Congress Outlines Its 2021 Foreign Policy Priorities

Observers can infer a great deal about congressional committees’ priorities by examining the topics they choose to explore in their first committee or subcommittee policy hearings in a new Congress. For example, Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), chose to focus on “The State of Democracy Around the World.” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism, opted instead to focus on the ongoing war and subsequent humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Even outside of policy hearings, lawmakers took time during a hearing dedicated to examining the Biden Administration’s foreign policy priorities to make clear their policy preferences and to exhort Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abide by their recommendations.

On the Senate side, Chairman Menendez made clear that democracy promotion should be reasserted as a priority in US foreign policy. The witnesses at the hearing agreed, with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stating that the United States must show leadership by promoting democracy, leading by example through strengthening its own democratic institutions, and elevating democracy promotion as a primary principle of foreign and national security policy. Secretary Albright and her fellow witnesses also made clear that Russia and China are leading a bloc of countries that want to undermine both established and fragile democracies; in addition, the witnesses asserted, it is crucial that the United States counter the efforts of Moscow and Beijing and restore pride in democracy. This could have implications for the Middle East now and in the future as Russia and China—through military, economic, and diplomatic engagement—seek to diminish US influence and stem the tide of democracy development moving forward.

During the second part of the SFRC hearing, a new panel of witnesses distilled clearly the threats facing people around the globe in their pursuit of democratic representation. Although not specific to the Middle East, the witnesses illustrated how the United States must combat a host of anti-democratic policies, and many of their stated examples of oppression were the same as or similar to those facing Arab citizens and others in the region. As Peter Biar Ajak of the National Endowment for Democracy noted, authoritarian regimes around the globe use four tactics to maintain their power. They undermine and shut down free press to keep people uninformed, oppress political opponents and activists who challenge their authority, manipulate political institutions to extend term limits and entrench their power, and initiate sham elections to give the image of democracy while consolidating government power among an unaccountable few. Overall, most committee members agreed with the witnesses and argued for a more robust US policy for promoting democracy, including in the Arab world.

Rep. Deutch and his House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee highlighted the plight in Yemen, citing a UN report that warns that some 16 million Yemenis will suffer from food shortages this year and that hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children under the age of five could die of starvation in 2021 if the international community does not tackle the crisis with urgency. Considering the drastic problems facing Yemen, witness Radhya Almutawakel (of Mwatana for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni organization) urged Congress, and the US government more broadly, to take steps to hold the warring sides accountable for their violence and the resulting starvation of civilians all over Yemen. Citing US pressure on Saudi Arabia after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Almutawakel argued that such pressure from Washington, like the threat of criminal accountability, would go a long way in ensuring that the warring parties begin to respect international humanitarian law and ease the burdens facing those trying to provide humanitarian relief. All the witnesses made clear that ending the war through a political solution is the only answer to the humanitarian crisis and they recommended that the United States do the heavy lifting to move the sides toward reaching such a solution.

Even while lawmakers were busy holding their own policy hearings, many took time to listen to Secretary Blinken outline the Biden Administration’s priorities for US foreign policy. He cited a number of priorities, including reforming the Trump-era US immigration and refugee resettlement processes, promoting human rights and democracy abroad, ending conflicts, and preventing the proliferation of weapons. Despite Washington being the first party to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Blinken asserted that the Biden Administration will not consider relaxing sanctions on—or offering any concessions to—Iran as a prerequisite for renewing talks. Although many committee members were skeptical of the Biden Administration’s policy toward Iran, most of the lawmakers in attendance simply made sure that Secretary Blinken understood that members of Congress want to be consulted before any major foreign policy decisions are executed. On other issues, Blinken reiterated US support for Israel, reaffirmed support for a two-state solution and the Taylor Force Act, and maintained his opposition to efforts by the International Criminal Court to investigate Israeli war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In sum, members of Congress have preconceived policy preferences; more than anything, however, they want to reestablish the legislative branch’s role in determining US foreign policy. The Trump Administration, with its refusal to consult Congress on a number of major policies, likely prompted many lawmakers to seriously reconsider the need to reassert the legislative branch as a coequal branch of government in all matters, including US foreign policy.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act. The SFRC chair, Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), and the ranking member of the SFRC, Jim Risch (R-Idaho), introduced the Senate’s counterpart legislation of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act (S. 615) that was introduced in the House earlier this year.According to Senator Menendez’s press release, the bill requires “the State Department to develop comprehensive strategies to address security, economic, humanitarian, and governance issues for the entire Sahel-Maghreb region.”

