Washington Policy Weekly

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Enhancing Protection of Civilians During US Military Operations. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) introduced S. 3852 this week in an attempt to establish greater protections for civilians in areas where the US military undertakes operations. This will prove extremely useful, if successful, in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa where the United States operates extensively. Arab League member state Somalia, for example, has seen civilians die in US military operations at high rates and Warren’s bill aims to reverse this trend.

National Commission on US Counterterrorism Policy Act. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), introduced H.R. 7028 that would establish a national commission to reassess US counterterrorism strategy and propose reforms. Since the “Global War on Terror” began in 2001, the United States’ counterterrorism strategy has almost singularly focused on combatting terrorism in and around the Middle East and North Africa. Now, however, the United States faces very different threats, according to the bill’s author, and he hopes to see a new counterterrorism strategy reflect that reality.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

House Democrats to Probe Firing of IG Investigating Secretary Pompeo. As explained in a previous ACW report, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was being investigated by the State Department’s Inspector General (IG)—the independent watchdog tasked with carrying out oversight within executive branch agencies—in part for his decision to sidestep Congress and facilitate the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Now, Rep. Eliot Engel, fellow House committee chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-New York), and Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) announced that they will undertake an investigation of their own into the firing of the IG and Pompeo’s role in the matter.

Senator Menendez Pens Op-ed Opposing New Saudi Arms Deals. Senator Menendez wrote an op-ed published by CNN this week confirming reports that the administration is currently seeking to sell precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, despite the recent uproar in Washington over Saudi behavior. Menendez criticizes the administration’s repeated desire to supply Riyadh with these deadly weapons and he is calling on his congressional colleagues to join him in opposing the new proposed sale. As the senator notes, Congress introduced and passed 22 joint resolutions of disapproval in May 2019 in an attempt to prevent the administration from allowing weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. However, neither chamber had the necessary votes for a veto-proof majority. But many in Congress may be willing to break with President Trump to oppose the sales at a time when the Saudis are ostensibly seeking an end to their disastrous war in Yemen.

Senator Cruz Calls for Criminal Investigation of Twitter over Iran. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wrote a letter to the attorney general and secretary of the Treasury calling on their departments to open a criminal investigation into Twitter for allegedly providing material support to Iran. Cruz has previously argued that Twitter is in violation of US sanctions on Iran—citing the International Emergency Economic Powers Act—by providing “goods and services” to sanctioned Iranian officials. Cruz argues that allowing a communication platform for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is a form of material support, thus illegal under US law. Twitter, predictably, disagreed, prompting the senator to ask the administration to investigate the matter.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senator Murphy Discusses Lebanon, Saudi Arabia. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) participated in a wide-ranging virtual briefing this week to discuss everything from the coronavirus pandemic to racial tensions in the United States to great power competition with China. On the Middle East, he spoke briefly about Lebanon and, at greater length, about Saudi Arabia. Murphy told his audience he shares many of the same concerns about Lebanon that Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) and Ted Cruz raised when they introduced legislation to sanction Beirut earlier this year. Though Murphy was similarly concerned about Lebanon’s detainment of an American citizen, he has yet to sign onto their legislation. In addition, the senator also told the audience that he is very concerned about the role Hezbollah is playing in Lebanon’s domestic politics.

Murphy was asked whether Congress can muster the support necessary to force the Trump Administration to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. He answered, bluntly, that there is “no chance” Congress could pass legislation forcing the administration to get tough with Riyadh in response to the murder. Instead, he said, this will require the election of a completely new administration to obtain justice for Khashoggi’s death. However, Senator Murphy believes that future arms sales to Riyadh, which are reportedly under consideration by the State Department, are in jeopardy. He said that more of his Senate colleagues might be willing to vote in favor of prohibiting proposed arms sales since the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a damning indictment of Saudi-US relations, having found extensive ties between Saudi military trainees in the United States and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Looks to Elevate International Religious Freedom. President Donald Trump signed an executive order this week elevating international religious freedom as one of his administration’s top priorities in foreign affairs. According to the executive order, the administration will prioritize religious freedom in its diplomatic outreach and will take other steps, including using economic incentives, to advance the cause of religious freedom.

Trump Advisors, Israeli Officials Discuss Annexation. Axios reported this week that Israeli officials Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, and Ron Dermer met and discussed annexation with White House advisors Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz as well as US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. This comes roughly one month before Netanyahu hopes to unilaterally annex occupied Palestinian territory. According to the report, Israeli officials felt that the White House was having second thoughts about annexation and was hoping to slow the process.

2) Department of State

Secretary Pompeo Speaks with Jordan’s Foreign Minister. On May 28, over a month before Israel plans to annex parts of the West Bank, Secretary Pompeo spoke by phone with Ayman al-Safadi, the foreign minister of Jordan, a state with much to be concerned about losing if the Israelis carry out their annexation plan. According to the readout, the pair discussed bilateral US-Jordanian relations and issues of mutual concern like developments in Syria. Though it is not specifically listed, it is hard to imagine that they did not discuss the looming Israeli annexation, as it is a topic of serious concern to Amman.

Assistant Secretary of State Schenker on Yemen, Libya, Turkey, Lebanon. On June 2nd, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker  participated in a fundraising effort to aid Yemen. The donor conference aimed to raise $2.4 billion for relief efforts to the war-torn country but the result was less than half that amount, threatening to disrupt the limited programs already facing economic uncertainty after US aid fell short of the totals appropriated for Yemen.

Schenker also engaged in two separate interviews this week (see here and here), elaborating on US policy toward Lebanon, Turkey, and Libya. On Lebanon, he delivered a blunt message refuting the claim that Lebanon’s economic misfortune is the result of US sanctions. Instead, he said economic mismanagement was to blame and he urged Beirut to clean up its endemic corruption issues. Schenker defended Turkey’s actions in both the Libyan and Syrian arenas, despite reports that Ankara had committed violent crimes and facilitated the influx of Arab mercenaries into Libya’s civil war. He did concede that the conflict in Libya could “spin out of control” if Russia—a major backer of the warlord Khalifa Haftar—continues its destabilizing presence in the country.

III. Judicial Branch

US District Court Finds Liability for Iran in Two Court Cases. This week, the US District Court in Washington, DC ruled on two lawsuits against Iran, one for its role in facilitating the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing (known as Bova v. The Islamic Republic of Iran) and another for its role in attacks from 2008 to2016 in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (cited as Force v. The Islamic Republic of Iran). In both cases, Iran was found to be liable for damages due to its role in supporting and training the accused individuals who carried out these attacks. In the latter case, Syria was also found to be liable for its role in training and supporting some Palestinian militants. Though these cases are a long way from being settled, this is a big success for the plaintiffs in both of them. In addition, the US court system has now ruled that foreign states can be held liable for violence carried out by “lone wolf” terrorists.

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