Congressional Update – Week Ending August 31, 2018

I. Congress

The House was on its last week of recess and senators cut short their work week, in part to pay tribute to their late colleague, John McCain, who died on August 25 at the age of 81.

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Khanna, 31 Others Pen Letter to Pompeo Regarding Saudi Human Rights. On August 28, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) spearheaded a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging him to call for the immediate release of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. The 32 representatives told the secretary that they are troubled by the arrests of prominent Saudi female women’s rights activists and alarmed by his failure to speak out forcefully against such actions.

Members of the House Democracy Partnership Meet with Tunisian Leaders. A bipartisan group of House members known as the House Democracy Partnership met with members of the Tunisian parliament this week. The House caucus aims to meet with groups like the one from Tunisia in an effort to help build stronger, more independent legislatures around the globe.

Bipartisan Group of Senators Write to Pompeo, Urging Him to Obey the Law. This week, Senator Todd Young (R-Indiana) garnered the signatures of eight other colleagues, Republican and Democratic alike, on a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regarding certification requirements required under the law. Under the fiscal year 2019 John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, the secretary of state must certify that the anti-Houthi coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is taking steps to end the war and ameliorate the humanitarian crisis; otherwise the US military cannot legally refuel coalition jets. Pompeo has so far failed to submit such a certification and, as discussed previously, the White House believes it may not have to abide by the specific law.

II. Executive Branch

A number of high ranking Trump Administration officials gave public remarks this week regarding the Middle East. Chief among the issues were Iran, the situations in Syria and Yemen, and US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen.

1) White House

White House to Reprogram Funds Intended for Palestinians, Cut Millions More. The White House has indicated that it intends to reprogram nearly $200 million that Congress originally allocated for aid to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, using that money instead for “high-priority projects elsewhere.” The administration has also decided to cancel all funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Most of the funds the United States had earmarked for the agency were on hold for a good part of the year as the administration undertook a review of aid to the Palestinians. The decision to withdraw all but a portion of the $200 million meant for humanitarian purposes—roughly $25 million is still to be delivered to a network of hospitals in East Jerusalem—will likely prove to be another serious blow to the well-being of Palestinians, and therefore to stability, in the Occupied Territories and the region. Other reports also suggest that the administration is seeking to reduce the total number of refugees recognized by UNRWA to just 10 percent of its current figure, though at least one US official has denied this. All of these cuts come at a time when some in Congress were warning the White House not to rescind billions in unspent foreign aid. Interestingly, even stalwart supporters of Israel and critics of UNRWA have voiced concerns over the recent moves. In short, the White House has decided to cut most, if not all, of US funding to UNRWA and has decided to spend nearly $200 million meant for humanitarian aid in the Occupied Territories elsewhere.

2) State Department

Pompeo Decries Iran Taking US to ICJ. On August 27, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard oral arguments for a case brought by Iran against the United States. The legal advisor to Washington’s Department of Justice, Jennifer Newstead, appeared before the ICJ at The Hague in the Netherlands on behalf of the United States and argued that reimposing sanctions on Iran “is a legal and justified national security measure that cannot be challenged by Tehran at the United Nations’ highest court.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a brief response to Iran—which cited a 63-year old US-Iranian treaty as the basis for the suit—arguing that Iran is misusing the ICJ to interfere with the sovereign rights of the United States.

Pompeo Fields Call with Masoud Barzani. Secretary Pompeo spoke again with former president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani. He urged the influential leader of the Kurdish-Iraqi community to cooperate with officials in Baghdad to form a new, representative government now that election results are final.

Brian Hook Discusses US Iran Policy. Brian Hook, who was recently appointed to head the Iran Action Group and was named the State Department’s special representative for Iran, was one of two high-ranking Trump Administration officials to speak before a “national security summit” hosted by one of Washington’s most hawkish organizations, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, on August 28. Hook was asked to speak on the administration’s Iran strategy and he gave a general outline of many of the same goals the administration has outlined before, talking at length about Tehran’s malign and hegemonic behavior in the broader Middle East and its current dysfunction domestically. He also listed the steps the administration has taken to push for meaningful change in the Iranian regime’s behavior, including reimposing the sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear-related activities, establishing the action group Hook now leads, and making an effort to stand with the Iranian people against the clerical regime in Tehran. Hook offered some statistics that, in his opinion, demonstrate the pervasiveness of Iran’s influence in its Arab neighbors’ domestic politics. He said that Lebanon’s Hezbollah receives roughly $700 million per year from Iran, while Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad together receive some $100 million annually. During an unspecified time period, Tehran has also lent $4.6 billion in lines of credit for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to keep his hold on his country, while $16 billion in aid has made its way to Iran’s “proxies” in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, according to Hook.

