Washington Policy Weekly – November 16, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Manage Our Wolves Act. By a 201-187 vote, the House voted to adopt H.Res. 1142, which lays out rules for the House to consider a bill intended to remove the gray wolf from the list of endangered species in the United States. It may be surprising to realize that this resolution has serious US policy implications toward the Middle East; this is because the end of the resolution reads: “The provisions of section 7 of the War Powers Resolution shall not apply to House Concurrent Resolution 138.” Section 7 allows for House members to bypass the House Foreign Affairs Committee and vote on US involvement in war or armed conflict. It was this procedural tactic that Reps. Ro Khanna (D-California), Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin), and 79 of their colleagues were using to force a vote on the US role in the Yemen war. When the War Powers Resolution is invoked, it means that the concurrent resolution is “privileged” and can be put to a full floor vote, even if the committee to which it was referred declines to consider it.

However, the majority leadership and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) essentially asked the chamber to weigh in on the “privileged” status of Khanna’s resolution. When the majority voted to consider removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list, therefore, it also chose to strip Khanna’s concurrent resolution of its guaranteed vote—leaving the resolution to go through the normal routine of consideration, where it will almost certainly die. Democrats will likely have to wait until the new Congress is seated in January 2019 if they hope to challenge the administration’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Joint Resolution of Disapproval of Proposed Export to Bahrain. This week, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) forced a floor vote on whether the chamber would debate S.J. Res. 65, which seeks to block the export of arms to Bahrain. Bahrain is fighting alongside Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other coalition members in Yemen and, since the White House has not reported any arms sales to Riyadh, Paul chose to make the Bahrain arms deals a “proxy vote,” he told an audience on November 15. Though Paul has found growing support over the last several months in his efforts to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, he had fewer allies willing to target Manama for taking out their frustrations with Riyadh. The chamber voted to table (thereby essentially dooming) his joint resolution by a vote of 77-21, clearing the way for Washington to export some $300 million in weaponry to the Bahraini military.

Prohibiting Funding for Aerial Refueling and Calling for Peaceful Resolution of Yemen War. As the week drew to an end, Senators Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) and Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced bills that would impact US support for the war in Yemen in different ways. Kaine’s S. 3623 would codify the administration’s decision to halt the aerial refueling services the US military has provided to the Saudi-led coalition; it would also prohibit the Pentagon from using any of its budget to fund the aerial refueling flights. Menendez’s bill, S. 3652 (a.k.a. the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act), goes even further. While it maintains the prohibition on aerial refueling, Menendez’s bill would, with a few exceptions, bar Washington from selling weapons to Riyadh and impose sanctions on any person believed to be hindering humanitarian access or threatening the peace or stability of Yemen. These are the most concrete steps the Senate has taken yet, but there is little chance that either bill will become law in the final lame-duck days of this Congress.

2) Hearings

US Department of State Counterterrorism Bureau: Ensuring Resources Match Objectives. On November 14, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade held an oversight hearing with the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales. Before testifying before Congress, Sales spent the previous day at a briefing in Washington discussing the Trump Administration’s efforts to counter Iran’s global terrorism. Sales echoed a number of the same points between the two appearances, reiterating that Iran “remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism” and that this administration’s effort to counter Iran’s maleficent behavior is the strongest and most comprehensive ever. During the November 13 briefing, Sales gave numerous examples that he said illustrate how Iran is one of the leading threats to peace and stability in the Arab world. He noted that Tehran’s presence in Syria and Iraq has undermined stability and threatened US interests, while its proxies sow chaos all over the region. Ambassador Sales said that aside from dominating Lebanon, Iranian-funded Hezbollah has influence among Arab militant groups in Gaza (like Hamas or al-Mujahidin Brigade) and Yemen (through its support of the Houthi rebels) and that the group has previously been caught planning attacks in Egypt. Finally, Sales said that Iranian meddling has caused concern for Washington’s Arab partners in the Gulf due to Tehran’s support for the al-Ashtar Brigades in Bahrain, adding that numerous shipments of Iranian weapons caches have been detected or intercepted in the Gulf.

