Democrats Grapple with US Role in the Middle East

This past week, members of Congress held several public hearings, off-the-Hill briefings, and small group discussions to analyze nearly every component of US influence abroad. US military capabilities (elements of its “hard power”) are the most well-funded, but Democrats in the new House majority explored the status of underutilized—even neglected—tools of US influence like diplomacy and development assistance that constitute US “soft power.” The convergence of these events clearly illustrated that with Democrats gaining back some of the political power in the United States, Congress is much more cognizant of the fact that lawmakers must reclaim the legislative branch’s influence in foreign policy. At all of these events, members of Congress largely agreed that it is time to rein in the “imperial presidency.”

But the near universal agreement among Democratic lawmakers on the need for an emboldened Congress papers over the important fact that the United States is in the middle of a tug-of-war over the country’s foreign policy. Admittedly, a large number—arguably, a majority—of members of Congress remain enamored of the foreign policy of the old DC beltway establishment, one that calls for growing what is already the world’s largest military. They also persist in pushing for a global engagement strategy that visualizes a US presence everywhere at once. As evidenced by President Trump’s foreign policy priorities, there is a real appetite for less global engagement among many outside Washington. Some on Capitol Hill who may not necessarily support Trump’s specific policies seem to feel it is time to rethink long-standing US strategy.

Last week’s foreign policy debate started with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s (SFRC) first open hearing of this Congress, titled “Assessing the Role of the United States in the World,” and with the House Foreign Affairs Committee offering a midterm assessment of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy. The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations then met to discuss “America’s Global Leadership: Why Diplomacy and Development Matter” and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs carried out its oversight duties of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Aside from diplomacy and international development assistance, a pair of US representatives ventured away from the capitol to discuss Congress’s role in defense and national security at the American Enterprise Institute while a new veterans group worked the halls of Congress on this same issue.

The discourse produced by these public discussions, particularly from the Democrats, was heartening in the sense that despite President Trump’s focus on the military—even for problems where there may not be military solutions—members of Congress are more aware of the fact that the United States needs a broader, non-military strategy for managing chronic problems abroad, particularly in the Middle East. The obvious shift in Congress away from Trump’s militarized approach will have mixed results, however. Undoubtedly, the Democratic House majority will emphasize spending for soft power tools like diplomacy and development assistance, but these budget priorities will be moderate, as the Senate GOP majority will insist on a beefier military budget. To be sure, some Republicans are outspoken supporters of US soft power, but they are more skeptical of the spending levels that Democrats favor.

For the Arab world and the broader Middle East, Democrats want to see more diplomacy—and in particular to find political solutions to the wars in Syria and Yemen—and use development assistance and humanitarian aid to stabilize the communities in the region that have been wracked by wars and instability. But there are practical barriers to the Democrats’ goals of reorienting US policy in the region. First, the president still has wide-ranging authority to execute foreign policy as he sees fit. This is most obviously illustrated by Trump’s disregard for staffing the State Department adequately and his resistance to undertaking a proper Global Magnitsky Act investigation into the Saudi royal court’s involvement in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said recently, Congress can stop the president from doing certain things, but it is much more difficult for it to make him do anything; that is, forcing Trump to utilize diplomatic and development funding when he is disinterested in those tools seems unlikely.

There are also legal issues to be dealt with. Members of both chambers want to rein in the president’s war powers, but he is operating in the region under two authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) passed by Congress. This means that if lawmakers are serious about challenging him, they would need to repeal those AUMFs and pass a new one specifying what groups the president can use force against. In the most optimistic sense, this is a pipedream. Even in the realm of development there are some legal hurdles. Many members of House committees critiqued the administration’s decision to cut all funding to Palestinians, be it through the Palestinian Authority (PA) or nongovernmental organizations working with USAID; yet Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA) that resulted in the PA ending any US assistance.

The last week of hearings and events was crucial in opening up the debate over US foreign policy in the Middle East to new and different voices in Congress. This is a huge development in the wake of two years of Republican acquiescence to President Trump’s foreign relations strategies. However, with internal divisions and practical obstacles in the way, one cannot expect a full shift in policy in the near future.

