Washington Policy Weekly

19I. Congress

1) Legislation

House Expected to Pass Bills on Libya, Iraq, East Africa. The House suspended rules for the consideration of legislation and passed bills and resolutions related to Libya, East Africa—including Arab League member states Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan—and US-Iraq relations. The Libya Stabilization Act (H.R. 4644) is intended to clarify that it is US policy for the conflict in Libya to be settled diplomatically. To put force behind this goal, the bill, should it become law, would force this president or the next to sanction any and all countries that are determined to contribute to the prolonged fighting in Libya. This would ostensibly snare actors outside the region like Russia, Italy, and France, but also regional US partners like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and perhaps others, as they have all been shown to be providing lethal support to the warring sides.

H.R. 7276, or the East Africa Locust Eradication Act, would marshal US assistance to several East African nations to combat an outbreak of crop-eating locusts that threaten food stability in the region. In places like Sudan and Somalia, the threat of pest-caused food shortages would compound the serious problems facing these countries such as armed civil conflict, the coronavirus pandemic, and sagging economic activity. Finally, the House passed H. Res. 1062, which affirms House members’ appreciation of US-Iraq relations. The resolution’s text urges Baghdad to do more to protect US and coalition forces and other personnel stationed in Iraq from attacks by militias. This resolution passed only days after an Iraqi militia launched rockets at the Green Zone in Baghdad where diplomatic facilities are located.

Senators Pursue Legislation to Block Parts of UAE Arms Deal. The Huffington Post reported this week that a bipartisan group of senators is pursuing legislation to block at least part of the Trump Administration’s proposed multibillion-dollar arms deal with the UAE. The legislation, which takes the form of a joint resolution of disapproval, will target $13 billion in proposed fighter jet sales and another $10 billion in munitions. It is unclear at this time whether the senators even have a majority to pass these resolutions out of the upper chamber, but it is almost certain that there are not enough necessary votes to overcome a likely presidential veto of such legislation.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Biggs Asks for Troop Withdrawal from IraqRep. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona) wrote to President Trump this week to urge him to uphold his commitment to bring US troops home from endless wars before he leaves office. In addition to the war in Afghanistan, Biggs recounted all the ways in which the United States has accomplished what were then limited combat missions in Iraq and he called on the president to abandon what he called “nation-building” efforts and return US soldiers to the United States.

House Democrats, Senate GOP Write to Trump Administration on Israel in West Bank. As will be detailed further below, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel and the occupied West Bank during his tour of the Middle East this week. His decision to visit an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank makes him the first US official to do so in an official capacity. Illegality aside, Senate Republicans found the decision to be an appropriate time to ask the administration to take an even more divisive stand: labeling goods made in illegal settlements as Israeli-made products. Four Senate Republicans sent a letter to President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and others urging them to change US customs policy so that imported goods from settlements in the West Bank—such as wines produced at the settlement Pompeo visited—would read “Made in Israel.” The Republican senators intimated that such a policy change would protect goods like those from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. These lawmakers’ wish was granted when the State Department announced, after Pompeo’s trip to Israel, that goods made in West Bank areas will be marked “Made in Israel.”

On the other hand, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) and dozens of Democratic House members saw Pompeo’s visit to Israel as an appropriate time to address Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homesPocan and his colleagues wrote to Pompeo to urge him to condemn these actions because they contribute to what lawmakers called “creeping annexation,” a policy that the US government must not condone. The letter also requests that the State Department explore whether US-sourced military equipment was used in the demolitions.

Rep. McCollum Testifies before the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) has been one of the few voices on Capitol Hill pushing for a more balanced, rights-based policy toward Israel and Palestine and she took that message before the United Nations this week. In testimony before the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, McCollum made remarkable statements about US policy toward Palestinians. She plainly stated that on President Trump’s watch, the United States has betrayed and inflicted damage on Palestinians and she flipped the script on US discourse, questioning whether the Israeli government is truly interested in a just peace with Palestine. She stated that Palestinian rights are completely ignored in the halls of Congress. McCollum also recounted her efforts to prevent the United States from abetting Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinian children and from recognizing Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands.

Congressional Democrats Call for Easing of Sanctions as COVID-19 Rages. Because President Trump lost reelection—and thus his governing mandate—and because autumn has brought with it a brutal resurgence of COVID-19 infections around the globe, 75 House and Senate Democrats wrote to Secretary Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin asking them to provide some flexibility in their wide-ranging sanctions regimes. The request to allow countries under US sanctions to import critical goods needed to combat the raging pandemic is especially important for Iran, which was one of the hardest hit countries early in the pandemic and has since struggled to procure the necessary medicine and medical equipment.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Questions Swirl about Trump’s Lame-Duck Designs on the Middle East. Though President Trump has not formally conceded his electoral defeat or even acknowledged President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, he is governing like a lame-duck president. Arab Center Washington DC detailed in two previous reports (see here and here) how Trump and his administration would try to entrench their preferred Middle East policies to such an extent that a Biden administration would not be able to reverse them. But reports this week illustrate that the president and his coterie of advisors are undertaking that task in an even more devious manner than first anticipated. As CNN described it, Trump is trying to light “too many fires to put out.”

