Congressional Update – Week Ending May 18, 2018

I. Congress

1) Hearings

Authorizing the Use of Military Force. On May 16, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held an open hearing to vet a proposed new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that gives the executive branch stronger legal footing for addressing threats facing the United States (S.J. Res. 59). The new AUMF is a compromise bill that Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) largely ushered through. Despite support for this bill by many rank-and-file members of the committee, there are outside observers who are critical of this version. To debate the aspects of this proposed AUMF, the committee called legal experts John Bellinger III, who has served in counsel roles for both the White House and State Department during his government career, and Rita Siemion, an international human rights expert.

Bellinger, who helped craft the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs that have been used to justify the use of force for the past decade and a half, believed that this resolution is a good attempt at authorizing the president to use military force in a flexible manner while allowing Congress to exercise its constitutional authority to actually declare war. The current administration specifically requested that any new AUMF not have an expiration date (also called a “sunset provision”) or be geographically constrained, and that it must be adopted before any previous AUMF is repealed. In meeting all of these requirements, Bellinger said that S.J. Res. 59 gives the US military solid legal authority to use force when necessary while not constraining the president to execute the nearly 17-year-long “war on terror.”

Siemion was much more skeptical about the AUMF that has been proposed. She noted that this version authorizes the president to use military force—including drone strikes, special forces operations, and even conventional air and ground forces—against eight different groups (four branches of al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, the Islamic State [IS], the Taliban, and the Haqqani Network) in six countries (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan). It also allows the president, not lawmakers, to decide what other groups are to be designated as terrorist and when force can be used. Essentially, Siemion argued that this AUMF retroactively legalizes a broad war in countries where Congress never authorized such action and it likely lends the executive branch a “blank check” of sorts to wage wars with little say from lawmakers. To the lawmakers sympathetic to Siemion’s assessment of this resolution, she suggested the following improvements: limit the use of force to specifically named entities; determine the types of force allowed and their objectives; designate countries in which the use of force is authorized; require full transparency to ensure that the president and the military are abiding by US laws and international legal obligations; and, perhaps most importantly, establish a sunset provision so this AUMF does not stretch beyond its original intent, like in the case of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs. For more on the use of military force, the separation of powers that govern the use of force, and Congress’s role in authorizing the use of force, click here. 

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Congressional Republicans Travel to Embassy Opening. On Monday, May 14, the United States officially opened the doors of its new embassy in Jerusalem. The White House took the lead in organizing the ceremony, and prominent cabinet members and senior administration officials were in attendance. A small group of congressional delegates traveled to Jerusalem for the ceremony and for meetings with Israeli officials, but all of those in attendance were Republicans. Conservatives used the absence of Democrats to characterize liberals as insufficiently pro-Israel, while ardent supporters of Israel on the left argued that they were intentionally left out of the ceremony by the Trump Administration. Whatever the reason for the Democrats’ absence, this event lends some support to the argument that Israel is becoming a partisan issue in the United States.

Bernie Sanders Holds a Town Hall on Iran Deal and Broader US Policies in the Middle East. On May 14, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) livestreamed a town hall event in which he and four experts discussed specifics of US policy in the Middle East, including the recent US policy reversal on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), American support for Israel and Arab Gulf monarchs, and the muted response of the US government to Israel’s killing of largely peaceful protesters in Gaza. Sanders, who ran a strong race for president in 2016 and is widely believed to be angling for another run in 2020, has been outspoken in his opposition to a number of President Trump’s policies in the Middle East.

Sanders and the panelists spoke at length about the Iran nuclear deal, US relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the ongoing crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He was critical of the Trump Administration’s policies on these issues and solicited suggestions for improvement from the panel. Overwhelmingly, the panelists urged the senator and his colleagues to find a way to help the United States’ European allies maintain the JCPOA, either by preventing new sanctions on Iran or finding ways to protect European companies that invest in the country. As for the Israelis and Saudis, they suggested that the United States take a more neutral and constructive role in the region by holding these two allies to higher standards for their actions in the Palestinian territories and Yemen, respectively. The panelists urged Sanders to force another vote on US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. They also advised that he offer congressional support for development initiatives in the West Bank and Gaza as well as call on Israel to act with restraint regarding the protests in Gaza.

