Secretary Pompeo Mixes Business and Politics on Diplomatic Tour

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarked on a five-state diplomatic tour this week, partly to revel in the so-called “historic” agreement reached between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He also tried to recruit other Arab states to follow suit. Pompeo’s official itinerary included visits to Israel, Sudan, Bahrain, the UAE, and Oman ostensibly to conduct official US diplomatic business.

In Israel, Pompeo held meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Alternate Prime Minister and current Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and Israeli Permanent Representative to the United Nations Gilad Erdan. The secretary and the Israeli officials lauded the Israel-UAE agreement, also called the Abraham Accords, and vowed to continue working together on issues of bilateral concern.

In Sudan, Pompeo met with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Sudanese Sovereign Council Chairman General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan. The meetings concerned issues related to Khartoum’s democratic transition, facilitating the de-listing of Sudan as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, and other regional developments such as the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In both meetings, Pompeo raised Sudanese-Israeli relations and, when considered in conjunction with the purpose of his trip, one must wonder if Pompeo was not offering Khartoum a quid pro quo: to establish diplomatic relations and normalize ties with Israel in exchange for US support and removal from the US terrorism blacklist. For his part, Hamdok said that his government did not have the necessary mandate to decide on relations with Israel.

Finally, Pompeo was off to the Arabian Gulf where he met with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. He was slated to meet with the leaders of the UAE and Oman as well. Because Pompeo’s trip precedes a planned trip by Jared Kushner and his Middle East peace team, it appears that the secretary’s visit was just the opening salvo of a diplomatic blitz to recruit Arab states to normalize relations with Israel during the home stretch of President Donald Trump’s reelection bid.

Not everything about Pompeo’s trip was dedicated to government business, however. Pompeo raised eyebrows in the United States when he recorded a video for the Republican National Convention while on diplomatic, taxpayer-funded travel to Israel. Traditionally, participation in partisan events has been off-limits for high-level cabinet officials; indeed, a State Department memo displaying Secretary Pompeo’s signature specifically warned Senate-approved officials against attending partisan events. The maneuver quickly prompted a House committee investigation; Pompeo and his team will face congressional scrutiny when they return to Washington.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Congratulating the Governments of Israel and the UAE on Reaching a Historic Agreement. On August 20, Democratic Senators Ben Cardin (Maryland) and Bob Menendez (New Jersey), alongside their Republican colleagues Todd Young (Indiana) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), announced their intention to introduce a resolution congratulating Israel and the UAE for their “historic” normalization agreement. According to a press release, the four will also encourage other Arab states to follow suit and they will reaffirm their commitment to the two-state solution for the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Recognizing Islam as One of the Great Religions of the World. The House of Representatives’ three Muslim members, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), and André Carson (D-Indiana), introduced H. Res. 1090 to recognize Islam as one of the world’s great religions.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

House, Senate Write Letters to Trump Administration on Lebanon. Bipartisan groups from both the House and Senate wrote letters this week to President Trump and some of his top officials urging them to do more to help Lebanon in the wake of Beirut’s disastrous port explosion. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), David Perdue (R-Georgia), and James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Administrator of the US Agency for International Development John Barsa to lead a long-term effort to help stabilize the Lebanese economy and assist in rebuilding the port. The group also urged the officials to push the Lebanese government to undertake crucial reforms and address the demands of the Lebanese people.

Meanwhile, 81 House Democrats, led by Rep. Tlaib, penned a letter to President Trump asking him to use his executive discretion to “provide protection to Lebanese nationals who are currently in the United States, by designating Lebanon for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), and to permit those affected by the catastrophe to find safe haven” in the United States. Citing the damage to Beirut by the blast and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers urged the president to allow Lebanese to remain in the United States until it is safe to return to Lebanon.

Bipartisan Group of Senators Writes to President Trump on Saudi Nuclear Program. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) spearheaded a letter to President Trump this week to express his concern about Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions. Van Hollen and his colleagues—two Democrats and three Republicans—recounted Riyadh’s apparent breach of international rules governing nuclear and ballistic missile development. They are requesting that the administration brief senators on these and other topics by mid-September.

