Congressional Update – Week Ending October 06, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Res. 245. On October 5, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) unanimously approved a resolution calling on the Iranian government to release unjustly detained or incarcerated US citizens. In addition, the resolution urges the president to use any means necessary, within the country’s national interest, to secure the release of a number of individuals.

Con. Res. 71. The same day, the House voted to adopt a budgetary guideline that is necessary to use the fast-track Senate procedure known as reconciliation. Adopting this budget moves congressional Republicans one step closer to realizing their goal of party-line tax reform. This particular resolution is mostly symbolic because the Senate will pass its own version and then the two chambers will meet in conference to adopt a budget resolution appropriate for both sides. However, this version can be telling for the budget priorities it sets forth. In that regard, it is important to note that the authors of this budget included language that will allow the House Appropriations Committee to allocate additional funds for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) and the Global War on Terrorism. The OCO budget is a joint-fund used by the Departments of Defense and State for the American antiterrorism campaign in the Middle East.

FISA. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008 is set to expire December 31, 2017, which sets up a fight both within Congress and between the legislative and executive branches over its reauthorization. The White House and national security hawks on Capitol Hill want the surveillance authorization enshrined into law permanently, while civil liberties advocates argue that more limitations should be put in place. To that effect, Representatives Robert Goodlatte (R-Virginia) and John Conyers, Jr, (D-Michigan) have agreed to a bill that would theoretically satisfy some concerns about the misuse of the authority. However, early reactions to the bill’s language indicate that it is too restrictive for the White House and his hawkish allies in the Senate, yet the bill does not go far enough for civil liberties advocates.

2) Hearings

Ambassadorial Nominations. On October 3, the SFRC held a nomination hearing in order to get testimony from a number of ambassador nominees. Among those testifying were Larry Edward Andre, Jr. and Michael Dodman who are President Donald J. Trump’s picks to serve in the Arab League states of Djibouti and Mauritania, respectively. Both are expected to clear committee and the Senate as a whole due to their years of service as diplomats and foreign service officers.

Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability. On October 3, 2017, the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee’s (HFAC) Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations held a hearing to explore appropriate responses to the reports of genocide perpetrated against Iraqi and Syrian religious and ethnic minorities. The witnesses included the Honorable Frank Wolf, a former US Representative and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative; Ms. Shireen Ibrahim, a Yazidi survivor of Islamic State (IS) enslavement; Mr. Stephen Rasche, Director of International Displaced Persons Assistance; and Ms. Lauren Ashburn, Managing Editor and anchor of the Eternal World Television Network.

In his introductory remarks Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) stressed how important it is for the United States to provide assistance to the religious and ethnic minorities that have faced the threat of genocide at the hands of IS. Every witness was in agreement. Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) detailed what he called “the mass exodus” of Iraq’s Christian population over the past 14 years and he urged the United States to take bold action to ensure the population’s security. According to Wolf, US funding has not been forthright to Christians, thus they have had to seek aid from private donors. Those same donors are beginning to provide less and less. Wolf recommended that the White House direct the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the US Department of State to address the at-risk communities, and that the Trump Administration establish a post dedicated to interagency coordination focused solely on tending to the needs of these minority communities. Finally, Wolf urged Congress to finish passing HR 390, which passed the House in June and was reported favorably by the SFRC in September.

Following Rep. Wolf, Ms. Shireen Ibrahim spoke of her capture and the suffering she experienced at the hands of IS. She also detailed the atrocities the group has committed against her people, leading her to plead for the United States to take action to protect minority communities like hers. Lauren Ashburn, while reflecting on the bad conditions her team encountered when it arrived in northern Iraq, said the United States is the only country that can provide steady aid to help rebuild the demolished minority communities. Finally, Stephen Rasche illustrated the difficulty of providing financial support to the affected communities. He said that the majority of funding has been provided by private donors and churches because the State Department will not provide money directly to minority groups for fear of violating a law that requires the department to avoid punishing or rewarding one specific religions, national, or racial group. To alleviate this concern he agreed with Wolf and called on the Senate to adopt HR 390 immediately so that the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee can be approved and implemented.

