The Arab World in the 115th Congress: A Review

A recent ACW report previewed the role the 116th Congress—divided between Republican control of the Senate and Democratic control of the House of Representatives—might play in driving the US foreign policy agenda, particularly for the Middle East and North Africa. To better understand how the newly divided Congress will differ from its predecessor, it is important to understand what exactly lawmakers were and were not able to accomplish during the 115th Congress.

The 115th Congress—spanning from January 2017 until its successor was initiated in January 2019—was more productive than congressional sessions of the previous decade. That is due, in large part, to the fact that the Republican Party had full and unified control over the government: the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress and the presidency. But while Congress quantitively was productive, although not substantively so, it also displayed a great deal of deference to President Donald Trump and, excluding one or two notable exceptions, largely avoided running afoul of the White House. Trump enjoyed—and largely continues to enjoy—a great deal of popularity among Republican voters so there has been little appetite among the GOP members of Congress to challenge the president. It is against this backdrop that the fight—or reluctance to fight, in many cases—for the direction of US policy in the Middle East took place.

Congress Seldom Challenged President Trump

There were many Senate and House members, on both sides of the aisle, who were willing to criticize the president for his policy positions regarding the Middle East, but few Republicans were resolute enough to go on the record and vote against Trump’s preferred policies. This “all talk and no action” strategy resulted in President Trump’s further consolidation of power to dictate foreign policy within the executive branch. Therefore, when the White House executed policy with which lawmakers disagreed, these senators and representatives were unwilling to offer more than symbolic rebukes of such a policy.

There were many Senate and House members, on both sides of the aisle, who were willing to criticize the president for his policy positions regarding the Middle East, but few Republicans were resolute enough to go on the record and vote against Trump’s preferred policies.

There were a number of areas where Congress, despite vocal criticism of the president’s policies, failed to act in any meaningful way to correct course. Despite the fact that many senators and representatives hoped to reclaim war powers from the executive branch, the president was largely able to maintain or expand the use of military force in at least five Arab states free of extensive oversight. The Republicans in Congress were similarly deferential when the president satisfied a campaign promise to ban citizens from several Muslim majority countries—mostly from the Arab world—from entering the United States.

When it comes to country-to-country relations in general, the president typically enjoys a great deal of flexibility to dictate US priorities. But during the 115th Congress, lawmakers failed to challenge the president when he decided to offer full-throated and unconditional support for certain problematic partners in the region. Members in both chambers challenged Washington’s unmitigated support for authoritarian regimes with poor human rights records and questionable national security practices; however, they failed to offer legislation fundamentally altering bilateral relations with such countries. Finally, Congress was complicit in allowing Trump to nearly disqualify the United States from continuing its historical role as a conduit for negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders for a broad and lasting peace agreement.

Failure to Rein in Military Adventures

Since Congress issued authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF) against those responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks later that year and against the Iraqi government in 2002, successive presidents have expanded the fight against terrorism across the globe. In the Arab world, this includes executing military operations in Somalia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen in addition to the continued use of force in Iraq. There have been consistent and outspoken critics of the broad and ambiguous powers under which consecutive administrations have operated, but the 115th Congress seemed, at one time, to be the most willing to act to constrain the executive branch’s war powers. However, despite hearings and repeated calls to action, lawmakers failed to fundamentally rein in President Trump and stood by in shock as he launched multiple missile attacks against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria—attacks that no serious lawyer would affirm are covered by either of the two AUMFs.

The Republicans who held the majorities in Congress, for practical and ideological reasons, did not want to act in any way that might indicate to their political base that they were trying to reduce Trump’s power.

The failure to act is due, in part, to a common theme among members of Congress, particularly Republicans. Because the executive branch has the task of monitoring and responding to changing circumstances, legislators are wary of doing anything that could constrain the president from acting as he sees fit. The Republicans who held the majorities in Congress, for practical and ideological reasons, did not want to act in any way that might indicate to their political base that they were trying to reduce Trump’s power; therefore, no meaningful actions were taken to narrow the president’s ability to use military force.

Allowing Continued Support for Authoritarians and Human Rights Abusers

There has been a great deal of analysis about President Trump’s affinity for strongmen and authoritarian leaders the world over. As he has gravitated toward authoritarian rulers and sought closer ties—seemingly for the sake of expediency—in fighting terrorism, members of the 115th Congress have stood by and let this happen with little more than rhetorical condemnations. Many observers have noted that regional leaders like Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the crown princes of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, respectively, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and others act in an increasingly authoritarian manner, yet President Trump has embraced all of them and offered uncritical US support for their repressive domestic crackdowns and controversial actions in the name of  security.

