Congressional Update – Week Ending February 16, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

HR 3542. On February 14, House members voted unanimously (415-0) to adopt the Hamas Human Shields Prevention Act, as amended. This bill, should it be signed into law, will sanction any member of Hamas who is found to have committed the war crime of using civilians “to protect combatants and military objects from attack.” The bill will head to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) for consideration.

HR 5035. On February 15, Rep. Ted Budd (R-North Carolina) introduced a bill that would require President Trump to direct executive branch officials to determine whether Lebanon’s Hezbollah should be designated a “transnational criminal organization” or a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker.” Many executive branch agencies suspect Hezbollah is involved in drug and weapons trafficking in Central and South America. If the agencies decide to designate Hezbollah as such, then the US government would be afforded more law enforcement and sanctions options to combat the group. The bill will head to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) for consideration.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. McCaul Joins Congressional Syria Caucus. It was announced this week that Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas)—chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and member of the HFAC—formally joined the House’s “Friends of a Free, Stable, and Democratic Syria” Caucus. An aide for Rep. McCaul confirmed the congressman’s addition to the caucus, bringing the total number of members to 39.

Sen. Corker Removes Hold on GCC Arms Sales. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chair Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) has revoked his hold on any new arms deals intended for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. In a letter the senator wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he said that despite the stalemate in the GCC split between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc that includes Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), he will allow new arms sales agreements to be considered as they are “part of [the United States’] security cooperation” with the Gulf states. Due to recent high-level engagement between US and Gulf delegations, Corker probably felt pressure to lift his veto as GCC states enjoy a surge of support in Washington. However, critics of US relations with the Gulf states are concerned that relenting on his vow to block the deals without a resolution to the GCC crisis could convince Saudi Arabia and the UAE that they can potentially jeopardize US interests with no regard to consequences. Tillerson later responded to the senator, assuaging his concerns and notifying him that the administration is still working on reaching a resolution to the crisis and that counterterrorism efforts remain in effect.

3) Hearings

World Wide Threats. On February 13, the Senate Intelligence Committee gathered to hear testimony from the heads of the government’s top law enforcement and intelligence agencies about the global threats facing the United States. This is an annual hearing that calls for the directors of agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and National Security Agency (NSA) to work with the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to produce a comprehensive report on all the threats the United States may have to confront in the coming year. DNI Dan Coates read a combined testimony on behalf of the entire panel, but Directors Mike Pompeo (CIA) and Christopher Wray (FBI), Adm. Mike Rogers (NSA), Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Robert Cardillo, were all in attendance to answer the senators’ specific questions.

Echoing Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s characterization that “great power” rivalries with China and Russia are the single greatest threat to US interests globally, the panel spent the majority of the hearing giving examples of the nature of the threats posed by those two countries. However, a few threats arising from the Middle East and North Africa were also mentioned. First and foremost, the directors reiterated the threat Iran poses to US interests in the region and the world more broadly. As one might expect, terrorism and weapons proliferation were also high priorities for the panelists. The final spate of threats the panelists identified included those to US interests in the form of poor governance in the region leading to violent domestic conflict; difficulties stemming from mass migration and displacement; and the ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen which continue to breed instability for the region as a whole.

Israel, the Palestinians, and the Administration’s Peace Plan. On February 14, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing to explore what, if anything, the current administration has crafted in terms of viable parameters for a peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians. The witnesses for the hearing represented a fairly consistent perspective to the debate, but little was offered from the Palestinian point of view. Additionally, Democrats repeatedly pointed out that it was rather curious that the purpose of the hearing was to examine the administration’s peace plan, but there were no administration officials in attendance. The witnesses who testified included Clifford May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Ghaith al-Omari of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and former Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro.

The panelists were in agreement that any peace plan presented at this moment likely would not be effective in bringing the sides to the negotiating table. The reasons for this differed slightly among them, with May unequivocally pinning the blame on Palestinians generally and the Palestinian Authority (PA) more specifically. Al-Omari was a bit more measured, by comparison, but he was nevertheless more attuned to Israel’s position in the peace process. Owing to domestic political hurdles, he told lawmakers it was useless to pursue an actual peace process at this time. Instead, al-Omari suggested that the Trump Administration work to achieve four basic goals: maintain and strengthen security cooperation between Israel and the PA; alleviate some of the economic and personal hardships of Palestinians in the West Bank by allowing the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to implement previously approved plans to facilitate construction and commerce for the Palestinians; work with Israel, the PA, and other Arab states to provide aid to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip; and help the PA reform its political institutions.

Like al-Omari, Shapiro seemed more moderate in the broader context of the hearing, but he, too, offered testimony in line with Israel’s interests. He maintained that the two-state solution is the only viable option, but urged lawmakers to at least listen to alternative options if the players involved in the peace process suggest any. Though he said he preferred a two-state solution to the conflict, Shapiro also stated that any future Palestinian state would be inherently “sovereignty limited” and that Palestinian political leaders would have to voluntarily relinquish a good deal of their state’s rights under any agreement. Like his colleagues on the panel, however, Shapiro was skeptical this administration would be in a position to bring a solution to bear at this time; instead, he focused on how the administration could seek to preserve the viability of a two-state solution for future efforts. To do this, he stated the administration must be clear in its position on a two-state solution; work with all the interested parties to maintain stability and lay the groundwork for a deal; and maintain US aid to Palestinians (though he did advocate for strategic cuts in aid for “malign” behavior).

