Washington Policy Weekly – October 26, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Arms Sale Oversight Act. On October 19, Democratic Congressmen Ted Lieu (California) and James McGovern (Massachusetts) introduced a bill that, if adopted, would make it easier to force a vote on a joint resolution—and they likely drafted this legislation with a joint resolution in mind, one that would prohibit US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. H.R. 7080 would amend the Arms Export Control Act—which already has provisions allowing Congress to effectively veto a proposed arms deal—to expedite the process through which a joint resolution would have to pass. Lieu has been among the most vocal opponents of the White House’s unconditional support for the Saudi-led coalition’s fight against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has incensed him and others on Capitol Hill, leading lawmakers to target US military support and arms sales to hold the Saudis accountable for the war in Yemen. Once lawmakers return to Washington after the midterm elections, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) can consider this bill.

Promoting Religious Freedom by Prohibiting Aid to States with Blasphemy Laws. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Florida) introduced H.Res. 1132 this week that would recommend that the United States refrain from providing aid to any state that infringes on religious freedom. Pakistan has long drawn the ire of lawmakers for its draconian anti-blasphemy laws, but Rooney’s resolution also singles out Saudi Arabia for its equally harsh treatment of religious minorities. Though it is nonbinding, lawmakers will still have the opportunity to send a message if they choose to adopt this resolution. It was referred to the HFAC for consideration.

Prohibition on US Military Support for Saudi Arabia. Adding to a previous bill he sponsored, Rep. James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) offered a new, stricter bill in H.R. 7082 that seeks to keep the Pentagon from providing military support to Riyadh’s Yemen campaign, as well as to block the United States from selling arms to Saudi Arabia. McGovern’s bill takes a decidedly harder stance against the kingdom, in response to Khashoggi’s death. Whereas his previous version allowed for the secretary of state to eventually clear Riyadh to receive military support and acquire weapons, this version explicitly prohibits the secretary of defense from providing the support (such as midair refueling, sharing intelligence, etc.) that the Saudi-led coalition requires to continue its fight in Yemen. The only exception to the prohibition is for providing military service for protecting US citizens or diplomatic personnel; interestingly, the bill omits providing protection of US troops as a reason for continued support, though there are reportedly military personnel in or near Yemen’s borders. As for weapons sales, all future deals are prohibited; however, the administration can seek waivers from Congress on a case-by-case basis but would have to get both chambers to pass a joint resolution of approval. These are radical changes to the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill and, should the bill receive enough votes to pass, the Trump Administration would almost certainly raise challenges to the legislation, likely claiming that such language is unconstitutional because it infringes on the president’s Article II authorities for conducting foreign policy. The bill was referred to the HFAC for consideration.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Khanna, Pocan Send Letter to DNI Coats. Earlier this month, Progressive Democratic Congressmen Ro Khanna (California) and Mark Pocan (Wisconsin) probed their colleagues for support for a letter they intended to send to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Dan Coats, asking for information regarding what US spy agencies knew about purported efforts by Saudi Arabia to lure Jamal Khashoggi to its consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. This week, Khanna and Pocan sent the final letter to DNI Coats with their signatures along with those of 53 other colleagues, almost all of whom caucus with the Democratic Party. The letter asks Coats to share with lawmakers what the US intelligence agencies knew about the Saudi plot, when they knew it, and if they carried out the mandated “duty to warn,” notifying Khashoggi beforehand of his potential safety risk. The letter also told Coats that his information was critical for lawmakers’ future considerations of US support for the Saudi war in Yemen, referencing a concurrent resolution that Khanna and Pocan worked to draft earlier this year. That resolution (H.Con.Res. 138) also garnered significantly more support in the wake of the Khashoggi affair and its fallout in Washington. Prior to Khashoggi’s October 2 disappearance, the resolution had 33 cosponsors, but in the weeks since, that number has jumped to 56.

