Trump Toys with Domestic Use of Military

While the deployment of US troops abroad has been an intense topic of discussions in Congress over the years, a new debate erupted this week when President Donald Trump and at least one ally in the Senate called for the US military to be deployed domestically. In the wake of massive grassroots protests against institutional and systemic racism in the United States, as well as police brutality and the killing of African Americans and other persons of color, President Trump called for “domination” of protesters when small pockets of violence and property damage were documented. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) took it further, penning a misleading and questionable op-ed in The New York Times demanding the government “Send in the Troops” to quell protests protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment.

This issue has overwhelmingly divided Washington, a capital not known for its restraint in deploying the world’s most lethal military arsenal. The Pentagon and its top officials were uncomfortable with the White House’s demands for action, particularly when the president wanted 10,000 US troops deployed to the nation’s capital. For context, the White House just satisfied a statutory reporting requirement notifying Congress of the number of combat-equipped troops that are deployed around the globe. As for the Middle East, the president’s desired number of troops is greater than that of US forces deployed to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia combined.

Republicans in Washington, at least those in the White House and Senate, were almost successful in politicizing the military. Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the deployment of troops against protesters and moved quickly to rein in the president’s ability to do just that. The Republican gambit is a new low in the Trump era, but there is reason for optimism. The interconnectedness of US militarism abroad—particularly in the Middle East and North Africa—and at home is more apparent now than ever and could prompt a fundamental rethinking of the United States’ attempt to solve all major problems using military force.

Also Happening in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This week, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee will be conducting a series of private markups of the annual defense authorization bill. The Pentagon’s budget for fiscal year 2021 was previously set at $740 billion according to a compromise budget deal passed last year, so the crux of the work will be deciding where those dollars will be spent. For the Middle East, one can expect the legislation to address Israel’s security while members could force consideration of provisions that would prevent war against Iran, reduce US support for the war in Yemen, and more.

However, progressives in the House could be preparing to force a reduction in the overall budget, despite the agreed upon amount, and that could push Congress as a whole to debate funding priorities for the coming fiscal year. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Pentagon’s aforementioned role in confronting largely peaceful protests in Washington could be among the developments that prompt others to back the call to reduce the amount of money the department will be authorized to spend.

Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Clarification Act. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced S. 3897 to clarify previous legislation that sanctions any company that aids in the construction of two major pipelines originating in Russia. One, TurkStream, involves Turkey, so expanded sanctions could have an impact on Ankara.

House GOP to Introduce Comprehensive Sanctions Legislation. House Republicans are set to introduce a package of legislation that would stand up roughly 140 new initiatives to counter global malign actors, including Iran. Republicans are calling the Iran sanctions “the toughest sanctions that have ever been proposed by Congress on Iran.” The legislation will also address aspects of US foreign policy like aid to Lebanon and the authorization for the use of military force; it would also terminate sanctions waivers that have allowed outside actors to aid Iran in the development and research of its civilian nuclear program.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Deutch, Senators Sanders and Casey Raise Concerns over Annexation. This week Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism, participated in a virtual discussion with the Israel Policy Forum. Deutch spoke about what he considered an ill-advised plan by Israel’s coalition government to hastily annex parts of the occupied West Bank and the Trump Administration’s apparent lack of support for any kind of “two-state solution” to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Notably, the chairman told the audience that he did not dismiss Trump’s so-called peace plan “out of hand,” signaling that he was somewhat comfortable with a plan that some assessed immediately would formalize a kind of apartheid system between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Many view the plan as one that would be the death knell for an already unlikely two-state solution.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) tackled the issue head on when he addressed (virtually) an anti-annexation rally held in Tel Aviv. Sanders said plainly that annexation “must be stopped.” His colleague in the Senate, Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), wrote a personal letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partner Benny Gantz that used less forceful language while also calling for an end to the conversation of annexation.

HFAC, SFRC Warn against Cooperation with Syria before Caesar Legislation Takes Effect. This week the chairs and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its Senate Foreign Relations counterpart released a statement on the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, set to take effect this month. The Caesar legislation passed into law in December 2019 as part of that year’s NDAA. In their statement, the members warned the international community against pursuing diplomatic normalization with or providing reconstruction aid to Syria to avoid US sanctions.

3) Nominations

Senate Confirms One Post to Pentagon, One to US Agency for Global Media. This week the full Senate voted to confirm two individuals to posts in the Trump Administration. James H. Anderson, who previously served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, was confirmed to the position in a permanent capacity. He is now one of the Pentagon’s top advisors on formulating defense policy, including for its Middle East operations. Then, the Senate confirmed Michael Pack to serve as the chief executive officer of the US Agency for Global Media, or the Broadcasting Board of Governors as many still refer to it. Notwithstanding an active criminal investigation regarding alleged financial irregularities—and despite Democrats’ calls to halt the nomination process—Pack won nomination with 53 votes. Pack will oversee US media broadcasts including Arabic and Persian language coverage.

