Congressional Update – Week Ending May 25, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

H.R. 5898. On May 21, Democratic Representative David Cicilline (Rhode Island) introduced a bill requiring Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to clarify the Trump Administration’s policy toward the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), the UN body tasked with providing assistance to registered Palestinian refugees. UNWRA has long been a target of some of Israel’s strongest supporters in Congress, so this could be a legislative effort to spur the Trump Administration to take a harder line on the agency.

S.J. Res. 58. On May 22, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) voted to approve a resolution—a version detailed in this previous Congressional Update—that would make US assistance to the Saudi-led coalition’s war on Yemen contingent on State Department certifications. These would affirm that coalition members—namely the Saudi military—are taking appropriate measures to limit civilian casualties in the conflict, one that is widely believed to have produced the worst humanitarian crisis in the world at present. The resolution will head for a full floor vote after passing committee 14-7; but its fate is still uncertain, with many critics saying the resolution does not go far enough in pressuring the Saudis on their activities in Yemen.

2940/H.R. 5924. Members of both chambers introduced bills this week titled the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2018. The legislation stipulates that when investigating cases of discrimination on school and college campuses that would violate the protections laid out in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Department of Education (DoE) must incorporate specific definitions of anti-Semitism. The bills’ sponsors note that Title VI does not explicitly bar discrimination based on religion, but they also recognize that previous DoE directives specifically ensure that groups that suffer discrimination based on “actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics” are afforded the same Title VI protections (e.g., Jewish, Muslim, and Arab students, among others).

Criticism of these bills is not based on the fact that members of Congress are asking the DoE to be more diligent in investigating accusations of discrimination—particularly anti-Semitism—but on how these lawmakers are choosing to define anti-Semitism. The sponsors of these bills adopted a set of definitions outlined in 2010 by the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. A large section of the envoy’s memorandum addresses anti-Semitism in the context of Israel and, to many civil liberties activists and defenders of the constitutionally protected freedom of speech, it would essentially label any criticism of Israel—even that devoid of anti-Jewish sentiments—as anti-Semitism and discrimination. Critics argue that by conflating legitimate criticism of Israel and its state policies with discrimination and hate, the bill would effectively suppress student movements on campuses across the country that protest the government of Israel’s policies.

The bills’ sponsors were obviously cognizant of this argument because, at the end of each version of the bill, they added caveats (known as “savings clauses”) stating that nothing in the bill is intended to curb citizens’ right to free speech. However, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) explained in its letter opposing other legislation regarding protests against Israel, those clauses do not save the bills because they fundamentally violate the Constitution’s First Amendment guaranteeing free speech. Following the ACLU’s logic, even if this bill becomes law, it could very well be considered an unconstitutional repression of one’s opinion on Israel (known in legal terms as “viewpoint discrimination”). Indeed, the ACLU came out in opposition of the bills for this very reason.

S.J. Res. 61. Unsatisfied with the bipartisan authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that was debated last week, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon proposed a new resolution that would authorize the fight against terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, and the Taliban in Afghanistan while narrowing the scope of the locations and targets where the president can use military force. This version was specifically recommended by one of the witnesses from last week’s hearing, meaning it will likely garner more support from those who want to limit the president’s war powers. However, the resolution is unlikely to pass the Senate.

NDAA Fiscal Year (FY) 2019. On May 24, after using much of the week to debate the bill and wade through hundreds of proposed amendments, the House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2019. The bill authorizes the Department of Defense to spend $708.1 billion, down from the $716 billion outlined in this Congressional Update, though the department will likely receive up to another $8 billion that must be authorized by other committees. Along with the previously detailed provisions regarding the Middle East, the amended version of the NDAA includes a number of reporting requirements (particularly regarding Iran’s activities in the region) and it explicitly bars the use of force against Iran. Additionally, the House adopted a provision that would require the United States to investigate whether its Gulf allies have violated US or international law in their Yemen campaign.

While the full House adopted its NDAA, the Senate Armed Services Committee released figures from its version. The bill authorizes a total of just under $708 billion and the Middle East-related spending provisions are in line with the House version.

2) Hearings

Lebanon and Iraq: After the Elections. On May 22, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing to assess the recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon and Iraq and what the results mean for politics in the region and US policy toward the two states. The witnesses were Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, and Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution.

Although the purpose of the hearing was to examine the ramifications of the Lebanese and Iraqi elections, the discussion focused greatly on Iran and its growing influence in the two countries. Lawmakers were concerned that in addition to Iran’s pervasive influence in much of the region, the Islamic Republic had further entrenched itself in Lebanon (through Hezbollah’s electoral successes) and Iraq (due to Tehran’s relationship with political kingmaker Muqtada al-Sadr and others). The rhetoric of Pletka and Doran was largely in line with that of Tehran critics, like Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) and others; they advocated pursuing hawkish measures, such as harsh sanctions, for pushing back against Iran. Overall, these two witnesses and many of the Iran hawks on the subcommittee believed that the results of the recent elections were evidence that the United States is “losing” to Tehran in the region. Doran and Pletka said they were encouraged by Secretary Pompeo’s Iran strategy (outlined below).

Wittes, on the other hand, did not consider the results of the elections as indicative of a US “loss” and she urged more of a long-term vision for US policy. Indeed, she viewed the elections as a critical departure from current regional trends, arguing that relatively peaceful elections are a small triumph. She urged policymakers not to dismiss the views of those who elected groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Sadr’s party in Iraq, saying that it is a positive development for Lebanese and Iraqis to gravitate toward parties that represent a shift away from the status quo. In her view, this will only increase the possibility that new and more democratic political forces can emerge through a democratic process in the long term. If the United States walked away now from the region, Wittes argued, it would cede any influence over regional governments and would ultimately truly “lose” to Iran.

