Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

ESCAPE of Saudi Nationals Act. On January 25, Oregon’s Democratic senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, introduced S. 231 that argues that the government of Saudi Arabia helped at least two of its citizens flee the United States while they were undergoing prosecution for criminal activity. In Oregon, a Saudi national was accused of committing first degree manslaughter and, as he awaited trial, federal authorities believe, the Saudi government helped the college student flee the country. The bill is a more specific indictment of Saudi Arabia, but the duo introduced a broader piece of legislation—likely inspired by Riyadh’s actions—requiring the secretary of state to submit a report on all countries that help citizens flee US prosecution. Both bills were referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) for consideration.

Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East. Senators were able to overcome a procedural hurdle this week and move on to debating and amending S. 1. Senators proposed a host of amendments, expanding S. 1 into an even bigger piece of legislation that addresses the United States’ policy toward the Middle East in a number of ways. Of the amendments offered, one would express the sense of the Senate that the president rethink the withdrawal of troops from Syria, or at least to do so more cautiously. Another amendment would authorize the president to use military force in Syria in order to protect the Syrian Kurds, a group that Washington has long supported. A number of others add sanctions on Iran, punish Saudi Arabia for its role in Yemen and for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and amend the anti-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) part of the bill to make it more palatable to those who oppose the legislation due to its potential violation of First Amendment protections.

While many of the amendments will not receive a vote, Mitch McConnell’s (R-Kentucky) “sense of the Senate” amendment regarding troops in Syria passed a procedural hurdle and will likely be adopted when the Senate resumes consideration of the bill next week. Once the Senate resolves all of the amendment questions, the body will then have to take a vote on cloture, or limiting debate, on the bill itself. That vote will be the major test that decides the likelihood of the Senate passing S. 1.

Blocking Muslim Ban Implementation. A group of senators and House members worked together to introduce bicameral legislation to block the government from using tax dollars to carry out the president’s executive order banning individuals from a handful of Muslim-majority countries (as well as North Korea and Venezuela) from entering the United States. S. 246 and H.R. 810 are the first bills of this kind during the current Congress and, while Democrats have the votes to pass this version, it is unlikely that any Republican senators will vote in favor of the Senate bill.

Senators also introduced a resolution recognizing the first anniversary of the original ban and called on the president to act as a leader on the issue of refugee resettlement. All of these bills and resolutions were referred to the SFRC and House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), respectively, for consideration.

War Powers Resolution. This week, lawmakers renewed their legislative efforts to withdraw the United States from hostilities in Yemen. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) introduced S. J. Res. 7 in the upper chamber while Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and 70 House colleagues introduced H. J. Res. 37 in the lower chamber. The Senate passed similar legislation shortly before the end of the 115th Congress for the first time. Ostensibly, the Senate would pass it again and the House would join this time around, but there is some concern that Republicans who backed the bill earlier did so only because there was no possibility of it passing the House. Many wonder if it would garner the same degree of support in the upper chamber, now that the likelihood of it passing the House and going to the president’s desk is much higher.

The War Powers Resolutions were not the only legislative actions taken this week regarding the conflict in Yemen. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) introduced H.R. 910 in order to prohibit funds from being used by the US military to refuel Saudi or Saudi-led coalition jets in Yemen. All these pieces of legislation were referred to the SFRC and HFAC, respectively, for consideration.

Legislation on Syria Withdrawal. A bipartisan group of House members introduced H.R. 914, which would “limit the use of funds to reduce the total number” of troops that are currently stationed in Syria. With questions swirling about the president’s strategy toward Syria, this group of House members decided they should take a more assertive posture vis-à-vis Washington’s Syria policy. Unlike McConnell’s aforementioned amendment, should this pass (which is highly unlikely), it would have the force of law and the president would, ostensibly, be barred from withdrawing troops from Syria. The bill was referred to the House Armed Services Committee for consideration.

As this week’s legislation indicates, in addition to the recent letter that House Democrats sent to President Trump detailing concerns over his administration’s strategy toward Syria, Congress is trying to get more involved in foreign policy decisions. Perhaps feeling discontent coming from Capitol Hill, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan gave an off-camera press conference this week to try to quell concerns. He argued that Pentagon policies remain largely consistent with those of Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and he was adamant that the withdrawal process from Syria will be orderly and completed with due diligence.

2) Hearings

Worldwide Threats. On January 29, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hosted the leaders of six US intelligence organizations in order to better understand the nature of the threats facing the United States. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats offered a combined testimony based on assessments from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and others. Following Coats’s prepared remarks, all the intelligence officials present were made available for senators’ questions.

