Congressional Update – Week Ending July 27, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Fiscal Year 2019 NDAA. If it seems like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has been in the legislative pipeline for months, that’s because it has—it was first detailed in the May 11, 2018, Congressional Update. However, it is finally nearing its adoption now that the House of Representatives and the Senate have reconciled their differences and issued their conference report. The House voted to adopt the conference report before it left town for the August recess. The Senate will still have a vote on the reconciled version, but it is certain to pass. Some interesting provisions were detailed in the report, including:

  • Authorization to transfer a Navy frigate to Bahrain;
  • Conditions on transferring F-35 jets to Turkey;
  • Extension of “Counter-ISIS” authorities, as well as US Special Command authorities for operations in places like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia;
  • Authorization for Oman receiving US assistance under a specially designed program to protect border security for states neighboring conflict zones;
  • Extension of “train and equip” authorities that benefit allies in Syria and Iraq;
  • Prohibition of the use of defense funds to “knowingly provide weapons or any other form of support to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Jabhat Fateh al Sham, or any individual or group affiliated with any such organization”;
  • Explicit notation of the lack of executive authority to order the use of force against Iran.

Resolution on US-Saudi Nuclear Cooperation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) backed S. Res. 541 this week that expresses the Senators’ sense that any nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia must meet what’s called “the gold standard.” As outlined previously, Senators are wary of the Saudis’ stated expectations that any future civilian nuclear power program would include unlimited uranium enrichment rights. Instead, lawmakers view a United Arab Emirates (UAE)-style agreement as more appropriate. Though the resolution is nonbinding, it is an example of the Senators’ use of their position to pushback on a potentially disastrous decision. The resolution will move forward for a full Senate vote.

Condemning Syria’s Recognition of Sovereign Territory. Before leaving town on July 27, members of the House introduced H. Res. 1030 that condemns Syria for recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia—long disputed territories that see themselves separate from the Caucus state of Georgia—as independent states. This is a very contentious subject for Georgia, so the decision was almost certainly orchestrated by Russia.

Condemning Iranian State-Sponsored Terror. On July 27 also, members introduced another resolution of condemnation—this one filed as H. Res. 1034—of Iran for sponsoring of terror around the globe and to show support for Iranian citizens who want a “democratic, secular, and non-nuclear republic.”

2) Hearings

Egypt: Security, Human Rights, and Reform. On July 24, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing focused on the poor state of human rights in Egypt and how Congress can better calibrate US financial assistance to the American ally. Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute, Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jared Genser of Georgetown University, and Andrew Miller of the Project on Middle East Democracy offered their assessments of the conditions in Egypt and recommendations to make US aid to Cairo more efficient.

Members of the subcommittee and the witnesses before them all agreed on one thing: Egypt is a strategic and valuable ally, but its waning influence in the Middle East and its increasingly troubling domestic problems require reconsideration of US support. Indeed, there is much to be of concern about at this moment. Egypt is experiencing arguably its greatest crackdown on political dissidents; it is carrying out a major counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operation in increasingly questionable ways (e.g., torturing suspects and carrying out extrajudicial killings); and imprisons some 20 US citizens or permanent legal residents on somewhat dubious or politically motivated charges. Ms. Dunne explained that the shift in the political conditions in Egypt is driven from the top down. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is angling to consolidate power in the hopes of remaining in office after the end of the constitutional two-term limit. In doing so, Sisi is running roughshod over what’s left of Egyptian democracy and risks reverting to the pre-2011 political climate––making Egypt a breeding ground for more popular frustration and domestic unrest.

Though there is only so much the United States can do to help Egypt implement much needed reforms, the panelists all agreed that Washington can use its generous economic and military support as leverage to spur change. Genser and Dunne were frank in their assessments, arguing that lawmakers should step back and scrutinize the relationship between Washington and Cairo. Egypt does not hold the same strategic value now as it has over the last two or three decades, and the witnesses opined that US assistance should reflect this shift. Indeed, Miller urged lawmakers to cut US security assistance to $1 billion per year, from the current $1.3 billion level. Furthermore, the experts suggested that the remaining assistance should be recalibrated to address the pressing concerns. For example, more money could be shifted from security accounts to economic and development support for projects, like Egypt’s paltry water infrastructure. Additionally, security assistance can go less towards stockpiling conventional weaponry—which has proven less useful for the asymmetric fight against groups like the Islamic State (IS) in the Sinai—and more towards training the military and security services to carry out counterterrorism operations in a legal and ethical manner.

