Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

I) Legislation

Senate Votes to Repeal 1991 and 2002 Iraq AUMFs. On March 29, the Senate voted 66 to 30, with 4 not voting, to pass S.316, Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young’s (R-IN) bill to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) for Iraq. While some Republicans joined Democrats in voting to repeal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who was absent due to having suffered a concussion, condemned the successful repeal. The bill now sits in the House, where it remains unclear whether it will be brought directly to the floor or if it will go through a committee. House Republicans, such as Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul (R-TX) have taken different approaches to the legislation, with Representative McCaul advocating for a “repeal and replace” approach that would replace the 2002 AUMF with a new, broad counterterrorism AUMF that ends after five years. Also on March 29, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced S.1061, a bill to repeal and replace the 2001 AUMF, and on March 30 Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced S.1151, a bill to restrict future AUMFs and declarations of war to 10 years.

Representative Gaetz Introduces Somalia War Powers Resolution. On March 28, Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) introduced H.Con.Res.30, a War Powers Resolution that would require the president to remove all US forces from Somalia, with the exception of those protecting the US embassy, within one year of its adoption. The War Powers Resolution is privileged, meaning the House must vote on it within 18 days. Representative Gaetz introduced a Syria War Powers Resolution earlier in March, but the House voted 321 to 103, with 11 members not voting, to reject it.

Bipartisan House Lawmakers Introduce Bill Targeting Iranian Drone Production. On March 27, Representatives Bill Keating (D-MA), Joe Wilson (R-SC), Dean Phillips (D-MN), Kathy Manning (D-NC), and Claudia Tenney (R-NY) introduced H.R. 1809, the Block the Use of Transatlantic Technology in Iranian Made Drones Act of 2023. The bill aims to target Russia’s use of Iranian drones in Ukraine and responds to the recent discovery that American and European technologies are key components of the Iranian drones being deployed. More specifically, the legislation calls on the Secretaries of State, Commerce, and Defense to develop strategies to use sanctions and other tools to prevent the export of western technology that could be used in Iranian drone production.

Representative Meeks and Senator Menendez Introduce Bill to Prevent Arms Sales to Human Rights Abusers. On March 27, Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-NY) introduced H.R.1801, the Safeguarding Human Rights in Arms Exports Act of 2023, and on March 29 Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced S.1025, its companion Senate legislation. The bill seeks to codify the Biden administration’s new Conventional Arms Transfer Policy into law so that it cannot be undone by future administrations. The bill ultimately aims to prevent US weapons sales to foreign countries that commit international human rights violations and seeks to hold their governments accountable.

Representative Malliotakis Introduces Bill to Condemn Turkish Occupation of Cyprus. On March 28, Representative Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) introduced H.Res.263. The resolution was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and if passed will condemn Turkey for its occupation of Cyprus and encourage the Biden administration to make the occupation a top foreign policy concern.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Representative Tlaib Leads Democrats in Calling for Increased Humanitarian Assistance to Yemen. On March 27, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and 23 other members of Congress sent a letter to the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs calling for at least another $1.2 billion in humanitarian assistance to Yemen in the Fiscal Year 2024 budget. This announcement comes eight years after the start of the war in Yemen, which has been labeled the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Representatives Meeks and Connolly Send Letter to Biden Administration on Political Arrests and Racism in Tunisia. On March 28, Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA) led 18 members of Congress in sending a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing concern over Tunisian President Kais Saied’s crackdown on political dissidents and opponents, as well as his racist and xenophobic remarks, which have incited violence against migrants from other African countries. The letter condemns President Saied’s efforts to undermine Tunisia’s democratic institutions, as well as his politically motivated arrests against activists, former government officials, and members of the media using the country’s Anti-Terrorism Law. The representatives urged Secretary Blinken and President Biden to coordinate a “message of strong support for democratic institutions” in Tunisia, and to make clear that President Saied’s racist remarks are unacceptable. The letter builds on Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) concerns about the deaths of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing Tunisia.

