Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Combatting Global Corruption Act. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Todd Young (R-Indiana) have cosponsored S. 14 in order to place anti-corruption efforts at the forefront of US foreign policy. Senator Young specifically mentioned that corruption in places like Yemen undermines efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to desperate populations. Most notably, the legislation would give the government the ability to levy Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on individuals deemed by the State Department to be engaged in “grand corruption.” If it becomes law, this bill ostensibly could have implications for such actors in the Middle East, who would be caught in the United States’ web of sanctions.

Separately, two House members also proposed another anti-corruption measure, H.R. 402, which is a reintroduced version of the bill from the 116th Congress known as Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act. Though the name of the bill indicates its focus on Russia, Rep. Bill Keating (D-Massachusetts) argued that “other authoritarian states have come to use strategic corruption and crony capitalism as their primary tool of malign influence.” The legislation would, among other things, establish a fund to help promote democracy and combat corruption, particularly in states transitioning away from authoritarian rule. Countries like Sudan could potentially be prime candidates for support under this plan, should it become law.

2) Nominations

President Biden Sends List of Nominations to Senate. After his inauguration, President Joe Biden formally transferred to the Senate a list of nominees he hopes to have confirmed in short order. The lengthy list included the nominations of Tony Blinken, Lloyd Austin III, and Avril Haines who, as noted in the most recent Washington Policy Weekly, appeared before Senate committees as part of the confirmation process.  Haines was confirmed as Director of National Intelligence on January 20 by a vote of 84-10. General Austin, who needed to receive approval by both chambers of Congress in order to cut short the legally mandated “cooling-off period” from active military duty, was officially confirmed as Secretary of Defense on January 22 by a vote of 93-2. On January 25, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Blinken’s nomination for Secretary of State and the full Senate voted 78-22 to confirm Blinken on January 26.

The rest of the list included a slate of officials who, to varying degrees, will oversee aspects of US engagement with the Arab world and the broader Middle East. Janet Yellen will help oversee US sanctions policy after she was confirmed as Secretary of the Treasury. Jennifer Mulhern Granholm is poised to take over as Secretary of Energy, tasking her with, among other things, managing relations with oil- and natural gas-producing Arab partners in the region. Linda Thomas-Greenfield has been formally nominated to serve as the next US Ambassador to the United Nations at a time when the body is seeking to ramp up efforts to end wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Finally, President Biden proposed several names to help fill out his national security team at the Departments of Defense and State. This list proposed Wendy Sherman for Deputy Secretary of State, Katherine Holland Hicks for Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Colin Hackett Kahl for Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Schiff Seeks Unclassified DNI Report about Khashoggi Murder. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California) wrote this week to the newly confirmed Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, asking her to make good on her vow to release the intelligence community’s assessment of the Saudi government’s role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Beyond applauding her commitment to release the report, Rep. Schiff reminded DNI Haines that it is mandatory to release the report under US law.

House Democrats Seek Biden’s Help in Reforming War Powers. Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee (California), Gregory Meeks (New York), and three others sent a letter to President Biden this week seeking his support for their efforts to reform laws governing war powers. Rep. Lee has been one of the main proponents of repealing and replacing the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs), which have been used to justify US military operations in Iraq and throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and she already introduced H.R. 255 and H.R. 266 during this Congress to repeal those authorities. With unified Democratic control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, the odds look better than ever that the AUMFs will be repealed—though it is still far from certain.

Reps. Beyer and Malinowski Start “Egypt Human Rights Caucus.” On the 10-year anniversary of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, Democratic Reps. Don Beyer (Virginia) and Tom Malinowski (New Jersey) announced the formation of the congressional “Egypt Human Rights Caucus.” The duo made clear in their announcement that it is time to “rebalance” the US-Egypt relationship. They hope to recruit a bipartisan group of lawmakers to join the caucus to help send a unified message to Cairo.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

NSA Sullivan Speaks to Israeli Counterpart for First Time. President Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, spoke with his Israeli counterpart for the first time since assuming his post. According to the White House readout, Sullivan and the Israeli official, Meir Ben Shabbat, discussed ways to further bilateral cooperation on issues like regional security, and Sullivan vowed to consult Israel “on all matters” related to that issue. The two also expressed support for building on Israel’s normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

2) Department of Defense

Pentagon Undertakes Drills with Saudi Arabia, Expands Troop Presence There. The Department of Defense was busy in Saudi Arabia this week, kicking off a two-week joint naval drill with the Royal Saudi Naval Forces in the waters of the Arabian Gulf. In addition, the Pentagon reportedly began the process of deploying the Israeli-made Iron Dome missile defense system in the Gulf. Though the Pentagon has been mum about where it will deploy the technology, the Israeli media outlet Haaretz reported that Israeli officials granted the United States approval to “begin deploying the missile defense systems on American military bases in a number of countries, including in the Middle East.” The US military maintains a troop presence in Saudi Arabia—and, apparently, has been expanding that presence over the past year—so it is plausible that the Pentagon plans to deploy the missile defense system to the kingdom, though the United States also stations troops in every other Gulf Arab country.

CENTCOM Commander Visits Middle East. General Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), made his first trip to the region since President Biden took office. According to Al-Monitor, Gen. McKenzie traveled to Saudi Arabia and was expected to travel to Israel as well, positioning him to be the first government official to visit Israel since the Biden Administration took over. McKenzie, who has expressed some hawkish sentiment toward Iran in the past, argued that the transition of power in Washington provided a “period of opportunity” for the new administration to “revisit US policy” toward Tehran.

3) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Reverses Some Sanctions on Yemeni, Israeli Actors. The Treasury Department officially issued exemptions for some kinds of transactions involving Yemen’s Houthi rebels, making good on the Biden Administration’s commitment to reviewing the outgoing Trump Administration’s decision to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The FTO designation brought with it a broad prohibition against undertaking transactions with the group, raising fears that the millions of Yemeni civilians living under Houthi rule would be unable to secure crucial food and medical supplies. Although the exemptions, which run through February 26, allow for the Houthis to undertake some transactions, they do not reverse the FTO designation. Further, Houthi officials designated for other US sanctions will not receive a reprieve.

In addition, reports surfaced this week that, in the waning days of the Trump Administration, the US Treasury reversed another set of sanctions, including one that targeted an Israeli billionaire accused of violating the US Global Magnitsky Act by arranging “corrupt mining and oil deals.” The Treasury Department’s decision gives Israel-based Dan Gertler respite from US sanctions for one year until an investigation is undertaken to determine whether those sanctions should be reversed permanently.

4) Department of State

Acting UN Envoy Outlines Biden Administration’s Plan to Reach Out to Palestinians. During a hearing at the United Nations this week, Acting US Ambassador Richard Mills outlined the Biden Administration’s plan to take a more evenhanded approach to diplomacy with Israel and Palestine. While he said that the Biden Administration will maintain Washington’s steadfast support for Israel, including at the United Nations, he also said that the Biden team seeks to restore funding support to help Palestinians and will take steps to renew Palestine’s diplomatic presence in the United States. Mills also called on Israel and the Palestinians to avoid unilateral actions that could undermine the prospects of a two-state solution.

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