Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Lady Liberty Act. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia) and 56 of his House colleagues introduced H.R. 977, also known as the Lady Liberty Act of 2021, which would establish a minimum number of refugees to whom the United States would grant entry each fiscal year. The Biden Administration has already issued an executive order seeking to raise the number of refugees admitted to the United States from the mere 15,000 under President Donald Trump to roughly 125,000. In Biden’s calculation, 125,000 appears to be the cap, but Connolly’s legislation would make 125,000 refugee admissions per fiscal year the minimum number required.

No Taxpayer Funding for United Nations Human Rights Council Act. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) introduced H.R. 1021 (see the text here) that would bar the United States from providing money to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Many in Washington bemoan the UNHRC for, among other complaints, being “anti-Israel” or targeting Israel for its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Roy, in a press release, called the body “morally bankrupt” and vowed to prohibit US monies from funding the entity. He accused the UNHRC of having a preoccupation with Israel and failing, as Roy sees it, to focus on other states, including Arab Leagues states Saudi Arabia and Somalia.

Bassam Barabandi Rewards for Justice Act. Reps. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) and Ted Deutch (D-Florida) reintroduced the Bassam Barabandi Rewards for Justice Act—filed as H.R. 1036—that would allow the State Department to increase the amount of money used in its Rewards for Justice program. According to Rep. Wilson’s press release, the legislation was inspired by Bassam Barabandi, a Syrian diplomat who provided insight to Congress into how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and members of his regime were attempting to evade US and UN sanctions. Text of the previous iteration of this legislation can be read here.

East Africa Locust Eradication Act. Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) renewed his effort to mobilize the US government to help East African Arab states like Somalia and Sudan to address problems they face with locust outbreaks. H.R. 1079 will likely track Rep. Smith’s previous version of the bill, which aimed to develop an interagency plan for the US government to help eradicate swarms of the pests in an effort to assist states and governments affected by them, in order to avoid food insecurity and political destabilization. If Smith’s legislation were to become law, it could potentially help benefit Saudi Arabia and Yemen as well, both of which can observe locusts group along the Red Sea coast before the insects mature and spread.

Supporting Coptic Christians in Egypt. Rep. French Hill (R-Arkansas) introduced H. Res. 117 expressing support for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. The resolution outlines how Egypt’s Copts face discrimination in the public sector and in athletics and the ways the group has been targeted with violence. In closing, the resolution expresses support for the US-Egypt relationship but urges Cairo to adopt a host of reforms that would alleviate some of the problems facing the nearly 10 million Copts living in Egypt.

Supporting Iranians against the Islamic Republic. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-California) and 112 of his House colleagues introduced H. Res. 118 expressing support for ordinary Iranian citizens in their “desire for a democratic, secular, and nonnuclear Republic.” The resolution also condemns the Iranian government for its record of sponsoring terrorism and committing human rights abuses.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

House, Senate Committees Finalize Rosters. Committees overseeing US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa have finalized their rosters, with Democrats taking seats as the majority in the Senate for the first time in years. The Senate Appropriations Committee unveiled the names of members who would serve on the full committee and its subcommittees. Notably, Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) will oversee the Pentagon budget as chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, while Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) will help determine policy priorities and funding levels for the State Department as chair of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. Tester and Coons will serve alongside their Republican counterparts Richard Shelby (Alabama) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), respectively.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) have also announced rosters for the full committees and their subcommittees. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) will take over as chair of the SFRC with Jim Risch (R-Idaho) relegated to ranking member. Meanwhile, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) will serve as chair of the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, with Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) serving as ranking member.

On the House side, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) took over as chair of the HFAC after Eliot Engel lost his seat in Congress, and Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) will reprise his role as ranking member. Meeks and McCaul each released statements naming their parties’ respective subcommittee rosters, but the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism will remain chaired by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) as Rep. Joe Wilson stays on as ranking member. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) got a quick promotion on the HFAC, moving from a freshman member of the committee to being elected vice chair of the full committee. Freshman Democrat Kathy Manning (North Carolina) was herself appointed to a vice chair position, serving under Rep. Deutch on the Middle East subcommittee.

Elsewhere, Democrats Adam Smith (Washington) and Jack Reed (Rhode Island) will chair the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, respectively, with Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) and Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) serving as ranking members of their committees. Rep. Smith also announced that Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Virginia) was elected as vice chair of House Armed Services, and Smith’s office published a full roster for the subcommittees under his jurisdiction.

