Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2013, Pages 32-34

Congress Watch

Congress Can’t Agree on How to Respond To Events in Syria or Egypt

By Shirl McArthur

Following President Barack Obama’s June 13 announcement that he had approved “covert action” to supply limited weapons to Syrian rebels fighting forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad, congressional reaction was decidedly mixed. As with almost everything else before Congress, events in Syria and Egypt were met with congressional gridlock.

On the more hawkish side, some members of Congress, especially in the Senate, have clamored for more assertive U.S. help for the Syrian rebels. On June 18 Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ)—who together have received a total of more than $1 million in pro-Israel PAC contributions—wrote to Obama thanking him for his announcement, but noting that “Assad’s forces are regaining the upper hand on the ground in Syria,” and urging Obama to “take specific steps to change the military balance of power in Syria against the Assad regime and its foreign supporters.” The specific steps they recommended included actions to degrade Assad’s ability to use air power and ballistic missiles. On June 25 Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), in an interview with The Cable, expressed frustration that “there hasn’t been a clearly articulated strategy,” and “the administration has yet to make it clear to the American people what’s at stake here.”

But a significant number of Congress members reject any increased U.S. involvement in Syria, fearing it will lead to being drawn into another Middle East sectarian battle. According to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), “there are a great many of us who applauded the president’s caution about not being dragged into this conflict and continue to have great concerns.”

Somewhere in the middle are those, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who support arming the rebels, but object to the covert nature of the proposed actions. However, in mid-July both the House and Senate intelligence committees approved using the CIA to proceed with the weapons shipments, financing the operation by re-programming previously appropriated funds. This allows the operation, stalled for more than a month, to proceed.

Meanwhile, the several previously described bills that would authorize arms and training to Syrian rebels have made no progress. S. 960, the “Syria Transition Support” bill, introduced in May by Menendez, was passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 21 by a vote of 15-3, but still has only four co-sponsors, including Menendez. It would, among other things, authorize the president “to provide defense articles, defense services, and military training” to specific Syrian rebel forces.

“There are a great many of us who applauded the president’s caution.”

Similarly, S. 617, the “Syria Democratic Transition” bill, introduced in March by Casey, still has only 11 co-sponsors, including Casey. Among other things, it “would authorize U.S. assistance for Syrian civilians and innocent victims of the conflict…expand sanctions against the government of Bashar al-Assad, [and] strengthen U.S. support for democratically-oriented political opposition groups.”

And H.R. 1327, the “Free Syria” bill, introduced in March by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), still has only seven co-sponsors, including Engel. This bill would increase humanitarian and economic aid to the Syrian opposition as well as providing arms, training and intelligence support to “vetted” opposition groups.

At least eight measures were introduced that would either flatly prohibit U.S. funds being used to support military intervention in Syria, or would prohibit such intervention without congressional authorization. In the Senate on June 20, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) with three co-sponsors introduced S. 1201, which would prohibit any funding that “would have the effect of supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Syria by any nation, group, organization, movement, or individual.” The bill includes an exception for humanitarian aid. Identical bills, H.R. 2492 and H.R. 2494, were introduced in the House on June 25 by Reps. Scott Desjarlais (R-TN), with one co-sponsor, and Chris Gibson (R-NY), with nine co-sponsors, respectively. H.R. 2503, introduced by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) and one co-sponsor on June 25, would prohibit such funding, but without the exception for humanitarian aid.

H.R. 2432, introduced June 19 by Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN), and H.R. 2501, introduced June 25 by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) with 13 co-sponsors, would prohibit such funding “absent prior statutory authorization from Congress.” H.R. 2507, introduced June 26 by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) with 13 co-sponsors, would permit such funding “only with a formal declaration of war.” H.Con.Res. 40, introduced June 20 by Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) and two co-sponsors, would go one step further. After prohibiting such funding absent express congressional authorization, it goes on to say that presidential violation of such prohibition “would constitute an impeachable high crime and misdemeanor.”

Disagreement on How to React to the Egyptian Coup (or Non-Coup)

The Egyptian military’s July 3 takeover of Egypt’s government, ousting President Mohamed Morsi, has led to divided congressional reaction over how the U.S. should react. At issue is the provision in the Foreign Assistance Act, originally enacted in 1961 but subsequently amended several times, that requires the U.S. to cut aid to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” There is no presidential waiver provision.