According to different media outlets, in recent days and weeks the president has considered striking Iran’s nuclear energy infrastructure, perhaps with Israel; withdrawing troops from multiple combat zones, including Arab League states Iraq and Somalia; and designating Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization. These moves would not necessarily incapacitate Biden’s foreign policy, but they would likely make relations much more contentious for the incoming president. It already appears that the aforementioned strikes on Baghdad’s Green Zone reportedly were in response to either Trump’s leaked considered strikes on Iran or the announced troop withdrawal from Iraq. In addition, nongovernmental organizations and UN entities have moved to relocate their personnel for fear of retaliation if the Houthis are blacklisted.

White House Sends Aide Berkowitz to Bahrain for First Flight to Israel. This week, the White House dispatched Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz to Bahrain so he could escort Bahraini officials on their first direct flight to Israel. Berkowitz and other White House staff were there to encourage further collaboration between Israel and Bahrain.

2) Department of State/US Commission on International Religious Freedom

USCIRF Examines Religious Freedom in Algeria. On November 12, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a webinar to probe religious freedom in Algeria. As Dwight Bashir, the moderator and USCIRF staffer, pointed out, the commission has monitored religious freedom in Algeria closely for years, but in 2020, it recommended for the first time that the country be placed on the State Department’s special watch list because Algiers has engaged in or allowed severe infringements on freedom of religion.

The group of witnesses illustrated how the Algerian government implicitly and explicitly sanctions discrimination against Algerian Christians and even minority Muslim sects like the Ahmadiyya. To combat this, the witnesses recommended that the US government, be it the executive branch or Congress, vocally call for change from the Algerian government. As one witness put it, Washington needs to persuade Algiers to release its tight grip on the religious sphere and allow religious minorities to practice freely. In addition, witnesses urged the US government to increase financial assistance to Algeria but also suggested that such aid be conditioned on allowing freedom of belief and freedom to practice any religion.

Secretary Pompeo, Assistant Secretary Cooper, Assistant Secretary Royce Visit Middle East. Three State Department officials embarked on travel to the Middle East this week. Secretary Pompeo visited the region after stops in Europe, with his itinerary taking him to Turkey, Israel, the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. In Turkey, he only made time for a stop in Istanbul for a meeting with Christian leaders, snubbing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As mentioned before, Pompeo toured an illegal settlement in Israel after holding a trilateral meeting with Israeli and Bahraini officials and a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After meetings in Israel, Pompeo announced that the State Department would seek to penalize any organization that engages in the BDS movement because, as he stated in his release, the BDS campaign is “a manifestation of anti-Semitism.”

In addition to Pompeo’s travels, Assistant Secretaries of State R. Clark Cooper and Marie Royce also visited the region. Cooper was slated to visit the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Israel to discuss how these states could expand security and defense cooperation. Royce was set to travel to the UAE and Morocco as part of an effort to further educational and cultural engagement and exchanges between those countries and the United States.

Ambassador Shea Discusses Lebanon’s Challenges. This week, US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea participated in a virtual event with the Center for Strategic and International Studies to discuss the challenges confronting Lebanon and to outline what the United States hopes to see from a new government in Beirut. Shea detailed the litany of problems facing the Lebanese, including economic struggles, gross corruption, and a powerful yet malign actor in Hezbollah. At the core of her message, Shea made it clear that the United States will not offer economic support—or a bailout, as she characterized it—to Lebanon until a new government is formed and desperately needed reforms are instituted.

Ambassador Sales Announces Sanctions on Al-Shabab Leaders. The State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism held a phone briefing this week to elaborate on the State Department’s decision to sanction two leaders of al-Shabab in Somalia. Sales explained how this effort furthers Washington’s goal of disrupting terrorist organizations like al-Shabab and al-Qaeda.

3) Department of Defense

Acting Secretary of Defense Speaks with Israel’s Gantz. The new Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller phoned Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz this week. They spoke about the need for Washington to work with Israel to ensure the latter maintains a qualitative military edge over its neighbors.

US Service Members Involved in Fatal Helicopter Crash in Egypt. Five US soldiers and two European service members serving in Egypt as part of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) unit perished in a helicopter crash near Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh this week. Despite the fact that Egypt and Israel enjoy a formal peace agreement that is over 40 years old, the MFO continues to patrol the Egyptian-Israeli border. It was on a routine mission when the soldiers’ helicopter went down.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury, State Announce New Iran Sanctions. The Departments of the Treasury and State announced this week another slate of sanctions on Iran. Treasury declared that it would be blacklisting a foundation controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as well as Tehran’s intelligence minister. The State Department announced new sanctions on two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officials for human rights violations. As Washington stacked up more sanctions, Secretary Pompeo published a lengthy defense of the Trump Administration’s pressure campaign on Iran.