Securing the Peace After the Fall of IS. On October 3, the House Armed Services Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee held a two-panel hearing to probe the prospects of securing a peaceful and stable Iraq in the post-IS period. The first panel included scholars and a former ambassador, while the second panel was staffed with current administration officials for the State and Defense Departments. Panel one included Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Iraq; Dr. Marc Lynch of the George Washington University and Dr. Kenneth Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The second panel featured Brigadier General James Bierman, Deputy Director for Political-Military Affairs for the Middle East, Strategic Plans and Policy Direction on the Joint Staff at the Department of Defense; the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq at the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Joseph Pennington; Pamela Quanrud, Director of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIL at the State Department; and Mark Swayne, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Stability and Humanitarian Affairs at the Department of Defense.

While the panel of administration officials generally talked about the ongoing military effortsand the departments’ efforts to stabilize newly liberated areas, the first panel of scholars looked ahead to determine what steps will be necessary in the future, after fighting has ceased. Crocker, Pollack, and Lynch were all in agreement that ISIL is not a problem with a military solution; rather it is simply a symptom of underlying political problems in Iraq. From Crocker’s perspective, it is important for the United States to help the Shiite-led Iraqi government provide for, and cultivate trust with, the Sunni population that was vulnerable to IS’s rise in the first place. Pollack agreed, saying that the Iraqi government has to start providing goods, services, and protection for its people, especially before next year’s planned elections.

Lynch agreed with his colleagues on the panel, but he also offered more words of caution to members of Congress. According to Lynch, there is a window of opportunity to calm things down and make inroads towards a stable and peaceful Iraq, but that window will not remain open for long. In order to capitalize, Lynch argued, the United States must help Iraq’s government stay unified and build state capacity and legitimacy. In order to bolster Iraq’s government, it is important to push back against Iran’s meddling in Iraq, Lynch noted. However, he explicitly stated that Iraq is the single worst place to use as an arena for challenging Iranian influence in the region more generally. Iraq is just too unstable and a protracted proxy war between Iran and the United States will only sow the seeds for the rise of a future version of IS.

The Future of Iraq’s Minorities: What’s Next After IS? On October 4, the SFRC Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues held a similar hearing as its House counterpart the day before. Senators wanted to explore the steps necessary to protect Iraq’s vulnerable minority communities now, as well as what will be needed to rebuild their damaged communities after IS. Like the previous hearing, former Rep. Frank Wolf was a witness, alongside Dr. Denise Natali of the National Defense University. Wolf reiterated his testimony from the day before and gave the same recommendations to the Senate committee. From Dr. Natali’s perspective, one of the biggest problems facing Iraq’s religious minorities is the lack of political inclusion; instead, the groups are simply caught in political a crossfire. In order to support these vulnerable groups, Dr. Natali recommended that the United States help the central Iraqi government resolve local political issues and support minority communities within the framework of Iraq’s Constitution. Additionally, Iraqi institutions and the sovereign civil state must be reinforced. Finally, Dr. Natali recommended that the United States help mediate the dispute over territory, particularly between Baghdad and Irbil after the Kurdish referendum.

Iranian Backed Militias: Destabilizing the Middle East. On October 4, the HFAC Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade invited scholars to provide members with an examination into the extent of Iran’s control over local militias in the Middle East, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah’s role in advising other groups. Further, the committee aimed to explore new strategies to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. While there was bipartisan interest in this hearing, it was interesting to note the differences in tone between the two parties. Chairman Ted Poe (R-Texas) painted an ominous picture of an Iran that has its sights set on regional domination and chaos. Ranking Member Bill Keating (D-Massachusetts), on the other hand, provided less saber-rattling and more of a sober assessment for the need to assess the context in which Iran demonstrates its problematic behavior. Present for the panel were Dr. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Aram Nerguizian and Melissa Dalton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Dr. Kenneth Pollack of AEI, who had testified before the House Armed Services Committee the previous day.

