How Congress Is Trying to Prevent Another Middle East War

Since Arab Center Washington DC published a piece arguing that President Donald Trump does not want to see the United States entrenched in another costly and prolonged war in the broader Middle East, the situation between Washington and Tehran has become more problematic. Iran shot down a US spy drone that it says was in Iranian air space, but the US military claims it was over international waters. Regardless, the event escalated rhetoric between the sides, with President Trump most recently proclaiming that he needs, or has, no exit strategy to de-escalate tensions with Iran and that, should Washington need to fight, the war would not last long.

Although Trump does not want to be the president who starts another war of choice, lawmakers are understandably concerned that the saber rattling by him and his top officials, as well as Tehran’s insistence on retaliating to maintain the perception of strength for its domestic audience, will lead to miscalculations and eventual direct military confrontation. All of this has members of Congress scrambling to assert what are generally referred to as war powers.

Executive vs. Congressional War Powers

The US Constitution divides war powers between Articles I and II. Article I vests Congress with the ability and responsibility to declare war. The thinking behind this decision was that as the more deliberative body and the one closest to the citizenry, Congress would not hastily insert the US military into armed conflict. Once Congress does declare war—or, as has been the case most recently, authorizes the use of military force—the president, as commander-in-chief, is vested with the power to fully execute any use of force as he or she sees fit.

Now, at a time of heightened tensions with Iran, Congress is taking a number of steps to reclaim its war power authorities that it has ceded over several decades. A number of lawmakers have spoken out vociferously, warning the current administration that no previous authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) is applicable to the conflict with Iran. Beyond that, lawmakers are considering using their “power of the purse” to prevent any US tax dollars to be used in a military confrontation with Iran.

Where the Branches Stand

Despite individual lawmakers’ and executive officials’ opposition to war in the Arabian Gulf, the administration has seemingly been laying the legal groundwork necessary to allow it to execute any military action. For weeks now, administration officials have been arguing that the 2001 AUMF that authorized then-President George W. Bush to invade Afghanistan and topple the Taliban in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks is applicable to Iran. The officials’ reasoning is that there are ties between Tehran and al-Qaeda—the group specifically mentioned in the 2001 AUMF—and therefore, the administration would be justified in using force against Iran.

This, at best, is tenuous reasoning and lawmakers have rejected the argument outright. But because competing interpretations of the law would be settled by the Supreme Court—which is typically deferential to the executive branch and the broad powers granted to it under the Constitution—some members of Congress would rather be proactive and reduce the administration’s power to pursue military force. For instance, one provision in the House of Representatives’ version of the fiscal year 2020 defense budget would “sunset,” or phase out, the 2001 AUMF, thus stripping the administration of that justification.

In addition, one member of the House is trying to amend the War Powers Resolution to give it more strength. The War Powers Resolution was passed after the Vietnam War in an effort to give Congress more say over when and where US forces are deployed in hostilities. Every president since its passage has declared it unconstitutional, but senators this year used it anyway in an attempt to force the administration to withdraw US troops from aiding in the Yemen war. Finally, after President Trump told reporters that he did not believe he needed to consult Congress before authorizing kinetic strikes against Iran, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and a bipartisan group of colleagues introduced an amendment to the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prohibiting any Department of Defense funding from being used to wage war against Iran.

A bipartisan group of senators wants to debate a similar provision in the Senate’s version of the NDAA, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) originally closed the door on the amendment being allowed a vote during regular debate. Now, however, it appears he has backtracked and senators will get to weigh in on a similar provision, though McConnell is urging his caucus to vote against the amendment.

Ultimately, war between the United States and Iran may not take place. But, in the absence of a declaration of war or an AUMF specific to Iran, Congress is making it clear that the administration does not have support for starting another war in the region, one that most experts believe would be much worse and more expensive than the war in Iraq.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Joint Resolutions of Disapproval. On June 19, the full Senate voted on the previously reported joint resolutions of disapproval of proposed arms sales and the transfer of arms to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and other non-Arab states. Senators first voted on S.J. Res. 36 and took another individual vote on S.J. Res. 38. They considered S.J. Res. 27-35 as well as S.J. Res. 39-48 en bloc. Each of the first two were passed by margins of 53 yeas to 45 nays. The others passed 51-45. These resolutions send a powerful message from the GOP-held Senate, but there surely will not be enough votes to overcome President Trump’s likely veto.

Fiscal Year 2020 Budget. This week the House passed H.R. 2740, setting budget levels for five government departments largely across party lines (226-203). The bill includes the fiscal year budgets for the Departments of Defense and State, but the Pentagon’s budget is less than what the administration requested while that for State is larger. The bill includes a number of provisions detailed previously (see here and here). Aside from the spending levels themselves, the administration has threatened to veto any package like this because it includes language that would end the 2001 AUMF eight months after the bill passes in addition to a provision to wind down US military support for the war in Yemen.

Reaffirming the Strong Partnership between the US and Tunisia. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, introduced H. Res. 458 reaffirming the strong relationship between Washington and Tunis. It is the House’s version of a resolution Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) introduced in the Senate earlier this month.

Support the Repatriation of Religious and Ethnic Minorities in Iraq. The House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) marked and voted to approve H. Res. 259, as amended. The resolution expresses the sense of Congress that Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities should be repatriated in “their ancestral homelands” after Islamic State (IS) elements have been removed from Iraq.