Finally, the panelists told the subcommittee that any US assistance must be conditioned on Cairo’s acting to positively reform the political system, free political dissidents and journalists, fairly resolve the issues facing Americans held in Egyptian prisons and improve the conduct of the Egyptian military and security services. Ironically, however, only days after this hearing, the Trump Administration not only eschewed the hardline the panelists suggested but appeared to offer legitimacy to the Sisi regime. Trump’s lead official on the Israel and Palestine negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, met with General Abbas Kamel, leader of Egypt’s notorious secret police of the intelligence service (a.k.a.; the “mukhabarat”). It is not unusual for US officials to meet with individuals like Kamel, but Greenblatt offered a rather gratuitous statement about the meeting, despite the Egyptian mukhabarat’s human rights abuses. The administration went beyond tacit support for the Sisi regime, however, when it agreed to release $195 million of military aid that had previously been frozen due to many of the concerns enumerated by the panelists at the hearing. The State Department stated that the move was in response to the positive steps the Egyptian government has taken to address US concerns. The reality, however, is that it does not appear that any actions have been taken to warrant the unfreezing of that aid.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Attend CUFI Summit. This week the group Christians United for Israel (CUFI) held its annual Washington, DC summit. The group typically hosts religious figures, members of Congress, and executive branch officials. This year was no different. Among the speakers in attendance were US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, Republican Senators Tom Cotton (Arkansas), Ted Cruz (Texas), and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and Republican Representatives Mark Meadows (North Carolina), Doug Lamborn (Colorado), and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Washington). Along with hosting the members and administration officials, CUFI also enlists its members to travel to Capitol Hill and lobby their representatives and senators to pass legislation of interest to CUFI. This year the group focused on three pieces of legislation: S. 720, which deals with anti-Israel boycott, H.R. 6451, which looks to remove the Palestinian refugee question from the UN Relief Works Agency’s (UNRWA) purview, and S. 3257, which targets groups for using human shields and is aimed at Hamas and Hezbollah.

Senator Ernst Discusses US Policy Towards Post-IS Iraq. On July 26, Republican Senator Joni Ernst (Iowa) spoke at the US Institute of Peace (USIP) about policy options for the United States towards a post-IS Iraq. The crux of Senator Ernst’s—who serves as Chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee—centered on the United States’ role in ensuring the strength of Iraqi institutions to maintain security now that IS has been deemed defeated. Ernst explained that building Iraq’s institutional capabilities for maintaining its own domestic security is crucial for three reasons: 1) building legitimacy for the military and security forces, which will allow Iraqis to stabilize Iraq and limit power vacuums that terrorist groups can exploit; 2) reducing space for Iran to exert influence in Iraq; and, 3) reducing the strain on US military resources and ensuring a better return on investment for Washington’s aid. Ernst promised that she will focus on ensuring that US personnel have the resources to continue the “Train, Advise, and Assist” strategy for helping security forces, as well as ensuring that Baghdad receives security aid appropriate to its needs.

The last topic Ernst discussed was formulating a policy of calibrating stabilization efforts to prioritize the needs of Iraq’s more vulnerable communities, mainly its religious minorities that faced great violence from IS. This policy differs from previous efforts because, instead of providing central government figures in Baghdad vast sums of money that may never reach vulnerable communities, the United States would work with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other aid groups—including USIP—to identify and connect with the most vulnerable towns and funnel aid through those organizations. As an example, Ernst cited the administration’s decision to reach religious minorities through a US Agency for International Development (USAID) project instead of issuing the aid to Iraq’s central government. As chairwoman of her subcommittee, Ernst is in a good position to implement the policies she outlined in her speech.

