Congressional Update – Week Ending December 15, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation

National Defense Authorization Act. On December 12, President Donald Trump signed fiscal year 2018’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The bill has been in the works for months, but after different versions passed their respective chambers and were reconciled in a conference committee, members of the House of Representatives and Senate voted this month to adopt the reconciled authorization. The bill authorizes the Department of Defense to spend roughly $700 billion dollars—though it is important to note that money must actually be appropriated to the department. The law will allow the Department of Defense to spend money on numerous programs, personnel, and maintenance, including hundreds of millions of dollars to support allies and combat terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. Interestingly, President Trump submitted a signing statement alongside the law in which he detailed all of the NDAA provisions he and his administration took issue with. The majority of his concerns question Congress’s ability to infringe on the president’s constitutional authorities to command the armed forces and conduct foreign policy.

Res. 407. On December 12, the House overwhelmingly approved, via voice vote, a resolution condemning the persecution of Christians around the world. Though the resolution acknowledges and condemns discrimination of religious minorities of all kinds in all regions, significant text was spent highlighting Christian persecution in Middle Eastern and North African countries, from Libya to Iran.

H.R. 1638. On December 13, the House voted to pass a bill that would require the secretary of the Department of the Treasury to report to Congress the estimated number of assets directly controlled by certain Iranian figures. The list of Iranian figures varies from political figures like President Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to military officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The bill passed by a yea-nay vote of 289-135.

H.R. 4324. House members were not finished targeting Iran with the previous piece of legislation. The chamber also agreed to adopt the Strengthening Oversight of Iran’s Access to Finance Act on December 14, which would place further reporting requirements on the secretary of the Treasury, but this time in regards to any aircraft-related transactions between financial institutions and Iran. The bill passed the House by a yea-nay vote of 252-167 and will move to the Senate, which has a similar bill of its own.

H.R. 2646. On December 14, the House Foreign Affairs Committee agreed to amend and report favorably a bill called the United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Extension Act. Should this bill pass and become law, it would direct the president to extend crucial defense aid to Jordan, while also establishing an economic support fund (ESF) that would be used to promote private business in Jordan. ESFs are already operated by the United States in both Egypt and Tunisia, with mixed but largely positive results.


Using Force: Strategic, Political, and Legal Considerations. On December 13, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to discuss using military force and the executive and legislative branches’ roles in making such a decision. To explore these considerations, the committee called on three former administration officials with great familiarity in defense and national security policy. Stephen Hadley was the National Security Advisor under George W. Bush, Christine Wormuth was formerly the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy under Barack Obama’s administration, and John Bellinger III also served under George W. Bush as Legal Advisor to both the National Security Council and State Department.

The senators on the committee voiced concern about the continuing trend of presidents acting unilaterally with regards to using military force and deploying troops to zones of hostilities. The committee’s ranking member, Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), was particularly vocal about his distrust of the current administration, arguing that President Trump, more than previous presidents, is much more poised to use force to solve a problem before trying diplomatic solutions. He also raised the alarm over the increased number of troops deployed in hostile zones around the globe and he specifically cited US military presence in several Arab states, including Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen, and Somalia.

At the beginning, Hadley spoke generally about what US defense policy should look like when choosing to use force. He noted that the only US military operation that was as popular with the American people at the end of the war as at the beginning was the 1990-1991 Gulf War. At the time of Operation Desert Storm, Hadley served in George H. W. Bush’s Defense Department, so he based his testimony on his experiences of both this successful US use of military force and the later ill-advised and deeply unpopular use of force against Iraq, beginning in 2003.What made the 1990 Gulf War successful, Hadley argued, was that the whole operation contained seven key characteristics: a critical national purpose, a clear military objective, a sound military strategy, an amount of resources congruent with the strategy, a supportive coalition of allies and regional actors, relatively swift resolution of the objective, and a sustainable postwar peace. In his experience, all preceding and subsequent wars and use of military force have lacked the third—and arguably most important—piece: a sound, comprehensive military strategy for achieving the goal. Moving forward, Congress should press this and future administrations on the military strategy before agreeing to authorize the use of military force, he asserted.

Wormuth largely agreed with Hadley, stating that because war is so unpredictable, the White House and Congress should work together to ensure that the public knows what is at stake for the country in terms of national security, whether those national security concerns are worth putting lives at risk, and the strategy that would most quickly and effectively resolve the matter. Wormuth sdiffered from Hadley solely in her suggestion that use of force be considered only after robust diplomatic efforts have been exhausted.

At the end, John Bellinger III focused on the law underwriting the use of force and other legal considerations for ordering such actions. He broke the news to the senators in attendance that, despite their concerns about current and past presidents’ unilateral use of force, the Constitution vests the commander-in-chief with extremely broad authority to use military force as he sees fit. However, Bellinger did urge members to rest assured that the Constitution also affords them responsibility for dictating US involvement in prolonged military engagements, though the president still has the ability to skirt congressional oversight. Despite the chief executive’s broad authorities under the Constitution, Bellinger urged the executive branch to justify the use of military force, under both domestic and international law. Doing so ensures that the United States does not appear to be acting lawlessly and allows it to maintain the moral and ethical high ground when confronting other nations that appear to circumvent international law, Bellinger argued.

House Homeland Security Markup. On December 13, the House Homeland Security Committee held a legislative markup for 12 new bills. While not all of the bills directly relate to the Middle East or North Africa, the general theme of the legislation and amendments that were agreed to during the hearing align greatly with President Trump’s rhetoric about “extreme vetting” and robust counterterrorism. Some parts of the legislation direct US agencies to increase data-sharing with domestic and international partners regarding potential terrorists while others look to boost the screening of those traveling to the United States by plane. Few would argue against laws that increase public safety, but many opponents of legislation included in the markup, including civil liberties advocates, find cause for concern in how disproportionately these new laws could be applied.