Sen. Warren Calls on DOJ to Investigate Mercenaries Executing Yemenis. On October 19, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking that the Department of Justice investigate a jarring report that a private American security firm had been contracted by the United Arab Emirates to carry out assassinations of prominent Yemeni clerics and al-Islah political party members. Some of these mercenaries are American and, even more troubling, some of those Americans were contracted while they were on leave from active duty in the US military. Sen. Warren notes that the Americans involved are likely exposed to a number of legal violations; she wrote to Attorney General Sessions asking for information regarding whether the Department of Justice has or is currently investigating any Americans or US government officials about this work for Abu Dhabi. Any US government official who knew of the arrangement and signed off on it could likely come under legal scrutiny as well.

Sen. Sanders Decries US Support for Saudi War in Yemen. On October 24, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) penned an op-ed for the New York Times with a very simple message: “We [the United States] must stop helping Saudi Arabia in Yemen.” He criticized US support for the Saudi efforts and lamented the fact that, even though government officials seem to understand the havoc and despair that Riyadh and its allies are creating in Yemen, they guarantee American support for Riyadh anyway. Sanders, as ACW has noted previously, said he intends to force another vote on US military support for the Saudi coalition after the midterm elections.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Mixed Messages Coming from the White House Regarding Saudi Role in Khashoggi Death. This week, Vice President Mike Pence and senior advisor to the president, Jared Kushner, gave more measured responses to lingering questions about the Saudi royal court’s involvement in the death of Jamal Khashoggi. Keeping the Saudis at arm’s length, Kushner said that the administration was still gathering facts but that he told his close partner, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to carry out a transparent investigation. Despite numerous reports detailing his dealings with bin Salman, Kushner also said that his role in Middle East policy remained singularly focused on reaching a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Vice President Mike Pence, for his part, echoed Kushner’s sentiments, saying that the administration is working diligently to uncover all the facts surrounding Khashoggi’s murder. When asked directly about potential sanctions for those involved, he sidestepped the question, continuing to stress that the administration is still in the fact-finding stage.

President Donald Trump, on the other hand, publicly and privately has expressed frustration about the fallout from the journalist’s murder, at one point condemning the explanations coming out of Riyadh as a “cover-up”—apparently not even a good cover-up, at that. Surprisingly, the president suggested that he would leave the decision to punish the Saudis involved in the murder up to Congress, expressing hope that any decision would be a bipartisan one. However, he again pushed back against the idea of cutting off arms supplies—erroneously suggesting earlier that the US-Saudi arms trade is responsible for one million jobs in the United States—which would somewhat limit what the most vocal advocates for punitive measures are calling for on Capitol Hill.

President Trump, France’s Macron May Be at Odds about Israel and Palestine. Reports this week suggested that French President Emmanuel Macron has privately told the US administration that if it does not release its much-vaunted proposal for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, then Paris would take the lead. Drawing from a conversation the two presidents had weeks ago, Trump allegedly told Macron that he would release the plan after the midterms and that he was prepared to pressure the ever recalcitrant Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to agree to proposed concessions. While Paris has been content with waiting for Washington to lead on the issue, Macron appears to be growing frustrated with Trump’s approach—singularly punishing the Palestinians while requesting nothing from Israel—and France has had a proposal on the table since the days of Marcon’s predecessor, François Hollande.

Trump Commemorates Beirut Bombings. On October 25, President Trump, joined by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and others, gathered at the White House to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the bombing of US Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The bombing was carried out by Hezbollah, then a fledgling group supported by Iran, which has since evolved into arguably one of the strongest political groups in the Lebanese state. That same day, President Trump signed into law the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act, opening the group to more sanctions and potentially complicating Lebanese politicians’ delicate attempt to craft a new government.

2) State Department

Sec. Mike Pompeo Says US Will Suspend Some Saudi Visas. During a press briefing this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered a first glimpse of a US strategy for holding Saudi Arabia responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi. Though he reiterated the administration’s line about Washington waiting for all the facts, he did announce that 21 Saudis thought to have been involved in the premeditated murder would have their visas revoked or their applications for visas denied. This is hardly a serious punishment, but it is a proactive step from an administration that, for the better part of three weeks, has seemed unwilling to hold Riyadh accountable for the extrajudicial killing of a US legal resident.