Ambassador Sales Travels to Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales visited Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia this week to discuss countering violent extremism, counterterrorism coordination and intelligence sharing, and the threat of returning foreign terrorist fighters. All three states have witnessed a disproportionate number of their citizens travel to Iraq and Syria to fight with the Islamic State.

President Trump Taps New Under Secretary for Democracy and Human Rights. This week President Trump nominated Marshall Billingslea to be the State Department’s next Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. Billingslea has held a number of government positions, including working as a staffer in the Senate and most recently serving as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing. If confirmed, he will oversee a number of State Department bureaus that undertake efforts to promote democracy and human rights as well as counter violent extremism and stabilize areas of conflict.

3) Defense Department

Mattis, Dunford Brief Press on Syria, Yemen. On August 28, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a press conference to discuss a number of developments at the Pentagon, including the status of military involvement in Syria and Yemen. The most salient takeaway from their comments concerned the status of US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s fight in Yemen. Even after a missile strike killed scores of children in the country on August 9, Secretary Mattis voiced support for the coalition’s efforts. Though he stopped just short of giving unconditional support, he hardly pushed back against the actions of the coalition, which many regard as tantamount to war crimes under international law.

Sept. 11 Military Tribunal Likely to See Further Delays. The Miami Herald reported this week that a major shakeup in personnel will further delay the military tribunal against accused 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Just weeks after a similar personnel change was ordered for the military tribunal overseeing the USS Cole bombing, Army Col. James Pohl announced that he would retire at the end of September, and he appointed Marine Col. Keith Parrella to take over the case against Mohammed and his four alleged accomplices. Once Parrella becomes acquainted with the specifics of the case, he will have consequential decisions to make. Mohammed and his alleged accomplices are standing trial before the military tribunal on a litany of charges, including conspiracy, murder and destruction of property in violation of the law of war, and terrorism. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. The years of delay in trying suspects in the September 11 attacks apparently is not deterring the Trump Administration from sending even more suspected terrorists to Guantanamo Bay and mounting additional cases to the already slow-moving military tribunal system. NBC reported this week that the White House is considering sending hundreds of captured Islamic State fighters to the controversial detention facility in the future.

4) UN Ambassador

Nikki Haley Talks UN, UNRWA, Iran, and more. At the August 28 Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FFD) conference at which the State Department’s Brian Hook spoke (see above), US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley received an award and participated in a moderated conversation about her role in executing the Trump Administration’s foreign policy directives.  FFD President Clifford May focused many of his questions on policies related to the Arab world and the broader Middle East. When asked about her job representing the United States at Turtle Bay, Haley talked at length about the pervasiveness of what she viewed as “anti-Israel bias” among UN member states. She specifically spoke about the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), but she inferred that this bias toward Israel spanned the whole body. She said this bias was the reason for Washington’s decision to leave the UNHRC. Haley also supported National Security Advisor John Bolton’s plan to defund the council.

The UNHRC is not the only UN agency from which Haley wants to cut funding. Citing what she described as anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda being taught in Palestinian schools, as well as the wealthy Gulf nations’ unwillingness to shoulder a heavier financial burden when it comes to support Palestinians, Haley expressed support for the administration’s aforementioned decision to strip UNRWA of US budget support—though it is worth noting that FDD’s May stressed that the cuts would only affect UNRWA operations in the West Bank (he was likely referring to an additional report that the White House is also considering curtailing all UNRWA’s operations in the West Bank). Ambassador Haley went further, however. She repeated the dubious claim that Palestinians are the only refugees whose status is hereditary and criticized what she considered an erroneous definition of “refugee” used by UNRWA in order to inflate the number of Palestinians considered refugees from their ancestral lands. Further, after a seemingly anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comment by Clifford May about how “5 million Arab Muslims”—he seems to have conflated 5 million Palestinian refugees with Arab Muslims—“are not coming back [to Israel]” due solely to their ethnicity and/or religious views, Haley agreed that the right of return should be “taken off the table,” much like Jerusalem was by Trump and his leading officials.

The right of return has long been a thorny issue in any discussion about potential peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians; most US administrations have maintained that the issue was of such import that it could only be settled by the two sides as part of any final status agreement. While many believe that the right of return should not be decided unilaterally by Israel, never mind the United States, for fear of prejudicing any future deal, Haley joins the ranks of other Trump Administration officials in parroting the rhetoric of Israel’s hard-right governing coalition when it comes to Palestinian refugees.

Aside from the Israeli and Palestinian situation, Haley reiterated her bombastic rhetoric about Iran—about which she and others in this administration readily digest analyses by FDD. She also spoke briefly about how Russia and Iran “broke” Syria and now have to “buy it,” using the old adage to imply that Washington will play no role in rebuilding Syria once the fighting comes to an end.