President Trump Welcomes German Chancellor to White House; Senate Finance Committee to Hold Hearing for Robert Lighthizer; Congressional Committees to Focus on Russia and Syria
President Donald Trump focused last week on health care reform and the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget proposal, with the skinny budget proposal due to be released this week. President Trump spoke with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority on Friday, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya on Tuesday, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Monday.
Last Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee favorably reported the nomination of David Friedman to serve as U.S. ambassador to Israel to the full Senate for consideration. The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 13-2 on Thursday to advance Dan Coats’ nomination to serve as Director of National Intelligence to the Senate floor for consideration. Congress will be in session this week.
The Trump Administration and Congress have also more generally focused on the alleged theft of cyber tools from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and WikiLeaks’ posting of thousands of documents that cataloged the agency’s cyber hacking capabilities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the leak of classified material.
Last Thursday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford called Jordan “an enduring partner” that worked with U.S. service members long before ISIS raised its ugly head. During his two-day visit to Amman, Chairman Dunford met with King Abdullah II, Defense Minister Hani Mulki and Gen. Mahmoud Freihat, the chief of defense.
White House Visit – Germany
President Trump will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday. The President is expected to discuss Berlin’s plans to devote more resources to the annual NATO military budget at the meeting with German Chancellor Merkel. He is also expected to discuss Russian President Vladimir Putin and possibly the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Trade Recap – Lighthizer Hearing Set; Ross Met with Mexican Counterpart
The Senate Finance Committee (SFC) is scheduled to hold a hearing on Tuesday for Robert Lighthizer to serve as the U.S. Trade Representative. The nomination has been held up by the SFC Democrats who want the congressional waiver for Lighthizer to include a measure that would provide pension and healthcare benefits for coal miners. Lighthizer needs both chambers of Congress to pass a congressional waiver because he previously represented foreign governments in trade negotiations, as a lawyer in the private sector.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Mexican Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal announced a renewed effort to resolve ongoing issues with Mexican sugar export and anti-bunching limits on Friday. Secretary Ross said:
“With the deadline for conclusion of the Department’s administrative review fast approaching, after consultations with the American sugar industry and the Government of Mexico, I can today announce an extension of the final decision date for the review from April 4 until May 1.”
Immigration E.O. Released
President Trump signed an immigration-related Executive Order (E.O.) last Monday that is intended to overcome previous legal challenges to a January immigration order. The new E.O. continues a temporary pause on nationals from six countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – seeking visas to the United States, subject to certain exceptions and case-by-case waivers. The previous order included Iraq on the list of restricted countries, but it was noted Iraq implemented additional vetting measures since the January order. The new order goes into effect on 16 March.
Middle East Peace – White House Outreach
President Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke Friday by phone to discuss ways to advance peace throughout the Middle East region, including a comprehensive agreement that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the White House, the President “underscored that such a peace agreement must be negotiated directly between the two parties, and that the United States will work closely with Palestinian and Israeli leadership to make progress toward that goal. The President noted that the United States cannot impose a solution on the Israelis and Palestinians, nor can one side impose an agreement on the other.”
President Trump spoke on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders discussed the need to counter continuing threats and challenges facing the Middle East region, among other topics. Vice President Michael Pence held a bilateral meeting with Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman on Tuesday. According to the White House: “The Vice President underscored the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel and reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to upholding Israel’s qualitative military edge. The Vice President and Minister Lieberman agreed on the need to counter threats posed by Iran and its proxies as well as terrorist organizations, and discussed ways in which our militaries can work even more closely together to address shared threats. The two leaders also discussed the crisis in Syria and other regional issues.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis also met with the Israeli Defense Minister on Tuesday to discuss the U.S.-Israeli defense relationship.
Yemen – State Department Approves Arms Sales; CENTCOM Chief Takes Responsibility for January Raid
The State Department has approved a resumption of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, reversing a decision made late in the Obama Administration to suspend the sale of precision guided munitions to Riyadh. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s approval last week of the measure, which will need White House backing to go into effect, provides an early indication of the Trump Administration’s more Saudi-friendly approach, particularly as Saudi Arabia leads a Coalition fighting the Houthi in Yemen. The move comes as the Trump Administration considers its approach to the conflict in Yemen. While the U.S. military has provided support to the Coalition air campaign since 2015, the Obama Administration sought to scale back U.S. support last year amid allegations of Saudi strikes on civilian targets. President Trump has shown support for the expansion of U.S. military activities in Yemen, with the U.S. military carrying out 40 airstrikes on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) targets last week.
The surge of airstrikes is part of a ramp-up of U.S. counterterrorism operations and comes roughly a month after President Trump approved the raid on an al-Qaida compound which resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens and several civilians. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, took responsibility for the raid and told Senators last week that he had determined the military exhibited sound judgment and decision-making in moving forward with the mission, adding that there was no need for further investigations.
Kenya – White House Outreach
President Trump spoke on Tuesday with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. According to the White House, the two leaders discussed regional security and terrorism concerns, as well as boosting bilateral trade and investment in Kenya.
House Approves FY 2017 Defense Spending Measure
Last week, the House approved the final $584 billion defense spending bill for the remainder of Fiscal Year (FY) 2017. Forty-three Democrats and five Republicans opposed the measure. Unlike an initial defense spending measure passed by the House in June, the revised bill does not short fund the Pentagon’s war account to boost base spending. Instead, the new measure largely conforms to the National Defense Authorization Act passed in December.
