Congressional Update – Week Ending August 25, 2017

I. Congress

Congress remains on recess until September 5.

II. The Executive Branch

1) Department of Defense

While the majority of media coverage this week focused on President Trump’s announcement of a troop surge in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense quietly took steps to calm tensions among US allies in the Middle East. On August 22, US paratroopers partnered with their Qatari counterparts for a joint training exercise known as the “Friendship Jump.” The training exercise—the second of its kind since the Gulf crisis between Qatar and its neighbors broke out—is a good faith effort by military leaders to assuage any Qatari concerns raised by the Trump Administration’s conflicting remarks on the Gulf Cooperation Council rift.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis. While service members trained with allies in Qatar, Secretary Mattis was canvassing the region, stressing the United States’ commitment to its allies in this volatile time. Mattis first stopped in Jordan to reaffirm US support for the kingdom. He met with King Abdullah II and other officials to discuss the latest developments in the region, including US-Jordanian military cooperation. The United States and Jordan are parties (along with Russia) to the recent agreement that established three “de-escalation zones” in southern Syria, two of which are near the Syrian-Jordanian border. In addition to military support, Mattis reportedly reassured Jordanian officials that the United States will continue to provide aid to help alleviate the strain that an influx of Syrian refugees is having on Jordan’s stability. In addition to the instability in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Jordan is currently facing internal tension both from the presence of Syrian refugees as well as from citizens’ backlash against the shooting of two Jordanians by an Israeli embassy guard.

After Jordan, Secretary Mattis made an unscheduled stop in Iraq. He visited Baghdad to discuss the “US-Iraq security partnership” and anti-IS (Islamic State) developments with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and then traveled to Erbil to speak with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. He reiterated the United States’ lasting support for Iraq and vowed continued security cooperation. However, he voiced concern to both leaders about Iraqi Kurdistan’s scheduled independence referendum on September 25 and urged Barzani to postpone the vote. Mattis joins other US officials in the request, citing the potential for instability following the vote. However, despite US concerns that the referendum could disrupt anti-IS efforts, the Kurdish government in Erbil remains intent on holding the referendum.

Commander of Central Command General Joseph Votel. Secretary Mattis visited with allies in the Levant at the same time that the US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander, General Joseph Votel, was busy discussing strategic developments with US allies in the Gulf. On August 22, Votel met with officials of the Sultanate of Oman to encourage further security and military cooperation. A day later, Votel traveled to Bahrain where he discussed developments in the region and emphasized the need for the two countries to continue military cooperation. Finally, General Votel visited Saudi officials in Riyadh before flying 600 miles southwest to the Yemeni border. The visit—which was noticeably absent of journalists—was intended to increase Votel’s understanding of the Saudis’ security concerns at the border.

2) White House Peace Envoy

In addition to the Department of Defense’s stealth diplomacy this week, the White House’s Middle East peace team was also meeting key players in the region. Special Advisor Jared Kushner, Special Representative Jason Greenblatt, and Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell traveled first to the Arabian Gulf and then to the Mediterranean Sea region in an effort to jumpstart the stagnant peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. The trio met with Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani; Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed bin Zayed; Jordan’s King Abdullah II; Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu; and finally, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

The format of the scheduled visits was indicative of the Trump Administration’s desire to forge an “outside-in” approach to resolving the conflict. Though it is yet to be seen if Kushner and his team made any progress on President Trump’s behalf, officials in other Arab countries seem to be enthusiastic about supporting the approach. Arab leaders in the region, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and President Trump all appear optimistic about peace efforts, but the sentiment does not appear to be shared by PA officials. President Abbas reportedly is so frustrated by the United States’ posture towards Israel that he planned to deliver an ultimatum to Kushner: either show significant progress in 45 days or the PA is going to pursue alternative actions. However, Abbas’s words were much more measured and conciliatory after the meetings, perhaps indicating that some progress was made.

Personnel Change in Peace Envoy Effort. In other news, Kushner’s team has added Victoria Coates—former Ted Cruz advisor and National Security Council (NSC) staffer—to the fold. Coates’s addition will integrate Kushner and Greenblatt’s peace strategy into the wider NSC apparatus under National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Coates is an experienced Republican foreign policy advisor and is expected to serve as a conduit between the president’s inexperienced son-in-law and his more seasoned national security team. Further, her placement with the peace envoy team is indicative of McMaster’s efforts to bring order and orthodoxy to the administration’s foreign policy apparatus.

3) Department of State

US Withholds Funding to Egypt. Shortly before the peace envoys arrived in Egypt, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed officials in Cairo that the Trump Administration would be withholding or delaying nearly $300 million in aid. Per US laws, the State Department must certify that Egypt satisfies human rights requirements that Congress has set forth as a condition for providing military aid (roughly $195 million of the withheld funds). Secretary Tillerson decided the State Department could not certify Egypt as respecting human rights—particularly in light of a new law cracking down on nongovernmental organizations. However, Tillerson legally can sign a national security waiver that would allow the aid to be delivered to the Egyptians regardless. Oddly enough, the secretary did sign such a waiver but still intends to withhold those funds.

The timing of the decision was awkward, however. The decision did not need to be made until the end of September, yet Tillerson made the announcement at the same time Kushner, Greenblatt, and Powell were en route to Cairo. Egyptian officials were predictably frustrated at the decision, but they met the envoy anyway, and President Trump even called and spoke with President Sisi about overcoming any hard feelings. All but $96 million can be delivered to Egypt at a later date, should the administration deem it appropriate. The $95.7 million that was effectively cut from Egypt’s account will be reprogrammed to other security programs.

4) US Ambassador to the United Nations

Ambassador Nikki Haley Visits Nuclear Watchdog. On August 23, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley paid a visit to the officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which is responsible for monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Haley described it as a fact-finding mission intended to help the Trump Administration better assess the nuclear deal’s effectiveness before the administration must certify Iran’s compliance in October.

While visiting with IAEA officials, Haley inquired about the group’s ability to monitor Iran’s military sites for illicit nuclear activity, something Iran staunchly opposes. Haley says the administration’s concerns are well-founded due to suspicious activity at Iranian military sites in the past. The suggestion that the IAEA inspect Iran’s military sites is just another example of the Trump Administration’s escalatory rhetoric toward the Islamic Republic. Trump has long held that the JCPOA is a “disaster”; moves like this appear to be attempts by the president to find reasons not to certify Iran’s compliance. Despite his misgivings about the agreement, the IAEA and international partners all support the progress of the JCPOA, and the United States would likely be isolated if it chooses to break its commitment to upholding the landmark agreement.

UN Relief and Works Agency Funding. Ambassador Haley reportedly has been assuring members of the United Nations that the United States will maintain traditional levels of financial support for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This is a surprising development coming from the same administration that has actively sought budget cuts to other UN agencies. It is even more surprising considering that Israeli officials have openly called for shuttering the agency. While Israel may be displeased with the administration’s plans, it is a pragmatic approach by the Trump team. UNRWA is tasked with providing necessary relief for some 5 million Palestinian refugees and efforts to dismantle the agency may fuel further instability and ill-will towards the United States. For President Trump, undermining such important work would hardly help him secure the “ultimate” peace deal.