Also Happening This Week

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Rejecting Anti-Semitism. At the time of this publication, the House is expected to vote on March 7 on a resolution “rejecting anti-Semitism as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.” This effort is largely a response to remarks made by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) which some perceive are anti-Semitic because they allegedly accuse Jewish Americans of dual loyalty to the United States and Israel. Others, however, say that the reaction to her remarks—which some say were void of anything remotely prejudicial in the first place—is needlessly excessive, bordering on hysterical.

TREASON Resolution. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) is circulating a “dear colleague” letter looking for cosponsors for a resolution that would express the sense of Congress that US citizens who join IS should have their citizenship revoked permanently. He intends to introduce the resolution later in the evening on March 6.

Saudi Arabia Nuclear Fuel Enrichment Capabilities. On March 5, Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Illinois) introduced H.R. 1541 requiring a report to Congress detailing Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of capabilities to enrich nuclear fuel, a step that is key to producing nuclear weapons.

2) Hearings

Khashoggi Murder Magnitsky Investigation. Members of the SFRC received a closed-door, classified briefing on the status of the Global Magnitsky Act investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, as requested by Congress. The briefing, which comes after the administration refused to meet the law’s 120-day deadline, was handled by low-ranking officials from the Departments of State and the Treasury. In fact, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) remarked that the briefing was “a complete waste of time” because he “knew more [about the Khashoggi case] than they [the briefers] did.”

The other senators who attended the briefing also described the administration’s efforts in less than glowing terms. Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) called it “a sham” and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) said that Democrats and Republicans were equally frustrated with the briefing. Many wonder if this will further ignite lawmakers’ simmering anger toward Riyadh. Eventually, the White House’s disregard for the laws enacted by Congress will force senators to offer more sanctions and challenge the administration more directly; indeed, Senator Murphy has already said as much. Recent reporting detailed that the Saudi men who murdered Khashoggi also burned his body in a large oven in the Saudi consulate where the killing took place, angering lawmakers even further.

To make matters worse for Saudi Arabia in the nation’s capital, multiple reports this week have described discriminatory and abusive treatment of US citizens in the kingdom. As ACW discussed last week, the animosity on Capitol Hill toward Saudi Arabia is likely to grow and it will continue to pit Congress against the Trump Administration.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Tells Congress He Actually Agrees with Keeping Some Troops in Syria. In what must be a frustrating about-face to former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, President Trump indicated to members of Congress that he now agrees “100%” that at least some troops should remain in Syria. This comes only two months after Trump ordered a full and immediate troop withdrawal.

2) State Department

Assistant Secretary Sullivan, Administrator Green Discuss Humanitarian Aid for Yemen. On February 28, John Sullivan of the State Department and Mark Green of USAID met with representatives of international and nongovernmental organizations to discuss the ongoing situation in Yemen and the prospects for a political solution to the fighting there.

State Department Foreign Terrorist Developments. On February 28, the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program announced a $1 million reward for information that brings to justice Hamza bin Laden, the son of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The following day, the State Department also announced that it would maintain the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). FTO designations open up members of the organization and individuals who support the group to a host of sanctions. Interestingly, the PKK is thought to be close to the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), with which the United States works in its efforts to counter the Islamic State. The State Department also designated an “Iranian proxy group” and its leader as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

State Officials Visit Iraq, Lebanon. Through the first week of March, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, Denise Natali, is in Iraq to discuss stabilization challenges. She will visit both Baghdad and Sulaymaniyah, where she will give a presentation at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. In addition, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield visited Lebanon to discuss how to tackle security challenges as well as address widespread corruption and a weak economy.

Palestinian Affairs Merged with Embassy in Jerusalem. On March 4, the State Department lowered the flag on the US Consulate General in Jerusalem—a 175-year old diplomatic post—and merged its Palestinian affairs team with a new unit at the US embassy to Israel. The consulate traditionally served as the chief diplomatic channel with Palestinians, but after the merger, there will be a Palestinian Affairs Unit (PAU) that reports to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Despite the department’s claim that this move does not deviate from historical US policy toward the conflict, this development is a clear downgrade in US relations with Palestinians and leaves Friedman—a staunch supporter of right-wing Israeli policies and the Israeli settler movement—in charge of dictating what information from the PAU reaches Washington.

Secretary Pompeo Meets with UN Envoy to Syria. On March 6, Secretary Mike Pompeo met with the United Nations’ envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, to discuss the ongoing situation there and the prospects for a political solution to the fighting.

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