Expressing the Importance of Taking a Feminist Approach to All Aspects of Foreign Policy. Forty House Democrats teamed up to introduce H. Res. 196, which expresses the sense of the House that all US foreign policy makers should adopt a feminist approach to foreign policy that prioritizes resolving the gross gender imbalances apparent in a multitude of findings. In the resolution, lawmakers note that women and girls around the globe face disparities in access to rights, resources, and agency. To overcome these and other problems, the resolution calls for a fundamental recalculation of foreign policy to incorporate the needs of women. To that end, it is noteworthy that a November 2020 report by the Congressional Research Service states that the Middle East region ranks among the lowest in terms of gender equality.

Observing the 10th Anniversary of the Uprising in Syria. Senator Menendez led a group of his colleagues in introducing S. Res. 99 to recognize the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring in Syria. The resolution also asserts that US policy toward Syria should be focused on finding a political solution to the conflict in the country, standing with the civilians in the state, and, among other things, holding the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Iran and Russia accountable for war crimes.

Iran Must Cease Enriching Uranium to 20 Percent and Abandon Its Pursuit of a Nuclear Weapon. A group of centrist Democrats and one Republican cosponsored H. Res. 214, which calls on Iran to reverse its decision to enrich uranium to 20 percent purity and demands that Tehran end its supposed pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Iran Sanctions Relief Review Act. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) introduced H.R. 1699 (see text here) to signal his opposition to the Biden Administration’s proclaimed desire to rejoin the JCPOA. The bill would provide Congress with the ability to review, and potentially block, any administration efforts to relax sanctions on Iran as part of a deal to return to the JCPOA. Republicans want a bill like this to pass in order to prevent what they believe is President Biden’s desire to provide sanctions relief as a part of negotiations with Iran, although the secretary of state has repeatedly stated that the administration will not do that.

Expeditionary Diplomacy Act. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) introduced legislation this week in an effort to ensure that the United States has “sufficient diplomatic and political expertise on the ground in fragile states and conflict zones.” Specifically citing conflict areas like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Murphy introduced S. 669 (the text of which can be read here) to empower diplomats to deploy to conflict zones so that the United States can better help resolve the underlying causes of conflict.

War Powers Amendment. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) and 10 of his colleagues introduced H. J. Res. 29 in an effort to rein in the president’s ability to use military force abroad. The resolution would still allow the president to deploy military force in order to protect the United States or its troops, but instead of being an open-ended authorization for the use of force, this would terminate the president’s ability to use force after some time, depending on the circumstances. Under this joint resolution, Congress would have to approve the deployment of military assets past a prescribed amount of time, even if the president orders the use of force in defense of the country or to repel an attack.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Bipartisan Groups of Lawmakers Ask for a “Better, Comprehensive Deal” with Iran. A bipartisan group of House members, led by Rep. McCaul and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey), sent a letter to Secretary of State Blinken urging the administration to pursue a broader, longer, and stronger deal with Iran than the JCPOA, as they perceive it. The group desires a deal that also addresses Iran’s ballistic missile program and its external activities throughout the Middle East. They also want the United States to agree to any deal with Iran with the consent of US partners in the region, like Israel. In addition to the aforementioned letter, 140 members of the House from both parties signed onto a letter championed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee calling for a similarly expanded new agreement between the United States and Iran.

Finally, Senators Menendez and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) are reportedly circulating their own letter seeking support for their push for a broader deal with Iran and to pressure the Biden Administration not to offer any sanctions relief to Tehran as part of negotiations. The fear that the Biden Administration is going to flood Iran with sanctions relief is an animating one in Washington, with many Republicans preemptively opposing this policy. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wisconsin) made his voice heard when he wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen requesting a briefing on whether the Treasury is intending to facilitate the transfer of funds between South Korea and Iran.

