Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act. S. 1 was introduced last week, as detailed here, but it experienced some opposition this week due to what many describe as the unconstitutional nature of the updated version of S. 170. On the first procedural vote, only 56 senators (short of the 60 necessary to pass) voted in favor of invoking cloture, which limits debate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) used a procedural maneuver to then immediately motion for consideration of the bill again, setting up a second cloture vote on January 10. However, the GOP was not able to recruit any more Democrats to their side and they failed to invoke cloture for a second time. That is not stopping McConnell, though. He followed the vote with yet another motion to reconsider S. 1 and another cloture vote is set for Monday, January 14.

Syria Sanctions, Jordan Support Bills Introduced Separately. Despite the fact that senators are still trying to muscle through S. 1, members of both chambers have introduced some of the provisions of that bill as individual, stand-alone bills. McConnell introduced the United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Extension Act (S. 28) and the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), Eliot Engel (D-New York), introduced the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (H.R. 31), which he has been committed to passing since the early months of 2017. Both bills have been detailed previously here and here, but the odds of these versions being passed into law are much greater than previous attempts. McConnell placed S. 28 on the legislative calendar already, meaning it is eligible for floor consideration once all the bills preceding it are dispensed with. Since S. 1 was is still in limbo, it is uncertain if S. 28 will receive floor consideration in the near future. H.R. 31 was referred to the HFAC, among other committees, for consideration.

Targeting the United Nations. Since the 116th Congress convened, GOP lawmakers have introduced two bills and one resolution targeting the United Nations. Rep. Louie Gohmert’s (R-Texas) United Nations Voting Accountability Act (H.R. 28) would withhold funds from any UN member states that voted opposite the United States on more than half of reported votes last year. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) went further, proposing legislation (H.R. 204) that would withdraw the United States from the international body in its entirety. Finally, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) introduced a resolution (H. Res. 12) condemning the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) “efforts…to deny Judaism’s millennia-old historical, religious, and cultural ties to Jerusalem.” The first two, though more subtle, are similar to the latter because they are intended to punish the United Nations for what lawmakers consider anti-Israel bias, argues Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. It is unlikely any of these measures will get serious consideration from the Democratic-controlled House, but they were all referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for consideration.

Miscellaneous Bills, Resolutions. Since the new Congress was seated, there have been a host of bills and resolutions relating to the Middle East. H.R. 21 was passed in the first days of the 116th Congress and it contains six of the 12 annual appropriation bills, including funds for the State Department. As noted before, the Trump Administration felt it appropriated too much money for aid to the occupied Palestinian territories, but House members also reduced funding for Egypt and dealt a blow to Morocco over its claims to the Western Sahara. In total, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Syria, and Yemen would be allowed funds of varying amounts and with varying limitations if this bill eventually becomes law.

Aside from the appropriation bill, lawmakers have also introduced legislation and resolutions to do the following: levy terrorism-related sanctions on some Iraqi fighting forces (H.R. 361); impose additional security requirements on Iraqi and Syrian citizens trying to enter the United States (H.R. 364); institute more human rights violations-related sanctions on Iran (H.R. 194); make it easier for Congress to vote down arms sales like those often proposed for Saudi Arabia or Bahrain (H.R. 332); and lay out provisions in one Senate bill (S. 52) similar to those set forth in the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (see above).

Sunset 2001 AUMF. Though nothing has been proposed yet, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) has explored her colleagues’ interest in supporting a bill that would end the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that originally led to the invasion of Afghanistan—this has since been used by every administration to justify expanding the use of force to other arenas against terrorist groups. Lee has been a longstanding critic of the current AUMF; in fact, she is the only member of Congress who voted against it in 2001. She has pushed for a “sunset” of the AUMF for some time but was often thwarted by GOP majorities. At present, however, it is uncertain what kind of interest there is even within her own majority.