Pompeo Speaks with UN Special Envoy for Syria, UN Secretary-General. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a phone call with the United Nations’ outgoing Special Representative to Syria Staffan de Mistura. In addition, Pompeo met in-person with UN Secretary-General António Guterres in Washington to discuss developments in Syria, among other topics. He spoke with both UN leaders about ways to bring the war in Syria to an end and the situation on the ground in the war-torn country. De Mistura, who is leaving his post after four years, also met with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, this week and the latter bluntly told him that the United Nations has no place in determining the next Syrian constitution.

Deputy Secretary Sullivan Meets with UN Special Envoy for Yemen. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan met with UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths in Washington this week. Griffiths is leading UN efforts to find a political solution to the three-year-old war in Yemen, but so far neither side has been willing to seriously pursue such a goal. The National reported that Griffiths also met with members of Congress while in Washington; this could be useful for him because lawmakers are angered by the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi and could be more willing to put forth legislation that might make the Saudis and their coalition allies take peace negotiations more seriously.

Special Representative McGurk Meets with Iraqi Officials; Pompeo Speaks with New Leaders. The United States’ Special Envoy to the Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, met with Baghdad’s newly appointed prime minister to discuss US-Iraq relations under his premiership. While McGurk met with officials in Iraq, Secretary Pompeo held phone calls with the new prime minister, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, and Baghdad’s newest foreign minister, Mohammed Ali al-Hakim. Pompeo congratulated them for their new posts and expressed hope that Washington and Baghdad could continue to strengthen their relations to counter the threats to their mutual interests.

3) Treasury Department

Secretary Mnuchin Visits Saudi Arabia During Middle East Tour, Despite Criticism. Last week, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin opted to join many other government officials and private business executives in boycotting Saudi Arabia’s “Davos in the Desert” investment conference. Mnuchin did decide to visit Riyadh, among other regional states, on a tour designated for pursuing further anti-terrorism financing cooperation. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Mnuchin met with officials from Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

After meeting with allies, Mnuchin announced that the joint anti-terrorism financing unit established between Washington and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states would be levying new sanctions on individuals in Afghanistan and Iran who support the Afghan Taliban group. In addition to the joint US-GCC sanctions, Mnuchin and his Treasury Department team are still preparing for renewed nuclear-related sanctions to put back in place in the coming weeks. However, according to an interview Mnuchin gave during his trip to the Middle East, there are some details that must be worked out. Most notably, the administration is still deliberating internally about how hard to push European banks to cut off Iran’s access to the global financial system. Conversations revolve around the SWIFT network, which is an international system that allows banks to communicate with one another. Barring Iran from the system would be crucial to building the strong sanctions the administration envisions, but the idea is not well received in Europe, where the SWIFT system is housed.

4) Central Intelligence Agency

CIA Director Haspel Visits Turkey amid Khashoggi Affair Fallout. The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Gina Haspel flew to Ankara this week to meet with Turkish officials regarding their ongoing investigations into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Haspel reportedly listened to the alleged audio recording of the murder, which has been reported to exist but has yet to be verified. If the reports are accurate, the Trump Administration would find standing by the Saudis’ narrative about the events much more difficult; perhaps that is why Saudi officials changed their story once again, admitting that Khashoggi’s murder was premeditated. Congress might try to force Haspel to participate in a closed-door, classified briefing to outline exactly what she heard, which could undercut the US-Saudi message that has been circulated thus far.

5) Defense Department

Gen. Votel Visits Syria; Sec. Mattis Heads to Bahrain. This week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Votel took a trip to visit a small yet strategic military base in Syria, while Secretary Mattis flew to Bahrain to participate in the “Manama Dialogue.” Mattis also spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, to reiterate US-Israel defense cooperation.