Middle East States View Congress as a Second-Tier Actor

This week, 21 members of the Israeli Knesset (MKs) wrote to a group of US representatives to thank them for passing a resolution opposing the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. However, the MKs—all of whom represent right-wing factions in the Knesset—also criticized the authors of the resolution for reiterating support for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli authors couched their criticism in gratitude for their US counterparts’ support on other fronts; nevertheless, the sentiment was surprising. Congress, after all, budgets billions of dollars of military support for Israel every year and many lawmakers have supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition on nearly every issue of import. So to vocally oppose those same patrons’ long-held policy positions, as many in Congress likely perceive, is a stunning act of hubris.

However, while this may be new coming from Israel, Congress—under the Trump Administration—has been, at best, an afterthought as actors in the Arab world and the broader Middle East try to ingratiate themselves with Washington. In effect, the Israeli MKs intimated in their letter that the US lawmakers’ policy preferences do not matter because President Trump favors policies that are more in line with their own. In certain other cases, regional players have acted with outright antagonism to members of Congress. For example, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and his government have demonstrated blatant disregard for US lawmakers’ concerns regarding the war in Yemen, the kingdom’s treatment of its dissidents and human rights activists, and Saudi meddling in other Arab states’ affairs.

This is becoming a theme in the Trump era. Certain wealthy Gulf monarchies see in Donald Trump a familiar character—rich, privileged, and seemingly content with nepotism—and they likely have calculated that flattering the president is the most effective way to further their policy interests in Washington. The current administration has taken the traditional foreign policy-making imbalance between the executive and legislative branches and pushed it to its extreme. As long as regional states view Congress as a second-tier actor in the policy-making process, lawmakers can expect their own positions to be given less and less consideration.

Regional leaders who have eschewed cooperating with members of Congress or actively rejected the will of Congress have done so for short-term payoffs. President Trump’s highly polarizing politics means that as he cozies up to certain actors, those individuals’ standing in the eyes of lawmakers is reduced significantly. So, MbS in Riyadh and the right-wing government in Israel would be wise to understand that Trump’s possible exit from the political scene in 2021—particularly if Democrats retain control of at least one chamber of Congress—would leave Capitol Hill eager to correct course and ensure those states act on policies in a way that is more in line with US interests. In the even longer term, though, this approach of tying one’s political interests closely with a particular US president is bad strategy for any state in the region. Doing so opens it up to becoming a partisan issue in Washington, leaving it to enjoy access and support only when a certain party—or president—is in power.

Congress remains, constitutionally, a coequal branch of government with the executive branch. However, as the Israeli MKs demonstrated, the concerns of US lawmakers could be disregarded if the president offers more support.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Meet with Netanyahu, Abbas. Some 70 House members finished their visits to Israel this week. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) led a contingent of House Democrats while House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) led the GOP trip. Though the two groups overlapped for a few days, each held individual meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (see here and here) and only the Democratic delegation met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after the president —although the Republican delegation did meet with PLO General Secretary Saeb Erekat and PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

House Members Write to Trump after Iraqi Man Dies. Last week, an Iraqi man who grew up in the United States died after being deported to Iraq—a country he had never visited. In response, 41 House members wrote a letter to President Trump criticizing his supposed interest in protecting religious minorities, as the man, Jimmy Aldaoud, was Chaldean but was deported nevertheless. In addition, the group called on the president to cease detaining and deporting Iraqi nationals living in the United States, particularly those from the Christian community who could face severe persecution if sent to Iraq.

2) Committee Investigations

House Intelligence Committee to Probe Saudi, Gulf Influence on Trump. According to a recent report, the House Intelligence Committee is preparing to investigate a host of actions Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states may have taken to influence Trump Administration policies. Due to the administration’s nearly unconditional support for Riyadh, questions abound about whether the Saudis have tried to influence Trump and his associates—through financial means or otherwise—to act favorably toward Saudi interests. The committee is expected to issue subpoenas in order to collect information on meetings and proposed business deals between wealthy Gulf state interlocutors and the president’s campaign team and current administration.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Administration Officials Want to Axe State Department BudgetFor the second consecutive year, the White House is hoping to cut significant amounts of money from State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) programs before the end of the current fiscal year. Earlier in the week, White House officials temporarily froze funding already budgeted by Congress for foreign affairs activities. Afterward, the Trump Administration began crafting a wish list of programs to slash, with some reports indicating the proposed cuts could total $4 billion. Though the administration considered offering a rescission package to Congress—which would then vote on whether to return that money to the Treasury—it now appears that officials may place spending caps on State and USAID programs to a point so low that the agencies would be unable to spend all of their funds before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. Any unspent money would then expire and could not be spent next fiscal year.

This could affect a host of programs throughout the Middle East, as any cuts or spending limits could target development assistance and peacekeeping missions, among other things, that the government carries out in the region. For this reason, lawmakers from both chambers wrote a letter criticizing the administration for refusing to spend the money Congress already allocated and warned of dire consequences if the president were to undermine diplomatic and development missions abroad.

Jason Greenblatt on President Trump’s Timeline for Unveiling Peace Plan. This week, Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt discussed President Trump’s plans for unveiling the peace agreement that he and Jared Kushner have been crafting. Greenblatt said that President Trump still has not decided whether he will release details of the plan before next month’s Israeli elections or afterward, when a government has been formed.

2) Department of State

Secretary Pompeo Speaks with Mohammed bin Salman. On August 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo phoned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss bilateral relations as well as regional developments of import to both countries. The readout of the conversation shows the pair talked about the ongoing war in Yemen as well as the pressure campaign on Iran. Though not included in the readout, the two may have also spoken about the United Arab Emirates’ decision to scale down its involvement in the Yemen conflict—a decision that appears to mark a split between the policies of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi there.

3) Department of Defense

Military Delegation in Turkey to Discuss Syrian Safe Zone. The Defense Department dispatched a delegation to southeast Turkey to meet with Turkish officials regarding a potential safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. The two sides have agreed, in theory, to create a safe zone stretching from Syria’s border with Turkey to its border with Iraq. However, there are significant hurdles left to clear and failure to come to an agreement could produce a military conflict between Turkey and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which Turkey views as a threatening Kurdish group.

III. Judicial Branch

Federal Court Tosses out Lawsuit Targeting Jordan. On August 6, the US District Court in Washington, DC dismissed claims from a lawsuit filed against the government of Jordan. The suit stems from the 2016 shooting deaths of three US Green Berets at a Jordanian military base. The perpetrator was sentenced to death in Jordan, but the families of the US soldiers alleged that the kingdom “aided and abetted” the “terrorist act.” Foreign countries largely are immune from legal action in the United States unless plaintiffs can prove that there is a specific exception that allows jurisdiction to US courts over the foreign sovereign. In this case, the judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not prove that and she dismissed the claims against Jordan for lack of jurisdiction.