Congressional Update – Week Ending April 20, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

J. Res. 59. On April 16, a bipartisan group of senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), Chris Coons (D-Delaware), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Bill Nelson (D-Florida), and Todd Young (R-Indiana) introduced a joint resolution that would offer the Trump Administration a legal basis for carrying out military strikes and other operations against terrorist groups abroad. The Trump Administration is continuing military strikes in multiple countries under authorities originally issued in 2001 and 2002, in line with all administrations since that time that have justified expanding military use of force abroad. This resolution, should it become law, would revoke the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) and instead give the president the authority to use force as necessary to combat terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State (IS), al-Shabab in Somalia, and others.

Like any debate over the use of military force, there are many detractors who shudder at the thought of passing this joint resolution. Some, like the president’s administration, military officials, and top congressional leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) think that it is too restrictive and that the administration already has the necessary authorization to conduct military operations in pursuit of national security. Others, ranging from libertarians to liberal democrats, believe this language is too passive as it has no sunset provision—basically an expiration date—nor does it specify the countries where the president has authorization to deploy military capabilities. Indeed, this resolution allows the president to strike the aforementioned terrorist groups or their affiliates wherever they are based as long as the administration notifies Congress. The bill will be considered in the SFRC next week with a possible vote before the end of the month.

H.R. 5540. On April 17, Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-New York) proposed legislation that would mandate that the Director of National Security (DNI) prepare an intelligence estimate specific to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. There have been calls on Capitol Hill to take a more integrated approach in combatting the threat posed by Hezbollah, namely combining counterterrorism and intelligence efforts with criminal justice and counternarcotics operations to target both the group’s personnel and its revenue streams. This bill is likely a way for Congress to receive a thorough anti-Hezbollah strategy from the administration.

2) Hearings

State Sponsors of Terrorism: An Examination of Iran’s Global Terrorism Network. On April 17, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a hearing to examine the nature and extent of the threats posed by Iranian-supported terrorist organizations to the US homeland and its security interests in the Middle East and North Africa. According to Chairman Pete King (R-New York), Iranian proxies include Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Sunni groups like Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Shia militias in Iraq, and miscellaneous groups of foreigners operating in Latin America and Syria.

The subcommittee called four Washington-based Iran experts to discuss the Iranian proxy threat. Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies addressed Hezbollah and its operations in Latin America. Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute spoke generally about Iran’s malign influence in the region and its methods of projecting power. Nader Uskowi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy focused on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and its patronage of the Shia Liberation Army (SLA). Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress assessed the Trump Administration’s current strategy for pushing back against Iran in the region and offered suggestions for better confronting Tehran’s influence.

The speakers spent most of their time outlining the nature of Iran’s behavior in the region and elsewhere, and offered the following recommendations: the United States should cultivate closer alliances with regional and other international partners to exert political, economic, and—if necessary—military pressure on Iran and its proxies; this coalition should seek diplomatic and political solutions to conflicts in Syria and Yemen, where Iran operates; and the United States should seek to empower institutions like the State Department to deploy soft power that would allow more constructive US influence in places like Iraq and Lebanon and give people an alternative to Iran and its proxies.

US Policy in Yemen. On the same day, on the opposite side of Capitol Hill, the SFRC heard testimony from Trump Administration officials about current US policy toward Yemen. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near East Affairs David Satterfield was joined by Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert Karem and Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Robert Jenkins. Despite the desire of Senator Corker and Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) for Trump Administration officials to clarify the nature of US policy toward the Yemen crisis, the panelists did little to provide clear answers regarding the administration’s view of the most productive path for resolving it.

Overall, Satterfield and Jenkins agreed that a more diplomatic approach was necessary, while Karem focused primarily on possible military options. According to Satterfield and Karem, the Departments of State and Defense have four main concerns in the Yemen conflict: Iran’s increasingly worrisome role and influence in the region; the defeat of the affiliates of terrorist groups like IS and al-Qaeda; the security threat of the Houthis on the Saudi border; and the overall health and well-being of the Yemeni people. Satterfield was steadfast in his view that diplomacy and negotiations were crucial to ending the conflict in Yemen and, despite the criticism levied against the United States’ role in aiding the Saudi-led coalition, he said the administration views this military support as a form of leverage that can be utilized to push the sides toward finding an end to the fighting. In addition to the United States’ role in facilitating an end to the conflict, Satterfield spoke at length about the United Nations’ role in brokering talks between the warring sides.

Karem emphasized the necessity of the military component and counterterrorism efforts in defeating terrorist groups in Yemen in order to address national security threats to the United States and its allies. For his part, Jenkins highlighted the humanitarian challenges in Yemen (e.g., the world’s worst cholera outbreak, widespread famine, and the erosion of infrastructure and financial systems). He gave examples of efforts USAID has made to alleviate some of the suffering, but he reiterated that “addressing the complex crisis in Yemen requires all of the US government’s tools…development, defense, and diplomacy.”

US Policy Toward a Turbulent Middle East. On April 18, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) held a held a hearing to better understand current and future US policy in the Middle East. The committee heard testimony from Acting Assistant Secretary of State Satterfield and Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell.

