Congressional Update – Week Ending June 1, 2018

I. Congress

US Representatives and Senators both had the week off for the Memorial Day recess.

Democratic Lawmakers Question Administration’s Attempts at Bipartisan Celebration. Partisan hankering over attendance at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem continued this week when Democratic House members wrote to the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, requesting more information on the invitees to the celebration. Friedman later told the Times of Israel that “Republicans support Israel more than Democrats.” The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel (New York), fired back with a statement expressing his outrage over the comment. This fighting is just the latest example of how Israel—partly through its own right-wing policies and human rights abuses and partly through US polarization—has become a partisan issue in Washington.

Congressional Delegation Visits Bahrain; Pentagon Bars Congressional Visits Elsewhere. This week, House members, led by one of Congress’s few Arab Americans, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), ventured to Bahrain to meet with the crown prince, the foreign minister, and other officials. Issa was joined by Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) and Stephen Lynch (D-Massachusetts). The trio spoke with officials about regional developments and ongoing efforts to bring peace and stability to the Gulf and the broader Middle East. The congressmen’s travels came on the heels of the Department of Defense’s decision to restrict congressional travel to Kuwait and Iraq. The Pentagon says that hosting congressional delegations at present would hinder the military’s ability to execute day-to-day operations. However, lawmakers—particularly Democrats—are skeptical of this reasoning and instead see the decision as another way the Trump Administration is obfuscating its policy in the region. Whatever the justification may be, there is reason to believe that should the restriction hold and lawmakers are unable to secure exemptions, there could be a legitimate legal fight between the executive and legislative branches, one that members of Congress could very well win.

II. Executive Branch

1) State Department

State Department Releases Report on International Religious Freedom. The State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 (the country list can be found here). The report is mandated by law and intended to provide lawmakers and the general public with a sense of what countries are doing to promote or hinder religious freedom. It also covers what the US government is doing to encourage countries to reform their religious rights records. For 2017, the reports for Middle Eastern and Arab countries chronicle discrimination in almost every state, but a few profiles are noteworthy.

  • Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Despite Bahrain’s majority Shia Muslim population, the State Department has urged the ruling Sunni government in Manama to ease discrimination in hiring and education as well as to pursue reconciliation to alleviate the distrust between the ruling Sunni minority and the Shia majority. In contrast, Saudi Arabia’s ruling Sunni Muslim family reflects the country’s majority Sunni population; nonetheless, it shares with Bahrain an intense level of religious intolerance and discrimination, particularly toward its Shia population. The governmental and societal discrimination in Saudi Arabia has kept it on the State Department’s “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) list since 2004. As a CPC, Saudi Arabia is supposed to be sanctioned under US law, though the president usually waives sanctions on Riyadh, as the Trump Administration did in 2017.
  • Egypt. Cairo appeared as a paradox in this year’s report: the government simultaneously discriminates against religious minorities while providing them with critical support. For example, Egyptian authorities reportedly harassed and discriminated against Christians and Jews regularly, but they have also taken great care to restore and protect the Christian and Jewish landmarks in Egypt. The report also notes that Egyptian society experienced a great deal of religiously motivated violence and discrimination.
  • Iran. Iran’s profile seems to be a continuation of its long running religious discrimination. The State Department reiterated its belief that Iran is a CPC and levied the corresponding sanctions. The report states that aside from public statements condemning Tehran’s religious intolerance, there is little the United States can do because it has no diplomatic relations with the country.
  • Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Unsurprisingly, the report stated that these countries—which are in the throes of weak or nonexistent governance and conflict—experience extensive societal violence based on religion, and that the presence of religiously motivated terrorist organizations exacerbates the problem. While incidents of violence toward religious minorities receded somewhat in Iraq and Syria—due to the military operations against the so-called Islamic State (IS)—2017 still proved to be a poor year for religious freedom in these states.
  • Israel and Palestine. The report for 2017 chronicled some violence between Israelis and Palestinians as religiously motivated, but much of the document details intra-religious intolerance (for example, between ultra-Orthodox and more liberal Israeli Jews) and discrimination of religious groups by the Palestinian Authority.
  • Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Aside from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the rest of the GCC countries received rather good marks from the State Department regarding religious freedom and relatively high religious tolerance of minorities. Kuwait and Oman were described in friendly terms and, other than some concerns about the use of anti-Semitic language in their media, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates received praise as well.
  • Sudan. Like Iran and Saudi Arabia, Sudan has long been considered a CPC by the State Department, and 2017 was no exception. The State Department re-designated Khartoum as such, but it waived all applicable sanctions except for the one that bars Sudan from receiving US foreign assistance.

