House Democrats Outline Foreign Policy Priorities in FY22 Budget

The Democratic-controlled House Appropriations Committee last week passed the federal government’s fiscal year 2022 budget. Some notable changes could affect US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa. The House Appropriations subcommittee on State-Foreign Operations adopted a bill totaling $62.2 billion—roughly a 12 percent increase over current funding levels—for the State Department and US Agency for International Development.

In the State-Foreign Operations budget, Israel is slated to receive its full $3.8 billion in security assistance with no additional conditions placed on the aid. At the same time, the bill significantly boosts the amount of assistance provided to the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority (PA) over budgets of recent years. The committee signed off on providing no less than $225 million for the West Bank and Gaza.

Other traditional recipients, like Jordan and Egypt, will also receive over $1 billion in foreign military financing and economic support funds. However, the FY22 budget spells out greater conditions on Egypt’s ability to receive all the earmarked funds. While only $300 million is eligible to be withheld—a figure in line with recent budgets—the conditions that can trigger such a freeze have been expanded in this bill. Cairo would be subjected to stricter monitoring of its use of US funds, and aid is also directly tied to Egypt’s record on the protection of civil rights, the rule of law, and the Egyptian government’s treatment of American citizens.

Lastly, the Democrats’ State-Foreign Operations Budget would allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in combined aid to other Arab states like Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia as well as to US partners in Syria who are involved in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, and later the full Appropriations Committee, also boosted FY22 spending levels above the current rate, though to a much more modest 1.4 percent. The budget still totals a whopping $706.453 billion in combined discretionary and mandatory spending and includes provisions for some $500 million in missile defense support for Israel. Notably, the Pentagon budget does not include the $1 billion in emergency assistance that Israel recently requested, although one Biden Administration official opined that such a provision will likely be passed by Congress as a stand-alone bill.

As is typical in these massive military budgets, lawmakers set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for security cooperation with key US partners in the region, including Egypt, Jordan, the Lebanese Armed Forces, Tunisia, and Oman. Beyond setting spending levels, the FY22 Pentagon budget also effectively mandates that the United States close the infamous Guantanamo Bay military prison by prohibiting the use of funds to operate it. For years, Congress has passed budgets and authorizations that do the exact opposite and prohibit US funds from being used to close the base that has indefinitely housed dozens of suspected terrorists, many of whom hail from Arab states. There is evidence to support the idea that the military site is a potent recruiting tool for terrorist organizations; nevertheless, Washington has been content with letting the base remain open for two decades.

In all likelihood, the House budget proposals outlined here will prove to be largely symbolic because, thanks to Senate rules and a 50-50 tie in the upper chamber (with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris having a tie-breaking vote), bills like these are unlikely to garner enough support to pass. Senate Republicans, like their House colleagues, will almost certainly oppose both the spending levels—which House Republicans decried as too little for diplomacy and insufficient for war-fighting—and the policy proposals outlined in the appropriations bills. Furthermore, Republicans criticized the top-line spending set to go to the Palestinian Authority as well as the new restrictions on portions of US assistance to Egypt.

The FY22 legislation marked up and passed by Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee does make a strong effort to reinvigorate Washington’s diplomatic efforts and reassert US commitments to human rights protections in places like Egypt. But ultimately, it is just the opening offer in what will surely be a contentious funding process, with Republicans and Democrats compromising on key issues. If that is the case and lawmakers return to the status quo, then major shifts in policy toward regional actors will certainly not be expected.

Also Happening in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

House Votes to Repeal Old AUMFs. The House voted to repeal a 1991 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against Iraq and a 1957 AUMF that was adopted to allow the United States to act militarily against the former Soviet Union in the Middle East. The two outdated AUMFs, combined, have been invoked a singular time (to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991), but lawmakers argued that leaving them on the books could give presidents legal authority to carry out military operations on the flimsiest of justifications. The Senate is looking to pass its own bill that repeals the 1991 AUMF alongside the 2002 AUMF, but little has been said about the 1957 authority in the upper chamber.

Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act. On June 29, the House voted to pass H.R. 567, titled the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act, 395-15. The bill establishes an interagency program for the United States to assist North and West African states in their counterterrorism efforts against groups affiliated with the Islamic State.

Strategic Lebanon Security Reporting Act. Reps. Elaine Luria (D-Virginia) and Lee Zeldin (R-New York) introduced H.R. 4230, per the pair’s press release and a draft of the bill’s text, to pressure Beirut to do more to disarm all paramilitary groups in the country, including Hezbollah. The bill also outlines other policy proposals for the United States to do more to help the Lebanese state root out Hezbollah’s influence in state institutions, like the Lebanese Armed Forces, and to disrupt Hezbollah’s efforts to construct cross-border tunnels and weapons manufacturing facilities.

Deferred Removal for Iraqi Nationals Including Minorities Act. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) reintroduced his Deferred Removal for Iraqi Nationals Including Minorities Act, as H.R. 4273, that seeks to delay for two years most deportation orders for Iraqi citizens living in the United States.

Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Resolution. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) introduced H. J. Res. 54 (read the text here) that would provide $1 billion in emergency funding for Israel to replenish its Iron Dome missile defense system. McCarthy moved to have the measure adopted through unanimous consent and then he blasted Democrats for not standing with Israel when the move failed.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers React to Military Strikes against Iraqi Militias. As was noted in ACW’s June 28 report, some notable members of Congress released early statements seeking more information from the Biden Administration about its decision to conduct air strikes on Iranian-backed militias in both Iraq and Syria. The Biden team obliged and formally notified Congress of its decision, implicitly citing Article II powers vested by the Constitution to defend US troops stationed in the region, and formally invoking the right to self-defense established in the United Nations charter. In addition, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) reportedly received a briefing from National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk.

Members like Senator Kaine and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) are wary of expanded “retaliatory” attacks for fear that, as Murphy put it, the tit-for-tat constitutes a “pattern of hostilities.” In fact, just hours after Biden’s so-called defensive strikes, militias targeted US troops stationed in Syria with a rocket attack. Others on Capitol Hill reacted to the operation not by cautioning that an uptick in so-called retaliatory strikes could lead to further US military engagement in hostilities, but by arguing, like Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) did, that the strikes are “overdue.” In Inhofe’s assessment, the United States apparently should be conducting more kinetic operations to deter Iran-backed groups. Overall, Democrats find themselves in a position where they are pushing a president from their own party to respect Congress’s role in the war powers debate while, at the same time, lawmakers in both chambers express skepticism about US presidents’ abilities to unilaterally decide to wage war.

Update on the Meeks-led CODEL to Israel. According to Jewish Insider, three more members of the House have signed on to Rep. Gregory Meeks’s (D-New York) planned congressional delegation (CODEL) visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) provided some background information on the planned trip, telling reporters that, along with meetings with officials of the Palestinian Authority, the delegation will meet with members of Israel’s new government and attend the inauguration of Israel’s incoming president, Isaac Herzog.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden, Congressional Leaders Host Israel’s Rivlin. On June 28, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was welcomed to Washington by President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan, and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, among others. Rivlin also met with top congressional leaders including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California), and the chairman and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that oversees Middle East policy, Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina), respectively.

NSA Sullivan Speaks with UAE’s Crown Prince MbZ. On June 30, NSA Jake Sullivan spoke by phone with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ). The two discussed Abu Dhabi’s role in trying to mediate in the fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the official visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to the UAE.

2) Department of State

State Department Officials Discuss Counter-IS Mission with Foreign Officials. Over the last week, State Department officials engaged with international partners in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Secretary of State Antony Blinken participated in a ministerial-level meeting where the coalition discussed ongoing military operations against the group, the need to stabilize liberated communities in Iraq and Syria, and the need to repatriate IS fighters and their families to their home countries.

In addition to Blinken’s meeting, the acting US special envoy for the coalition, John Godfrey, traveled to Iraq, Syria, and Italy to participate in the conversations. Godfrey joined Blinken in Rome after visiting Iraqi Kurdistan and northeastern Syria, where he met with officials and partners about the remaining IS threats.

In a separate but related meeting, the United States participated in a global ministerial meeting on the future of Syria. The group released a statement reaffirming support to a peaceful and sovereign Syria and an end to the fighting there under the UN framework outlined in Security Council resolution 2254.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Sudan’s Hamdok, Israel’s FM, and French and Saudi FMs. On June 27, Secretary Blinken held a phone call with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to discuss the transitional government’s reform efforts in Khartoum. Blinken also held a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid in Italy, where the two discussed Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, US negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal, and normalization efforts such as the so-called Abraham Accords. While it is not clear whether the subject was discussed in this meeting, officials in Israel’s Foreign Ministry have reportedly been lobbying the State Department to postpone its planned reopening of the US consulate in Jerusalem, which would serve as Washington’s line of communication with the Palestinians.

In a later meeting, Blinken sat down with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud for consultations on the future of Lebanon.

Deputy Secretary Sherman Holds Virtual Meetings with Tunisian Leaders. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman held virtual meetings with both Tunis’s Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and representatives of civil society and the Tunisian media. Sherman reiterated US support for Tunisia and explored ways Washington and Tunis can work together on political and security issues.

State Department Says No Change in Policy toward Golan Heights. In a vaguely sourced media report, The Washington Free Beacon recently wrote that the State Department—apparently according to one unnamed State Department official—was reversing former President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. No such public proclamation was made, but nevertheless, Republican politicians told the outfit that the Biden Administration’s “reversal” jeopardizes Israeli security. In subsequent reporting by Middle East Eye and others, State Department officials flatly denied that they were reversing US policy on the issue. President Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the land in 2019 despite most of the international community continuing to recognize the Golan Heights as occupied Syrian territory.

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