Satterfield highlighted positive accomplishments the United States has seen in the past year and a half, including significant military success against IS; supporting a young but growing democracy in Tunisia; and bolstering US business interests in the region. He spoke about the challenges the United States faces in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and the problems posed by Iran. Mitchell echoed the same critiques about Iran but also spoke about the problem Russia presents, especially in seeking a solution to the seven-year-old Syrian crisis. Satterfield also spoke about many of these issues later in the week at the University of Maryland’s Sadat Forum.

Libya Fractured: The Struggle for Unity. Also on April 18, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing to assess the state of affairs in Libya, which is in its seventh year of conflict after the downfall of longtime strongman Muammar Qadhafi. The subcommittee heard testimony from Christopher Blanchard of the Congressional Research Service and two think tank experts, Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Alice Hunt Friend of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The three witnesses agreed on almost every point raised about Libya and the picture they painted was bleak. They said that Libya is wracked by internal strife and division and has become a security vacuum that gives safe haven to terrorist groups, drug smugglers, and human traffickers. In addition, the prospects of reaching a unity government have diminished as a result of external influence on the numerous militias within Libya. The experts explained that the United States should be equally concerned about the effects of Libya’s instability on other allies; migrants use Libya as a springboard to Europe, and the instability and proliferation of radical groups can cause serious damage to the already delicate security situations in neighboring Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria.

The incapacitation of General Khalifa Haftar, leader of East Libya’s strongest faction, could set off a power struggle among militias, the witnesses added. Nevertheless, they said that the popularity and legitimacy of local and municipal governments represented signs that Libyans still embrace the idea of democracy. Further, strong local governance in some areas has allowed for a slight rebound in Libya’s oil economy, offering a modicum of economic stability to the country.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Pompeo Faces Difficult Vote. Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and President Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, has had a rough time securing votes in favor of his confirmation. In fact, Pompeo could be the first nominee since the Senate began counting committee votes on nominations to make it to a full floor vote without being favorably reported by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This is because nearly all of the Democrats and one Republican have vowed to vote against his nomination due to his hawkish stance on foreign policy and the perception that he is intolerant and anti-Muslim. Regardless, the Senate GOP leadership has stated that Pompeo will get a full floor vote. With Republican Rand Paul (Kentucky) vowing to vote against Pompeo, the nominee will need to persuade one Democrat to vote in favor of his nomination. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, appears to have extended a helping hand to the CIA director, likely guaranteeing that he is confirmed as the next secretary of state.

Kinzinger Drafts Letter Urging Trump to Leave Troops in Syria. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) circulated a “dear colleague” letter this week urging President Trump to maintain a US troop presence in Syria. Kinzinger drafted the letter in response to remarks Trump has made in the last few weeks about wanting to extract US soldiers from Syria and task regional countries with securing and stabilizing the country. Many lawmakers have been alarmed at the thought of withdrawing US troops prematurely, pointing to lessons from post-withdrawal Iraq and the initial rise of IS.

Sanders Drafts Letter in Support of Palestinians in Gaza. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) circulated his own letter this week outlining his support for the right of Palestinians to peacefully protest against Israel and his criticism of Israel’s policies that have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Further, he wrote that he is disappointed in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) response to the largely peaceful protests that left over 30 dead and over a thousand injured. Sanders has been the most outspoken member of Congress on this issue, condemning the IDF’s responses to the mass protests that have taken place near the Gaza-Israel border over the past few weeks.

Kaine, Schiff Want Justification for Syria Strikes. On April 19, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) announced that he and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California) wrote a letter seeking legal justification from the administration for last week’s military strikes on targets in Syria. Previously, Kaine and others sought legal justification for the April 2017 military strikes in Syria but the administration was less than forthcoming with an answer. Previously, the Obama Administration would attempt to offer relevant legal justifications for undertaking military operations outside the arenas outlined in the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, but thus far the Trump Administration has refused to even outline its thinking on the issue.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Seeks an Arab Coalition to Take Over in Syria. To compound the concerns held by Rep. Kinzinger and others about a premature US withdrawal from Syria, it was reported this week that Trump and new National Security Advisor John Bolton are seeking to create an Arab military coalition that would put troops in Syria and take over the responsibilities that US troops have thus far shouldered. Though the idea is not necessarily novel, countries like Egypt and Jordan may not consider favorably the deployment of troops in light of their own domestic security and stability concerns, while the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states may be loath to deploy troops together as they are still in the middle of a blockade of Qatar.

2) State Department

Trump Administration Sets New Directives on Sale of Weapons, Drones. On April 19, the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs announced that the administration had issued new directives regarding the sale of military weapons, equipment, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—often known as drones. The administration has been eager for other countries to “buy American” and this maneuver has likely made it easier for allies to buy weapons and drones from US manufacturers.

Sullivan Meets with UN Envoy to Yemen. On April 19, Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan met with the United Nations’ special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths. A former British diplomat, Griffiths was recently tapped by the United Nations to lead negotiations for a political end to the war in Yemen. Griffiths traveled to the United States to meet with UN Security Council representatives in New York and then visited Washington to meet with Sullivan and other Trump Administration officials.

3) Department of Defense

Mattis Welcomes Qatari Defense Minister. On April 18 in Washington, Secretary of Defense James Mattis met with his Qatari counterpart, Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah. They discussed regional security and issues of mutual concern, most notably the situation in Syria and the anti-IS coalition’s continuing fight.