What Does Trump Want for the Middle East?

Months ago, as the Democratic Party officially took over the majority in the House of Representatives, Arab Center Washington DC published a piece examining how the new Democratic majority would reshape US foreign policy into something more palatable to Democrats. That vision has been largely consistent and every public hearing the House has convened on foreign policy thus far has exposed pronounced differences with the current administration. But what does President Donald Trump want for the Middle East? Aside from pressuring Iran and ensuring a lasting military defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS), there has been little consistency in the president’s policies toward the region. And even in those two specific goals, the administration has not clearly articulated a long-term strategy for dealing with the underlying problems.

As Congress writes appropriations bills and sets its own policy priorities, perhaps the administration believed it was necessary to convince those in Washington that its policies and priorities should be pursued. To that end, a number of administration officials fanned out across Washington to outline the administration’s goals and priorities for the Middle East, as well as for the world more broadly. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Michael Mulroy each attended separate events on April 29 to discuss policy in their respective domains. In addition, Ambassador Nathan Sales, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, appeared at yet another public event in Washington on April 30, while Administrator Mark Green of the US Agency for International Development appeared before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for State and Foreign Operations.

Countering Iran

Secretary Pompeo and Deputy Assistant Secretary Mulroy both spoke at length about Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East. Pompeo has relentlessly pointed to Tehran as the world’s premier global menace, and to that end he again made the case that the United States’ support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war with the Houthi rebels in Yemen is in Washington’s and the region’s best interests—a sentiment Mulroy agreed with. For his part, Mulroy outlined the Pentagon’s concerns about Iran as the following: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, threats to maritime security in the Arabian Gulf, support for proxy and terrorist groups, development of ballistic missiles, and cyber warfare capabilities.

Interestingly, Mulroy broke with Pompeo and other administration officials on a very delicate issue: the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA). MESA—often colloquially referred to as the “Arab NATO,” after the union set forth by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—has been explained by administration officials as “a bulwark against Iranian aggression.” Mulroy played that notion down, explicitly saying its purpose was not to counter Iran but to allow the Gulf Cooperation Council states, along with Egypt and Jordan, to formulate a “holistic agreement” that lets them protect themselves.

Countering IS

The other major theme among administration officials this week was continuing the fight against IS. Deputy Assistant Secretary Mulroy spoke about its military aspects and Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales talked about the State Department’s work to ensure IS fighters are held accountable away from the battlefield. Mulroy said that in Iraq and Syria, the United States will maintain some level of a military presence to work “by, with, and through” security partners to clear out remaining pockets of IS fighters and to build up local capabilities to conduct counterterrorism operations in the future.

Sales spoke at length about the nature of countering the IS fight moving forward, now that the so-called physical caliphate has been largely dismantled. He said that the group is using its military defeat as a rallying cry for supporters around the globe and it is now diverting time and energy to build up and strengthen its regional branches and offshoots. The next phase, Sales explained, will require the United States and its partners to shift its strategy from the purely military use of force to the utilization of more civilian counterterrorism tactics. For example, the ambassador said that Washington is helping countries around the globe build their capacities to prosecute and incarcerate returning IS fighters. In addition, Sales said that members of the anti-IS coalition must work together to strengthen their borders, disrupt the IS’s financing operations, and work to confront the group on the Internet and across all technology to prevent it from radicalizing more people.

But How to Accomplish These Goals?

There was a glaring absence of specific policy prescriptions for solving the aforementioned and other pervasive problems. The panelists on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee took Administrator Mark Green to task for what they consider the administration’s shortsighted strategies. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who chairs the subcommittee, bluntly referred to the Trump Administration’s proposed budget cuts in “soft power” capabilities, like diplomacy and development assistance, as “insane.”

The lack of a specific strategy goes well beyond proposing paltry budget figures, however. The individuals responsible for overseeing the US responses to these crucial aspects of Middle East security have offered little beside rhetorical grandstanding and the desire to use military force. Ambassador Sales never mentioned countering violent extremism (CVE) as a potential strategy, nor did he discuss how the United States looks to address conditions and situations in Syria and Iraq—as well as in places like Libya, Yemen, and Somalia—that allow these terrorist organizations to take hold and live relatively freely.

As it stands, the Trump Administration and lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are at odds about the long-term strategies for addressing chronic problems. It stands to reason that Congress will pass a diplomatic budget exceedingly higher than the administration proposed to prompt the White House and State Department to develop longer term strategies that alleviate these problems at their roots.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act. On April 25, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California) introduced H.R. 2354 that prohibits the United States from going to war with Iran.

Congress’s Position on the Two-State Solution. That same day, a group of House Democrats introduced H. Res. 326 that outlines members’ support for a peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians based on a negotiated two-state solution.

Arab American Heritage Month. On April 30, two Arab American lawmakers—Donna Shalala (D-Florida) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan)—led the introduction of H. Res. 335, which marks April as Arab American Heritage Month.

Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living under Israeli Military Occupation Act. That same day, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) reintroduced a bill, H.R. 2407, that looks to “prohibit funding for the military detention of children in any country, including Israel.” McCollum previously introduced this bill in 2017 (more information about it is found here).

Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Republican lawmakers introduced H.R. 2412 to require the secretary of state to issue a report to Congress on whether the Muslim Brotherhood is a foreign terrorist organization.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Visit the Middle East. Over the last week, two groups of senators visited the Middle East. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) returned to Iraq for the first time since she was deployed there as a US Army pilot in 2004. Duckworth traveled with Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Angus King, an Independent from Maine. Senators Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), who are the chair and ranking members, respectively, of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, traveled to Israel and Jordan.