In his testimony before Congress, Sales was asked specifically about Iran, but the hearing was broader, focusing instead on the Trump Administration’s overall counterterrorism strategy. In addition to countering Iranian threats, Sales outlined four other pillars of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy: cutting off terrorism financing; disrupting terrorists’ abilities to travel freely; addressing the threats of foreign fighters who are returning to their native states as the so-called Islamic State (IS) experiences defeat; and preventing radicalization of potential homegrown terrorists. When asked to give an assessment of how well the administration is executing these goals, Sales replied that in the most notable cases (e.g., Iran and Hezbollah), it is difficult to judge at this point. He said Iran has yet to decrease financial support for Hezbollah and other proxies throughout the Arab world, but he maintained that the administration is committed to more aggressively targeting Iranian proxies with every possible tool.

Sales’s remarks go hand-in-hand with recent decisions by the Trump Administration. On November 13, the Treasury Department released a statement saying it was levying sanctions on four individuals previously designated as terrorists due to their ties to Hezbollah and/or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The State Department complemented Treasury’s efforts by naming the Gaza-based Mujahidin Brigade and Jawad Nasrallah, who is the son of Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, as specially designated global terrorists (SDGTs), thus allowing the Treasury Department to target these two as well. In total, Sales boasted of some 120 foreign terrorist organization designations or SDGT additions since he took over as counterterrorism coordinator. When asked specifically about using those designations against groups like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba in Iraq, however, Sales demurred; he seemed reluctant to oppose the State Department’s opinion that such a designation would be harmful for US-Iraqi relations and the stability of the government in Baghdad, as both parties control seats in parliament.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Young and Shaheen Call for End to Midair Refueling in Yemen. On Friday, November 9, Senators Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), who have been among the most vocal critics of US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, released a joint statement calling for an immediate end to the midair refueling service the Pentagon offers Riyadh. The two have consistently worked together to apply at least modest pressure on the administration to rethink US support for Riyadh and its coalition allies. The senators successfully added a certification provision within the fiscal year 2019 John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act that, on its face, seemed like a positive step in Congress’s effort to hold the Trump Administration accountable for enabling the Yemen war (although some suspect that the administration may have abused the provision).

The following day, Secretary of Defense James Mattis confirmed a report that the US military would cease providing its midair refueling service following Saudi Arabia’s request to do so. Despite the positive development, anyone hoping to see a significant shift in Saudi Arabia’s operations may be left wanting. Mattis noted that Washington would continue collaborating with the coalition and that could very well mean that the United States will continue sharing intelligence with Riyadh and its coalition partners—which alone is a crucial source of support. In addition, Yahoo! News reported this week that even while lawmakers were pressuring the administration to address the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, the Pentagon was initiating a covert operation called Yukon Journey in support of Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthi rebels. Therefore, while ceasing overt operational support may be viewed as a positive step, the existence of covert operations could simply mean that the administration will step into the shadows to continue aiding the war in Yemen.

Lawmakers Talk Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Middle East Policy. As mentioned, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) gave remarks about the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, but that was just a portion of a larger event that saw Paul and Reps. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Ken Buck (R-Colorado) discuss Congress’s role in shaping US foreign policy. Despite hailing from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Khanna and Buck were in lockstep when they discussed the idea that Congress has abdicated its constitutional role in checking the executive branch’s foreign policy decisions. Nowhere is this more apparent, the two noted, than in US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. They raised concerns about the fact that Congress never authorized such support and said that even the authorities the Pentagon says it has—the 2001 authorization for the use of military force against al-Qaeda—are dubious at best. Khanna and Buck both lamented the unwillingness of Congress to hold the executive branch back, but Buck, whose party is set to be relegated to minority status in the House, was optimistic that Democrats would be more willing and able to act and assert Congress’s authority when it comes to Washington’s role in Yemen.