Lawmakers, Especially Progressives, Speak out Against Gaza Killings. Since Palestinians in Gaza launched their “Great March of Return” and Israel responded with lethal force, many lawmakers—almost exclusively Democrats or Independents—have spoken out against Israel’s handling of the largely peaceful protests. Most of those who have voiced the most criticism are progressive politically, such as Senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) or Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin), Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), and Ro Khanna (D-California). Though some of these outspoken lawmakers are still ardently pro-Israel, their statements against Israel’s actions are somewhat radical for US members of Congress. Nevertheless, while some progressives have spoken out, many Democrats deemed part of the “establishment,” and the overwhelming majority of Republicans, have remained firmly behind Israel and its policies toward the protests. Other statements, tweets, or comments from lawmakers about the violence in Gaza can be found here.

Gina Haspel Secures Votes to Lead CIA. President Trump’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, secured crucial Democratic votes in the Senate this week, ultimately paving the way for her to become the first woman ever to lead the top spy agency— this is despite concerns over her past involvement in a CIA torture program. The final vote was 54 in favor, 45 opposed, with GOP Senator John McCain unable to vote as he is home in Arizona undergoing cancer treatment.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Administration Opens Embassy in Jerusalem, Offers Full-Throated Support for Israel, IDF. The Trump Administration started off the week by inaugurating the United States’ new embassy in Jerusalem. A number of US officials and lawmakers attended the event, many of whom took turns with their Israeli counterparts to extol the decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv. However, the day of celebration in Jerusalem stood in stark contrast to the day of grief and mourning that unfolded only a few dozen miles away in Gaza, where Palestinian protests commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) and brought attention to the desire for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.

After 58 Palestinians were killed and 1,113 were injured the same day as the US embassy opening, the Trump White House minced no words this week, saying that the Palestinians killed or injured by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were responsible for their own fate and they condemned Hamas for organizing protests. Through Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and multiple spokespersons, the administration made it clear that it holds no pretense of being an “honest broker” or neutral power in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, who are suffering under Israel’s crippling blockade of Gaza. Greenblatt did arrange a meeting later in the week with Qatar’s foreign minister, however, to discuss humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.

2) State Department

Pompeo Continues Diplomacy with Gulf Partners. Secretary of State Pompeo has wasted little time reaching out to the United States’ Middle Eastern allies. The trend continued this week when Pompeo met with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to discuss a host of bilateral and regional concerns, including the ongoing crisis in Yemen and the state of affairs between Gulf Cooperation Council states. Later in the week, Pompeo spoke with Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, to discuss Qatar’s improvements in countering terrorist financing.

3) Treasury Department

Treasury Department Levies Sanctions on Iran. This week, the US Treasury Department announced a host of new sanctions on Iranian entities and entities considered Tehran proxies. This list includes the governor of Iran’s Central Bank, the two top officials of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and a recently elected member of Iraq’s parliament. Although there is doubt that many of these sanctions will have any practical effect, the administration likely sees them as symbolic exercises that prove it is increasing pressure on Iran.

4) The United States at the United Nations

Haley Wages War on Palestinians at the UN. After weeks of watching Israel shoot largely unarmed and peaceful Palestinian protesters with live ammunition in Gaza, many in the international community called for the United Nations to convene a meeting to discuss the situation. During the UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting this week, the 15-state body looked to issue a resolution condemning Israel’s response to the protests and calling for an independent investigation. However, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley promptly vetoed the proposal and lashed out at members, forcefully siding with Israel’s use of force to address the protests. Later, when the Permanent Observer of Palestine to the UN was given time to speak on the issue, Haley walked out of the chamber, giving a visual perspective of just how far the United States has strayed from its role as an impartial mediator in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.