While the testimonies differed slightly at the margins, the panelists were mostly in agreement about several main points. First, Iran exploits the social, political, and economic issues in neighboring countries and in the region as a whole to gain leverage and influence with different groups. Second, Iran utilizes unconventional methods through the use of proxies to compensate for its weak conventional military capacity. Establishing loyal groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq—although the groups are not always in lockstep with Tehran—allows Iran to project power and deter hostile actors in the region from taking military action against it. Each witness offered recommendations for pushing back against Iranian backed militias. Dr. Knights suggested that the United States repair old alliances and build new ones so it has the capacity to compete with Iran in multiple arenas (e.g., Syria, Yemen, and Iraq). In that regard, he said that the United States should try to tease Iran and its proxies apart by offering more incentives and better deals to groups that will align with the United States over Tehran. Finally, the United States should work to limit means of communication—whether it is land, air, or sea-based—between Iran and its allied groups across the region.

When addressing Hezbollah, specifically, Nerguizian argued that the United States should maintain, if not increase, its support for the Lebanese Armed Forces as a cudgel against Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. Dr. Pollack noted that there is very little that conventional military operations can do to counter Iran’s influence with militias throughout the Middle East. Instead, Pollack argued that the United States must help address underlying social, political, and economic grievances in the countries where Iran operates in order to reduce the Islamic Republic’s spheres of influence. Finally, Ms. Dalton urged Congress to consider utilizing both a “stick” and “carrot” approach to addressing Iran’s malign behavior in the region. At times, the United States will need to use sanctions or other forms of pressure to push back against Tehran’s activities, but at other times, she said, the United States must be willing to communicate with Tehran and incentivize a reduction in problematic behavior; the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a good example of a “carrot” approach.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Will Not Certify the JCPOA. Reports this week indicate that President Trump will refuse to certify Iran’s compliance with the landmark nuclear deal before the October 15 deadline. This does not necessarily mean that the United States will exit the deal, but Congress now has the unenviable task of deciding whether the United States reneges on the agreement or not. Before the announcement, members of Congress, foreign leaders, and even some of Trump’s own administration officials urged the president to certify the deal. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) lobbied for certifying and against it, respectively, in previous days; so now that the buck has been passed to Congress, it is expected that these two outspoken Senators to be among the leaders of the debate about the deal.

2) State Department

Future of Secretary Rex Tillerson. Following a week of reports of infighting between the president and his secretary of state and a bizarre press conference by the latter, there is speculation about the future of the embattled Rex Tillerson. Tillerson vowed to stay on as the United States’ chief diplomat, but one report says Trump is angry with Tillerson and has floated the idea of a changeup. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was formerly a speculative choice to replace Tillerson, but now it appears that Central Intelligence Agency Director, Mike Pompeo, could be in the conversation should Trump choose to dump Tillerson. Regardless of who is in the waiting, a Tillerson departure from State would leave the Trump Administration with one less mild-tempered decision maker.

3) Department of Defense

US to Cease Training Exercises with GCC. Amid the ongoing crisis between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, the Department of Defense announced that it will halt some of its military exercises with the GCC states until the issue is resolved. This is just another indication that the United States wants the situation resolved sooner, rather than later.

III. Judicial Branch

Challenges to Travel Bans. In the wake of the White House’s new immigration order, the Department of Justice is asking the Supreme Court to drop previous challenges to the earlier iterations of the ban that affected travelers from mostly Muslim countries. Additionally, Trump’s Justice Department is asking the highest court to wipe out lower courts’ rulings, for fear that those previous decisions could influence litigation of challenges that have already been made to the new version of the immigration order.