According to the intelligence community (IC), some of Washington’s biggest threats are what they describe as “emerging powers” that have supplanted the United States’ hyper focus on terrorism over the last 17 years. These emerging powers—China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran—present several dangers to the United States, according to IC officials, including nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. But when discussing the Middle East and North Africa specifically, Coats and his colleagues noted that threats from the so-called Islamic State (IS) remain, despite the group’s waning hold on physical territory. The conditions that gave rise to IS have not changed in places such as Syria and Iraq, while the underlying instability is present in countries like Libya and Yemen, Coats said, thus offering potential safe havens for IS or similar groups. The IC’s assessment about IS directly contradicts recent statements by President Trump and it undermines his argument for withdrawing troops from Syria.

When asked specifically about Iran, CIA Director Gina Haspel told senators that while Tehran is considering taking steps that go against the agreements laid out in the Iran nuclear deal, the country technically remains in compliance with the deal. This, too, contradicts recent White House statements and general posture, both of which are based on the largely faulty premise that Iran is reneging on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. One other piece of information Haspel shared with the committee also contradicted recent administration policy. After the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump and his top officials repeatedly made claims that no one really knew who ordered Khashoggi’s death and they disputed CIA claims that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) himself ordered the killing. When asked if the Senate was wrong to publicly name MBS as the individual who ordered the killing last year, Haspel deflected—but she did not specifically rule out the crown prince’s involvement.

In ordinary times, a disconnect between a president and his top intelligence officials’ assessment of global threats would be newsworthy, but President Trump has long been suspicious of the IC. Indeed, the day after the hearing, Trump fired two tweets (see here and here) that showed his dissatisfaction with the officials’ analyses. Later, he said that the IC officials told him that their words had been “mischaracterized,” insinuating that he was correct in his earlier assessments of threats from Iran and IS. However, it is difficult to believe that those officials actually meant that, considering their remarks were given in front of television cameras and the fact that the president took issue with their remarks before his meeting with Coats and Haspel. This may give the impression that they might have been trying to placate him. Despite the president’s last statement on the matter implying that he was right all along, some observers believe the worldwide threat assessment produced by the DNI and his colleagues actually contradicts Trump’s positions even more greatly than previously thought.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

New Democratic Group Looks to Quell Concerns About the Strength of the Party’s Pro-Israel Stance. This week, a group of prominent Democrats unveiled a new pro-Israel organization called the Democratic Majority for Israel. Due to increased visibility of the liberal progressive wing of the party that is more willing to criticize Israel for its discriminatory treatment of Palestinians, Democrats of the old guard—who tend to be more in line with Republicans on foreign policy generally, but toward Israel particularly—decided they needed to reinforce the idea that support for Israel is a bipartisan cause. However, it is noteworthy that a growing segment of the country, particularly liberals and young people, is growing wary of the historical, unconditional support of Israel and its occupation policies.

At Least One House Committee Chairman Rules Out West Bank Delegation Trip. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York)—chairman of the HFAC and one of the most hawkish members of Congress when it comes to issues relating to Israel—said this week that he opposes any attempt by lawmakers to take a trip to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The CODEL—Congressional delegation—has been in the news recently because Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) has committed to visiting her ancestral homeland around the same time that freshman lawmakers usually visit Israel on a trip indirectly supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). House rules state that Tlaib and any colleagues who hope to join her would need permission from the speaker of the House or from chairs of committees they sit on. Although Tlaib is not a member of Engel’s HFAC, his public opposition could doom others’ chances, if not influence Tlaib’s chairs to veto her trip.

Newcomers on Senate Armed Services Write to Trump to Protect Kurds. This week, two newcomers to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), wrote to the Trump Administration to push for more protections for Syria’s Kurdish fighters. This, alongside Sen. John Kennedy’s (R-Louisiana) amendment proposal to S. 1 authorizing the use of force to protect the Kurds, illustrates the unease some in Congress feel about Trump’s proposal to abandon Washington’s Kurdish partners.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Administration Officials Seek Workaround as Aid to Palestinian Authority Ends. As was detailed last week, February 1 signals the start date for provisions of a new law—the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act—that would allow US federal courts jurisdiction over any entity that accepts specified US aid. For that reason, the Palestinian Authority (PA) renounced any remaining US assistance. The United States also no longer provides funding in support of crucial security cooperation between the PA and Israel. Because the cessation of cooperation could jeopardize security in the West Bank and Israel, US and Israeli officials have been hastily trying to secure a way to deliver funding to the PA under authorities that would not subject it to US judicial jurisdiction.

2) State Department

Pompeo to Host Ministerial to Determine Next Steps in Fighting IS. The State Department announced this week that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will host a meeting of the foreign ministers of the countries involved in the coalition to defeat the Islamic State.

Pompeo Meets with Algeria’s Foreign Minister, Speaks with UN Envoy to Yemen. On January 29, Pompeo met with Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdelkader Messahel for the fourth annual US-Algerian Strategic Dialogue. The two talked about many aspects of US-Algerian relations; however, given the administration’s security posture toward the region, they undoubtedly spent a great deal of time discussing counterterrorism cooperation. As for Yemen, Pompeo spoke with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths for an update on the latter’s negotiation efforts and to express support for recent trust-building developments between the warring sides in Yemen.