Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East. After weeks of failed procedural votes and debate time, S. 1 passed the Senate, as amended, by a vote of 77-23. As has been chronicled before, S. 1 includes a deeply unpopular—and likely unconstitutional—provision allowing states to prohibit individuals who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement from accessing state-sponsored programs and benefits. In other words, it endorses state-sanctioned suppression of free speech as protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment. For this reason—and in spite of the other provisions of the bill that prove popular among both Democrats and Republicans—S. 1 likely will not get any serious consideration in the House, though aides have suggested it may go to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) for debate.

“NOPEC. This week, House Democrats introduced H.R. 948 and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced S. 370, both of which are the latest iterations of a bill proposed during the last Congress known as NOPEC. It sought to treat the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as an organized cartel and expose it to US legal jurisdiction. NOPEC was the subject of a senate hearing last year and more lawmakers are growing frustrated with what they perceive as the cartel-like practices of OPEC. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.

Walter B. Jones Restoring Power to Congress Act. California Democrat John Garamendi introduced H.R. 966 in an effort to repeal the nearly 18-year old authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that allowed President George W. Bush to pursue al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This AUMF has been used by every administration since then to justify military adventures into a number of countries in pursuit of terrorists. The bill was referred to the HFAC for consideration.

War Powers Resolution. Instead of revoking previous AUMFs, some members are pushing to adopt the War Powers Resolution like the Senate did late last year. On February 6, the HFAC successfully passed H.J. Res. 37, which would order the withdrawal of US troops from the hostilities in Yemen. Some Republicans on the committee decried the effort, saying that freshmen committee representatives did not know enough about the situation to vote one way or the other; ultimately, those voices were outnumbered and the War Powers Resolution will head to the floor for a full House vote. While a similar measure passed the Senate for the first time ever during the last Congress, some are concerned that Republicans who supported the effort in the chamber last year did so only with the confidence that the House would not consider it. Now that an affirmative vote almost guarantees an awkward confrontation with President Donald Trump, fewer Republicans may support the measure. However, there seems to be enough congressional support to pass the resolution through both chambers, though there are probably no “veto-proof” levels of support.

Religious Intolerance in Saudi Education Materials. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced S. 357, the Senate’s version of a bill introduced in the House last month. Should either version become law, the State Department would be required to provide Congress with reports about Saudi textbooks promoting intolerance of religious minorities. The bill was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) for consideration.

Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act. This week, Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) reintroduced last Congress’s Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act (S. 398). The senator and his colleagues anticipated that the State Department would fail to meet the February 8 deadline to notify Congress of any high ranking Saudi officials’ involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi (as dictated by a provision of the Global Magnitsky Act), so they introduced this bill again. Should it become law, it would bar the United States from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and prohibit the military from providing in-flight refueling services to anti-Houthi coalition planes in the Yemen war. The bill was referred to the SFRC for consideration, but it is unclear if the necessary level of support to pass the bill into law is present.

2) Hearings

United States Central Command. On February 5, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing to review the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2020 and to hear testimony from General Joseph L. Votel, the outgoing commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). Votel chronicled the work of CENTCOM in the Middle East and North Africa, highlighting the body’s important work in Yemen and Iraq and its efforts to combat the so-called Islamic State (IS) throughout the region. He gave committee members current counterterrorism statistics, saying that IS-controlled territory has been reduced to just one percent of the area the group once occupied and that roughly 20,000-30,000 IS fighters remain in Syria and neighboring Iraq. While Votel’s statement hewed close to official White House talking points, senators grilled him about President Trump’s more casual statements regarding the situation in Syria.

Senators highlighted the glaring disconnect between the president and Votel, at which point the general had to admit that Trump had not consulted him before declaring that IS was defeated and ordering troops to be withdrawn from Syria. Votel faced tough questions about US-Saudi relations as well, and before the hearing CNN published a thorough report that detailed how Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates transferred US military equipment and vehicles to radical factions in Yemen. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) pointedly questioned the commander over US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners.

