Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Limit on the Expansion of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Act. This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation intended to wrest back congressional war powers. The bill—H.R. 7500—would limit the president’s ability to expand US combat presence beyond what multiple administrations have already initiated under the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). The George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump Administrations’ interpretations of this AUMF have authorized the Pentagon to deploy troops and assets to a number of countries around the world, including Arab League states Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

According to an op-ed published by some of the legislation’s coauthors, “this bill is neither an attempt to repeal the authorization nor a statement on current or previous US military actions.” Additionally, the lawmakers assert that they “are not attempting to replace the AUMF or prohibit the use of force against any nation or organization.” There are glaring shortcomings in this attempt to rein in presidential war powers and reassert Congress’s constitutional authority to determine when and where the United States goes to war, but it is a realistic attempt to prevent this or any other administration from further expanding the US military presence.

Appropriations and NDAA Updates. Last week, Arab Center Washington DC broke down some of the spending figures outlined in the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act and appropriations bills. Both chambers will take action on the former when they return to legislative business next week. This week the House Appropriations Committee marked up and approved pieces of the budget legislation, including the budgets for the State Department, US Agency for International Development, and the Defense Department. Notably, the Appropriations Committee adopted three amendments that were offered by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California): one that repeals the 2001 AUMF against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups; one that repeals the 2002 AUMF against Iraq; and one that prohibits spending any federal dollars to wage war against Iran. The committee also struck a provision from the State-Foreign Operations budget that would have allowed the secretary of state to withhold $225 million in support to the Palestinians.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

House Democrats Want Information about Saudi Arms Deal “Sweeteners.” Foreign Policy reported that six House Democrats, led by freshman Rep. Katie Porter (California), wrote a letter to the current Acting Undersecretary of Commerce for Industry and Security seeking information about any side deals on US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. These side deals, or “sweeteners” as the lawmakers describe them, are known as offsets and they would allow Riyadh to pursue certain manufacturing functions and utilize some technologies domestically in an effort to grow the Saudi defense industry. Essentially, these House members want to know if the Trump Administration is granting Riyadh even more benefits despite the kingdom’s abysmal human rights record, which legally should preclude it from having even greater access to US weapons and technology.

Senators Want Trump to Press Saudi Arabia to Release EU, Saudi Dual Citizens. Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Chris Van Hollen (Maryland), and Tim Kaine (Virginia) wrote a letter alongside Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) calling on President Trump to help secure the release of two dual EU-Saudi citizens who went missing in the kingdom in June. Sarah and Omar Aljabri are thought to have been forcibly disappeared by Saudi security forces in order to coax their father back to the kingdom. Their father, Saad Aljabri, is credited with helping US intelligence agencies to uncover terrorist plots, thus potentially saving “thousands of American lives.”

Some House GOP Members Agree with Pompeo That Israel Has Right to Sovereignty over West Bank. Twelve House Republicans wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 10 to directly counter a letter that 189 of their House Democratic colleagues sent him just a few weeks ago. Whereas progressives like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) view annexation as illegal, the House GOP members told Pompeo that Israel has a right to maintain control over parts of the occupied West Bank.

Congressional Democrats Call for Cuts to Pentagon’s Budget. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) and Barbara Lee (D-California)—two of the House’s most prominent progressives—wrote an op-ed this week outlining an ambitious proposal: cutting the Department of Defense budget by 10 percent, or nearly $74 billion. Meanwhile in the Senate, Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said they secured a vote on Senator Sanders’s amendment that would divert 10 percent of the Pentagon’s budget toward poverty alleviation. Progressives still have a long way to go—and will face heavy opposition from Republicans and centrist Democrats alike—but they have wagered that the American public will view investing in initiatives like poverty reduction and public health as a smart strategy in the context of the simultaneous economic and public health crises currently facing the country.

