Trump, Congress Lay Out Election Year Foreign Policy Priorities

At this time of year, the executive and legislative branches of the American government begin debating Washington’s policy priorities and formulating a corresponding budget to fund them. The White House released its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal in February and, particularly over the last week, has dispatched top officials to Capitol Hill to defend the proposed spending figures to a sometimes skeptical Congress.

President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, like most presidential draft budgets, is largely a symbolic gesture intended to demonstrate the administration’s policy priorities. Nevertheless, Trump Administration officials like US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Mark Green, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) General Kenneth McKenzie, and others appeared before varying House and Senate committees to detail the administration’s policy preferences and foreign policy priorities.

Iran, Iran, Iran

The military officials—Esper, Milley, and McKenzie—fielded an array of questions on Washington’s military posture from the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. They spent considerable time explaining the administration’s military policy toward the Middle East and North Africa and, specifically, in countering Iran. There were a few different angles by which the Pentagon’s leaders addressed the US policy toward Tehran, but it is most notable that the administration continues to believe that it retains the appropriate authorities to act militarily against Iran, if needed.

General Milley, for example, intimated to Senate Armed Services Committee members that he could expound on the administration’s justifications for killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in a classified setting. He did say, for the record, that intelligence into Soleimani’s activities was “compelling” and that Soleimani’s planned attacks were “imminent.” To date, administration officials have offered shifting narratives to justify their strike, and the  argument that attacks were imminent has largely been abandoned. General McKenzie dedicated most of his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee to delve into CENTCOM’s posture in the region, telling lawmakers that “At CENTCOM, we recognize that so long as the US applies diplomatic and economic pressure, the Joint Force must be postured to deter Iran from employing the military element of power to counter our actions.” Furthermore, McKenzie stated that “Going forward, it is CENTCOM’s objective to posture forces in the region with the operational depth to achieve a consistent state of deterrence against Iran and be adaptable to future Iranian threats.” McKenzie’s explanation of CENTCOM’s posture in the Middle East is based on the idea that the United States can target Iran in cases of self-defense. Indeed, under questioning from one lawmaker, McKenzie agreed that neither the 2001 nor the 2002 authorizations for the use of military force provide the necessary authorities to attack Iran; however, he asserted that his personnel could act in self-defense.

From a non-military perspective, the Trump Administration is still gearing up to maintain or increase its pressure on Tehran as President Trump nears an election cycle in which he will try to win a second term in office. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a press conference this week to explore Washington’s approach to countering Iran. At present, the United States is pressing Iran to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect potential nuclear energy sites. However, Pompeo raised the point that in just a few months, the UN Security Council’s arms embargo against Iran will expire and he called on the body to renew that prohibition. He and Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook have made similar remarks in the past and it is conceivable that, as the year progresses, the administration will mobilize more forcefully to pressure the permanent Security Council members to impose new restrictions on Tehran.

Finally, Lea Gabrielle, the administration’s special envoy and coordinator of the Global Engagement Center (GEC), talked to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, International Operations, and Bilateral International Development. She said that, if given the appropriate budgetary support, her organization would like to increase its capabilities in combating disinformation and propaganda campaigns emanating from Iran to the same degree that it fights to counter such threats from Russia and China.

Non-Iran Priorities

USAID Administrator Mark Green testified before the House Appropriations Committee and touched on his agency’s operations in a few Arab countries including Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and the occupied Palestinian territories. He said that Houthi rebel intransigence in Yemen and the Russian-backed Assad-regime’s operations in northwestern Syria are inhibiting the agency’s ability to provide critical humanitarian and stabilization support to those ravaged by war. On Iraq, Green struck a more hopeful tone, noting that the agency’s support of religious minorities in the country’s north is stable and that the administration intends to continue aiding all those persecuted by the so-called Islamic State. Green also told lawmakers that it is his agency’s intention to keep operating programs in the occupied Palestinian territories; this is despite the fact that the Trump Administration has repeatedly tried to cut funds that support those very programs.