US Policy in the Arabian Peninsula. On February 6, the HFAC held its first full committee hearing of the 116th Congress and it focused on US policy in the Arabian Peninsula. The committee asked four witnesses to provide thoughts on a number of topics, especially Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition’s role in Yemen, and US-Saudi relations: David Harden of the Georgetown Strategy Group, Mara Karlin of Johns Hopkins University, Jake Sullivan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The witnesses differed in their assessments of the current situation in the Arabian Peninsula, specifically regarding the United States’ role in the Yemen conflict. Sullivan and Karlin argued for a nuanced carrot-and-stick approach toward Saudi Arabia in an effort to convince Riyadh to be more responsible in Yemen. Singh promoted a sustained US relationship with Riyadh—despite the kingdom’s abuses of human rights and arms sales—in order to address regional concerns such as Iran. Viewing the situation in purely economic terms, Harden agreed there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen but indicated skepticism about the practicality of a diplomatic solution. This hearing, like much of the debate regarding US relations with Saudi Arabia, was highly partisan. Democrats focused primarily on Saudi Arabia’s strategic malpractice under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and they pushed for Riyadh to be held accountable for, among other things, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Republicans, however, focused on security and argued that Saudi Arabia, as problematic as its behavior domestically and regionally can be, is an important security partner and a cudgel against Iranian hegemony.

Evaluation of Department of Defense’s Counterterrorism Approach. On February 6, the House Armed Services Committee hosted two Pentagon officials to assess the United States’ success in combatting international terrorism. Chairman Adam Smith (D-Washington) called the hearing to shed light on how the US approach to counterterrorism is working and what, if anything, the Department of Defense needs Congress to do in order to improve it. Assistant Secretary of Defense Owen West and Major General David Allvin of the Joint Staff testified before the committee.

From the outset, West spoke about counterterrorism specifically as it relates to the Islamic State. He recounted Washington’s efforts, in partnership with governments around the world, to decimate the physical territory that IS controlled and used for revenue. The successes West outlined have provided defense officials with two key lessons, he noted. First, the “by, with, and through” strategy for fighting IS—where US soldiers train and support indigenous forces but allow those groups to do the fighting—is the framework the United States should pursue if future circumstances require. Second, West said, the destruction of a physical IS caliphate ushers in a new era of counterterrorism that is dispersed and made up of networks. Defeating networks will require a global coalition working at local levels and Congress should appropriate resources and provide the necessary authorizations for the Pentagon to carry out such a strategy. As the “Global War on Terror” has illustrated, this approach will likely see the United States operating mostly in war zones like Iraq and Syria in addition to borderline failed states like Somalia, Libya, and Yemen.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Engel Talks About Democrats’ Foreign Policy Priorities. On February 5, HFAC Chairman Eliot Engel (D-New York) spoke before a crowd at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to lay out his vision for House Democrats’ foreign policy priorities now that the party enjoys the majority in the House of Representatives. Engel said he wanted to reclaim some of the power over foreign policy that the legislative branch is granted under the Constitution—power that Congress has ceded over the last few decades—and communicated his belief in starting with US policy toward Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He expressed discomfort about US support for Riyadh and its allies in their disastrous war in Yemen, saying that through hearings, he wants to publicly hold the Trump Administration accountable for its role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition.

While he refrained from discussing any specific legislative steps, Engel said the committee would play a key role in encouraging public discourse about the situations in Syria, where the president wants to withdraw US troops, and Sudan, where the Omar al-Bashir regime has cracked down brutally on peaceful protestors in recent weeks. Rep. Engel also spoke about using his platform as HFAC chair to speak out in favor of the Lebanese, whom he characterized as being held hostage by Hezbollah.

Senator Cruz Outlines the Senate’s Role in Foreign Policy. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spoke at the American Enterprise Institute to outline the GOP Senate majority’s role in dictating US foreign policy. A newcomer to the SFRC, Cruz has long been hawkish on foreign policy issues, particularly when it comes to Iran and Israel; in fact, he called himself a “noninterventionist hawk.” He spoke of the Senate as a stabilizing force in foreign policy and called on his colleagues to wrest back some control of foreign policy making that Congress has ceded to the executive branch.

Cruz detailed a foreign policy that revolves around US interests, operating somewhere above interventionism and isolationism and viewing global actors as friends, enemies, rivals, or problematic allies. A “friend” about which Cruz spoke at length was Israel, one that helps further US national security. He pilloried the Obama Administration’s policies toward Israel and applauded President Trump’s. Cruz pointed to Iran as an example of an enemy; he said a nuclear Iran would be the single greatest national security threat to the United States. In addition, Cruz asserted that if Iran appears to be in imminent reach of securing a nuclear weapon, the US Constitution would allow the president to order the use of military force without the constitutionally mandated authorization from Congress.