Younger, More Liberal Democrat to Seek HFAC Gavel. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) has announced his intention to seek the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, assuming that the current chair, Eliot Engel (D-New York), does not overcome his primary election deficit. Castro, who lacks the seniority traditionally associated with such a prestigious position, will most likely be vying for the spot against longtime committee members Brad Sherman (D-California) and Gregory Meeks (D-New York). Despite the unfavorable odds, Castro’s bid has the support of many liberals because he is objectively more dovish than Sherman and more vocal about the need for strong liberal leadership than Meeks. In addition, his relative youth puts him more in line with a strong and growing segment of the Democratic Party’s base.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Status and Priorities for Lebanon’s Political Transition. On July 14, the Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted a virtual briefing to unveil a recent joint policy paper by MEI and the American Task Force for Lebanon titled Recommendations for a Sustainable Bilateral Relationship. It is intended to serve as a guide for Washington to help Lebanon become a more stable and prosperous state. Among the panelists, MEI hosted Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Illinois) to reflect on Congress’s posture toward Beirut and to share his ideas for developing stronger bilateral relations. A Lebanese-American, LaHood praised the work of the task force that drafted the report and outlined his approach to Capitol Hill’s policy on Lebanon. He noted that there are mixed assessments in Washington regarding the path forward for Lebanon and that he sees his role as educating other members of Congress on the importance of US-Lebanese relations. LaHood argued that it is in the United States’ interest to help the country stabilize and implement the necessary reforms to bounce back from its tumultuous economic decline and governmental failures.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Pompeo Speaks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Erray. This week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held phone calls with King Abdullah II of Jordan and Tunisian Foreign Minister Noureddine Erray. According to the State Department readout, Pompeo and King Abdullah discussed bilateral relations as well as the ongoing situation in Syria. However, Hamodia reported that the monarch again raised his opposition to Israel’s proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank and Jordan Valley. Pompeo then spoke with his Tunisian counterpart about bilateral relations and cooperation within the UN Security Council.

US Reportedly Intercepts Weapons Cache Headed to Yemen’s HouthisAccording to Secretary Pompeo, the United States intercepted a shipment of weapons that Iran had sent to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Iranian officials denied the allegation and said it was an attempt by Pompeo to further push for an extension of the UN arms embargo on Tehran that is set to expire later this year.

Friedman: “Israel Will Always Be a Jewish State.” US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman wrote a scathing critique of a pair of recent publications (see here and here) by the Jewish writer and thinker Peter Beinart in which Beinart called for equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Friedman, whom many do not consider a sober interlocutor who furthers Washington’s national interests, is so consumed by the radical settler ideology of supremacy and the “Greater Israel” view that he perceives Beinart’s call for one state with human rights and equality for all as necessitating the end of Israel as a national project.

Pompeo Applauds UN Bodies That Side with US, Attacks Those That Don’t. Secretary Pompeo continued to display his Janus-faced approach toward the United Nations and its different bodies this week. First, he attacked the UN Special Rapporteur tasked with investigating extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, for the sole fact that she determined that the United States provided no evidence to support its defense of the killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani. Despite Pompeo’s statement that the “United States is transparent regarding the international law basis for the strike,” it is also true that Washington has repeatedly shifted in its justifications for this military action.

Ironically, the State Department, under Pompeo, embraced the findings of a different international body when, instead of questioning the United States, it issued conclusions to the secretary’s liking. The State Department issued a lengthy statement applauding the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) after it issued a condemnation of Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The OPCW called for the orchestrators of the 2017 chemical weapons attacks in Syria be held accountable. The politicization of international organizations was not lost on Washington’s adversaries, especially Iran, which called the investigation “illegitimate.”

US Embassy in Libya Warns of Possible Sanctions. In Tripoli this week, the US Embassy published a statement expressing regret over the ongoing international interference in Libya’s economy as its oil sector attempts to resume operations. While the statement only specifically cited incursions by Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries and renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, it warned all “foreign capitals” prolonging military action in the country that they could be subject to diplomatic isolation and sanctions. Recent reports about the United Arab Emirates’ meddling in oil-sharing negotiations suggests that the embassy’s statement may have been a veiled threat to Abu Dhabi.

Brian Hook Discusses Iran Policy. The State Department’s Special Representatives for Iran and Venezuela—Brian Hook and Elliott Abrams, respectively—participated in a webinar this week to discuss the evolving relationship between Tehran and Caracas. The briefing offered little in terms of new information; Hook and Abrams largely recounted what they viewed as the administration’s successes in sanctioning the two countries. Among his other remarks, Hook maintained his commitment to forcing through an extension of the UN arms embargo on Iran, regardless of whether or not veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council agree with Washington.

2) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Commander McKenzie Tours Middle EastThis week, US Central Command Commander General Kenneth McKenzie toured the Middle East where he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad, Lebanese President Michel Aoun in Lebanon, and the head of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazlum Abdi, in Syria. McKenzie reiterated US support for these officials’ governments—or for the rebels, in Abdi’s case—but his meetings could also be viewed as efforts to shore up US relations with these entities as Washington tries to further isolate Iran.

Regarding Iran, Gen. McKenzie also gave an interview this week to deliver his assessment of the United States’ policy for countering Iran’s presence and influence in the region. Most notably, the commander told listeners that Iran was caught off guard and thrown into disarray by the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani. McKenzie also said he is not confident that the surprise attack will continue to subdue Tehran’s ambitions.