Washington Policy Weekly – November 2, 2018

I. Congress

With the midterm elections to be held on November 6, ACW has an analysis of possible scenarios of US Middle East policy if current forecasts are accurate and President Donald Trump spends his next two years torn between a GOP-held Senate and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Five Senators Call on Trump to Halt Nuclear Talks with Saudi Arabia. This week, five GOP senators wrote to President Trump—in addition to an individual letter by Democrat Ed Markey (Massachusetts)—urging him to halt any ongoing talks with Riyadh about its procuring a civilian nuclear energy program. The reasons cited by the senators included the Saudi-sanctioned murder of Saudi journalist and US legal resident Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s actions in Lebanon and Yemen. Even before Khashoggi’s death, Congress was suspect about the Saudi desire to harness its own nuclear energy. US-Saudi nuclear discussions are just one of a number of examples of the leverage Washington has over Riyadh. While congressional GOP members have stopped short of offering binding legislation to punish Saudi Arabia, many members have taken steps like this one to push the White House to use its leverage to hold Riyadh accountable.

Senator Warner Says He Expects Briefing on Khashoggi. Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told reporters he had not had a briefing from the administration regarding Khashoggi’s death since Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Gina Haspel returned from Turkey, but that he expected one “in the coming days.” In addition to being one of the highest ranking senators overseeing intelligence matters, Warner is also one of the two Democrats who represent the state where Khashoggi had resided. The fact that he has not heard anything is indicative of the Trump Administration’s unwillingness to share what they know about the plot.

Lawmakers React to Pompeo, Mattis Statements on Yemen. As detailed below, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis both called for upending the status quo in Yemen and finding an end to the fighting there. In response, some of the most vocal critics of the Saudi-led war in Yemen reacted with both encouragement and skepticism. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) released a statement saying she was encouraged by the secretaries’ remarks. Shaheen and her Republican colleague, Senator Todd Young (Indiana), muscled some language into this year’s defense authorization bill requiring the secretary of state to certify that Riyadh is responsibly executing its operations in Yemen. On the other side of Capitol Hill, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) was less impressed with the administration’s statements, saying “It’s about time.” Khanna and fellow progressive Democrat Mark Pocan (Wisconsin) later released a joint statement expressing their skepticism about the ceasefire plan the Trump Administration is floating; indeed, they called for an immediate cessation of US support for the Saudi-led coalition. If the secretaries’ plans, as detailed below, are realized, however, many on Capitol Hill would rejoice at the removal of a major obstacle to ending Yemen’s suffering.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Taps State Department Spokesperson to Replace Haley in Turtle Bay. Heather Nauert, a former Fox News contributor and the current spokesperson for the State Department, has reportedly been asked to replace Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations. Haley offered her resignation in early October but told President Trump that she would remain in the position to guide her successor. Having spent time as the voice of the top US diplomatic bureaucracy, Nauert ostensibly has more foreign policy experience than Haley did when she was chosen to represent the United States in Turtle Bay. However, questions remain: Will her confirmation process before the Senate be successful? Will the ambassador position remain a cabinet-level post as it is now under Haley? The outcome of next week’s midterm elections will go a long way in answering these questions and clarifying the ramifications of the future composition of the Senate.

2) State Department

Pompeo Undertakes Media Blitz Ahead of Renewed Iran Sanctions. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave three separate interviews with Fox News contributors and a radio host of a small Indiana-based Fox News affiliate. The US sanctions on Iran that were waived under the framework of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—which President Trump opted to scuttle—snap back into place on November 5, and a large part of his media tour was to gather support for Washington’s sanctions strategy. On Laura Ingraham’s and Brian Kilmeade’s shows, Pompeo used recent reports about Iranian covert operations in Europe to push for more support from the European states for punishing Iran—European Union states have been less than enthusiastic about such sanctions. He argued that unilaterally abrogating the JCPOA was the correct decision and reiterated that the administration’s goals are behavior change from Tehran’s ruling regime, not regime change itself. Despite using harsh rhetoric in the lead-up to the new sanctions, the White House is backing down and allowing India and South Korea to continue importing Iranian crude oil even after US sanctions are reapplied.

During the last segment of the Kilmeade interview and most of the interview with radio host Tony Katz, Pompeo spoke about the US-Saudi relationship in the four weeks since the Saudi government murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Pompeo told both media hosts, in vague terms, that the United States was still in the process of uncovering the facts surrounding Khashoggi’s murder and that, while the administration will consider an appropriate response once it has all the information, it is important to understand the historic relationship between Washington and Riyadh. He reiterated this point multiple times in the context of US security interests, but he also noted that he and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who allegedly ordered the extrajudicial killing, have a great relationship that could survive even a crime of this nature. By the end of the week, Pompeo gave two other interviews where he discussed Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen (see here and here).

Pompeo Calls for End to War in Yemen. Just one week after Secretary Pompeo’s deputy, John Sullivan, met with the chief UN negotiator for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, in Washington, Pompeo called for a cessation of the fighting in Yemen. His statement lacked specifics, but he did call for third-party-led negotiations to begin as soon as this month. It is uncertain what prompted the White House to push for an end to the war right now, when previously it has been reluctant to do anything but offer rhetorical support for a political solution. Perhaps the deluge of pictures of violence and famine and the shocking reports coming from Yemen detailing the struggles there have finally broken through the administration’s collective conscience. The administration’s calculation may have also changed as a result of the public relations nightmare that continues to unfold after the Khashoggi affair, prior to which there was arguably no bigger blemish on Saudi Arabia’s international image than the war Yemen.

3) Defense Department

Mattis Discusses National Defense Strategy. On October 30, Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke at the US Institute for Peace about the Trump Administration’s national defense strategy. He discussed a wide range of topics and touched on several key areas of the Middle East including Syria, the so-called Islamic State (IS), Yemen, and US partners in the Persian Gulf. Perhaps the most important takeaway from Mattis’s remarks regarding US military presence in Iraq and Syria was his contradiction of National Security Advisor John Bolton’s previous statement that the military would stay in Syria until Iran’s presence there is ended. For his part, Mattis said that the US military is only in Iraq and Syria to combat IS and that is the only justification under the authorizations for the use of military force.

As for Yemen, Mattis echoed Pompeo’s calls for a ceasefire and an end to the fighting, but he went further by issuing a time frame for developments. Like Pompeo, he wants to see UN-sponsored talks begin in about 30 days. Interestingly, when asked if Yemen and the Khashoggi affair reflect a broader belligerency on the part of the Saudis, Mattis made a point to say these separate issues are in no way related. The secretary also claimed that the US military only provides 20 percent of the midair refueling for Saudi-led coalition fighter planes.

The secretary circled back to the Khashoggi affair, directing listeners to his remarks at last week’s Manama Dialogue in Bahrain. Repeating the stance espoused by the rest of the administration, Mattis said that they are still in the “fact finding” stage and attested to Saudi officials’ willingness to hold a full and impartial investigation into the incident, even as more and more alleged details are leaked to news outlets.

Finally, while confirming the return of the American ambassador to Libya, Peter Bodde, Mattis reiterated the US call for ending the conflict there—although he was frank about having “no good ideas” on how to accomplish that goal.