Rep. McCollum Decries IDF Treatment of Palestinian Children. After a video surfaced this week of Israeli soldiers accosting and arresting Palestinian children, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the sponsor of a bill to promote the rights of Palestinian children, decried the treatment by the soldiers as “wrong.” In response to the incident, McCollum reaffirmed her commitment to ensuring that US funds do not go to supporting the Israeli military’s harassment and imprisonment of Palestinian children.

Senator Wyden to Continue Investigation into Turkish Bank. After a US federal judge dismissed a case brought against Turkey’s Halkbank by the victims of attacks perpetrated by Iran-linked groups, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) sent a letter to newly confirmed Attorney General Merrick Garland and other Biden Administration officials requesting assistance in his ongoing investigation into the Trump Administration’s handling of the prosecution of Halkbank.

Rep. Malinowski Explores What Washington Should Do with Saudi Arabia. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) has been one of the fiercest proponents of reorienting US policy toward Saudi Arabia. This week, in an interview with his home state media outlet, Malinowski repeated his belief that the United States must hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) personally responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, including by preventing his travel to the United States. More broadly, Malinowski maintained that Washington should reexamine the US-Saudi security partnership. He wondered aloud whether the Saudi royal family is reconsidering its empowerment of MbS and if it will actually allow him to claim the throne in the future.

Lawmakers Write to Administration Officials on Israel, Palestine. Last week’s Arab Center Washington DC report noted in its “Personnel and Correspondence” section that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) was seeking support for his letter urging Secretary of State Blinken to ensure that Israel upholds its responsibility to vaccinate the millions of Palestinians under its control. Senator Sanders finally released that letter and it garnered support from some of the chamber’s most progressive members. Across the Capitol, progressive Democrats like Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), and Mark Pocan (Wisconsin) sent their own letter to Secretary Blinken asking the administration to address a number of issues of concern. First, the group echoed Senator Sanders’s concerns about Israel failing to vaccinate Palestinians, and they also expressed concern about Israel’s ongoing practice of demolishing the homes of Palestinians. In addition, these House members called on the secretary to oppose both Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank and the Trump Administration’s so-called “Peace to Prosperity” proposal. In another piece of correspondence related to Israel and Palestine, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tennessee) wrote to both the secretary of the Treasury and the attorney general calling for an investigation into how the fundraising platform Act Blue provides funds for groups that support the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, claiming that BDS groups are anti-Semitic and support terrorism.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Rep. Ted Lieu on Future Foreign Policy. On March 11, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) participated in an event with the Atlantic Council to talk about the future of US foreign policy as it relates to nuclear weapons. While the talk generally focused on US policy for a so-called “first strike” deployment of nuclear weapons, the congressman took time to discuss his thoughts on US efforts at diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear energy program. Lieu expressed confidence that Democrats and Republicans were united in their desire to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. As for the JCPOA, Lieu said he was concerned about the “sunset” provisions of the original deal. He specifically noted his opposition to the fact that in 2023, the United Nations will lift a ban on “assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile program,” which he says will be an existential threat to Israel and the United States. It is noteworthy that projections, even after that sunset, say that Iran could not plausibly strike the United States until 2025.

Rep. Lieu also talked about the need to repeal and replace existing authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs). He stated plainly that the 2002 AUMF that allowed for the US invasion of Iraq should not be difficult to repeal. However, for the 2001 AUMF that granted the US government the ability to pursue terrorists and their benefactors, Lieu was more skeptical because that AUMF, he believes, is necessary for a range of US military and counterterrorism operations around the globe, including in the Middle East and North Africa. He basically left open the question of what would happen to that nearly 20-year-old resolution because members of Congress cannot agree on how to replace it—as it has allowed for the US military presence to grow from Afghanistan all the way to places like Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

House Democrats Want Repeal of AUMFs. On March 12, top ranking House Democrats held a virtual press conference to announce their latest effort to push for repealing the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs). Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California), the only member of the House to vote against the 2001 AUMF, made clear that these “outdated” AUMFS, as she described them, must be repealed to prevent future presidents from using them as justification to take military action around the world and prolong what is popularly termed “forever wars.” Rep. Lee said that a Congressional Research Service report that she requested found that successive administrations have used the 2001 AUMF to justify military action over 40 times in at least 19 countries, several of which are in the Middle East and North Africa. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) told viewers that he will use his perch atop the HFAC to mark up Rep. Lee’s legislation repealing the 2002 AUMF “in the coming weeks.” Overall, Reps. Lee, Meeks, and their colleagues vowed to mobilize support and muster the political will to finally repeal and, in the case of the 2001 AUMF, replace these measures. They also said that with the support of the Biden Administration and the newly minted Democratic control of the Senate, they feel that now is the time to reform the use of military force.