The legislation includes $516.1 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget as well as $61.8 billion for the war-related Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, as well as a $6.8 billion boost in procurement funding above the Obama Administration’s FY 2017 budget request. That includes $979 million for 12 Boeing-made F/A-18 Super Hornets, $750 million for six additional Navy and Marine Corps F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and $495 million for five extra Air Force F-35s. There is also an additional nearly $3 billion for Navy shipbuilding, including $1.8 billion for an LPD-17 amphibious ship, $433 million for the DDG-51 destroyer program, a third Littoral Combat Ship and $150 million in advance procurement for a new polar icebreaker.
The bill also funds provisions in the defense policy bill that mandate more active-duty troops in the Army and Marine Corps. In addition to the full-year defense spending bill, the Pentagon is preparing a separate supplemental spending request of about $30 billion for FY 2017 that is expected to boost readiness funding.
Lawmakers Encourage Creation of Asia-Pacific Defense Fund
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, which includes four members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and five members of the House Armed Services Committee, have urged Defense Department Secretary Mattis to fund an Asia-Pacific Security Initiative aimed at countering threats from Russia, China, and North Korea. If created, the fund would support additional military exercises, infrastructure, munitions, and forces. While the Members of Congress did not request a specific amount for the fund, the House Members requested that it span defense spending for FY 2018 through 2022.
South Korea – U.S. Deploys THAAD Missile
The U.S. military began deploying an advanced defensive missile system to South Korea last week, as agreed upon with the government in Seoul last summer. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system does not use warheads and is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles. The deployment comes despite protests from Chinese officials, who have called it a threat to Chinese security and warned that South Korea would face consequences for hosting the system. When Seoul and Washington agreed on the THAAD unit, they were aiming for deployment by the end of July, with the arrival of the first components, it could be operational sooner. The deployment was announced as North Korean state media reported that the four missiles Pyongyang launched Sunday were practice for a North Korean attack on U.S. military bases in Japan. The deployment also comes at a politically sensitive time for South Korea, after Park Geun-hye, was removed from the presidency last week by a South Korean court.
NATO’s 2 Percent Defense Spending Requirement
A senior British defense official suggested last week that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could reconsider the 2 percent of GDP spending commitment for member nations in future reforms. Stephen Lovegrove, permanent secretary for the British Ministry of Defense, told the Atlantic Council that, “There will be a moment coming up when we need to think quite carefully about what 2 percent means for each of the members of NATO.” Such reforms would involve looking at total alliance spending to ensure member contributions. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has urged European alliance members to meet their commitments during a visit to NATO headquarters last month and Lovegrove said that Mattis’s comments resonated powerfully in Europe.
Pentagon Report Calls Cyber Deterrence an Urgent Priority
The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board called on the Trump Administration to make cyber deterrence “an urgent priority” in a new report to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The board recommended the Department of Defense to pursue three initiatives: (1) plan and conduct tailored cyber deterrence campaigns; (2) create a cyber-resilient “thin-line” of key U.S. strike systems; and (3) enhance foundational cyber capabilities. The report cited Russian hacking to undermine the 2016 presidential election as one example of the type of cyberattacks that pose a growing risk to U.S. national security.
Afghanistan – More U.S. Troops Recommended
U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. Votel told Senators last week that more troops are needed in Afghanistan to break a stalemate. Responding to questioning from Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) at a committee hearing, Gen. Votel agreed with the assessment that Afghanistan is at a military deadlock, echoing the opinion expressed by the U.S. commander there, Army Gen. John Nicholson. Gen. Nicholson had told Senators last month that a few thousand more troops are necessary to break the stalemate.
GITMO – President’s Statement on the Obama Administration’s Decision to Release Prisoners
President Trump has criticized the Obama Administration’s decision to release prisoners from the detention center at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (GITMO), tweeting that “122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from GITMO, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report last September stating that 122 of the 693 prisoners transferred out of Guantanamo Bay are confirmed to have returned to terrorist activities, while an additional 86 former detainees are suspected of returning to terrorist activities. However, the report notes that 113 of the 122 former detainees who returned to terrorist activities were released before 22 January 2009, only two days into President Obama’s first term.
Foreign Policy-Focused Congressional Hearings This Week
On Wednesday, 15 March, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Venezuela’s Tragic Meltdown.”
On Wednesday, 15 March, the Senate Banking Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Assessing U.S. Sanctions on Russia: Next Steps.”
On Wednesday, 15 March, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “The Modus Operandi and Toolbox of Russia and Other Autocracies for Undermining Democracies Throughout the World.”
On Wednesday, 15 March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Six Years of War in Syria: The Human Toll.
On Thursday, 16 March, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs is scheduled to hold a Members’ Day hearing.
Defense-Focused Congressional Hearings This Week
On Wednesday, 15 March, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Military Assessment of the Security Challenges in the Greater Middle East.”
On Wednesday, 15 March, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Crafting an Information Warfare and Counter-Propaganda Strategy for the Emerging Security Environment.”
Washington is expected to focus on the following events:
14 March: President Trump to host German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House
14-15 March: Chile to host a Pacific Trade Summit in Vina del Mar
Mid-March: Release of the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2018
Mid-March: Trump Administration expected to formally notify Congress of intent to renegotiate NAFTA
21-23 April: World Bank/International Monetary Fund Spring Meeting in Washington
28 April: S. Federal Government funding expires
Pooja Virkar is co-author of this article.