SFRC Receives Testimony for Spate of Nominees. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a virtual nomination hearing this week in an effort to move forward with a backlog of nominations. Three nominees will assume roles with direct and indirect responsibilities important to the Arab world and the broader Middle East. Jenny McGee is seeking confirmation for Associate Administrator for Relief, Response, and Resilience at the US Agency for International Development where her portfolio would include overseeing the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance and the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization. She specifically pointed to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen as an area of concern.

The other two nominees are tapped to serve, in different capacities, at or with the United Nations. Joseph Manso has been asked to serve as the next US Permanent Representative to the United Nations’ Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is tasked to counter the proliferation of chemical weapons. He would be responsible for seeking multilateral action against the stockpiling and use of these weapons, an issue that is particularly important in countries like Syria. The OPCW recently published a report blaming Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for chemical weapons attacks in 2017. Finally, Richard Mills, Jr. has been tapped to serve as Deputy Representative to the United Nations, where he would be second-in-command to US Ambassador Kelly Craft. He told the committee that he will support Craft in her efforts to stamp out “anti-Israel bias” at the body, hold Iran accountable for its malign activities around the world, and marshal much needed support for ending crises in places like Syria and Yemen.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump, Secretary Pompeo Speak with Leaders about Libya. In the wake of significant military developments in Libya, President Trump spoke with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with the United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. It is unclear what progress Trump and Pompeo made on securing a cease-fire deal for Libya, but Turkey and the UAE are key outside actors in the conflict and their support is necessary if any cessation in fighting is to endure.

Trump Team Wants Israeli, Palestinian Joint Conference and Gantz Onboard with Annexation. This week, the news outlet Middle East Monitor is reporting that the US embassy in Israel has extended an invitation to Israelis and Palestinians to participate in a joint conference in an attempt to keep the Palestinian Authority (PA) from ending its formal ties to Israel. It is unlikely the PA will participate, as it has steadfastly refused to engage with the United States’ one-sided “peace plan” and has vowed to end all cooperation with Israel. PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh did tell the press that the Palestinians proposed a counter offer to Israel and the United States, though he was mum on specific details.

This comes at a time when the Trump Administration has reportedly urged the ruling Israeli governing coalition to slow down its pursuit of annexation. New reporting says the administration supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s July deadline for annexation, but only if it has the support of Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz.  

Assistant Secretary of State Schenker Outlines US Priorities in the Middle East. David Schenker, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, participated in a wide-ranging virtual briefing this week to outline US priorities in the Middle East. Schenker was frank in his assessment, telling viewers that the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact have shaken up US priorities. Nevertheless, he said the United States remains committed to ending Iran’s malign behavior in the region and to finding peaceful solutions to the wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. In Iraq, the United States is working to support the new Iraqi government under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi while Washington is calling on US partners in the region to refrain from offering any kind of diplomatic support to the governing regime in neighboring Syria.

The most up-to-date information Schenker provided was related to Lebanon. He said the United States is committed to maintaining its military-to-military and counterterrorism relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces. He also detailed what reforms Beirut must embrace if it wants to secure help from the International Monetary Fund, but he expressed doubt that Hezbollah—a key cog in the governing coalition—would embrace the necessary reforms. Lastly, Schenker stated that Washington is considering using additional sanctions against Lebanese actors. He said any future sanctions regime could be levied through the Global Magnitsky Act or the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act as well as using sanctions related to specially designated global terrorists.

Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Jeffrey Meet with Global Coalition to Defeat IS. This week, Secretary of State Pompeo held a virtual meeting with his counterparts from states that are involved with the coalition to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS). Pompeo applauded them for their efforts in uprooting the group’s physical “caliphate” and called on members to maintain their commitment by ensuring the coalition is adequately funded. In addition, Pompeo and his partners crafted a joint communiqué detailing their aims moving forward. Ambassador James Jeffrey, who serves as the US special envoy to the coalition, delivered a press briefing later to amplify these policy objectives.

Special Representative Hook Discusses Iran. This week, the Trump Administration’s Special Representative Brian Hook gave a press briefing on the release of US citizen Michael White from Iranian custody. Though neither side has called it such, it is an open secret that White’s release was achieved as part of a prisoner swap in which the United States released two Iranians in its custody. Hook told journalists that he will continue engaging with the Iranians, through neutral mediator Switzerland, to win the release of other Iranian American citizens currently held in Iran as well as of the remains of Robert Levinson.

US Sanctions Iranian Shipping Line. The White House determined this week that there is enough global oil production at present and that this enables the United States to continue sanctioning Iran. The State Department designated Iran Shipping Lines and its China-based subsidiary for sanctions under authorities meant to disrupt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

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