Condemning the Attacks on Peaceful Protesters in Sudan. During its markup, the HFAC also voted to report H. Res. 432, as amended. This resolution condemns the Sudanese transitional military council’s attacks on peaceful protesters and calls on the body to immediately hand over the government to a civilian-led authority.

Condemning the Attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires. During the same markup, HFAC members voted to move forward with H. Res. 441 that condemns Iran’s and Hezbollah’s attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the early 1990s.

Global Fragility Act. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) marked up and approved S. 727, as amended, which is its version of a bill the House passed in May. It would help support fragile states like Syria and Somalia.

Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act. The SFRC also marked up S. 1102, which is also the Senate’s version of a previously detailed House bill. This version, like the House’s before it, prioritizes energy and security cooperation between Israel, Cyprus, and Greece and it places restrictions on transferring F-35 jets to Turkey.

Saudi Arabia False Emergencies Act. Lastly, the SFRC rushed through a bill, S. 1945, that was introduced on June 24. This bill would amend a previous statute to limit President Trump, and future presidents, from using “emergency” designations to circumvent the congressional review period for proposed weapons sales.

2) Nominations

Nominees for UN, Egypt, Libya, and UAE Ambassadorships Appear before SFRC. On June 19 and 20, between three different panels, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony from nominees to serve as ambassadors to Egypt, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Nations. The first hearing was for Ambassador Kelly Craft, who is poised to represent Washington at the United Nations. Craft highlighted many of the same issues that her predecessor, Nikki Haley, championed, but there is not enough evidence to assume she can navigate Turtle Bay as well as Haley did. During her confirmation, Craft did little to instill confidence that she will be capable of living up to her claim that her “voice…will be heard whenever and wherever” problematic issues arise. Pressed on the need to hold Saudi Arabia accountable before the United Nations for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its actions in Yemen, Craft equivocated, saying she would demand accountability—while also trying to deflect and single out Iran as the United Nations’ primary concern.

During the second hearing, the SFRC heard from Richard Norland and Jonathan Cohen, both career diplomats, and John Rakolta, Jr., a former business executive.

3) Briefings and Hearings

Oversight of the Trump Administration’s Iran Strategy. On June 19, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism hosted Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook to testify about the Trump Administration’s strategies toward Iran.

US Response to the Political Crisis in Sudan. On June 25, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations held a hearing with the US Agency for International Development and State Department officials to understand the US response to the developments in Sudan. There was not much interest from lawmakers in the event, as only a few members of the subcommittee showed up, but those who did pressed the State Department official on the administration’s strategy for a civilian-led government to come to power in Khartoum. Most lawmakers also asked about the interests of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in Sudan and whether the three countries could be trusted to pursue policies that align with United States interests.

4) Personnel and Correspondence

HFAC Members Call for Internal Investigation into “Emergency” Arms Sales. On June 20, House members, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-New York), wrote to the Department of State’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG)—the entity responsible for conducting internal investigations into the department—urging the OIG to open an investigation into the process and legal justifications used when deciding to invoke an “emergency” in order to fast-track the approval of potential arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others.

Senator Sanders’s Vision for Ending Endless Wars. This week, the 2020 presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), took to the pages of Foreign Affairs to outline why he thought the United States’ “endless wars”—or, the “Forever War” as it is popularly known—were costing US money and prestige. He also laid out his idea for ending US involvement in these seemingly interminable conflicts that primarily afflict the Middle East.

Senator Cruz Wants to Use Iranian Assets to Pay for US Drone. As the Senate moves forward in debating the NDAA, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced that he wants to include in the bill a provision to reimburse the United States for the downed spy drone using frozen Iranian assets in US jurisdiction.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Issues Executive Order Sanctioning Ayatollah Khamenei. On June 24, just days after Iran reportedly downed a US drone and Trump authorized a retaliatory strike and then subsequently withdrew the order, the president opted to levy sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The order will freeze all assets in US jurisdiction and bar Ayatollah Khamenei from traveling to the United States. The move appears largely symbolic as Khamenei does not travel outside of Iran and few, if any, of his network of assets can be frozen by Washington.

White House Officials Travel to Bahrain Economic Workshop. The Trump Administration’s economic workshop on improving the well-being of the Palestinians (see other “Peace for Prosperity” documents here and here) was held June 25-26. President Trump sent a host of White House staff, including senior advisors Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin, and officials from the Departments of State and Treasury and the National Security Council. Though he did not attend the event in Bahrain, National Security Advisor John Bolton traveled to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

2) Department of State

State Department Officials Travel to the Region to Speak with Arab Leaders. In the run-up to the joint Bahrain-US economic workshop, three top diplomats were dispatched to the Gulf to discuss regional developments involving Iran. Secretary of State Pompeo met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman then flew to the United Arab Emirates to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

In addition to Pompeo, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Trade Policy and Negotiations, David Meale, was in Abu Dhabi for the sixth US-UAE Economic Policy Dialogue. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook traveled to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman before going to Bahrain as part of the US delegation to the economic workshop. In addition, Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Ambassador James Jeffrey and his team are visiting Europe, Jordan, and Israel to discuss developments regarding the Islamic State and Syrian refugees.