Bahrain, Seven Years Later. On Friday morning, the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) held a hearing to examine the progress—or lack thereof—that the Bahraini government has made on its human rights record since its crackdown on peaceful protesters in 2011. The Gulf state took a unique step after the crackdown to establish the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate the government’s response. The BICI ended its investigation by issuing a list of recommendations for the government to undertake, but to this day, Bahrain has made little progress on implementing those reforms. To update lawmakers on the current state of Bahrain’s human rights record, the TLHRC invited testimony from Husain Abdulla of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Maryam al-Khawaja of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, Andrew Miller of the Project on Middle East Democracy, Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch, Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, and Dwight Bashir of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The panel was in agreement about several issues when it comes to the human rights situation in Bahrain. They said that the Bahraini government has reversed course, going so far as to remove the modest reforms the country implemented at the BICI’s suggestion. In addition, they asserted that the United States, with its seemingly carte blanche support for repressive leaders in the region and its stripping of human rights requirements on large security packages, is complicit in the worsening crackdown by Bahrain’s government. Finally, they said that though Iran has been mostly a fringe player in Bahraini civil discontent, disenfranchised Shia could soon look to Tehran for help in the worsening environment. The panel urged lawmakers to continue to pressure Bahrain to implement critical reforms and stop its crackdown on political dissidents and the religiously oppressed. To do so, the panelists recommended that Congress make security aid contingent on improving Bahrain’s human rights record, since the White House loosened such requirements.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Releases FY 2019 Budget to Little Support from Lawmakers. This week the Trump Administration released a blueprint for its preferred fiscal year 2019 federal budget. Like the administration’s first proposal, this one seeks steep increases in military spending—including a nearly $2 billion increase in funding for munitions in the anti-IS campaign—while cutting the budgets of other departments, including the State Department and the Agency for International Development. While presidential blueprints are usually formalities intended to illustrate an administration’s priorities, the first Trump budget was afforded little attention and lawmakers are hinting they will completely ignore the administration’s suggestions this round.

2) State Department

Secretary Tillerson Visits the Middle East. This was a busy week for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He had a five-day, five-country tour of the region in which he held bilateral and multilateral meetings with some of the United States’ most important allies. Tillerson first stopped in Egypt where he met with leading Egyptian officials, including President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Tillerson then landed in Kuwait for meetings with Kuwaiti officials and participated in two multilateral conferences. The first was the “Iraq Reconstruction Conference” that was held to discuss ways to move forward with Iraq’s critical rebuilding needs as the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) winds down. Tillerson gave remarks at the session on boosting private sector engagement in the reconstruction process. Afterward, the secretary spoke at the ministerial event of the Global Coalition to defeat IS. This event was aimed at recapping the work the coalition has undertaken to liberate Iraq from IS rule and the ongoing efforts to further consolidate the group’s losses in both Iraq and Syria. To conclude his business in the Gulf, Secretary Tillerson sat down for an interview with Al Hurra TV, an Arabic language broadcast network operated by the US government.

After his visit to Kuwait City, Secretary Tillerson flew to Amman to meet with Jordanian officials, including King Abdullah II, as well as representatives of the Syrian Negotiation Commission. While in Jordan, the secretary formally signed the newest memorandum of understanding (MOU) for a five-year, $6.375 billion bilateral assistance package to the Jordanians. This MOU is crucial for the Jordanians, but it does not guarantee that the $275 million per-year increase will come to fruition. The Trump Administration has already requested that Congress appropriate such funds—and most lawmakers are on board—but there are some procedural hurdles before the Jordanian government will see the extra assistance. In all likelihood, Jordan will receive this extra assistance and more, as the Trump Administration views the country as one the most crucial partners for its agenda.

The last stop in the Arab world came on February 15 when the secretary arrived in Lebanon. Tillerson became the first Trump cabinet member to visit Beirut and his visit is also the first by a secretary of state since 2014. He met with all three officials of Lebanon’s tripartite governing coalition and the foreign minister to discuss US-Lebanon relations and the nature of domestic Lebanese politics. Much of the secretary’s focus was on boosting the capacity of the Lebanese Armed Forces and reducing the role that Hezbollah plays in the Lebanese state.

III. Judicial Branch

Appeals Court Determines Third Travel Ban is Unconstitutional. On February 15, a federal appellate court ruled that the Trump Administration’s third iteration of an executive order limiting immigration to the United States is, like its predecessors, unconstitutional. The latest version of what is being billed a “travel ban” was roundly voted down by the judges of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, but an earlier decision by the Supreme Court means that this ruling is nominal and the ban can continue to be enforced until the highest court issues its decision. The Supreme Court has tentatively decided it would hear oral arguments on the travel ban in April.