Potential New HFAC Chairman Shifts Position on Israel Aid. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), one of the three House members seeking the top seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), offered a statement this week that marks a stark departure from his previous position regarding US aid to Israel. Earlier this month, The Times of Israel reported that Meeks and two others vying for the chairmanship—Reps. Brad Sherman (D-California) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas)—expressed support for prohibiting US aid from being used to support Israeli annexation of occupied Palestinian territories. However, in an interview with Jewish Insider this week, Meeks shifted, saying that US aid to Israel is “absolute and unequivocal.” The publication also characterized the remarks as precluding the prohibition of any funds even if Israel undertakes annexation. To be sure, the next chairman’s position on the matter will be critical. As some House Democrats are already pushing a bill to prohibit the United States from recognizing annexation or providing funds to support it, a Meeks chairmanship could dash any hopes of holding Israel accountable.

Families of Victims of 9/11 Write to Congress about Sudan’s Terrorism Status. While Secretary Pompeo was in Sudan meeting with officials about warming ties with Israel and removing Khartoum from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, American citizens were lobbying Congress not to remove Sudan’s designation. The citizens, who lost loved ones during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, argue that doing so would scuttle their attempts to receive justice through the courts, as they have sued Khartoum for helping to facilitate the attacks. Khartoum has been accused in US courts of facilitating the 9/11 attacks as well as a pair of 1998 US embassy bombings; for the latter, Sudan’s compensation to victims is a prerequisite for being de-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Hosts Iraqi Prime Minister. On August 20, President Donald Trump welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to the White House as part of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. The pair released a joint statement lauding bilateral cooperation and, during a press briefing, the president told reporters that US troops would be leaving Iraq “shortly.” Though his oft-repeated vow is an exaggeration, the US-led international coalition tasked with fighting the so-called Islamic State did announce this week that it had transferred control of Camp Taji to Iraqi forces and would be transferring out of the base. There is no indication this will result in a reduction of US troops, whose number stands at 5,000, but it marks an important step in empowering Iraqi forces.

Kadhimi and his team’s visit to Washington engaged officials at multiple levels. In addition to the White House meeting, Kadhimi and leaders from his cabinet met with Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette to discuss energy issues. In sum, the visit was seen as a success, with the State Department and members of Congress offering statements of high praise regarding US-Iraqi relations.

2) Department of State

Syria, Iran Garner Attention from Foggy Bottom. The State Department took action this week to address developments in both Iran and Syria. On the latter, Ambassador James Jeffrey departed for meetings in Switzerland and Turkey where he intended to hold meetings on the margins of the Syrian Constitutional Committee summit. However, that summit was put on hold after three participants were diagnosed with COVID-19. Despite Jeffrey’s diplomatic engagement, the department announced a spate of new sanctions on Syria in an effort to build more pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

As with Syria, the State Department announced it was blacklisting 14 Iranian individuals for gross violations of human rights.

F-35 Disagreement Scuttles Trilateral Talks. Not all matters between the UAE and Israel are going smoothly after the two states’ normalization agreement. The possibility that the United States would sell F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi remains a thorn in the side of the new merger. Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner affirmed that Washington is more likely to sell the jets to the UAE, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated his disapproval, prompting the Emiratis to tank planned trilateral talks between Washington, Abu Dhabi, and Tel Aviv.

III. Judicial Branch

US Veterans Sue Iran for Attacks on Soldiers in Iraq. Dozens of US military veterans and the families of deceased veterans filed a lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia against Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and multiple Iranian banks and businesses for terrorist attacks they allegedly facilitated on US troops in Iraq. The plaintiffs argue that Tehran supported and funded multiple terrorist groups for the express purpose of killing and injuring US soldiers. They are seeking damages from Iran that would likely prove to be upwards of tens of millions of dollars.

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