Washington Policy Weekly

One week after supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol, the House of Representatives is poised, once again, to impeach Trump for his role in instigating the violence. On January 13, the body is expected to make Donald Trump the only president in US history to be impeached twice. However, it is far from certain that there are enough votes in the Senate––67 out of 100––to convict and remove him from office.

One week later, on January 20, President-elect Joe Biden will take the oath of office and be sworn in as president. As it stands, Biden is likely to take office without his cabinet in place, perhaps limiting what he can do during the crucial early days of his administration.

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Repealing 2001, 2002 AUMFs. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) began the 117th Congress by introducing H.R. 255 and H.R. 256, renewing her effort to repeal the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) that are necessary to undertake military action in states like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. Lee’s efforts to repeal these laws have gained momentum in recent years, but it is unclear whether Democrats have the necessary votes in both the House and Senate to pass the measures into law. Furthermore, it is difficult to gauge President-elect Joe Biden’s support for these bills considering that the 2001 AUMF was integral to the expansion of counterterrorism operations overseen by President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden.

Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act. Rep. Brian Mast (R-Florida), with the help of a bipartisan group of House members, reintroduced his legislation (H.R. 261) known as the Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act that passed the House during the last Congress. The bill “imposes sanctions on foreign persons, agencies and governments that assist Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or their affiliates.”

2) Hearings and Briefings

What Congress Can Do to Make Human Rights a Priority in Arms Trade Decisions. On January 12, Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Ted Lieu (California) participated in a virtual event to examine Washington’s priorities and Congress’s role in formulating US arms sales policies. The duo recounted how President Trump went unchecked by Congress in his mission to get large weapons packages to problematic partners like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Both repeatedly expressed a desire to give Congress a greater role in approving—or prohibiting—these proposed arms sales and they argued that human rights considerations should be an integral part of the discussion when considering the governments to which Washington provides weapons.

Specifically, both Rep. Omar and Rep. Lieu told viewers that they planned to reintroduce legislation from the last Congress that would change how the US government appraises arms sales. Omar said she plans to reintroduce the Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act, which would block “security aid of any kind” to any government that crosses “red lines” through gross violations of human rights and international law. Lieu, for his part, is seeking support for a bill he previously introduced known as the Arms Sale Oversight Act; his legislation would modify House procedures to allow review of proposed arms sales in the same manner as in the Senate. At present, any sitting senator can force a debate on proposed arms sales and Lieu is hoping to afford House members that same ability.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Secretary Pompeo, in Final Stand, Leans into “Maximum Pressure. Before leaving government, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued his effort to hamper incoming President Joe Biden’s plans for Middle East and North Africa diplomacy. On Pompeo’s orders, the State Department designated Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and named three of the group’s leaders as specially designated global terrorists. In addition, the secretary gave a public speech on January 12 arguing that there is some kind of cooperative relationship between Iran and the terrorist group al-Qaeda. Calling Iran al-Qaeda’s “new home base,” Pompeo was explicitly trying to tie Tehran to al-Qaeda, a group that the Pentagon is legally allowed to strike—wherever it is found—in accordance with the aforementioned 2001 AUMF.

Aside from having a potentially deleterious effect on future US efforts to mediate a peaceful end to the war in Yemen, the FTO designation could have an immediate impact on foreign nongovernmental organizations’ efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the suffering Yemeni population and to stave off starvation. Members of Congress, Republican and Democrat alike, were skeptical of the decision and warned of the likely negative consequences of this action for the Yemeni people, the majority of whom lives in territory controlled by the Houthis. Individuals on Capitol Hill were also incensed with the process by which Pompeo made his decision: the State Department bypassed the one-week notification period mandated by law and only notified lawmakers hours before Pompeo publicized the designation.

Pompeo’s efforts to tie Iran to al-Qaeda are clearly calculated to prevent the Biden Administration from negotiating with Tehran. It was reported that Pompeo had a meeting with the head of Israeli Mossad before the announcement; nevertheless, he offered little evidence to support his claims and, in subsequent media reports, current and former government officials maintained that there was little evidence that could back his assertions.

But both of these efforts can better be understood as pieces of a broader effort by Pompeo and other anti-Iran hard-liners in Washington to curtail President-elect Biden’s abilities to reduce tensions and engage in diplomatic negotiations with Iran. Further, Pompeo used his speech as a springboard for levying more sanctions on Iranian actors and entities, sanctions that would undoubtedly be unpopular for Biden to overturn once in office. Secretary Pompeo also undertook a similar initiative in Iraq, instituting sanctions on a prominent Iraqi militia leader, Faleh al-Fayyad, who has close ties to Iran’s security apparatus. The decision was said to be made because of the leader’s role in serious human rights abuses, owing to the actions of his forces in the deadly government crackdowns of Iraqi protesters in 2019. It is noteworthy that al-Fayyad is the successor of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed by the United States alongside Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, making him arguably the top official pushing Iran’s interests in Iraq.

Ambassador Friedman Reflects on Trump Policies toward Israel, Palestine. Outgoing US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman gave a lengthy interview to The New York Times recently in which he expressed pride over the Trump Administration’s record over the last four years. Friedman, one of the most ideologically extreme ambassadors the United States has perhaps ever had, radically overhauled US policy toward both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. He helped institute policies that gave the right-wing elements of the Israeli government everything they wanted. Friedman reveled in his time as envoy and was exuberant about perhaps irreversibly changing US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. Notably, and with no evidence to support his claims, Friedman maintained that not only was Washington’s heavy-handed support for Israel over the Palestinians not detrimental, but that it would help improve the lives of the Palestinians currently living under Israeli military rule.

Prior to departing, Ambassador Friedman also took the opportunity to address Israel’s Knesset, according to some reports. Axios reported that he told the body about White House advisor Jared Kushner’s recent efforts to brief incoming Biden advisor Jake Sullivan on the Trump Administration’s Middle East policies.

US, Israel Explore Expanding US Diplomatic Facilities. Washington is poised to expand its diplomatic facilities, according to recent reports. After recognizing Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara, the Trump Administration is moving to open a consulate in the disputed territory. Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker and US Ambassador to Morocco David Fischer traveled to the port city of Dakhla, in Western Sahara, and participated in a ceremony marking the occasion.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly pressuring a Jerusalem Municipality committee to approve two different locations in the city to potentially serve as the sites of the new US embassy. In light of the Trump Administration’s decision to move the US embassy out of Tel Aviv into the disputed city, it is unclear whether incoming President Joe Biden will be willing to overturn that decision. Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s tactic is seen as a way to box President-elect Biden in on the issue, limiting his options for what to do with the US embassy in Israel.

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