Congressional Update – Week Ending September 29, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Res. 534. On September 25, Representative Trent Franks (R-Arizona) submitted a resolution in support of the Iraqi Kurdish people’s recent referendum on independence. Although some individuals in Congress have backed the Kurds’ initiative to establish an independent state, the majority of those on Capitol Hill have sided with the Trump Administration, saying the referendum was ill-advised. It is unlikely that this resolution will be considered. Surprisingly, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) reportedly released a statement urging the White House to support the results of the referendum.

Con. Res. 81. On September 27, Representative Ro Khanna (D-California) and three others proposed a concurrent resolution expressing the sense of Congress that the president must withdraw US forces from any operations in Yemen. Like simple resolutions, concurrent resolutions do not become enforceable laws; rather, they are intended to express the thoughts and opinions of members of Congress. Citing the lack of a declaration of war or authorization for the use of force, Khanna and his colleagues are hoping to direct President Donald Trump to withdraw any troops participating in the Yemen war and to cease aiding the Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates (UAE) coalition there. There is real concern among lawmakers about the United States’ role in a war that is ravaging the poorest country in the Middle East, but it is uncertain whether enough members will vote to pass the resolution.

Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act. On September 28, during a full committee markup, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) unanimously agreed (by a voice vote) to adopt H.R. 3329 as amended. As it is written now, the bill would amend several sections of the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 to include sanctions on a number of entities. The original law sanctioned satellite companies that carried Lebanon’s al-Manar channel, which is affiliated with Hezbollah, as well as financial institutions that “knowingly” facilitated significant transactions or laundered money for the organization.

Through the amendments bill, the list of persons or entities that could be sanctioned is broadened. Under the new language, any person or entity that “assists, sponsors, or provides significant financial, material, or technological support” for the following groups or entities may find themselves subject to punitive measures: Bayt al-Mal, Jihad al-Bina, the Islamic Resistance Support Association, Hezbollah’s foreign relations department or external security organization, al-Manar satellite, al-Nour Radio, or the Lebanese Media Group (a.k.a., the Lebanese Communications Group). The applicable sanctions in this legislation include the blocking of assets from US markets and jurisdiction and refusal of entry into the United States.

In addition to the 2015 Hezbollah sanctions law, H.R. 3329 would amend the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 to explicitly name Hezbollah as a designated foreign terrorist organization to which Iran cannot provide support. With this amended language, any foreign financial institution that helps Iran in the task of providing financial support to its Lebanese proxy will be prohibited from opening or operating accounts in the United States or its jurisdiction.

Sanctioning Hezbollah’s Illicit Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act. The bills adopted, en bloc, by the HFAC included another bill intended to levy sanctions against Lebanon’s Hezbollah. H.R. 3342 targets individuals affiliated with Hezbollah who used innocent civilians as “human shields” during the 2006 conflict between the group and Israeli forces. Like the previous bill, any individual who is thought to be guilty of using human shields—a war crime under international law—would face sanctions that include blocking property rights within the United States and prohibiting these individuals from receiving visas and entering the country.

Both pieces of legislation are expected to pass the two chambers and become laws. However, there may be some amending of the language throughout the legislative process to ensure that the Lebanese government and banking sector are not adversely effected by the new sanctions. Hezbollah, at this point, is heavily integrated in Lebanon and any sanctions could have unintended consequences on otherwise legitimate entities.

2) Hearings

State Department Redesign. On September 26, the HFAC hosted Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan to discuss the Trump Administration’s redesign efforts for the Department of State. Representatives and senators, Republican and Democrat alike, have been frustrated with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson because they have viewed as insufficient his communications about the efforts to reform and streamline operations at the State Department. Deputy Secretary Sullivan met with the committee to assuage some of these concerns and it appears his performance was well received.

Sullivan laid out a five-point plan for how State Department officials are hoping to optimize performance within the department and maximize the impact of foreign assistance. Arguably, the most interesting development of the hearing was his assurance that there are no plans to fold the US Agency for International Development (USAID) into the broader function of the State Department. This was rumored to be an idea of Secretary Tillerson’s, something that critics said would reduce the effectiveness of an agency that operates missions around the globe, including in places like Yemen, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, and other states throughout the Arab world.

