Congressional Update – Week Ending June 22, 2018


1) Legislation

Fiscal Year 2019 NDAA. With 85 senators voting in favor and only 10 opposing, the Senate passed its amended version of the House’s fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes the amount of money the Pentagon can spend and the programs it can initiate or support. The bill authorizes the Department of Defense to spend over $708 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2019—in line with the House version—and it includes a number of policy provisions that follow certain requirements of the Executive Branch. For example, the Senate version includes a provision championed by Republican Senator Todd Young (Indiana) and Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) that pushes for steps to end the Yemen civil war and hold Saudi Arabia and its anti-Houthi coalition partners accountable for limiting civilian casualties in its fighting (the House version does not include such a requirement). Because the bills are not identical, members of each chamber will be appointed to reconcile the differences between the two versions and develop a compromise bill that could pass both chambers and survive any potential veto threat. House and Senate leaders are confident that the heavy work can be done and the authorization bill will become law by next month.

Fiscal Year 2019 State Department, USAID Budget. Both the House and Senate Appropriations committees passed their respective versions of the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) budgets for FY 2019. The two chambers allocated roughly $54 billion in spending for the coming fiscal year, and they are similar in many of their provisions. Like the House bill outlined in this Congressional Update, the Senate’s version also provides a great deal of aid to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan as well as lesser, unspecified assistance to North African states like Tunisia and Morocco. The Palestinians are slated to receive economic assistance as well, but only after meeting a plethora of stipulations, including language that was originally included in the Taylor Force Act. It is interesting to note that both the State Department funding bill and the NDAA for next fiscal year set heavy conditions that must be met before the United States can transfer the prestigious F-35 fighter jets that Turkey purchased previously. Ankara, which is conducting military operations in Syria, has riled lawmakers by agreeing to buy a missile system from Russia, and the language in both bills prohibits the US government from transferring the F-35 jets to Turkey if it follows through with those plans.

2) Events

Capitol Hill National Security Forum. On June 21, lawmakers held the second annual Capitol Hill National Security Forum, a bipartisan, bicameral conference of government officials and other stakeholders who meet to discuss ideas and policies for improving US national security. The full-day conference had panels ranging from homeland security to democracy promotion to great power competition. Two panels were especially relevant to US foreign policy in the Arab world. First, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Ed Royce (R-California) and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa Ted Deutch (D-Florida) were joined by GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher (Wisconsin) and Republican Senator Jim Risch (Idaho)—the latter is next in line to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—to talk about Congress’s role in foreign policy. The topics were wide-ranging, but the quartet spoke at length about the importance of Congress debating and passing a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). It is particularly important now, they argued, because the Trump Administration is carrying out operations in states like Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, war sites that it inherited from the Obama Administration; however, the current administration has also repeatedly struck Syria’s Assad regime, and under no circumstances is this authorized by existing AUMFs. On the topic of Syria, Deutch spoke about the need to construct a coherent Syria policy, one that is broader than seeking the defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and which roots out any Iranian presence in Syria.

The conference’s second-to-last panel was focused specifically on the Middle East and how the United States should be preparing to counter the potential rise of an “IS 2.0.” This panel included Republican Reps. Adam Kinzinger (Illinois) and Liz Cheney (Wyoming) as well as former Congresswoman Jane Harman and the six-time ambassador, Ryan Crocker. The two members of Congress echoed each other in their assessments of the threat of groups like IS; they said that it would take years to truly defeat these groups, in a non-military sense, and there is a strong chance of seeing the rise of an “ISIS 2.0 or an al-Qaeda 3.0,” as Kinzinger noted. In assessing what US policy should be in the long term, both representatives agreed that the United States should have a military presence in countries like Syria and Iraq, both of which have governing vacuums that groups like IS can exploit to gain power. Additionally, Kinzinger strongly believes that the fight against groups like IS is a generational one, so he called on the United States to ensure that youth who have been displaced in conflicts in the Middle East are given education and opportunities so they do not fall under the sway of the propaganda that IS uses to turn them against the United States.