Rep. Khanna Declines Invitation for Talk with UAE Ambassador. On February 13, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) sent a letter to the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, declining the latter’s invitation to appear on a podcast. Congressman Khanna told the ambassador that he would like to work together to build bridges between Washington and the Middle East but that it is inappropriate to do so at this time while Otaiba’s government supports the unjust detention of Yemeni journalist Adel al-Hasani. The letter appeared to indicate that tensions between Khanna and Otaiba have calmed despite Khanna’s published remarks, earlier this week, about a previous meeting in which the ambassador shouted at him for his role in pushing the United States to extricate itself from the war Abu Dhabi has been waging in Yemen alongside Saudi Arabia.

3) Nominations

Top Ranking State, Energy Nominees Sent to Senate. On February 13, President Joe Biden officially nominated Victoria Nuland to serve at the State Department and David Turk to serve at the Department of Energy. If confirmed, Nuland’s portfolio would include overseeing the Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs as Under Secretary for Political Affairs. For his part, Turk would be second-in-command at the Energy Department as Deputy Secretary, helping oversee the agency’s work, including on energy issues related to the Middle East.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Saudi, Turkish Counterparts. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has maintained active engagement with the international community since he was confirmed to his position. That diplomatic outreach effort continued this week as he spoke with counterparts from Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Blinken spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud for the second time in less than one week in the wake of the Houthis’ attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha International Airport. As such, the two discussed joint efforts to protect the kingdom while exploring the diplomatic steps necessary for bringing the war in Yemen to an end.

Later, Blinken held a call with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu to show support for bilateral relations, including security cooperation. The pair also talked about ways to end the war in Syria. Blinken and Çavusoglu also addressed the recent murder of Turkish citizens in northern Iraq by elements of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK. Initially, the United States did not accuse the PKK of the attack, prompting Ankara to summon the US ambassador to Turkey. Blinken later confirmed that the group was to blame. This attack coincided with a mortar strike in Iraqi Kurdistan, after which Secretary Blinken reached out to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and vowed US support for the autonomous region. Blinken later spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi about the same matter, urging Baghdad to support Iraqi Kurdistan to address the threat posed by violent extremists.

Secretary Blinken Delists the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Despite the Houthis’ recent attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha International Airport, on February 12 Secretary Blinken revoked the former Trump Administration’s designation of the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Lifting the label was done, according to Blinken’s statement, “as a recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.” The reversal took effect February 16.

2) Department of Defense

Gen. McKenzie Lays Out Challenges and Opportunities in the Middle East. On February 8, the Middle East Institute hosted General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, Jr., Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), for a virtual address. In his keynote speech, McKenzie discussed the principal challenges and potential opportunities awaiting the Biden Administration in the Middle East. Since Gen. McKenzie assumed the lead of CENTCOM in 2019, he has consistently identified three main drivers of instability in the region: Iran, violent extremist organizations, and great power competition with China and Russia in the Middle East. He described Iran’s continuous and aggressive financial support for terrorist organizations and touted the United States’ forward military presence in the region as signaling a US commitment to stemming Iranian activity there. McKenzie said he believes this message has been clearly understood in Tehran.

The general referred to the so-called Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda as the most “globally focused” violent extremist groups, despite varying threats from other organizations. He warned that IS still maintains a global cyber presence and is building communication centers to disrupt and damage US activities. The United States needs to maintain a constant level of vigilance to ensure a lasting defeat of groups like these, McKenzie said, adding that such a goal warrants strong collaboration between the US military and its partners in the region. This meshed seamlessly with McKenzie’s description of the US presence in Yemen, where the Biden Administration recently decided to end support for offensive Saudi-led operations. He warned that Yemen—like other ungoverned spaces in the Middle East and North Africa—is hospitable to groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, so the Pentagon will remain engaged with states like Saudi Arabia to help root out terrorist groups and provide for self-defense.

Great power competition between the United States and its rivals China and Russia has contributed to instability in the Middle East, Gen. McKenzie said, as both countries have sought to exploit crises and offer themselves as alternative partners should Washington seek to withdraw from the region. Russia, in McKenzie’s view, prefers to grow its military presence in places like Syria, while China is more preoccupied with cultivating ties with states to further its economic and energy interests as set out through Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. To combat the influence of both of these rivals, McKenzie argued that the United States should remain engaged with the region, using low cost collaboration on initiatives such as maintaining border security or conducting counterterrorism operations. The aim would be to assert US power and prevent Russia and China from undermining regional stability.

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