For the first time in nearly two decades, it appears that Congress will finally take concrete steps to rein in US foreign military adventures and put an end to some of the contributing factors to what many call the “forever wars.” Some pointed out in the early days of the Trump Administration that a renewed focus on presidents’ abilities to use military force was warranted. As is apparent now, Congress did not take seriously the potential harm that the president could inflict, leaving his administration free to expand or accelerate the use of force in countries like Somalia and Yemen. In other examples, the Trump Administration used specious legal interpretations to justify carrying out air strikes on government targets in Syria and keeping US troops deployed there; it is noteworthy that neither action would logically be authorized under existing authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs). Then, in the early days of 2020, the president ordered an attack that killed Qassem Soleimani, chief of Iran’s Quds Force, in Iraq. Trump took unilateral action to assassinate this government official—albeit one blamed for countless acts of violence—and his administration issued a slate of varied justifications for the action. Eventually, the administration settled on a highly questionable justification citing the 2002 AUMF that authorized the invasion of Iraq.
President Joe Biden’s inauguration was a shot in the arm for the Democrats who have been agitating for reforming war powers. As Chairman of the House Rules Committee James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) noted during the committee hearing on war powers, President Biden is one of the first presidents in recent memory to demonstrate the political will for reforming how decisions of war and peace are made. Although President Barack Obama and his team did attempt to work with Congress to repeal and replace the AUMFs still in effect, President Biden has behind him a Congress controlled by Democrats, many of whom have been seeking war powers reform for years. Even the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), applauded the Biden Administration’s willingness to pursue reforms, stating that President Biden “opened the door” to reform and that it is now Congress’s responsibility to “walk through” that door and capitalize on this opportunity.
President Biden’s arrival in the White House does not automatically guarantee that meaningful progress will be made, however. Having grappled with issues related to war powers during his lengthy career in the Senate, Biden may be more amenable to reform, but as president he shows no signs of unilaterally ceding power. His air strikes on Syria—which prompted the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) to demand a closed briefing to hear the administration’s rationale—should make that clear. Nevertheless, Democrats on Capitol Hill are barreling forward with the effort.
In addition to the Rules Committee hearing, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) held a lengthy hearing on the status of war powers and the role of Congress in matters of war and peace. During both hearings, members of Congress highlighted the fact that the 2001 AUMF against al-Qaeda and associated groups has been stretched and manipulated by successive administrations to expand US military intervention throughout the Middle East and across the globe. As HFAC Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-New York) noted, this has all but cut Congress out of the conversation on matters of war. Leaving out-of-date AUMFs like those of 2001 and 2002, which authorized the US invasion on Iraq, does not promote US national security, Congressman Meeks argued, but it does leave the door open for future administrations to undertake military action without working with or through Congress.
Beyond the issue of outdated AUMFs, lawmakers wanted to have a broader discussion about reforming what is known as the War Powers Resolution, a Vietnam War-era law enacted to give Congress more power and influence in conversations of war and peace. One witness, Oona Hathaway, outlined her vision for repealing the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs against Iraq, repealing and replacing the 2001 AUMF, and reforming the War Powers Resolution. On the latter, Hathaway argued that Congress must clarify language of the original law to define what constitutes “hostilities,” to prevent presidents from crafting wildly broad interpretations of the term. It must also give the law more teeth by prohibiting the expenditure of federal monies for using force that is inconsistent with the law, and it must allow federal courts to adjudicate disputes between the executive and legislative branches. Rebecca Ingber, who testified before the Rules Committee, made the same recommendations and added that a toothless set of reforms would only allow presidents to maintain the status quo. Another witness, Jack Goldsmith, concurred on this last point, telling lawmakers that the executive branch has completely defanged the War Powers Resolution and has established a system where the president has de facto authority to use force whenever he or she wants.
Democrats are adhering to these recommendations already. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) introduced H.R. 2108—the War Powers Act Enforcement Act—in order to do what the witnesses suggested and to tie enforcement of the War Powers Resolution law to federal funding. The HFAC also agreed to pass a repeal of the 2002 AUMF (H.R. 256) for Iraq, although some Republicans expressed dissatisfaction with the speed with which the majority acted. For the first time since the United States launched the Global War on Terror, there seems to be real momentum on Capitol Hill for clawing back some of Congress’s constitutional power to authorize—or, more importantly, to prohibit—the use of military force.
Also Happening Last Week in Washington
Foreign Advanced Technology Surveillance Accountability Act. Reps. John Curtis (R-Utah) and Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) introduced H.R. 2075 that looks to “combat foreign adoption of advanced technology surveillance equipment.” While Rep. Curtis focuses on China’s use of surveillance tools, Rep. Malinowski specifically noted in his statement that the Saudi government reportedly employed these advanced surveillance capabilities to spy on Jamal Khashoggi prior to his murder by the Saudi government.
