Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

War Powers Resolution. The House undertook a renewed effort to invoke congressional war powers and force the president to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. House members adopted an amended version of H.J. Res. 37 by a vote of 248-177. (For more information about Congress’s efforts to pass the War Powers Resolution and its significance, see here, here, and here.) This version of the resolution differs from previous iterations, however. After the initial vote, Tennessee Republican David Kustoff used a procedural maneuver to “motion to recommit” the legislation to the floor with an amendment that, among other things, states that combatting anti-Semitism is in US national security interests, as is opposing boycotts of Israel.

In total, the amended H.J. Res. 37 would do the following: withdraw US troops from hostilities in Yemen; prohibit US personnel from providing in-flight refueling services to Saudi-led coalition fighter jets (which the Pentagon voluntarily ended last year); and require reports to be compiled detailing the risks of ending US support for the coalition’s war in Yemen. In addition, the language specifies that nothing in the legislation prohibits continued military cooperation with Israel, and it allows the United States to continue to operate in Yemen if the military is sharing intelligence with the Saudi-led coalition or if it is waging operations against al-Qaeda in Yemen. There is still support in the Senate for the War Powers Resolution, but with President Trump threatening to veto the legislation, it is hard to predict whether Congress could muster veto-proof levels of support to pass the bill into law.

Condemning Saudi Arabia’s Detention and Abuse of Women’s Rights Activists. House and Senate members introduced resolutions this week calling out Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women’s rights activists in the kingdom. H. Res. 129 and S. Res. 73 each condemn Riyadh’s treatment of theses activists—including detaining and abusing the women—and call for the kingdom to end the practice and to respect the human rights of all Saudis more generally.

Fiscal Year 2019 Funding. Congress just narrowly avoided another partial government shutdown after a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers agreed to seven spending bills to fund nearly a quarter of the federal government for the remainder of the current fiscal year. The funding includes a budget for State and Foreign Operations, which funds the Department of State, and includes economic and humanitarian aid to foreign countries. As was detailed in an earlier Washington Policy Weekly, funding levels for Egypt were restored to historical levels after earlier proposals cut millions from aid to the country. In addition, Saudi Arabia was stripped of $10,000 in international military education and training funds; though that amount is negligible, the move means that Riyadh incurs millions of dollars of costs in discounts that it previously received for training with the Pentagon.

A US-Saudi Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement Must Prohibit Enrichment. This week, three senators introduced a concurrent resolution (S. Con. Res. 2) that expresses the sense of Congress that any agreement on nuclear cooperation signed between the United States and Saudi Arabia must bar Riyadh from enriching uranium. This is a key component in producing nuclear weapons, one to which Saudi Arabia has steadfastly refused to commit. This has been a topic of interest over the last year and senators intend to maintain pressure on the administration in order to prevent a nuclear Saudi Arabia.

2) Hearings

US Special Operations Command and Cyber Command. The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing with some of the country’s top military officials to discuss the future and necessary funding of special operations and cyber capabilities. The hearing was not largely relevant to the Middle East except that three of the Pentagon’s leading officials broke with the president and maintained that the so-called Islamic State remains a threat in the region, despite Trump’s insistence that the group has been defeated. Further, General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command, toured the Middle East this week as he prepares to depart his position; during the trip he, too, contradicted the president on the matter and expressed support for keeping troops in Syria.

3) Correspondence

Senators Respond to Pompeo’s Magnitsky Letter. The Trump Administration disregarded the February 8 deadline to report to Congress its findings of an investigation as mandated by the Global Magnitsky Act. Secretary Pompeo referred lawmakers to the sanctions imposed on Saudi officials as a result of the Magnitsky Act investigation, but he failed to issue a statement regarding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement, as specifically requested.

The administration’s obstinate resistance to adhering to Congress’s requests has evoked anger on Capitol Hill yet again. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote an individual letter to Secretary Pompeo calling on him to abide by the Global Magnitsky law and to provide documents related to the investigation of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Menendez also teamed up with several of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate to send another letter seeking more transparency in the State Department’s Global Magnitsky Act determinations. Senate Republicans sent a less terse letter to Pompeo, requesting more information and a classified briefing on his department’s investigation into the Khashoggi murder.

Moreover, Secretary Pompeo and the administration failed to issue a separate certification regarding the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to reduce civilian deaths in Yemen and reach a political resolution to the fighting there. Pompeo had issued a controversial certification in October of 2018. The deadline of February 9 passed, yet the administration failed to respond even after Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) and Todd Young (R-Indiana) wrote to Pompeo last week. This is going to further enrage the lawmakers as the administration continues to blatantly disregard the will of Congress.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Pompeo in Warsaw for Middle East Summit. This week’s US-Poland ministerial on Middle East peace and security ended without many concrete decisions. Held in Warsaw, the meeting brought together some 60 countries, though some of Washington’s closest partners and allies viewed the Iran-centric event less than worthy of the time of their top officials. That decision may have proved prescient as the summit devolved nearly to the level of the absurd. Vice President Mike Pence thrashed US allies and called on remaining parties in the Iranian nuclear deal to scuttle the pact; President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani appeared with a deeply unpopular Iranian opposition group that at one time was deemed a terrorist organization by the United States; top White House advisor Jared Kushner spoke about the administration’s looming plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, yet there were no Palestinians in attendance; and the top Trump ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told reporters that his meetings with Arab leaders were meant to further the cause of “war” with Iran (he retracted the reference to war later on).

Juxtaposed with the upcoming Munich Security Conference—the premier meeting of transatlantic security partners—this summit appeared to be just another step taken by the Trump Administration to deepen the acrimony between Washington and its European partners and diminish the solidarity between the two sides regarding issues of import to global security.

Aside from the multilateral events, Pompeo met individually with Netanyahu and Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled Al Yamani to discuss regional developments.

2) Department of Defense

Acting Secretary Shanahan Visits Baghdad. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan visited Iraq this week. His trip was an attempt by the Pentagon to smooth over Washington-Baghdad relations after President Trump made controversial remarks about keeping US troops in Iraq to monitor Iranian activity—a statement that many Iraqis viewed as infringing on their sovereignty.

At the same time that Shanahan was in the region, the Pentagon announced that it had agreed to provide the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) with precision-guided missiles. Though the deal had been made well before the newest Lebanese government was formed, some suggest the timing is a sign of goodwill from Washington that Hezbollah’s growing portfolio in Lebanese politics will not harm US support for the LAF.

3) Federal Law Enforcement

Multiple Agencies Investigating the Disappearances of Saudi Students. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) reported that federal law enforcement agencies informed his office about an ongoing investigation into the disappearances of Saudi nationals who were in the US criminal justice system for allegedly serious crimes. As was mentioned in an earlier Washington Policy Weekly, the government of Saudi Arabia is thought to have helped at least one citizen flee the United States after he was arrested and charged with manslaughter. The Saudis, however, deny this accusation.