Congressional Priorities for the Middle East

As has been the case with every other budget proposal the administration has put forth, members from both parties and chambers declared this budget dead on arrival because of its draconian cuts to diplomacy and aid programs. Especially with a Democrat-controlled House, lawmakers are certainly going to pass budgets that go above and beyond what the administration has proposed. But even before the budget-drafting process gets underway, Democrats in the House are maneuvering to pass legislation that is more in line with their vision for US policy in the region. Most notably, the House is poised to vote on—and likely pass—S. J. Res. 68 this week that is intended to “direct the removal of US armed forces from hostilities against Iran.” The joint resolution already passed the Senate and, though it is unlikely to garner the veto-proof majority necessary to become law, this may be just the beginning of this year’s fight to rein in presidential war powers.

Congress is not just eyeing tangible force reductions in the region; Democrats, at least, are also trying to reshape America’s image among the Muslim majority there. Democrats in the House are poised to pass the No BAN Act this week that would reverse President Trump’s travel restrictions on individuals hailing from many Muslim-majority—including Arab—states.

The administration’s Middle East policies have largely been governed by the desire to combat Iran as the president and his top allies all nurse an ideological distaste for the Islamic Republic. Indeed, they have decided that acting on aggressive anti-Iran policies will prove to be a successful reelection strategy—once Trump’s reelection bid kicks off in earnest, the administration is expected to double down on its counter-Iran policies. Meanwhile, Congress will then likely exert some pressure to constrain what many view as a chaotic and counterproductive set of policies toward the region.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Multiple Bills Passed through HFAC. This week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) held a markup to consider, amend, and vote on a handful of bills pertaining to US policy in the Middle East and North Africa. The following bills passed through committee and will likely pass a final floor vote.

The committee agreed to pass the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act (outlined in this previous report); H. Res. 512, which calls on countries around the globe to repeal harsh anti-blasphemy laws; H. Res. 458, which reaffirms the longstanding US-Tunisian relationship; and H. Res. 742, a resolution “supporting the continued success of the Food for Peace programs.” The last resolution specifically highlights how US “Food for Peace” programs can help alleviate the humanitarian suffering of internally displaced persons and refugees from Yemen and Syria.

Israel Anti-Boycott Act. This week, House Republicans tried to use a procedural tactic to vote down the consideration of a bill their minority opposed; instead, they replaced it with H.R. 5595, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. The effort ultimately failed, but Republicans used the result to criticize their Democratic colleagues for failing to support Israel. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act is viewed as problematic because it compromises Americans’ civil liberties and rights to free speech; nevertheless, many in Congress stress that it is a crucial piece of legislation that protects US companies from being forced to abide by internationally organized boycotts.

Holding Iranian Leaders Accountable Act. Rep. French Hill (R-Arkansas) introduced H.R. 6081 this week, directing the president to make public “the funds obtained in an illegal or corrupt manner held by Iran’s authoritarian theocratic regime.” The congressman wrote that the bill is crucial to “ensure compliance and require transparency regarding the financial involvement of Iranian leaders” and that it is imperative to “properly hold the Iranian government accountable.”

Secure US Bases Act. Months after a Saudi military student opened fire on a US base in Florida, killing three Americans, Senator Rick Scott (R-Florida) has introduced S. 3409 in an effort to “reform and improve foreign military student training programs.” After the aforementioned attack, the Pentagon announced it would restrict training for Saudi nationals, but Scott is proposing more. His legislation would create new visas for selected students while expanding the vetting process of those same individuals before they enter the United States.

Sudan Democratic Transition, Accountability, and Financial Transparency Act. A bipartisan group of House members introduced H.R. 6094 this week in an effort to support Khartoum’s ongoing political transition and to craft a strategy of “calibrated engagement” with Sudan. The bill to mobilize US support for Sudan’s transitional government to ensure the country’s successful transition to a democratic and stable partner in the region. This legislation includes provisions “prioritizing programs to foster economic growth and prevent and mitigate conflict” as well as authorizing “targeted sanctions against individuals who have perpetrated human rights abuses and war crimes.” With bipartisan support, it is likely that this bill will eventually become law.

USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act. On March 15, the law that authorizes Washington’s massive surveillance capabilities is set to expire unless lawmakers can agree to suitable changes and extend the life of the law. Toward that effort, leadership of both parties in the House have agreed to a bipartisan reauthorization bill—H.R. 6172—that ostensibly addresses the concerns of all involved. It is unclear whether the bipartisan compromise will pass the Senate or if President Trump will sign it, but these authorities are critical for the United States’ global surveillance capabilities. Lawmakers are determined to retool the government with the authorities it needs to surveil individuals around the globe, including in the Middle East.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Jared Kushner Briefs Senators on so-called “Peace Plan.” Senior White House Advisor and lead author of the president’s Middle East plan, Jared Kushner, briefed senators this week on the prospects for its success. According to reports, the presentation was similar to the one Kushner delivered to officials at the UN Security Council. Kushner repeated his talking points about past peace proposals’ failures in an attempt to elicit support for his plan and he again told listeners that the Palestinians’ failure to support the plan is due to intransigence on their part—and not because his plan would strip any future Palestinian state of any semblance of sovereignty. Furthermore, Kushner told lawmakers that the Palestinians’ failure to engage with the plan will result in the Trump Administration giving the green light to Israeli annexation of the West Bank. To be sure, Kushner’s plan, as conceived and announced, was clearly crafted to satisfy the pro-annexation crowd in Israel.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Ambassadors Jeffrey, Satterfield, and Craft Travel to Turkey, Syria. This week, Ambassadors Jim Jeffrey, David Satterfield, and Kelly Craft traveled to Turkey and Syria amid an uptick in fighting between the Bashar al-Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, and Turkey, a NATO ally. Ambassadors Jeffrey and Craft then traveled to Syria’s Idlib province to meet with aid groups and medical workers. Finally, Ambassador Jeffrey was dispatched to Brussels for meetings with NATO allies “on the crisis in Idlib and … its implications for NATO” as well as “ways to support Turkey’s security concerns.” Though Turkey has called on the United States to support it more forcefully in Syria, the ambassadors notified the press that, at this time, Washington will increase humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians and will provide ammunition to Turkey in its attempt to push back against the Assad regime’s incursion into Idlib. However, at this time, the United States and NATO are still grappling with what more they do to help Ankara militarily. Washington is still wary of providing the Patriot Missile defense system as long as Turkey intends also to operate the Russian’s rival system.

Secretary Pompeo, Brian Hook Travel to Meet with International Partners. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook traveled to meet with key international partners on issues concerning the Middle East and, specifically, Iran. Pompeo visited New York, where he met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres while Hook flew to Europe to meet with officials from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Pompeo and Guterres talked about the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen as well as the launch of the database that discloses the list of international companies that operate in—or contribute to the occupation of—the occupied Palestinian territories.

Hook also met with European officials to discuss concerns regarding Tehran’s supposed pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Now, Hook is calling on the Iranians to allow the IAEA to inspect its nuclear sites as called for under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty. Hook also continued to press his European partners to help ensure that a UN arms embargo on Iran is not lifted later this year, as it is set to expire.

R. Clarke Cooper, David Peyman Provide Updates on North Africa, Iran. This week, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions David Peyman held press conferences to provide updates on their respective bureaus’ policies. Cooper provided a briefing on his recent trips to Arab League member states Mauritania, Algeria, and Tunisia, while Peyman warned international shipping entities that anyone caught storing Iranian oil will be designated and sanctioned as part of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

2) Department of Justice

Government to Prosecute Linguist for Supporting Hezbollah. The Department of Justice announced this week that it has arrested and will prosecute a Defense Department contractor for acts of espionage, alleging that the trained linguist disclosed classified information about intelligence assets to an individual connected to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Shortly after the United States began carrying out strikes against Iranian assets and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, the Pentagon contractor based in Irbil, Iraq allegedly began copying down critical national security information pertaining to, among other things, human intelligence assets and Defense Department targets and passing that information to a Lebanese individual with ties to Hezbollah. If convicted, these charges would amount to life in prison for the suspect.

3) Department of Defense

Pentagon Confirms Two Soldiers Dead in Counter-IS Operation. This week, the Department of Defense confirmed that two US soldiers died in a counter-Islamic State (IS) operation in Iraq. The deaths—the first of 2020—are giving the Pentagon pause and, according to officials, the administration is reviewing its counter-IS operations in Iraq.

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