Harman and Crocker largely agreed on the threat of the rise of another IS-style terrorist group, but their prescriptions differed. Both Kinzinger and Cheney were adamant that the United States must recognize the threat as an “Islamic” one, something Harman and Crocker pushed back on. Crocker summed it up by saying that groups like IS are terrorist because they use terrorism as a tool to further their political goals, but essentially, they do not differ from other “isms” (e.g., monarchism, authoritarianism, Baathism, etc.) in their aims. Therefore, emphasizing the “Islamist” or “jihadist” part of the equation distracts from the real problems of poor governance that leave people from Bahrain to Morocco disenchanted with their political systems.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Ed Royce, Ron Johnson Pen Letter to Steve Mnuchin on Iran. On June 21, two GOP chairmen on opposite sides of the Capitol teamed up to draft a letter urging Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin to aggressively target Iran at an upcoming meeting of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Chairman Royce and Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) are calling on Mnuchin to use US influence to force representatives at the FATF meeting to blacklist Iran and reimpose measures—which were originally suspended in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal—that protect the international financial system from being manipulated by Tehran to launder money and finance terrorism.

Progressive Democrats in Congressional Races are Speaking Out on Gaza. Gazans are finding support from the unlikeliest of places in the United States. One is a primary in South Carolina’s conservative seventh congressional district. Progressive Democrat Mal Hyman has been a strong supporter of Palestinians in Gaza and, when asked about Israel’s handling of the widespread protests at the Israel-Gaza fence during the previous weeks, Hyman pointedly called the events a “massacre” and advocated for Israel to be taken before the International Criminal Court for its actions—both for this year and for its military assault on Gaza in 2014. Hyman, who faces an uphill battle in his own primary, lost in 2016 to incumbent Republican Rep. Tom Rice. But to advocates in the United States, the fact that he is talking about this issue in a southern state where Israel enjoys robust—bordering on unconditional—support, and he raises the Palestinians’ cause on the campaign trail is heartening. It is the change in rhetoric by Hyman and other progressives candidates, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which gives Palestinian advocacy groups cause for hope that those in the West Bank and Gaza will get more sympathetic supporters in Congress in the future.

Executive Branch

1) White House

Kushner, Greenblatt Look for Support for Gaza, Peace Plans. President Donald Trump’s top two negotiators handling the Israel-Palestine peace process—son-in-law Jared Kushner and former vice president of Trump’s private business and Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt—were dispatched to the region this week to garner support for what the White House hopes will be a viable peace agreement between Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arab states in the region. The two are said to be talking with multiple actors about implementing a plan to boost Gaza’s economy and offer a sense of relief for the nearly two million Palestinians under siege there, in addition to seeking support for their yet-to-be released proposal for reaching a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis. Prior to departing, the duo went to New York to meet with US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and UN Secretary-General António Guterres to discuss the plan.

Once on the ground in the Middle East, Kushner and Greenblatt met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about bringing economic stability and humanitarian relief to Gaza. They also discussed the administration’s broader peace plan. White House staff members have said that the trip is intended to gather support from Arab leaders—ironically not including the Palestinian leadership—in an effort to have the likes of Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states lean on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept the administration’s proposal and return to the negotiating table. Though Kushner and Greenblatt have been tight-lipped about their plan, multiple reports this week suggest that the plan could be unveiled in a matter of weeks and that it will likely greatly benefit Israelis, relegating to Palestinians a fraction of what was agreed upon in previous negotiations.

It is unclear how the Egyptians and Jordanians and their Arab allies whose countries do not border the occupied territories are digesting the talks, but King Abdullah II is reported to be visiting the White House next week, presumably to further discuss with Trump what he heard from the president’s advisors.

2) United Nations

US Officially Withdraws from UNHRC. For the first time since 2008 the United States will not be a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). As was outlined in last week’s Congressional Update, the Trump Administration has been signaling its intention to leave the body; however, a blistering critique of the administration’s policies toward undocumented migrants entering the United States likely prompted the withdrawal at this particular time. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explicitly cited the UNHRC’s perceived bias against Israel as a reason for exiting the council as well as the “shameless hypocrisy” of allowing serial human rights abusers like Cuba and China to be members. (Interestingly, they failed to name high profile human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, countries that are also members in the council.) National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has criticized the body since its inception in 2006, also added that the United States is above being judged by others— those he ostensibly sees as lesser states.

The response to the decision from lawmakers has ranged from support to disappointment. Democratic defenders of Israel like Rep. Eliot Engel (New York) and Rep. Deutch agreed with the administration about the UNHRC’s supposed “anti-Israel” bias (as illustrated by “Item 7” on the permanent agenda) but argued that staying in the body would better protect Israel by limiting how often the group targets Israel for its treatment of Palestinians—an idea supported by statistics. Other members of Congress, like the co-chairmen of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and Randy Hultgren (R-Illinois), simply expressed their regret that the United States would willingly forego its opportunity to make itself heard on the issues undertaken by the UNHRC.