The July 25 edition of The New York Times, citing “a senior administration official,” reported that State Department and other agencies’ lawyers, in a legal opinion submitted to the White House, concluded that the administration is not legally required to determine whether the military takeover was a coup. The official reportedly said that the finding would allow the $1.5 billion annual aid to Egypt to proceed. But, he said, the White House would continue to use the aid as a lever to pressure Egypt’s new government to swiftly move to a democratic transition, such as Obama’s July 24 announcement that he had “suspended” the scheduled delivery of four F-16 fighters to Egypt.

While most members of Congress seemed to welcome the end of Morsi’s government, some influential members, including Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Levin, and McCain, said the law is clear and that the aid must be cut, or at least held in abeyance. “I do not want to suspend our critical assistance to Egypt,” McCain said, “but I believe it is the right thing to do at this time.”

Some members took a more cautious approach, apparently hoping that Egypt’s new rulers will transition the country back to democracy before any decision must be made. These included House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and ranking Democrat Engel; House Foreign Operations (foreign aid) Committee Chair Kay Granger (R-TX) and ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY), and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI),who said that cutting off aid now would make an unstable situation worse. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) argued that Egypt’s military leaders deserved praise for doing “what they had to do.” In the Senate, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Menendez said that if you cut aid, “you will take an economy that is already floundering and probably drive it into chaos.”

All of the previously described measures prohibiting or conditioning aid to Egypt have received no additional support. Two new bills were introduced. On June 27 Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) with six co-sponsors introduced H.R. 2544, which would prohibit U.S. economic aid to Egypt unless the president certifies to Congress that the government of Egypt has met a list of six conditions. After the military takeover, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) on July 11 introduced S. 1278, which would prohibit aid to Egypt until the president certifies to Congress that democratic elections have been held, followed by a peaceful transition of power.

Dueling House Letters Regarding Increased Diplomatic Efforts with Iran

Opposing House letters were sent to Obama in July, raising the issue of increased sanctions vs. increased diplomacy in dealing with Iran. On July 1 all but one of the 46 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee signed a letter, originated by Royce and Engel, urging Obama “to increase the pressure on Iran in the days ahead.” The letter also suggests “extending sector-based sanctions to the mining, engineering, and construction-based sectors.” It dismisses the idea that the June 14 election of Hassan Rouhani indicates more Iranian moderation, saying “Iran’s election unfortunately has done nothing to suggest a reversal of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.” Regarding diplomacy, the letter argues that to realize the diplomatic goal of reaching a negotiated settlement, “Iran must face intensifying pressure.”

The lone committee member not signing the letter was American Samoa’s Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D), who said that he fully supports the “way the Obama administration is proceeding in handling this matter on Iran.”

In contrast, on July 19, 131 House members (including five who signed the Royce/Engel letter) signed a letter, spearheaded by Reps. Charlie Dent (R-PA) and David Price (D-NC), urging Obama “to pursue the potential opportunity presented by Iran’s recent presidential election by reinvigorating U.S. efforts to secure a negotiated nuclear agreement.” Recognizing that “previous Iranian presidents elected on platforms of moderation have failed to deliver on promised reforms,” the letter continues, “even so, we believe it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.” Finally the letter cautions against “engaging in actions that delegitimize the newly elected president and weaken his standing relative to hard-liners within the regime.”

While no new bills regarding Iran were introduced, some of the previously reported bills have gained support. The one most likely to be passed by the full House is the problematic H.R. 850, introduced in February by Royce “to impose additional human rights and economic and financial sanctions with respect to Iran.” As described in the previous issue’s “CongressWatch,” Royce’s committee in May made an already bad bill even worse. Among the changes approved was an amendment by leading Israel-firster Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), eliminating the presidential waiver authority. Among other things, the amended bill strengthens existing sanctions by requiring countries that are currently purchasing crude oil from Iran to reduce their combined purchases of Iranian crude oil by a total of 1 million barrels per day within a year; penalizes foreign persons who engage in significant commercial trade with Iran; expands the list of Iranian economic sectors effectively blacklisted, and limits Iran’s access to overseas foreign currency reserves. The bill still includes the section requiring that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps be declared a foreign terrorist organization. The bill now has 375 co-sponsors, including Royce.