4) Nominations

Senator Cruz Places Hold on Wendy Sherman’s Nomination. On March 11, the SFRC met to consider the nomination of Wendy Sherman, who is poised to become the second-ranking member of the State Department. At this point, Sherman’s confirmation is not at risk of failure, but Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) has come out against her confirmation in a recent op-ed and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) placed a hold on her confirmation until the Biden Administration takes action on the unrelated Nord Stream 2 pipeline project in Europe and Eurasia. Despite Cruz’s determination to hold her nomination before the whole Senate, the SFRC successfully passed her nomination.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

NSA Sullivan, Israel’s Ben-Shabbat Hold US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met virtually with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, as part of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group. The purpose of this group forum is to facilitate cooperation between the United States and Israel on regional security issues, though it appears to be largely an effort to coordinate US and Israeli responses to the threats posed by Iran.

2) Department of State

State Department Officials Announce Developments in Iran Policy. Over the last week, President Biden’s team at the State Department announced some developments in US policy toward Iran. First, after speaking with the family of Robert Levinson, a US citizen who disappeared in Iran 14 years ago, the United States called on Tehran to provide a “credible” account of what happened to Levinson, who the Trump Administration determined died in Iranian custody. In addition, the State Department announced new sanctions on two members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps accused of gross human rights violations. On the diplomatic front, Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley reportedly updated reporters on the administration’s policy regarding diplomacy with Iran over the JCPOA. Malley said clearly that the United States will not alter its position due to looming Iranian elections, but also that the administration is not looking to entertain a fight with Israel over Washington’s Iran policy.

State Provides Update on Special Envoy Lenderking’s Travels.  Tim Lenderking, the Biden team’s Special Envoy for Yemen, recently returned from a lengthy trip throughout the region, including to Gulf Arab states and Jordan. According to a State Department readout, Lenderking met with regional leaders, coordinated with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, and made some “hopeful progress.”

Upon his return, Lenderking participated in an event alongside Sarah Charles, Assistant to the Administrator at the US Agency for International Development, at the Atlantic Council. Lenderking reiterated what was stated in the aforementioned press release, explaining that he has met with all regional actors as well as local Yemenis in an effort to achieve a nationwide cease-fire. Lenderking said that he and his team put forth a workable cease-fire proposal and that Houthi leaders were given that proposal several days ago. He intimated that the Houthis—by failing to engage with the cease-fire proposal and by impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Yemenis under their control—are prolonging the conflict. He stressed that if actions are not taken to resolve the conflict now, the country would spiral into even greater conflict and instability.

Biden Team Reverses Sanctions Relief for Israeli National. In the waning days of the Trump Administration, Treasury Department officials waived sanctions and reissued a license to Israeli national Dan Gertler, despite his violation of the Global Magnitsky Act’s prohibition against corruption. After a review, the State Department reversed that decision this week, again making Gertler subject to sanctions.

US Signs UN Statement Condemning Egypt’s Human Rights Abuses. After rejoining the UN Human Rights Council as an observer, US representatives to the body signed onto a statement with 30 other states condemning the Egyptian government for its ongoing human rights abuses. This is one of the early signs that Cairo will not receive the same kind of unconditional support as it enjoyed under President Trump.

3) Department of Defense

US and Allies Fly “Deterrence” Mission over the Gulf. According to reports, the United States flew B-52 bombers over the Arabian Gulf, accompanied by Israeli, Saudi, and Qatari military planes, as an explicit show of deterrence to Iran. Despite President Biden’s stated determination to depart from President Trump’s actions, many believe that these moves appear to signal a continuation of such policies.

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