Members of Congress have spoken out against the dangers of such a security strategy, but when tasked with offering legislative solutions, the 115th Congress largely avoided stripping funds or generous US support away from these partners. There is some realpolitik at play that is necessary, if unsavory; but without even a modicum of protest from elected US officials, despots and authoritarians feel emboldened to act outside the rule of law and against core human rights considerations.

This deference to the president was not new or unique to the 115th Congress. Even though US law bars aid to countries whose governments came to power through coups d’état, Congress—dating back to 2014—has continued providing Egypt with billions of dollars in US financial assistance. Congress also has repeatedly failed to act as dictatorial partners in the region grow more flagrant in their rejection of norms and mutual interests. This was most clearly on display after Saudi Arabia continued its disastrous war in Yemen and was responsible for the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate, all while the Trump Administration appeared to have been actively helping Riyadh cover up the ghastly slaying. Congress allowed the White House to provide Riyadh with military education and training funds and huge discounts to work with the Pentagon despite the egregious Khashoggi murder and the Yemen humanitarian catastrophe.

Congress allowed the White House to provide Riyadh with military education and training funds and huge discounts to work with the Pentagon despite the egregious Khashoggi murder and the Yemen humanitarian catastrophe.

Idle in the Face of a Muslim Ban

During his campaign for president, Trump repeatedly said that under the pretext of national security, he would put a moratorium on Muslims entering the United States. During the 115th Congress, he made good on that promise, though it took two attempts and several court battles for it to come to fruition. Issues relating to immigration and entrance to the United States by refugees, asylum seekers, and others are to be dictated by Congress, according to the US Constitution, yet the 115th Congress did little to address what was arguably an unconstitutional executive order based on religious discrimination (notably, the US Supreme Court said otherwise).

The 115th Congress failed to pass any legislation addressing the issue of Muslim immigration to the United States—or any immigration, for that matter—because of President Trump’s vice-like grip on the wishes of his conservative Republican base. Anytime Congress neared an immigration deal and the president felt his base disliked it, he would turn his back on any compromise and Republican members of Congress would follow his lead.

US Policy Toward the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Lurches Rightward

Public polling from the last few years has illustrated that Americans largely believe the United States should play the traditional broker role in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Some polling even indicates that self-professed liberal Democrats are more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians while Democrats and Independents largely find that the US administration under Donald Trump favors Israel far too much in the conflict. This means that based on the 2016 and 2018 election results, the majority of voters (since Democrats and Independent voters outnumbered Republicans in both election cycles) believe the United States should take a neutral position toward the conflict and the negotiations to solve it.

Even those lawmakers who disagreed with the president’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem refused to speak out because of political considerations.

Despite this data, the 115th Congress sat by—and at times actively supported policy—as the president and his administration lurched rightward and adopted an approach toward the Palestinians that neither resembled nor built on previous US administration’s policies. Rather, it was one that hewed close to the views of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and its governing coalition partners. This particular issue differs from others to some extent because support for Israel in Congress predated the Trump presidency—therefore deference to him was not the motivating factor for an idle Congress. But even those lawmakers who disagreed with the president’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem refused to speak out because of political considerations. Further, as the president decimated funding for humanitarian assistance to the occupied territories and stripped Palestinians of other forms of economic support, Congress did little to ensure the executive branch followed congressional prerogative by spending appropriated funds as Congress intended. It is noteworthy that Congress was also often actively punishing the Palestinians alongside the Trump Administration; an example is when it passed the Taylor Force Act into law via the fiscal year 2018 spending bill.

Where Congress Was Assertive

In addition to being deferential to President Trump, Congress as an institution is notoriously slow and has trouble dictating foreign policy when its preferences run counter to those of the executive branch, which can act more quickly. Despite these constraints, there were some areas in which Congress was assertive and helped shape Washington’s posture toward the region as a whole and vis-à-vis specific actors.

The most consistent policy disputes between Congress and the White House continued to be the US budget and Washington’s foreign policy. President Trump preferred an almost singularly militaristic and security-related approach to foreign relations, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. He proposed fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019 budgets that would have decimated Washington’s diplomatic capabilities while simultaneously pushing for increased defense budgets and growing the overseas contingency operations slush fund. Prioritizing the Department of Defense over the Department of State is not historically outside of Republican orthodoxy, but the regressive nature of the president’s proposed cuts to diplomacy were too steep even for GOP congressional appropriators. The FY2018 budget served as a rebuke of Trump’s proposed cuts to diplomacy while it still allocated increases for the Pentagon and the State Department and even saw an uptick in funds set aside for the foreign military financing program.