Representative Raskin Leads Request for Release of Political Prisoners in Saudi Arabia. On March 27, Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) led members of Congress, including 21 Democrats and one Republican, in sending a letter calling for the release of political prisoners held in Saudi Arabia. The letter, which was sent to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, demands the release of all political prisoners held in Saudi Arabia for posting on Twitter, and criticizes the Saudi regime for infringing on the rights of Saudi citizens. The letter highlights the cases of three individuals who have been detained in Saudi Arabia over tweets criticizing the crown prince, including Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral student at Leeds University, Mahdia al-Marzouqi, a Saudi resident and nurse sentenced to 15 years in prison for commenting on events in Tunisia on Twitter, and Noura al-Qahtani, whose prison sentence was extended from 13 to 45 years on the same day that al-Shehab was detained.

Representatives McCaul, Wilson, and Kean Call for CAATSA Sanctions over Russian Fighter Jet Sale to Iran. On March 29, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), and the Chairs of the HFAC subcommittees on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia and on Europe, Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Tom Kean (R-NJ), sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanding sanctions on Iran in response to the country’s defense transactions with Russia. In their letter, the representatives urge Secretary Blinken to “leverage all relevant policy tools,” including mandatory sanctions and export controls, to counter Russian and Iranian action. The lawmakers also argue that under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) the United States is obligated to impose sanctions on Iran over its purchase of Russian Su-35 fighter jets.

Representative Tlaib Condemns Israeli Attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque During Ramadan. On March 26, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) condemned recent Israeli attacks on worshippers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque during the month of Ramadan, calling on President Biden to reconsider US military funding to Israel in response. The attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque come at a time of increased violence against Palestinians, as Israeli forces routinely block access to Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan.

3) Hearings and Briefings

House, Senate Armed Services Committees Hold FY24 Budget Hearings with Military Leaders. Last week, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees held hearings on the Department of Defense’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget requests, both featuring testimony from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley, and Under Secretary of Defense Michael J. McCord. During the Senate hearing, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) pressed Secretary Austin on recent US airstrikes in Syria following an Iran-friendly militia’s drone attack on a coalition base, accusing the Biden administration of withholding information about the attacks while Senators voted on amendments to S.316, a bill to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Iraq AUMFs. Also discussing the attack, General Milley told lawmakers that the US military must respond to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force “harshly” in order to deter future attacks.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Holds Hearing on American Diplomacy. On March 23, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held its annual Fiscal Year 2024 State Department budget request hearing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. During the hearing, Representative French Hill (R-AR) asked Secretary Blinken whether the Biden administration supported rapprochement with the Assad regime. In addition to expressing disapproval of normalization with the Syrian president, Secretary Blinken stated that he has personally issued a demarche to countries that are “romancing diplomatic relations” with the leader. Representative Kathy Manning (D-NC) questioned Secretary Blinken on the prospects of Saudi Arabia’s membership in the Abraham Accords following China’s involvement in the normalization of relations between the Riyadh and Tehran. Secretary Blinken stated that if implemented, the agreement could “curb Iranian behavior that we object to” and that China’s efforts to reduce conflict are “a good thing.” When questioned about the administration’s view on Israeli judicial reform by Representative Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Secretary Blinken affirmed the United States’ position as “Israel’s closest friend and strongest supporter” and stated that the country has a “strong democratic system.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Holds Hearing on Sanctions Policy. On March 29, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability held a hearing on the implementation and enforcement of US sanctions policy. Representative Mike Waltz (R-FL) questioned the witnesses on how the Biden administration can better enforce sanctions on Iran. Dr. David Asher told Representative Waltz that “Iraq is the main sanctions evasion point for the Iranian regime,” and recommended that the Biden administration tighten up sanctions on Iraqi banks.

4) Nominations

President Biden Nominates New US Ambassador to Egypt. On March 30, President Biden nominated Herro Mustafa Garg as the next US Ambassador to Egypt. Mustafa Garg is an Iraqi-born Kurdish American career diplomat who has previously served as US Ambassador to Bulgaria and in many Middle East-related posts, including in Iraq and Lebanon. She also served as the president’s senior advisor on the Middle East while he was vice president under the Obama administration. Since Ambassador Jonathan Cohen’s departure in August 2022, the US Embassy in Cairo has been run by chargé d’affaires Daniel Rubinstein.