Iran Sanctions Legislation. House Republicans introduced two pieces of legislation this week seeking to levy sanctions on Iran and its partners. Rep. Greg Steube (R-Florida) introduced H.R. 2113, or the Sanctioning Iranian-Backed Militia Terrorists Act, which would sanction an Iraqi militia believed to be backed by Iran. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) also introduced H.R. 2117, called the Iran Human Rights and Accountability Act, which would, according to his press release, seek to levy sanctions on Iranian officials for human rights violations.
Legislative Markups. Both the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees held markups of multiple bills this week, several of which will impact US policy in the Middle East. On the Senate side, lawmakers approved the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act (S. 615), which aims to strengthen good governance and counterterrorism efforts in North and West Africa, as well as S. Res. 99, which recognizes the 10th anniversary of the uprising in Syria.
For their part, members of the HFAC advanced the Desert Locust Control Act (H.R. 1079) that would provide assistance to Arab League member states Somalia and Sudan to help combat the invasions of desert locust they frequently face. The committee also passed two bills targeting Saudi Arabia, one called the Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act (H.R. 1392) and another titled the Saudi Arabia Accountability for Gross Violations of Human Rights Act (H.R. 1464, which is also being referred to as the Khashoggi Accountability Act). Before passing the bill, the committee agreed to an amendment by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) that requires the State Department, within six months of the bill becoming law, to detail all of the private businesses or organizations owned or controlled by Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The department would also have to make a determination about whether these entities contributed to the plan to murder Khashoggi and if they are subject to sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act.
2) Hearings and Briefings
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act: Taking Stock. On March 24, Congress’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) held a virtual briefing to explore the Global Magnitsky Act and how it contributes to effective US foreign policy. The hearing kept in line with a theme embraced by Democratic-controlled Washington: human rights must be at the forefront of US foreign policy. As such, the Global Magnistky Act, all the witnesses agreed, is a crucial tool for Washington as it seeks to hold human rights abusers and corrupt public officials accountable around the globe, including in the Middle East. This particular law has implications for authoritarian regimes that commit gross violations of human rights throughout the Middle East. The law as currently written—or future iterations of it—could also soon have consequences for state and non-state actors alike accused of committing abuses (e.g., the Iraqi government during the 2019 protests) or engaging in corruption (e.g., the political class of Lebanon). The current law is set to expire in 2022, so the witnesses were united in their recommendation that Congress make it permanent.
Targeted US Diplomacy to Stabilize Lebanon and Advance US Foreign Policy. On March 24, the Middle East Institute held a virtual event featuring Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Illinois) to discuss the ways in which the United States can stabilize and advance US foreign policy in Lebanon. Rep. LaHood argued that, despite the fact that Lebanon is at an urgent inflection point, the United States still has crucial security interests and it must maintain a stable and mutually beneficial relationship with Beirut. LaHood also urged his colleagues in Congress and the Biden Administration to renew the US commitment to Lebanon and continue financial support, but also to push for needed economic reform and the fight against corruption.
SFRC Holds Nomination Hearing for Samantha Power to Head USAID. On March 23, the SFRC held a hearing with Ambassador Samantha Power, an Obama Administration alumna whom President Biden has tapped to head the US Agency for International Development (USAID). It is clear that both the Biden Administration and members of Congress, particularly Democrats, want a reinvigorated diplomatic and development strategy for engaging with the rest of the world, and many on Capitol Hill expressed confidence in Power’s ability to strengthen US “soft power.” If confirmed, she will be tasked with helping to formulate and execute the Biden Administration’s policies for providing humanitarian aid to those suffering from conflict in places like Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
Although the question and answer session largely focused on issues not relevant to the Middle East, Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) urged Ambassador Power, if confirmed, to work with Congress to implement the Nita Lowey Partnership for Peace Act to ensure that Washington is helping foster conditions conducive to a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis. Elsewhere in the hearing, Power was criticized for her past support of US intervention in Libya specifically, but also her tacit support for those same efforts in Syria and Yemen.
Colin Kahl Narrowly Advances through Committee Vote. Colin Kahl, of all remaining nominees of the Biden Administraton, has faced the most opposition in the Senate thus far. However, enough Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to advance his nomination and now he looks to have a realistic—albeit extremely narrow—path to being confirmed as the third-ranking civilian at the Pentagon.
4) Personnel and Correspondence
Lawmakers Urge Biden to Recognize Armenian Genocide. In a move that will likely frustrate Turkey, a bipartisan group of 38 senators signed on to a letter urging President Biden to recognize the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923. Ankara denies that any systematic killings took place and the topic has been a point of contention between the US and Turkish governments.
