Congress Deliberates US-Iraq Relations

On July 16, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism held an event titled “Iraq: A Crossroads of US Policy.” This hearing represented the first time in this Congress that lawmakers were exploring the deeper objectives of US-Iraq relations beyond defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS) and rooting out Iranian influence in the country. As witnesses, the subcommittee called Joan Polaschik from the State Department and Michael Mulroy of the Defense Department. Everyone—senators and witnesses alike—agreed that despite the near total military defeat of IS, Iraq faces a host of pressing and complicated problems in the near and long-term future.

Friends, Partners, or Allies?

The first and most important question on the senators’ minds was how the Iraqi government perceives its relationship with the United States. Since the rise of IS in Iraq in 2014, the United States has maintained a troop presence in the country at the request of multiple Iraqi governments. The United States conducted airstrikes on the Islamic State and trained Iraqi and Kurdish forces to carry out combat missions in an effort to uproot the so-called caliphate. For the last five years, therefore, it appears that Iraqi politicians across the diverse political spectrum have believed that they have a strategic security partnership with Washington.

Since the last remaining areas under IS control were liberated, however, that security partnership has been strained as the Trump Administration has considered broadening its mandate in Iraq to pushing back against Iranian elements in the country. This puts Iraqi leaders in a tough position because the Popular Mobilization Forces—some of which have close ties to the Iranian military—enjoy a degree of popularity for their efforts in combatting IS. In addition, Iraq shares a 900-mile border with Iran as well as deep cultural, religious, familial, and economic ties. For its part, the United States has twice gone to war with Iraq (ironically, both authorizations for the use of military force are still enshrined in US law) and many view Washington’s post-2003 invasion bungling of the occupation as a major cause of the years of instability Iraq has suffered. Ultimately, a Washington-Baghdad alliance would be difficult to imagine any time in the near future, but if the current administration pushes Iraqi officials too hard to try and separate them from Iran, the country’s politicos could grow contemptuous of what is now largely a strategic partnership of convenience.

What Should the United States Be Doing in Iraq?

Right now, US military training of the Iraqi military and security forces is still a high value service to both Washington and Baghdad. But there are questions about the United States’ role in helping to stabilize and rebuild Iraq. As Senator Chris Murphy said, “[the United States has] a moral obligation as a country to help fix a nation that [it] played a leading role in breaking.”

Polaschik told the subcommittee that at this moment, the State Department is focused on programs that ensure immediate post-conflict stabilization, ones that would allow refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their towns and villages. However, Senator Murphy also noted that the projected cost for rebuilding Iraq is in the tens of billions; without such aid to Iraq, would Iraqis be willing to return to cities that are in complete ruin? Polaschik and Mulroy both said that the administration is urging the international community—namely Europe and the wealthy Arab states—to donate funds for Iraqi reconstruction and that they are urging the Iraqi government to undertake economic and regulatory reforms that would allow private companies to assist in the rebuilding efforts. This sounds positive, no doubt, but the involvement of countries such as Saudi Arabia to rehabilitate Iraq (which is the aim of the administration, according to Mulroy) would subject Baghdad to unrealistic demands and undermine the administration’s goal of realizing a stable and prosperous Iraq that can serve as an anchor of stability in a tumultuous region.

If, as administration officials say, the US goal is to help Iraq become a strong state—and perhaps even an ally one day—Washington must prove to the Iraqi government and to the Iraqi people that it is invested in the country’s long-term stability and reconstruction. This means that politicians in the United States must continue bankrolling strategic military support when asked, but they should think more about boosting nonmilitary assistance and reinstating a robust US diplomatic presence, which has recently been drastically reduced. Finally, Washington cannot put Baghdad in a tug-of-war between the United States and Iran. It has to trust Iraqi politicians to serve their constituents and when they say they do not want to be a puppet state of either Washington or Tehran. To push Iraq too hard on this issue could backfire and diminish what goodwill the United States has cultivated over the last half decade.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Promoting Peace and Stability in the Gulf Region. On July 10, a group of House members introduced H. Res. 482 that calls on the Trump Administration to do everything possible to help resolve the rift between the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Egypt, and Qatar.