President Biden Nominates New US Ambassador to Somalia. On March 30, President Biden nominated Richard H. Riley IV as the next US Ambassador to Somalia. Riley is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

President Biden Quarrels with Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir over Judicial Changes. On March 28, President Biden said that he hopes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “walks away from” his controversial plans to alter the Israeli judicial system, telling reporters that the Israeli government “cannot continue down this road” and calling for compromise. President Biden’s comments follow Netanyahu’s delay of the judicial reforms following mass protests and the firing of his defense minister, Yoav Gallant. Netanyahu responded, stating that, “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.” Far-right Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir responded negatively as well, arguing that Israel “is not another star in the American flag.” White House National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby has dismissed claims that these are tensions in the US-Israel relationship, stating, “The great thing about a deep friendship is you can be that candid with one another.” On March 30, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen, reaffirming “the importance of the enduring US-Israel bilateral relationship” amid the political spat.

Former US Officials Press Biden on Syria Policy. On March 27, former US officials sent a letter to President Biden outlining their concerns about the administration’s policy toward Syria. The letter follows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s recent normalization of relations with other Arab states, and was sent by nearly 40 Syria experts and former US government officials, including former US Special Envoys to Syria Frederic Hof and Joel Rayburn, as well as other former State Department, CIA, and CENTCOM officials. The letter calls on the Biden administration to more aggressively push back against Arab states’ rapprochement with Assad. Although the Biden administration has stated that it will not normalize relations with the regime, the signatories argue that “opposing regime normalization in word only is not enough” and provide concrete policies for the Biden administration to pursue.

President Biden Announces New 10-Year Conflict Prevention Strategy, Including for Libya. On March 24, President Biden announced to Congress his 10-year plans for implementing the US Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability. The strategy aims to promote a more peaceful and democratic future by facilitating greater coordination between the Department of State, USAID, and the Department of Defense. It also aims to work in coordination with several US strategic partners, including Libya, where the Biden administration seeks to focus on laying the groundwork for supporting an elected national government and promoting security, justice, and accountability.

2) The State Department

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister. On March 28, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Salem al-Sabah to discuss regional and global security issues. Secretary Blinken updated Foreign Minster al-Sabah on US efforts to work with Israel, Palestine, and regional partners to de-escalate violence in the West Bank, and the two officials discussed efforts to support humanitarian issues in the region and globally.

Deputy Secretary Sherman Speaks with Algerian Foreign Minister. On March 28, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with new Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf to congratulate him on his appointment. Deputy Secretary Sherman underscored the importance of the strategic US-Algeria relationship, and the two officials discussed efforts to promote stability in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as their support for UN Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General Staffan de Mistura’s efforts to advance a political solution to the Western Sahara conflict.

State Department Welcomes Norway’s Repatriation of Nationals from Syria. On March 31, State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel welcomed Norway’s repatriation of two women and three children from displaced persons camps in northeast Syria. The State Department considers repatriation the best option to address the issue of vulnerable residents of displaced persons camps in Syria so as to prevent recruitment by the so-called Islamic State (IS), and it called on other governments to follow Norway’s example.

3) Department of Defense

Department of Defense Announces Weapons Sale to Kuwait. On March 29, the Department of Defense announced that the State Department has approved a potential $48.2 million sale of additional cartridge actuated devices and propellant actuated devices to Kuwait. This follows a previously approved sale, bringing the total estimated cost to $59.1 million. The Department of Defense justified the sale as helping Kuwait maintain its air defense capacity to defend its territorial integrity. Congress has been notified of the sale, as required by law.

Department of Defense Announces Weapons Sale to Bahrain. On March 29, the Department of Defense announced that the State Department has approved a potential $350 million sale of equipment to refurbish military helicopters in Bahrain. The Department of Defense justified the sale as improving Bahrain’s capability to meet current and future threats by improving its maritime patrol abilities, its close air support, and its search and rescue missions. Congress has been notified of the sale, as required by law.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Sanctions Syrian and Lebanese Captagon Ring. On March 28, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), in coordination with the United Kingdom, sanctioned Syrian regime officials close to the Assad regime and Lebanese drug traffickers, all of whom have been involved in the multibillion-dollar Captagon trade. Captagon is an amphetamine that has rapidly spread around the Middle East, and Syria’s Assad regime and Lebanon have been at the center of its production and smuggling. Notably, OFAC’s sanctions mark the first use of Caesar Act sanctions by the Biden administration. Chairs of the Senate and House Foreign Affairs Committees Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Michael McCaul (R-TX) welcomed the designation.