Ambassador Sales Talks CVE. The Hudson Institute hosted Ambassador Nathan Sales, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, to discuss the United States’ efforts in countering violent extremism (CVE). Prolonged military operations have degraded the capabilities of IS in Iraq and Syria and stripped it of territory it ruled, but Sales said the long-term struggle against the ideology of IS, al-Qaeda, and other similar groups is only in its infancy. Indeed, to really ensure the lasting defeat of groups like IS, Sales said the United States must supplement its military response with a civilian one, an effort he said the State Department is leading.

Sales explained that countering extremism and terrorism is a contest of ideas, outlining that the United States believes in, and is committed to, universal rights, religious liberty, equal protection under the law, and pluralism—concepts opposed by extremists, he said. The ambassador identified allies in CVE with which the United States should partner and specifically named Jordan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates. These allies respect the tradition of pluralism, Sales argued, and they have proven their willingness to both challenge terrorist narratives from within Islam and to initiate teaching and outreach programs in the region to develop young, moderate religious leaders (e.g., the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams in Morocco and the UAE’s Sawab Center and Hedayah Center). Lastly, Sales explained the US State Department’s objectives in its efforts to counter extremism: to promote voices of moderates who can influence individuals at risk of radicalization; to engage with communities that are most susceptible to being targeted by propaganda; and to partner with allies to de-radicalize and rehabilitate individuals, especially those in prison.

Sales briefly noted that in addition to CVE, the US government has instituted a number of law enforcement tools to contain the threat of radicalism, such as prosecuting individuals who have assisted, or fought with, terrorist organizations. The administration has also looked to update laws criminalizing terrorist activity and strived to share information—including the government’s list of designated terrorists or suspected terrorists—with partners around the globe. Earlier this week, Sales’s team at the State Department announced that it would be amending its designation of the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, to also include the group called Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Many observers have long held that the creation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was just a “rebranding” maneuver by al-Nusra Front in an attempt to circumvent the penalties for being a designated foreign terrorist organization.

2) Treasury Department

Sanctions, Sanctions, and More Sanctions. The US Treasury announced this week that it would be levying more sanctions on Iranian entities as it looks to ramp up pressure on Tehran. The new sanctions are intended to apply “unprecedented financial pressure” on the Islamic Republic, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it, and force Iran to the negotiating table regarding its nuclear program. Another critical sanctions decision could loom large for the Treasury. When the House passed its National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019, it included a provision that would require the Trump Administration to sanction any entities affiliated with two Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. These militias are part of a broader “Popular Mobilization Units” (PMU) that have ostensibly been integrated under Baghdad’s control, but they also united with other PMU forces to compete in the Iraqi parliamentary elections under the name Fatah. Fatah placed second in the elections and 14 of its elected coalition members are directly affiliated with the two Iranian-backed militias. Therefore, should the House provision become law, the Treasury technically would have to sanction 14 members of the Iraqi parliament—at a time when the United States is trying to cultivate stronger ties with Baghdad to isolate Iran. However, if the administration and the Treasury Department could make the ties between the new Iraqi members of parliament and the militias a little more opaque, perhaps they would have the leeway not to sanction these lawmakers.

3) UN Ambassador

Haley and the United States Look Isolated at UN. This was a tense week for US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. After Hamas fired rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip, in the wake of weeks of Israeli sniper fire on civilians in Gaza, Haley called an emergency UN Security Council meeting in an effort to adopt a resolution condemning the attacks. Kuwait—which is currently sitting on the security council as a non-permanent member—blocked the resolution, saying that the council must first consider a resolution it previously proposed calling for protecting Palestinians after the Israeli military killed more than a hundred and wounded thousands of largely unarmed protesters. Calling it a double standard, Haley vowed to block Kuwait’s resolution. This back and forth comes at a time when Haley—after being rebuked by the other members of the UN Human Rights Council—is feeling isolated. She has urged her foreign counterparts to remove Israel off the Human Rights Council’s permanent agenda, but no other country supported the move. Members of the council argue that the United States ultimately will not push the resolution further, fearing the optics of being publicly voted down. Similarly, some diplomats suspect that if—more likely, when—the United States vetoes the Kuwaiti resolution in the Security Council, which Haley has vowed to do, Palestinians may take the issue directly to the General Assembly where, without veto power, the United States could face a similarly lopsided vote. In sum, Haley and the United States are looking isolated at the United Nations, and the recently enacted tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the European Union countries are certainly going to exacerbate tensions between the United States and the global community.