National Defense Authorization Act. On July 11, the House considered and voted on a host of amendments to its version of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before adopting the package on July 12. Members had to consider and vote on hundreds of amendments, a number of which were related to the US military posture toward the Middle East. Most notably, the House text includes provisions barring President Trump from going to war with Iran, repealing the 2002 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against Iraq, limiting the administration’s ability to transfer weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and prohibiting support for and participation in the war in Yemen. The bill passed along partisan lines, 220-197, and is considered a nonstarter in the Senate. Now the Democratic-controlled House and the GOP-run Senate will have to negotiate a bill that can garner support in both chambers.

Condemning the Attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center in 1994. On its 25th anniversary, the House passed a resolution condemning an attack—believed to be carried out by Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran—on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Condemning the Attacks on Peaceful Protesters in Sudan. The House also passed a resolution condemning Sudan’s transitional military council (TMC) for its attacks on peaceful protesters and calling for a peaceful and timely transition to civilian rule in Khartoum.

Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act. By a vote of 405-7, House members adopted H.R. 2037, which is known as the Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act. The bill looks to force the administration to provide a report on the intelligence community assessment regarding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi officials’ roles in it. Additionally, the bill would levy sanctions on Saudi officials found to have been involved in the operation and it would require the administration to issue a broader report assessing Saudi Arabia’s overall human rights record.

Condemning Saudi Arabia’s Continued Detention of Women’s Rights Activists. In addition to the preceding bills and resolutions, the full House also adopted H. Res. 129 that condemns Riyadh’s continued detention and alleged abuse of Saudi women’s rights activists who have helped bring changes to the country’s draconian laws on women’s rights.

Fiscal Year 2020 Intelligence Authorization Act. The House is currently debating H.R. 3494, which authorizes spending levels for the US intelligence activities. Though there have been fewer amendments for this bill than for the NDAA, some were adopted that pertain to activities in the Middle East. For instance, one amendment would require the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to produce a report about Iranian entrenchment in Syria and another would require a report regarding threats posed by known terrorist groups affiliated with Iran.

Preventing Iran from Acquiring Nuclear Weapons. On July 16, 25 House Democrats introduced H. Res. 495 expressing their perspective of what it means to deny Iran the ability to acquire nuclear weapons. Based on the accompanying press release, these members are calling on the Trump Administration to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which they view as the best mechanism for preventing a nuclear Iran.

Affirming That All Americans Have the Right to Participate in Boycotts. That same day, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) introduced H. Res. 496 which would affirm Americans’ right to participate in boycotts as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Though the text does not specifically say so, this resolution affirms Americans’ rights to participate in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Omar is one of only two members of Congress (with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan) to vocally support the movement, drawing immense criticism from her colleagues.

Upcoming Legislation Markup. At the same time as this publication is being prepared, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is marking up a host of bills pertaining to Israel, Palestine, and the ongoing conflict between them. Bills and resolutions to be considered include H. Res. 326 (see here); H. Res. 246 (the nearly identical Senate version is detailed here); H.R. 1850 (see here); H.R. 1837 (which is an AIPAC goal for this legislative session as it enshrines into law the $38 billion, 10-year MOU for security cooperation between the United States and Israel); and H. Res. 138 (found here). The full House will also vote on some of the joint resolutions of disapproval on Gulf arms sales, according to The Hill.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Graham: “Call Iran’s Bluff.” On July 15, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to make an interesting argument. With his coauthor, retired General Jack Keane, he argued that if Iran really wants a peaceful nuclear energy program, as the regime says, the United States should encourage countries like Russia, China, or those in Europe to provide the crucial materials necessary for such a peaceful program. Tehran, as this argument goes, could operate nuclear reactors and produce nuclear energy, but it would not be allowed to “enrich, reprocess or fabricate its own nuclear fuel.”