S. 892, the “Iran Sanctions Loophole Elimination” bill, introduced in May by the Senate’s leading Israel-firster, Mark Kirk (R-IL), now has 31 co-sponsors, including Kirk. It would amend “the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 to direct the president to prohibit the opening, and prohibit or impose strict conditions on the maintaining, in the U.S. of a correspondent account or a payable-through account by a foreign financial institution that is a person described” in the bill.

Unfortunately, the more responsible H.R. 783, the “Prevent Iran from Acquiring Nuclear Weapons and Stop War Through Diplomacy” bill, introduced in February by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), has gained no co-sponsors and still has 19, including Lee.

And on June 13 the full Senate passed the symbolic S.Res. 154, introduced in May by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), “calling for free and fair elections in Iran.” When passed, the measure had 33 co-sponsors, including Hoeven. The similar H.Res. 252 was introduced in the House on June 6 by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) with 16 co-sponsors.

AIPAC-pushed  “U.S. -Israel Strategic Partnership” Bills Still Getting Support

The two AIPAC-endorsed (if not written) “U.S.-Israel Strategic Ally” bills described in previous issues, H.R. 938, introduced in March by Ros-Lehtinen and S. 462 introduced in March by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), continue to gain co-sponsors. Both bills would, among other things, authorize increased U.S. “cooperative activities” in the fields of energy, water, homeland security, agriculture, and alternate fuel technologies. They would also expand U.S.-Israel cyber-security cooperation and extend authority to add to “foreign-based” defense stockpiles and to transfer “obsolete or surplus” Department of Defense items to Israel. H.R. 938 now has 330 co-sponsors, including Ros-Lehtinen. The more problematic S. 462 now has 50 co-sponsors, including Boxer.

Among the problems with S. 462 are that, first, while H.R. 938 says that “it shall be U.S. policy to include Israel in the visa waiver program when Israel satisfies” the program’s requirements, S. 462 would water down the key requirement of granting full reciprocity to U.S. citizens by saying that Israel would only have to make “every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all U.S. citizens.” Israel consistently refuses to admit Arab Americans or other U.S. citizens—including Jewish Americans—seen as sympathetic to the Palestinians. The second reason is that S. 462 would exempt Israel from the requirement of a low refusal rate for non-immigrant visas. (Too many Israelis come to the U.S. on tourist visas and then stay on illegally.)

The previously described H.R. 1992, the “Israel QME Enhancement” bill, introduced in May by Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), which would update the criteria for maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge” to include cyber warfare, now has 17 co-sponsors, including Collins.

H.R. 1130, the previously reported “Iron Dome Support” bill, introduced in March by Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), has gained a co-sponsor and now has 85, including Davis. It would authorize the president to provide assistance to Israel for its “Iron Dome” anti-missile system. On July 16 Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) introduced H.R. 1701; then, on July 17 he, along with 20 co-sponsors, introduced the identical H.R. 1717. Both bills, in addition to authorizing Iron Dome support, would authorize “cooperation” on Israel’s David’s Sling, Arrow, and Arrow 3 anti-missile defense systems.

The more responsible and balanced H.Res. 238, “Expressing the sense of the House regarding U.S. efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace,” introduced in May by Lee, now has seven co-sponsors, including Lee. Among its 11 resolved clauses are some calling on Palestinians and Arab states to take certain positive steps, but it also “calls on the Israeli government to cease support for and to prevent further settlement expansion in the occupied territories.”

Measure Commends Jordan, as Sniping at U.N. Continues

On June 27 the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously ordered reported to the full House H.Res. 222, “recognizing the long-term partnership and friendship between the U.S. and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” The measure, introduced May 17 by Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), has 44 co-sponsors, including Meeks.

House and Senate Republicans introduced three measures aimed at undermining the U.N. and its agencies. On May 20 Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced S. 988 “to provide for an accounting of total U.S. contributions to the U.N.” It has 24 co-sponsors, including Lee. Then, on May 22 Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) introduced the identical H.R. 2099. It has four co-sponsors, including Brooks. On July 17 Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and two co-sponsors introduced S. 1313 “to promote transparency, accountability, and reform within the U.N. system.” Five of its 10 sections are concerned more with restricting the U.N.’s relationship with Palestinians than with U.N. reform. 


Shirl McArthur is a retired U.S. foreign service officer based in the Washington, DC area.

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