3) Correspondence and Personnel

House Democrats Pen Letter to Netanyahu in Support of Palestinians. On May 21, 76 House members signed on to a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to stop the proposed demolition of large parts of the village of Susiya, which lies in “Area C” inside the West Bank, in the South Hebron Hills. Many structures in Susiya are deemed illegal by Israel—which issues building permits in Area C territory—for failure to secure said permits (even though Israel routinely denies the overwhelming majority of building permit applications). Lawmakers are calling on Netanyahu’s government to forego demolition of the homes, schools, and the village’s sole source of electricity and instead to help this and other Area C villages secure building rights and develop their land.

Senator Murphy Talks Arms Sales. On May 22, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) gave a keynote address to the Stimson Center’s global arms trade conference. He spoke about the United States’ role in selling weapons and other defense equipment to states around the globe and gave some startling statistics about the proliferation of conventional weapons globally. Particularly glaring were the statistics for states in the Middle East. Murphy said that between 2011 and 2015, Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest importer of weapons. He also compared Saudi Arabia’s weapons imports from that time to the previous five-year period and noted that Saudis increased their imports by a staggering 275 percent. Qatar, he said, increased its imports by 279 percent during the same period. In similar comparisons, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates saw increases of 37 percent and 35 percent, respectively, and significant portions of these weapons came from US manufacturers.

Murphy then posed a question about the real-world effects of weapons proliferation in the region. He stated that a great number of US weapons are sent to developing countries that lack the institutions to ensure that governments do not turn these weapons on their own people or to guarantee that weapons do not end up in the hands of non-state actors. Murphy then turned to the crisis in Yemen which, he said, has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in large part due to US support for, and arms sales to, the Saudis and their coalition allies. Not only is this a moral catastrophe, he said, but it is also detrimental to US national security. The bombing campaigns and displacement of Yemenis leave power vacuums that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are all too willing and capable of filling. He said that most troubling, however, is that the bombs that rain on civilian homes and public spaces have US labels, and this is stoking anti-American sentiment among Yemenis who are increasingly recognizing the war as not a “Saudi,” but an “American-Saudi,” bombing campaign.

To conclude, Murphy laid out three steps for Congress to better govern US arms sales. First, he said the Senate must ratify a 2013 UN treaty governing weapons transfers, which failed when it was first introduced. Second, Murphy wants to fix and strengthen the “Leahy law,”which bars US weapons from going to countries that use them to commit human rights violations. Third, he urged his Senate colleagues to force more votes on arms sales (like he did on Saudi arms sales in the past) and exercise more oversight on the executive branch’s power to sell arms.

II. Executive Branch

1) State Department

Pompeo Pans Washington to Discuss US Policy in the Middle East. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made several appearances around Washington this week to outline the Trump Administration’s Middle East foreign policy agenda and how he intends to achieve its objectives as the nation’s top diplomat. First, he addressed the administration’s Iran policy now that the United States has withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He outlined the reasons the JCPOA was a flawed deal and why Iran is the Middle East’s greatest menace, offering bombastic rhetoric about undermining the regime in Tehran and pushing back against its influence in the region. Pompeo even presented a 12-point list of demands the administration hopes to force Iran to adopt post-JCPOA. However, he outlined only three steps for achieving these lofty goals: apply “unprecedented financial pressure” on the regime; craft a whole-of-government approach for pushing back against Iranian aggression globally; and “advocate” for the Iranian people. Other than the threat of sanctions and vague proclamations, Pompeo did not put forth any discernible policies. It is also unclear if the administration could pressure Iran—through sanctions or otherwise—to get the regime back to the negotiating table.

Throughout the rest of the week, Secretary Pompeo appeared before both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for oversight hearings regarding the State Department and US Agency for International Development budgets. During each hearing he was asked to discuss a number of issues relating to the Middle East and North Africa. As for budget figures, Pompeo was confident that the funding levels were sufficient to address the myriad issues facing Washington at this time, despite the skepticism of many lawmakers. He noted that some $7.3 billion has been allocated in security assistance to help friendly states protect their borders and address other threats. Another $5.7 billion was proposed to be spent specifically for combatting IS. Finally, $6.4 billion was proposed for humanitarian assistance, particularly for the crises in Syria and Yemen. Here are other specific Middle East policies—excluding the ones focused on Iran—that Pompeo laid out in his hearings:

  • Syria – Pompeo said the military will continue its military campaign against IS in Syria, but that the State Department will work to help further a political resolution to the long-running war and to provide humanitarian aid to refugees and the internally displaced.
  • Lebanon – Though he was concerned about Hezbollah’s further entrenchment in Lebanon’s political system, Pompeo argued that it is still important to support the country, particularly the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Pompeo said the LAF is one of the few stable institutions in Lebanon and the United States cannot afford to weaken it by limiting funds. However, he did say that his department and the Department of Defense would be diligent in monitoring how US security aid is used by Beirut.
  • Yemen – Like in Syria, Pompeo wants to use his position as top diplomat to reach a resolution to the Yemen war and ensure that the United States helps alleviate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
  • Saudi Arabia – Despite acknowledging the suffering in Yemen, Pompeo actually argued for providing the Saudis with precision-guided missiles to use in their campaign against the Houthis. The secretary of state said that better munitions by the United States would help the Saudis avoid killing civilians, despite the kingdom’s record of targeting civilian areas in the past. The Saudis were not completely free of criticism, however: Pompeo expressed disappointment over the recent crackdown on female activists by Riyadh.
  • Palestine – Pompeo assured lawmakers that his department would do its part in ensuring that funding is cut to Palestinians, pursuant to the Taylor Force Act that was adopted in the FY 2018 spending deal.

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