Lawmakers Pen Letter to Pompeo About Treatment of Palestinian Children. This week, 35 members of the House wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to express their concerns about the treatment of Palestinian children by the Israeli military. Echoing concerns raised by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) in her bill combatting the mistreatment of Palestinian children, these lawmakers told the secretary they are worried that, despite Israeli promises, Israel is still arresting and arbitrarily detaining children and mistreating them while they are in custody.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Middle East Peace Team Continues Battle in Court of Public Opinion. Last week, President Donald Trump’s top advisors tasked with crafting a long-coveted peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians took to the pages of the Washington Post to announce that economic assistance to the people of Gaza is waiting in the wings as long as Hamas allows it. The trio of Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, joined by US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, followed up with another op-ed this week. This piece, titled “For Gaza peace, tell the truth about Hamas,” the officials made a similar case: Hamas is solely to blame for the suffering and hardship facing the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.

Haley, for her part, was not limited to levying criticism against the Palestinians, however. While discussing funding for UNRWA, Haley slammed other Arab and Islamic nations for the inconsistency between their words of support for the Palestinian cause and the lack of financial assistance to Palestinians. Haley specifically called out allies or security partners like Algeria, Tunisia, Oman, and Turkey for what she sees as inadequate assistance.

2) State Department

Ambassador Sales Discusses the “New” Mideast. Last weekend, Ambassador Nathan Sales, who heads the State Department’s Counterterrorism section, attended the Aspen Security Forum to share the administration’s views on the “’New’ MidEast and Regional Counterterrorism.” Sales and his colleagues on the panel spent significant time opining about the United States’ successes in implementing a strong counterterrorism strategy, as well as what conditions and factors in the region actually prompt the need to develop a capable one. Sales only offered a few lines about US counterterrorism policy toward the region. Noting that IS has lost a physical caliphate from which it operates, Sales explained that Washington will revert to using the same tools it has traditionally applied to al-Qaeda, the premier example of a transnational, decentralized terrorist organization.

The “al-Qaeda strategy” focuses on monitoring the group and tracking the movements of its members, but it also incorporates what Sales described as “non-kinetic” methods like levying sanctions on members, barring their entry to the United States, and crafting other policies that constrain group activities. Finally, Sales acknowledged that counterterrorism efforts are most effective when terrorist groups are denied safe havens and spaces to operate freely. In this regard, he acknowledged that the power vacuum left in the wake of the Yemen war has provided just such conditions and al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula is exploiting that. The United States and its regional allies must work to find a solution to Yemen’s war so that order can be restored, and terrorist groups can be uprooted.

Pompeo Makes Appeal to the Iranian Diaspora. On July 22, Secretary of State Pompeo gave a speech on US Iran policy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California during an event titled “Supporting Iranian Voices.” In total, Pompeo’s speech appeared as an exercise in irony. From the onset, Pompeo and his allies were arguing that the current administration’s mantra is behavior change, not regime change in Tehran. However, Pompeo, himself an Iran hawk who has previously opined about the use of military force against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, was introduced by Senator Tom Cotton who has marked his time in the Senate by repeatedly saying regime change should be US policy towards Iran. The incongruence between Pompeo’s words and administration’s actions further manifested irony. Pompeo decried the Iranian regime’s abuse of religious minorities while Washington bars Iranian Muslims from visiting the country and told Iranian-Americans that the Trump Administration cares about them and their family members in Iran. Finally, Pompeo told the audience that sanctions were targeted specifically to the “Mafia” elite in Tehran; while the sanctions overwhelmingly affect everyone across the spectrum.

In total, Pompeo’s outreach effort was heavy on criticism of the regime in Tehran and examples of governmental corruption—something Iranians are already very aware of—but light on substantive policy goals. Indeed, the secretary reiterated the ways in which the administration is applying maximum pressure, but he ended the discussion of policies on a rather ambiguous note. His failure to enumerate the administration’s specific Iran policy may indicate the lack of such a strategy. In fact, later in the week it was reported that National Security Advisor and uber-Iran hawk, John Bolton, called a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) to discuss this very strategy.