Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

A new Congress convened this week, kicking off the start of at least two years of divided government. Among the historically diverse group of freshman representatives were three Arab American women: Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), Donna Shalala (D-Florida), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota). Omar and Tlaib, who are also the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, elicited great levels of excitement from the Somali American and Palestinian American communities, respectively, with the latter celebrating Tlaib’s swearing-in by making viral displays of the traditional Palestinian thobe.

The early days of the new Congress will focus on simply reopening the government. The House majority passed bills in an effort to do just that, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has said the Senate will not consider those bills because President Donald Trump has indicated he would veto any legislation that does not include his $5.6 billion demand for border wall funding. In addition, the president’s counsel advised in a memo that the president would be urged to reject the Democrats’ spending bills (H.R. 21 and H.J. Res. 1) because they appropriate too much money, including for aid in the occupied Palestinian territories and Syria.

1) Committee Personnel

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Fills Out Seats. While the GOP grew its overall Senate majority, it actually lost members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) as the former chair, Bob Corker (Tennessee), and Arizona’s Senator Jeff Flake retired. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) is expected to replace Corker as chair, but Republicans replaced two vacancies and added a third member to boost their number to 12. According to CQ reporter Rachel Oswald, the three new GOP members are expected to be Mitt Romney (Utah), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and Ted Cruz (Texas).

2) Legislation

SFRC Members Seek to Get Involved in Foreign Policy Early. SFRC members have indicated that they intend to be more involved in dictating foreign policy during this Congress. Senators Risch, McConnell, Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) introduced S. 1—the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act—which bundles together four pieces of legislation that originally passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate. These include bills that address security assistance to Israel (S. 2497) and Jordan (H.R. 2646); add new sanctions on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his regime (H.R. 1677); and bar individuals from participating in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel (S. 170). The first three bills passed the House, as amended, fairly easily last year, but the anti-BDS legislation has been controversial from its inception, with opponents arguing that it is an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment of the Constitution because it would punish individuals or entities for practicing economic boycotts, which US courts have deemed is a protected form of free speech.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Makes Visit to Iraq Amid Tumult on Middle East Policy. Over the holidays, President Trump and the first lady paid a visit to US troops stationed in Iraq, marking Trump’s first visit to soldiers in nearly two years as president. His trip, though billed as impromptu, had been planned for months and came on the heels of two high profile resignations: Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Special Envoy for the Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk. Trump had said previously that he wanted a full withdrawal of US troops from Syria—who are expected to be complementing US military units in Iraq in supporting the war against the so-called Islamic State (IS)—prompting Mattis and McGurk to resign in protest.

Since then, the president has given different signals for when he expects the troop drawdown, but government bureaucrats and Middle East allies alike are unsure about the future of the US presence. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been pushing for a harder line against Iran in Syria and both appear to have been caught steps ahead of the president, who had never really sided with their strategy. They have since been assigned to head to the region to reassure allies on the US role there, but few are sure what the two will say since they are instinctively more hawkish on Iran (like leaders in Israel and the Gulf) than the president himself. Pompeo also made rounds on media outlets (see here and here) this week to try and paper over the obvious disconnect in the administration’s Middle East policy, but according to the transcripts, it seems he simply tried to argue that troops would leave Syria but that the United States, with Gulf allies, would continue the anti-IS fight. This argument appeals to Trump. It is clear, however, that there is little cohesion in the approaches of the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council states, so a smooth withdrawal with no negative downside may not be realistic.

Trump Phones Egypt’s El-Sisi. President Trump and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi spoke this week on bilateral ties and regional developments of mutual concern. Though the administration did not provide a readout, it would not be surprising if Trump attempted to prod Sisi into taking a more direct role in arenas like Syria, where Trump wants to minimize the US presence and see more buy-in from regional Arab players.

2) State Department

Pompeo Meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Brazil. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participated in  bilateral and trilateral meetings this week in Brazil. The two spoke about security ties and mutual cooperation. Netanyahu also appeared to be mediating a discussion between Washington and Tegucigalpa in an effort to help persuade the Honduran government to relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Senate Confirms Ambassadors to Tunisia, Yemen. The State Department now officially has an ambassadorial presence in Tunisia and Yemen, with Donald Blome being confirmed to the former and Christopher Henzel to the latter.

3) Defense Department

Former Defense Contractor Executive to Serve as Acting Secretary of Defense. After General James Mattis resigned as secretary of defense, President Trump tapped Patrick Shanahan—who was already serving as the second highest ranking official at the Pentagon—to head up the department in the interim.

Pentagon to Give Lebanon More Funding. It was reported this week that the Department of Defense has opted to provide the Lebanese Armed Forces with roughly $100 million in arms, equipment, and training in an effort to undermine Hezbollah’s outsize influence in the country. As Hezbollah has expanded its presence in the Levant and honed its tactical skills in Syria, US officials worry that it will grow more powerful back home in Lebanon, commandeer the state’s fighting capabilities, and use its power to threaten Israel. This decision has been considered for some time, according to the report, and it is consistent with longstanding US strategy toward Lebanon and Hezbollah.

III. Judicial Branch

Twenty-two Americans Sue Hezbollah for Trauma. This week, 22 US citizens joined together to sue Hezbollah and an Iranian bank in a federal court, arguing that they suffered trauma from repeated rocket attacks that Hezbollah launched from Lebanon on northern Israel during a brief war between the two in 2006. These citizens were living in northern Israel during that time and claim to have suffered trauma from the rocket attacks; they are seeking $50 million in damages from Hezbollah and the bank. The fate of the case against the Iranian bank is unclear, however, as one court tossed out a similar suit in 2013. In addition, an April 2018 Supreme Court decision in favor of Jordan’s Arab Bank appears to have dealt a serious blow to the Alien Tort Statue, as it asserted that foreign corporations cannot be held liable under this statute.