Senators, Congressmen Discuss the Future of US Nuclear Policy Toward Riyadh, Tehran. On November 14, four congressmen spoke about US policy regarding nuclear weapons and international nonproliferation efforts at a conference hosted by Ploughshares Fund. Senators Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) appeared alongside Reps. Adam Smith (D-Washington) and Ted Lieu (D-California). All of the members spoke about the dangerous course that the United States is on, noting that withdrawing from bilateral and multilateral nonproliferation agreements like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) jeopardizes US national security. While the JCPOA was not perfect, the lawmakers agreed, it provided the crucial first steps toward normalizing nonproliferation efforts and instilling a multilateral shared vision for the need to end the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Senators Markey and Merkley also spoke about US-Saudi relations and how Washington should approach the possibility of a nuclear Riyadh. Unsurprisingly, the two were suspicious of allowing the Saudis to harness nuclear energy capabilities, citing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s likely involvement in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as just the latest example of why President Trump should refrain from helping Saudi Arabia establish a nuclear energy program. The crown prince, their reasoning goes, is simply too irrational. The four lawmakers reminded the audience that Congress already has legislation that addresses many of the issues they raised. H.R. 4415 would implement a congressional check on the president’s ability to use nuclear weapons, absent an immediate threat, and S. 3517 would prohibit the administration from pursuing war with Iran. Additionally, Senator Merkley noted that S. Res. 541 is a bipartisan statement of opposition to Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy ambitions.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Nominates Ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Qatar. This week, President Donald Trump announced that he would finally be nominating ambassadors for the long-vacant posts in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. John Abizaid, a former four-star general and Commander of the US Central Command, was tapped to represent the United States in Riyadh while career diplomat Mary Catherine Phee was nominated for the top post in Doha. The Trump Administration has seen many dramatic events unfold in the Gulf and has had to deal with the issues without ambassadors in either country. Although many see sending representatives to these two critical states as welcome moves, they also wonder about the timing. Indeed, dispatching an ambassador to a country is a symbol of legitimacy, and such a move might lead Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to conclude that his disastrous war in Yemen, isolation of Qatar, and assassination of a critic in his country’s own consulate are not enough to sever normal diplomatic ties. Moreover, it is not even certain that Abizaid will be able to carry out regular ambassadorial duties while White House advisor Jared Kushner retains a firm grasp on the Saudi portfolio.  

2) State Department

Secretary Pompeo Talks with Arab Leaders. The State Department released an unusually frank readout of a phone call between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week. In addition, the secretary met with Qatar’s deputy prime minister—who also visited with Secretary of Defense James Mattis while he was in Washington—as well as Bahrain’s crown prince and King Abdullah II of Jordan. While Pompeo was meeting with top officials, the president’s national security advisor, John Bolton, flew to the United Arab Emirates earlier in the week to meet with Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. All of these meetings were billed as discussions meant to address recent developments, but with a recent report suggesting that the Trump Administration is still preparing to release its long awaited peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians, it seems that the administration was trying to prepare regional leaders for the plan’s unveiling.

Special Envoy for Syria Briefs the Press. On November 15, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey, held a special briefing on Syria and, the following day, he spoke before a conference in Washington about an ending to the Syrian war and its aftermath. During this press briefing, Ambassador Jeffrey stated that there are generally three US goals in Syria: defeating the Islamic State; ushering in a “reinvigorated” political process led by the Syrian people; and de-escalating conflict, eventually leading to Iranian-backed forces departing from Syria. Jeffrey broadly provided an overview of military and diplomatic developments, including the progress of meeting the proposals of UN Resolution 2254. Most of the ambassador’s remarks were not new, but he made a comment at the Defense One Summit that may be considered a gaff by the diplomatic community. When discussing US support for the Syrian Defense Forces, Jeffrey said that the Kurdish-led group is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group. While few disagree with the factual underpinning of the statement, it is a faux pas in Washington for a high ranking public official to say so in public—the statement essentially communicates that the United States supports an offshoot of a group that Turkey considers an existential threat.

3) Treasury Department

State and Treasury Departments Utilize Global Magnitsky Act. On November 15, the Departments of State and the Treasury announced that 17 Saudi citizens were to be subject to sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, as it is familiarly known (a rundown of the law can be found here). At first glance, such maneuvers seem merely symbolic; most of the individuals sanctioned are already detained in Saudi Arabia, leaving the travel prohibition a moot point. In addition, all of those sanctioned by the Treasury Department are bottom-tier officials, meaning their exposure to US financial systems is likely negligible. Further, the State Department press release acknowledges that these individuals worked for the Royal Guard and other ministers, yet the administration curiously failed to sanction the Saudi officials who oversee those bodies. It is a step beyond what many thought the administration might do (i.e., nothing at all), but it seems to be more of a sacrificial-lamb type of offering intended to pacify critics of Riyadh in Washington.

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