2) Personnel

Senate Armed Services Gets Briefing on White House Syria Strategy. On January 10, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee met in a closed door briefing with Pentagon officials and left feeling only slightly more favorable to the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Even while some lawmakers said they were satisfied with the administration’s decision and its strategy for withdrawing troops at the proper time, a spokesman for the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition said this week that coalition troops are already being withdrawn.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

National Security Advisor Bolton Visits Israel, Turkey to Explain US Posture Toward Region. This week, President Donald Trump’s top security advisor, John Bolton, traveled to Israel and Turkey to speak with officials about the United States’ posture toward the region now that Trump has ordered a drawdown in troops from Syria. In Israel, Bolton flatly stated that troops would not withdraw until Turkey could guarantee the safety of the US-backed Kurdish fighters who are doing most of the heavy fighting against remaining IS elements. While many in Israel heard Bolton’s remarks as a signal that the United States will actually remain in Syria longer than the president has indicated, the audience in Ankara—namely, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—was outraged. Erdoğan refused to see Bolton when the latter arrived in Ankara and any good relations that seemed forged between the United States and Turkish presidents seem to have been cast aside after Bolton’s visit. Indeed, Erdoğan later gave the White House an ultimatum, saying the United States must withdraw or that Turkey would attack.

2) State Department

Secretary Pompeo Visits Arab Partners to Quell Concerns. Beginning earlier this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been in the Middle East to visit with concerned partners, from Egypt to the Gulf, many of whom are confused by recent US policy decisions. Pompeo’s itinerary included stops in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman, and he made an additional visit to Iraq after his meetings in Amman.

In Jordan, Pompeo met with King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi to discuss bilateral relations between Washington and Amman, in addition to developments in Syria, the fight against the Islamic State, and the potential for a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. The promotion of bilateral relations and the ongoing fight against IS were common themes during Pompeo’s meetings; he spoke with Iraq’s Arab and Kurdish leaders about the same topics. Pompeo sat down separately with President Barham Salih, Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim, and Kurdish leaders Nechirvan and Masrour Barzani. According to the readouts of these meetings, Pompeo also touched on the need for Iraq to push for energy independence and he sought even closer working relationships between the United States military and Iraqi security forces. The attempts by the Trump Administration and Pompeo to balance relations with Iraq between Washington and neighboring Tehran are delicate for Iraqi politicians and have not always been received well in Iraq. In addition, President Trump’s visit to Iraq during the Christmas holiday irritated some politicians in Baghdad. Despite all of this, Iraqi leaders asked the administration to maintain troop levels in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

Secretary Pompeo then visited Cairo, where he met with Egyptian officials including President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Pompeo also gave a speech at the American University in Cairo that essentially repudiated former President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. Further, and while persistently elevating President Trump’s current pursuits in the region, the secretary claimed that the United States “has always been a liberating force, not an occupying power” in the Middle East. Pompeo’s speech raised three main points: the anti-IS coalition’s success in degrading the Islamic State; increased opposition to the Iranian regime and its proxies; and Washington’s efforts at facilitating normalized relations within the region (e.g., between Israel and Arab states). Pompeo focused on the danger of Iran to the rest of the region and touted what he considered the president’s successful international campaign to pressure Iran.

After Egypt, Secretary Pompeo traveled to the Gulf, where he planned on laying out a robust vision for security and cooperation there. En route to Bahrain, the State Department also issued a statement saying that the United States and Poland would be teaming up to host a ministerial event in Warsaw in February to “Promote a Future of Peace and Stability in the Middle East.” Some are already describing the event as inherently anti-Iran.

State Department Special Envoys See Shake-up. Last week’s Washington Policy Weekly noted that Brett McGurk resigned in protest as Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. This week Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, took over McGurk’s role. Jeffrey will remain in his role overseeing Syria policy, but now he will also act as the main administration liaison to the anti-IS coalition. In addition, Gen. Anthony Zinni resigned as the chief envoy tasked with facilitating a reconciliation between Gulf Cooperation Council states that are still mired in boycott. Zinni was tapped, in August 2017, to facilitate a reconciliation of sorts between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc boycotting it, but since then he has found it difficult to get regional leaders to talk about ending the spat. Indeed, Zinni cited the “unwillingness of regional leaders to agree to a viable mediation effort that we offered to conduct or assist in implementing” as cause for his resignation.