US Policy and Strategy in the Middle East. On December 14, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing with four former ambassadors to discuss US policy and strategy in the Middle East and North Africa. Ryan Crocker of Princeton University, Eric Edelman of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, James Jeffrey of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Stuart Jones of the Cohen Group all testified before the committee. As acting Chairman James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) both stated at the outset, the defeat of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” is nearly complete, so the United States should craft a broader strategy for addressing the issues in the region that allowed groups like al-Qaeda and IS to take power in the first place.

Crocker began the witnesses’ testimonies echoing the two senators, saying that the United States is now in the “what now?” phase in the Middle East. Crocker noted that the varying terrorist and radical groups in the region are not the problem but simply a symptom of a number of problems. He outlined those challenges as a lack of inclusive governance and institutions in many Middle Eastern countries and the paucity of law and order. Crocker ended his testimony with a few points that his colleagues would echo for the duration of the hearing. He criticized the Obama Administration for its abdication of the United States’ leadership role in the region, but noted that the Trump Administration has thus far acted very consistently with its predecessor. Additionally, he said that the current administration’s proposed budget cuts to US diplomatic institutions is extremely dangerous for the country.

Edelman followed Crocker with a similar critique about the United States’ retreat from its leadership in the Middle East and North Africa. While he echoed many of Crocker’s sentiments, he also issued a diagnosis of the two dual challenges facing the United States in the region—a subject the following two witnesses, Jeffrey and Jones, would also talk about at great length. According to Edelman and company, the two challenges are Iran’s quest for hegemony and the continuing threat of Sunni extremism, both of which perpetuate one another, the panel argued.

For the remaining period of testimonies, the conversation evolved into a forum for discussing ways to counter Iran in the region. Collectively, the panelists recommended the following actions: craft a new, whole-of-government strategy that effectively recognizes the realities of the Middle East; exploit Iran’s overextension in the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria; discuss ways to update contingency plans for neutralizing Iran’s nuclear threat (i.e., craft plans to use military force in Iran if necessary); recognize Russia as an obstacle, not a partner, in the region; use an information campaign to undermine the Iranian regime; and bolster US allies’ ability to defend themselves and preserve stability.

3) Correspondence and Personnel

Rep. Betty McCollum Op-Ed. This week, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) penned an op-ed in The Nation detailing the need for the United States to take a stand against Israel’s mistreatment, arbitrary detention, and torture of Palestinian children and youth. McCollum previously offered a first of its kind bill that would bar any US financial aid to Israel from being used to imprison and mistreat Palestinian youth.

Alabama Special Election. On December 12, the high-profile and contentious special election for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat came to a close with a surprising result: the first Democratic senator in over two decades in the state. Doug Jones eked out a win over embattled GOP firebrand Roy Moore, thanks largely to an unprecedented mobilization of minority voters in Alabama and, in some respects, an abnormal amount of “write-in” votes for other GOP candidates. Jones’s win makes an already unenviable task of governing that much harder for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). The party breakdown in the Senate is now 51-49 for Republicans, and while Jones’s impact will mostly be felt on hot-button domestic issues like healthcare and public spending, his vote could have an impact on US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. In the next two years—when Jones must stand for reelection—the Senate could very well consider issues like the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), barring weapons sales to allies involved in the war in Yemen, Iran sanctions, and more. Without a reliable Republican majority, the Senate could take stands against issues President Trump advocates for in the future, particularly the weapons sales aspect with regards to Gulf allies.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Correspondence on Military. On December 11, President Trump sent a letter to members of Congress providing them with a consolidated report on the deployment of military personnel, as required by the War Powers Resolution. Among other nations, the president acknowledged either the presence of troops or the conduct of military operations in Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Yemen.

McMaster Previews National Security Strategy. This week, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster made some rounds to discuss the upcoming release of the administration’s “comprehensive” National Security Strategy (NSS), a mandatory report to Congress. McMaster’s discussions about the NSS are interesting in a number of ways. First, Trump’s NSS will be issued less than a year into his presidency, whereas most of the previous NSSs were submitted after more than a year and a half of a president’s time in office. Second, based on the general information McMaster provided, the NSS is devoid of any kind of values-based vision of the United States’ role in the world. Instead, the NSS boils down to four principles: defending the homeland, protecting American prosperity, sustaining peace through strength, and advancing American influence. These are not novel principles, but they lack any consideration of spreading American values that previous presidents urged (e.g., democracy, rule of law, reduction of poverty, etc.). Indeed, the strategy seems oddly isolationist. Maybe once the full document is released (tentatively scheduled for December 18), there will be more context for this strategy. Lastly, it is interesting to note that in discussions about the United States’ national security concerns, H.R. McMaster stated that while Saudi Arabia historically masterminded the extreme interpretations of Islam that radical groups cite, he said that Qatar and Turkey are the new “sponsors” of radical extremists and they bankroll these fundamentalist groups as well.

Haley Touts Evidence of Iran’s Malign Behavior. On December 14, via teleconference, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley purportedly showed concrete evidence that Iran has been violating a UN Security Council resolution barring it from transferring arms to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. She made her remarks standing in front of remains of the Iranian-made missile fired at Riyadh by Houthi forces. This represents another step by the Trump Administration to isolate Iran, though it is uncertain how well this show worked. Critics of the administration quickly pointed out the hypocrisy of Haley’s remarks since the United States is currently aiding and arming Saudi Arabia and other coalition members in the very same war ravaging Yemen.