Washington Reacts to Saudi Cease-fire Proposal. Saudi Arabia announced this week that it has renewed its efforts to find an end to its war in Yemen. The offer, as one observer noted, is quite similar to past proposals and, therefore, could be understood as a symbolic gesture intended to bolster Riyadh’s image. Indeed, the Houthis swiftly expressed skepticism about the proposal and argued, instead, that Saudi Arabia should show good faith by lifting its blockade on Yemen’s Hodeidah port. Nevertheless, several on Capitol Hill applauded Riyadh’s efforts, calling its proposal “substantive.” Others were less convinced by the gesture, however, arguing that the latest move does not go far enough to demonstrate that the Saudis truly want peace in Yemen. Later, however, Saudi Arabia did agree to allow four fuel ships to enter Hodeidah, drawing praise from the State Department and some on Capitol Hill.
Progressives Gear up to Challenge Biden on Middle East Policy. Politico reported last week that progressive activists and lawmakers are preparing a “week of action” to pressure President Biden to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. Progressives have always eyed Biden skeptically, but his failure so far to make good on his vow to rejoin the landmark agreement has convinced this wing of the Democratic Party to step up its pressure. In addition to Iran, progressives have taken issue with Biden’s refusal thus far to lift Trump-era sanctions on the International Criminal Court and his willingness to both conduct air strikes in Syria and continue arming Egypt, despite its abysmal human rights record.
Senators Menendez, Graham Release Their Anti-Iran Deal Letter. Senators Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) finally completed their long awaited, AIPAC-backed letter that essentially urges the Biden Administration to abandon its goal of rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. While many in Washington have called on the administration to return to compliance with the deal and then work to negotiate further, the approach advocated by Menendez, Graham, and 41 of their colleagues—one that is premised on the idea that the United States can reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program at the same time as other issues like ballistic missiles—is almost certainly a nonstarter for Tehran.
II. Executive Branch
1) Department of State
Secretary Blinken Holds Discussions with Middle East Officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held meetings and phone calls with key actors in the Middle East this week. Upon his arrival at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting in Belgium, Secretary Blinken scheduled a bilateral meeting with Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu at a time when US-Turkish relations appear to be growing more tense. According to a State Department readout of the meeting, the two discussed US-Turkish cooperation in Syria and the secretary cautioned Çavuşoğlu against Ankara keeping its Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.
Secretary Blinken also had conversations with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, and Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalek Saeed. Aside from regional officials, Blinken also met with the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to talk about the challenges posed by Iran, Libya, and Yemen.
Special Envoy Lenderking Holds Talks with French Ambassador, Travels to Middle East. The US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking continued his outreach to international partners this week in search of ways to end the conflict in Yemen. According to a social media post from the State Department, Lenderking met with the French ambassador to the United States, Philippe Étienne, to discuss ways Paris and Washington could work together to push for a cease-fire and a comprehensive peace agreement in Yemen. Then on March 25, Lenderking departed for another trip to the Middle East to continue engaging with regional officials.
State Department Champions Renewed Engagement with International Community. State Department officials released several announcements this week touting this administration’s renewed engagement with the international community on issues of import to the Middle East. First, the State Department released a summary of its key accomplishments at the 46th session of the UNHRC. The department said it cosponsored a resolution highlighting the ongoing atrocities being committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, cosponsored another resolution renewing the mandate for the United Nations’ special rapporteur to Iran, and cosponsored a statement expressing concern about continued repression and persecution in Egypt. In addition, the department took credit for reducing what it considers signs of bias against Israel at the UNHRC. This is likely music to lawmakers’ ears as it was a topic of discussion during a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing on “United States Standing in International Organizations”; indeed, nearly all of the witnesses advised Congress that this kind of pressure was necessary in order to help reform the human rights body.
Elsewhere, the State Department announced $15 million in humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. In addition, US officials met with other members of the Middle East Quartet for the first time since 2018 to discuss reviving meaningful peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
In a Consequential Year for Iraq, What Next? On March 23, the US Institute of Peace hosted a virtual panel discussing US and Iraqi perspectives on the path ahead for Baghdad in the Biden era. US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller participated in the discussion to offer remarks on President Biden’s objectives and strategies in Iraq. He discussed the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and threats posed by Iran and terrorist groups. Tueller, who was nominated and confirmed to his position under the previous administration, generally reinforced President Biden’s new approach to US foreign policy. The main takeaway from the ambassador’s remarks illustrates that the Biden Administration will seek to act in ways that bolster Iraq’s stability through maintaining a troop presence in the country as long as necessary to ensure that the so-called Islamic State does not resurge as well as to serve as a counterbalance to Iran. It is unclear if the Iraqi government views this strategy as the most effective one, however, as reports this week stated that Baghdad formally requested that President Biden resume discussions about the withdrawal of remaining US combat forces.
2) Department of Defense
US Troops Secure Freedom of Movement in Jordan. According to a report, Jordan made public this week a new defense agreement with the United States that will give US troops “free entry of … forces, aircraft, and vehicles onto the kingdom’s territory.” Washington, particularly military and civilian officials at the Pentagon, has long viewed Jordan as a key pillar of stability in the region and this agreement appears to reinforce the closeness of the strategic partnership.