump Administration’s posture toward the United Nations—including a number of examples of circumventing international law—as upholding the country’s convictions.

Top Arms Control Diplomat Resigns. It was reported this week that Yleem Poblete, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, will resign, effective in the coming weeks. Though she clashed with other senior State Department officials, Poblete was a key ally of Iran hawks like National Security Advisor John Bolton.

US Clears Potential $3 Billion in Apache Helicopters for Qatar. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, a joint State and Defense Department organization, notified Congress this week that Qatar has been cleared to purchase up to 24 Apache Helicopters and replacement parts, a bill that could total $3 billion.

Ambassador Satterfield Visits Beirut amid Continued Border Dispute. Ambassador David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and nominee as US ambassador to Turkey, is currently in Lebanon meeting with Lebanese officials in an effort to find an agreement between Lebanon and Israel on their maritime border dispute.

State Department Personnel Ordered to Leave Iraq. Because of the tension between the United States and Iran and the alleged threats to US personnel from Tehran, the State Department ordered all “non-emergency” personnel to leave diplomatic outfits in Baghdad and Irbil.

3) Central Intelligence Agency

CIA Warns Saudi Dissidents of Potential Harm. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was criticized, in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, for allegedly failing to abide by US law that requires the agency to notify individuals if it believes they are being targeted for death, serious injury, or kidnapping. Now, however, the CIA has reportedly notified associates of Khashoggi that the Saudi government has signaled its intention to harm or kidnap them.

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