Senators Write to Department of Justice Officials Regarding Iranian Terror Attacks. On April 24, a bipartisan group of senators sent letters to the attorney general and solicitor general at the Department of Justice urging them to file a brief in support of victims represented in the Clearstream Banking S.A. v. Peterson court case. Clearstream Banking S.A. is a financial institution in Luxembourg that holds the bond proceeds of the central bank of Iran, Bank Markazi. An earlier court decision ordered those proceeds to be delivered to New York as civil payments for the deaths of American citizens in terrorist attacks. In short, Bank Markazi is asking the US Supreme Court to decide if its assets in another country can be used to satisfy a civil judgment in the United States. For their part, the senators want the US government to argue before the court that those assets can be awarded to the injured and to families of the deceased.

Senator Lindsey Graham Phones Key Libyan Officials. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who took issue with President Trump’s apparent decision to support renegade Libyan General Khalifa Haftar’s military offensive on Tripoli, reportedly phoned both Haftar and the leader of the UN-recognized government, Fayez al-Sarraj. The call to Haftar seems a show of support, but Graham reportedly told both leaders that there is no military solution to the conflict and urged the sides to find a political solution.

House Democrats Call on Israel to Revoke Demolition Order. Ahead of an Israeli court’s May 1 deadline for a status update on the West Bank villages of Khan al-Ahmar and Susiya, House Democrats issued a statement urging Israel to revoke the long planned and controversial demolition of these Palestinian communities.

3) Hearings

Examining the Global Terrorism Landscape. On April 30, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a hearing to learn about the current levels of threat from worldwide terrorism. Though it predictably focused largely on what lawmakers called “jihadi” or “radical Islamic” terrorism, this hearing was the first of its kind to prioritize the potent and growing threat of what one expert called both “far-right” and “white nationalist” terrorism.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Greenblatt Pens Op-Ed Criticizing Hamas in Gaza. Jason Greenblatt, an assistant to the president who is intimately involved in crafting Washington’s proposal for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, took to the pages of The New York Times to blame the entirety of the Gazans’ suffering, unemployment, and humanitarian crisis on Hamas. The op-ed is the latest in a series of broadsides Greenblatt has levied against factions in Gaza and the West Bank.

Government Sets Out to Verify Video Showing Leader of IS. This week, the leader of the Islamic State made a rare appearance in an 18-minute video posted on the Internet. As is customary, US State Department and intelligence officials are working to verify the authenticity of the video, but outside experts have gone on the record to say that it looks like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, in fact, still alive.

Trump Again Wants to Designate the Muslim Brotherhood an FTO. This week The New York Times reported that President Trump is once again looking to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization. The idea, which Trump once sought to implement weeks after his inauguration, again came to the fore after his meeting in the White House with Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who himself has pushed for such a designation for much of his time in power. There are a host of legal and strategic questions surrounding such a move, but reports now say that the administration will move forward to implement the decision.

2) Department of State

Trump Administration May End More Sanctions Waivers Allowed by JCPOA. Officials within the Trump Administration are having an internal debate on whether to renew sanctions waivers for countries cooperating with Iran on civilian nuclear research projects. Like the oil waivers that the administration recently refused to renew, any country working with Iran on the allowed nuclear energy projects must have its waiver renewed in the coming days. Hardliners in the administration argue that no “maximum pressure” campaign is complete if these waivers remain and if countries continue to help Iran in its nuclear energy capabilities. Others, however, say that without the waivers, Iran may just undertake riskier projects and ultimately revert back to trying to produce nuclear weapons.

Pompeo Meets with Qatari Official. On April 24, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. The two spoke about a number of issues of concern to both countries, including the situations in Libya and Sudan.

Syria Envoys in Switzerland and Turkey for Talks. Ambassador James Jeffries, who serves as both the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State, traveled with the Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn to Turkey on April 30. The two will meet with Turkish officials in Ankara to discuss Turkey’s security concerns in Syria. Afterward, the pair will travel to Switzerland for a meeting of the “Small Group on Syria.”

USCIRF Recommends CPCs to State Department. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—the “independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze and report on threats to religious freedom abroad”—released its annual assessment on countries’ records on religious freedom on April 29. The USCIRF recommends to the State Department “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) and “entities of particular concern” (EPCs) that should be publicly named for their poor treatment of religious communities. In some serious cases, the designation is a precursor to sanctions. This year’s CPC list includes Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, who are all repeat offenders, and Syria was a new addition to the body’s recommendation list. As for EPCs, Somalia’s al-Shabab and IS made the list again and groups in Yemen and Syria were added. Notably, the Tier Two countries that are a step away from reaching CPC status include Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey.

Brian Hook Goes to UN to Talk Iran. On April 30 and May 1, the Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook was in New York City to discuss Iran strategy with the UN Security Council.

Celebrating 40 Years of Egyptian-Israeli Peace. The State Department and Secretary Pompeo hosted an event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

3) Department of the Treasury

Trump Administration Levies More Sanctions Targeting Hezbollah. On April 24, the Treasury Department announced it would be targeting two new individuals and three additional entities with sanctions for involvement in providing illicit financing for Hezbollah.

4) Department of Defense

Saudi-Led Coalition to Repay US for Yemen Support. Al Monitor is reporting that members of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen have begun reimbursing the United States for its aerial refueling support after an accounting error resulted in the bloc owing the United States nearly $300 million.

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