As for “rivals” (e.g., Russia and China) and “problematic allies” (e.g., Saudi Arabia), Cruz employed the usual rhetoric about Riyadh’s abysmal human rights record, religious intolerance, and more, but he leaned into the traditional Washington logic of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Cruz fears that weakening Saudi Arabia empowers Iran, which is reason enough to support the regime in Riyadh. He said that one rationale he did not agree with was to use force to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because this would allow IS to have access to Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons (this is despite the well-chronicled history of how Assad actually encouraged the growth of radical groups like IS after the Syrian war started).

SFRC Middle East Subcommittee Leadership Named. This week it was announced that Senators Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) will serve as the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the SFRC Subcommittee on the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism. This is an interesting development because Murphy, and to a lesser extent Romney, have been vocal leaders on issues pertaining to the Middle East. It is also in sharp contrast to the subcommittee’s relative invisibility under Senator James Risch (R-Idaho), who now serves as the full committee chairman. The subcommittee may prove to be more active under the stewardship of Romney and Murphy.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

State of the Union. On February 5, President Donald Trump gave the 2019 State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. Presidents typically use this time to put forth an optimistic message about the country and to call on Congress to execute specific policy priorities. Trump did some of that, but he also pandered to his base and highlighted issues that fundamentally divide Americans politically. While most of his speech focused largely on domestic issues, he characterized his foreign policy approach as one of a “principled realism” that freed him from political shackles to accomplish certain goals, such as moving the US embassy in Israel to disputed Jerusalem, reneging on US commitments under the Iran nuclear deal, and withdrawing US troops from “endless wars.”

President Trump Muddies the Water on Troops in Iraq. This week the president gave an interview in which he said that the US military would remain in Iraq in order to “keep watching” Iran and would continue to protect Israel, despite the fact that neither goal was part of the original congressional mandates authorizing the use of military force in the region (2001 and 2002 authorizations). At a time when the Iraqi government is grappling with what the nature of the US military role should be in Iraq, and the country itself exercising its sovereignty, the remarks agitated groups in Baghdad that want American soldiers expelled. Indeed, defense officials found his remarks discomforting and moved to walk back the president’s statements, but the remarks will only survive to raise suspicions among Iraqis, who have the task of finding middle ground for their relationships between the United States and neighboring Iran. Though the certainty and timing of any withdrawal from Iraq is unknown, the Pentagon announced this week that it anticipates withdrawing from Syria by April of this year.

2) Department of State

Secretary Pompeo Hosts Ministerial on Defeating IS. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted ministers of states that belong to the coalition to defeat IS. During the visit in Washington, DC, ministers provided remarks, as did the secretary of state and President Trump. The officials also gave a statement regarding developments in Syria and they outlined the major aspects of the coalition’s efforts to uproot IS. Pompeo tried to assuage allies’ concerns over President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops, but he maintained that the United States is committed to seeing the final defeat of the terrorist group.

Pompeo Holds a Number of Meetings, Interviews. This week, Secretary Pompeo held separate meetings with the foreign affairs ministers of Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia as well as one with an Iranian activist. The secretary spoke with the foreign ministers about bilateral topics of interest and general developments throughout the region. Pompeo’s meeting with Iranian women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad was an attempt to display solidarity with Iranian citizens; this is despite the fact that Washington’s crippling sanctions harm everyday citizens and bars them from entering the United States. Pompeo also did three interviews this week in which he talked about IS, Syria withdrawal, Iran, and Hezbollah in South America.

While Pompeo met with his counterparts, Undersecretary of State David Hale met with Turkey’s deputy foreign minister in US-Turkey joint working groups to discuss the topics of Syria and counterterrorism, among others.

3) Department of Defense

US Army to Purchase Israeli Iron Dome. The US Army has conceded this week that its missile interceptor technology is insufficient to protect US troops. In order to improve the defenses of the United States’ forward deployed troops, the Pentagon has agreed to purchase the Iron Dome missile defense system from Israel. This is technology originally underwritten in large part by US taxpayers. Though the US Army says that it will continue to look into new missile defense options, it is a stunning admission that the United States must buy foreign technology to defend its troops, even as the current administration insists on the “buy American” approach.

4) Department of Energy

Secretary Perry Meets with Qatari Counterpart. On February 5, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry met with Qatari Minister of State for Energy Affairs Saad Al-Kaabi. During the meeting, Al-Kaabi and officials from oil titan ExxonMobil announced a $10 million joint venture in Texas, focusing on liquefied natural gas, which Qatar is a world leader in producing.