Because of the Yemen war, the Khashoggi affair, and the start of a boycott of Qatar by some Arab states, individual senators utilized their leadership positions on prominent committees to place holds on proposed arms sales or to dissuade the Trump Administration from issuing notifications in the first place.

During the 115th Congress, lawmakers were unusually critical of the president on issues of arms control and militarization in the Arab world. A highly transactional businessman, Trump lauded the wealthy Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for what he described as boosting the US economy through large weapons purchases from the United States. But because of the Yemen war, the Khashoggi affair, and the start of a boycott of Qatar by some Arab states, individual senators utilized their leadership positions on prominent committees to place holds on proposed arms sales or to dissuade the Trump Administration from issuing notifications in the first place.

Congress was also at the forefront in using its favored economic form of punishment: sanctions. Along with Russia and North Korea, lawmakers in 2017 passed into law a bill that placed new economic sanctions on Iran, even while the latter enjoyed a reprieve from previous sanctions thanks to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal signed during the Obama Administration. In addition, Congress looked to respond to the Khashoggi affair with sanctions, invoking a provision of the Global Magnitsky Act to force the Trump Administration to undertake an investigation and make a recommendation about whether to punish high ranking Saudi officials. Though no sanctions were levied, Congress used the process to pressure the administration into acting when it preferred not to do so.

Where Congress Made Progress but Still Has Work to Do

There is one specific area where Congress was more assertive than many observers believed it would be but where it still could not muster the necessary will to alter Trump’s policy position. Since Saudi Arabia launched its war in Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels and reinstall the country’s government, the Yemeni people have suffered unspeakable horrors, mass starvation, and an unprecedented and serious outbreak of disease. Nevertheless, President Trump stood by his friends in Riyadh and opted to continue providing military support, training, and arms sales. As mentioned before, some lawmakers mustered the will to block arms sales to the wealthy but troublesome partners in the GCC; however, Saudi Arabia was largely able to continue waging its war thanks in large part to crucial US military and intelligence support.

After the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the world became aware of the problematic nature of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom they had initially perceived as a reformer. Many senators who were previously ambivalent about US support to the Saudis opted to team with some vocal dissenters, spurring the Senate vote to enact the never-before-used War Powers Resolution. This was a significant rebuke by a GOP-held Senate against a president of its own party, one who unambiguously supported the ruling family in Riyadh. President Trump was spared, however, because House Republicans successfully scuttled any efforts to enact similar legislation in their chamber, thus the effort stalled. Though the symbolism of such a vote was unprecedented and illustrated just how much US-Saudi relations had been weakened, the Democratic House majority will likely guarantee a successful war powers challenge if the Senate were to have another vote during this Congress.

Will the 116th Congress Differ from Its Predecessor?

As mentioned, Congress is historically deferential to the president when it comes to matters of foreign affairs. However, now that Democrats control the House of Representatives, Congress has the opportunity to recover some of its influence in this arena. The likelihood of Congress adopting laws that challenge the president directly is slim, in no small part because control of the Senate remains in Republican hands and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) will maintain his strong grip on the Senate agenda. Nothing comes up for a vote in the Senate without McConnell’s support, so any bill that he perceives as infringing on the president’s constitutional powers or that significantly irks the president will not see the light of day in that chamber—except through unusual procedural maneuvers.

Still, House Democrats have the opportunity to show the American people the true nature of President Trump’s Middle East policy through public hearings and investigations. While this tactic may not prove as fruitful as the legislative path, if the House is able to limit the expansive powers previous presidents have amassed, it could force the administration to address some of the more problematic policies while willingly working with Congress.

House Democrats have the opportunity to show the American people the true nature of President Trump’s Middle East policy through public hearings and investigations.

In sum, the 115th Congress was largely deferential to President Trump because the GOP majority was wary of infringing on his agenda. This was even more pronounced in the foreign policy sphere, where presidents have long enjoyed a hands-off approach from the legislative branch. The 116th Congress, with its Democratic majority in the House, has the opportunity and the desire to push back against the president’s more troubling policies. This could prove crucial for those who want to see a more balanced US approach toward the Middle East, from Palestine to Yemen.

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