Democrats Rally against War with Iran. On July 16, a group of Congressional Democrats gathered at a small rally on Capitol Hill for an event referred to as “#NoWarWithIran.” The idea behind it was to garner support for the NDAA provision prohibiting an unauthorized war with Iran so that the Senate and House members who will be tasked with reconciling the two separate versions of the NDAA would maintain that provision in the final bill. Many outspoken House and Senate Democrats were in attendance and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) was the only presidential candidate to speak.

Sen. Cotton, Special Envoy Hook Talk Iran. While Democrats rallied against war, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and the State Department’s Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook spoke at an Axios event about US policy toward Iran. Unsurprisingly, the two expressed hawkish positions, with Cotton justifying military strikes on Iran and Hook lauding the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

3) Hearings

Defense Cooperation: Use of Emergency Authorities. On July 10, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to explore the administration’s use of emergency authorities under the Arms Export Control Act to bypass Congress and proceed with arms sales to US partners in the Middle East. R. Clarke Cooper, the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, repeatedly provoked the ire of members on the committee, Republican and Democratic alike, with his unwillingness to answer straightforward questions about the administration’s reasoning for rushing through these proposed arms sales under the guise of an “emergency.” Ultimately, Cooper left the committee hearing with the justification that the administration saw an “uptick” in problematic Iranian behavior in the Arabian Gulf and the broader Middle East. To help Arab allies protect their sovereignty and reinforce deterrence, he said that the Trump Administration felt it was an emergency to bypass the congressional review period on 22 proposed weapons deals.

Department of Defense Nominees Appear Before the Senate. This week, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard testimony from two nominees seeking high-ranking roles in the Department of Defense. Gen. Mark Milley appeared as nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he would replace Gen. Joseph Dunford, and Mark Esper, the secretary of the Army and one-time acting secretary of Defense, appeared before the committee after he was formally tapped to take over at the Pentagon permanently. Both nominees highlighted Iran as a critical threat to US interests in the Middle East. Interestingly, Esper sided with Congress saying that the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs that precipitated the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq do not give the administration legal cover for a prolonged military confrontation with Iran. In sum, both men were well liked by members of the Senate and will likely have a smooth ride toward confirmation.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Secretary Pompeo Meets with UN Envoy to Yemen, Tunisian Foreign Minister. Over the last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held meetings with Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, and Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui.

Special Envoy to Sudan Meets with TMC Head. Donald Booth, the recently appointed US special envoy to Sudan, took a trip to the Sudanese capital on July 15 where he met with the nominal chairman of the Transitional Military Council, Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan.

2) Department of Justice

Justice Department Anti-Semitism Summit. On July 15, the Department of Justice held an Anti-Semitism Summit where a host of law enforcement officials and Trump Administration cabinet secretaries spoke about efforts the administration has taken to combat the rise of anti-Semitism. Some observers were critical of the summit, however, arguing that administration officials, like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, ignored the real and deadly anti-Semitism arising in communities of right-wing white nationalists; rather, they have fixed attention on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement’s activities as examples of anti-Semitism.

As Arab Center Washington DC detailed on July 10, the current administration and others within the Republican Party have moved to define support for Israel more narrowly and have gone so far as to paint anyone who disagrees with them as broadly anti-Semitic. This was on display not only during the anti-Semitism summit but also beforehand, when President Trump singled out four congresswomen—including the only two Muslim women in Congress, one of whom is Palestinian-American—and charged them as being anti-Israel. Prominent American Jewish voices have noted that the president’s use of the “anti-Israel” label in his vitriol toward these four women of color cynically uses Jewish people as “a shield” and ultimately is damaging to the Jewish community—which, ironically, the administration says it is trying to protect and champion.

III. 2020 Presidential Campaign

Joe Biden Outlines Foreign Policy Positions. On July 11, the former vice president and presumed presidential front runner, Joe Biden, gave a speech to outline his foreign policy positions. The speech was nostalgic and in which he vowed to return to the days of normalcy and US leadership. On the Middle East, Biden specifically noted that he would overturn the travel ban that affects millions of people from the Middle East; he would return to the JCPOA, if the conditions were right; he would move to end the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq; and he would end US support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war.

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