Managing Security Assistance to Support Foreign Policy. On September 26, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a business meeting in which it approved Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department, Justin Siberell, to be US Ambassador to Bahrain. It then conducted a hearing on US security assistance to foreign partners, which is a joint venture carried out by divisions of both the State Department and the Department of Defense. Tina Kaidanow, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, represented the State Department while Acting Assistant Secretary for of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities, Thomas Harvey III, spoke on behalf of the Department of Defense. Lieutenant General Charles Hooper of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency—a body that provides guidance to components of the Department of Defense—also appeared before the committee.

Members of the committee and the witnesses all agreed that security assistance is a direct investment in US security, but that it is only a portion of the United States’ broader foreign policy strategy. However important security assistance may be, many members of the SFRC were critical of the United States’ role in worsening some of the human rights catastrophes unfolding across the globe, particularly in the Middle East. Of particular concern to a number of senators were arms sales to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Members lauded the White House for withdrawing a proposed sale of small firearms to Turkey after recent human rights abuses, including the assault by Turkish President Erdoğan’s bodyguards of a number of protestors in Washington, DC. Praise for the witnesses’ work was short-lived, however, when the subject turned to the US-arming of the Saudi-led coalition that has waged war in Yemen. Senators from both sides of the aisle needled the witnesses—particularly Ms. Kaidanow—about what they perceived as a failure to hold Saudi Arabia and the UAE accountable for their roles in the devastating humanitarian crisis taking place in the Middle East’s poorest country.

General Joseph Dunford, Jr. Nomination Hearing. On the same day, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a nomination hearing for the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, Jr. The general is up for reappointment and enjoys the support of the majority of the Senate, so he will likely be easily reconfirmed. This hearing was an opportunity for senators to gauge the administration’s priorities and progress in military affairs.

A significant portion of General Dunford’s prepared testimony addressed developments in the Middle East, including the anti-Islamic State (IS) fight and concerns about states like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Iran. For IS, Syria, and Yemen, the general echoed past statements by the administration: they seek the total defeat of IS and hope to see de-escalation and political resolutions take place in the two war-torn countries. The most notable statement by General Dunford, however, came in stark contrast to President Trump’s assessments of Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). General Dunford plainly stated that he believes Iran is abiding by the terms of the often maligned nuclear deal, saying that it has been effective in reducing the Islamic Republic’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.

II. The Executive Branch

1) White House

Immigration Order and Refugee Admissions. This week, the Trump Administration released two policy decisions regarding immigration and refugee resettlement in the United States. On September 24, President Trump issued a new executive order limiting travel to the United States for citizens of eight countries. This new “travel ban” is billed as a new and improved version of the one that wound through the court system before being dropped from the docket of the Supreme Court. Iran, Yemen, Syria, and Libya remain on the list, although somehow Sudan made its way off the blacklist. While it is not a blanket restriction on citizens of some of these countries entering the United States, it will be very difficult for individuals to navigate the regulations and secure a visa. The new order will take effect on October 18 and it has no expiration date.

President Trump and his team also announced that he will reduce the number of refugees admitted into the United States from the 85,000 who were admitted during President Obama’s last year in office to just 45,000. The reduction comes at a time when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 22.5 million people were considered refugees last year, 5.5 million of whom come from Syria alone.

2) State Department

Ambassador to Israel. The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, made headlines this week for his odd statements in the Israeli press that seemed to contradict long-held US policy. Friedman declared the two-state solution outdated and claimed that Israel only occupies “2% of the West Bank” and that illegal settlements in that territory are, in fact, part of Israel—this despite the international community stating just the opposite. His comments prompted State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to say that Friedman’s comments do not signal a shift in US policy, nor should they be construed as a policy position on resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This is an unusual development, one in which the State Department is telling the world that the words of its own ambassador to another country do not carry weight as policy positions. This is the second time the State Department has had to distance itself from Ambassador Friedman’s statements, and Ms. Nauert has repeated a statement that appears to prioritize the positions articulated by the White House team of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt over the words of Ambassador Friedman.