The President Will Host the Leaders of Egypt, Jordan and China This Week, While Congress Continues to Focus on Iran, Russia and North Korea
President Donald Trump will welcome Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and King Abdullah II of Jordan to the White House this week. He is expected to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to Mar-a-Lago later in the week.
President Trump met last Thursday with Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. According to the White House, the two leaders “underscored the need to maintain momentum in the fight against ISIS.” The White House further acknowledged that Denmark was “one of the first countries to join the counter-ISIS coalition, offering F-16 fighter jets, military trainers, special operations forces, and humanitarian assistance to the effort.” The leaders also discussed Afghanistan and strengthening NATO.
President Trump spoke with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq last Wednesday. According to the White House, “[t]he President commended Prime Minister Abadi’s leadership and the courage of the Iraqi Security Forces fighting ISIS in Mosul with the support of the United States and the Global Coalition against ISIS. The two leaders reiterated their commitments to political, economic, and security cooperation rooted in the Strategic Framework Agreement between the United States and Iraq. The President also praised the remarkable bravery and sacrifices of the Iraqi people in our shared fight against terrorism.”
Vice President Michael Pence administered the oath of office last Wednesday to David Friedman, the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel.
New Executive Orders – Energy and Trade
President Trump signed some new Executive Orders (EO) last week. The 28 March order called for a review of existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, and policies that potentially burden the use of domestically-produced energy. This order also revokes several previous executive actions relating to climate change, carbon emissions, and pollution standards.
On 31 March, the President signed two trade-related EOs. The first one begins with a lengthy policy section stating that “[t]he United States must address the challenges to economic growth and employment that may arise from large and chronic trade deficits and the unfair and discriminatory trade practices of some of our trading partners.” It requires the Secretary of Commerce and the U.S. Trade Representative – in consultation with the Secretaries of State, the Treasury, Defense, Agriculture, and Homeland Security, and the heads of any other relevant agencies – to prepare an “Omnibus Report on Significant Trade Deficits” within 90 days. They are authorized to hold public meetings and seek comments from outside stakeholders to aid in preparing the report. According to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the study will help to guide the Administration’s future policymaking. Secretary Ross also explained that the Administration may take interim actions to address trade deficits before the study is finalized, but may, in some cases, decide that no action is warranted.
The second order requires the Secretary of Homeland Security – working with the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the U.S. Trade Representative – to prepare a plan that would require covered importers that pose a risk to the revenue of the United States (determined by a risk assessment conducted by Customs and Border Protection (CBP)) to provide security for antidumping and countervailing duty liability through bonds and other measures. The plan, which must be prepared within 90 days, must also identify other appropriate enforcement measures. Also within 90 days, the CBP Commissioner must develop and implement a strategy and plan for combating violations of U.S. trade and customs laws for goods, and for enabling interdiction and disposal, including through methods other than seizure, of inadmissible merchandise entering through any mode of transportation. The EO also prioritizes timely and efficient enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR) protections. The order furthermore directs the Attorney General, working with the Secretary of Homeland Security, to develop recommended prosecution practices and allocate resources to ensure Federal prosecutors give high priority to prosecuting significant offenses related to violations of trade laws.
Trade – Draft NAFTA Renegotiation Letter Circulated; NTE Report Released
Last week, the Trump Administration provided lawmakers with a draft letter notifying Congress of its intent to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The draft letter aligns with some of the themes from the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) law, while also incorporating some of President Trump’s campaign priorities. Once formally transmitted, which could happen as soon as this week, this letter will kick off a 90-day consultation period before formal NAFTA negotiations can begin.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative also released the 2017 National Trade Estimate (NTE) last Friday, highlighting significant barriers facing American exports in specific markets around the world. The report notes Canada’s low de minimis threshold and concerns with Mexico’s customs administrative procedures, two areas that could potentially be addressed through new NAFTA talks.
Syria – Combatting ISIS
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Turkey on Thursday, where he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other senior Turkish government officials. In a meeting with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Secretary Tillerson acknowledged Turkey is a NATO ally and “a friend of the United States in a very turbulent part of the world.” He said that he conveyed President Trump’s commitment to strengthening the relationship between the two countries in his meetings with the Foreign Minister and President Erdoğan. The Secretary noted that Turkey has helped to alleviate the ongoing refugee crisis stemming from the conflict in Syria and served “as a key partner for stabilization effort in areas once held by ISIS and for ensuring our NGO and UN partners can continue to provide humanitarian relief services inside and outside of Syria.”
Secretary Tillerson said that his discussions in Turkey also included how to secure areas inside of Syria, create zones of stabilization, to allow the return of people to Syria and to set the stage for a longer-term political solution for the conflict. Secretary Tillerson also said that “in terms of the future of Raqqa, we look forward to the liberation of Raqqa and the return of its control to local – to its local citizens.”
Regarding the Trump Administration’s priority to defeat ISIS, Secretary Tillerson said:
“That is why we meet with our very important partners here, as well as other very important coalition members who are engaged directly in the military activities in Iraq and Syria. So there is more discussion yet to be had regarding the way forward. What we discussed today were options that are available to us. They are difficult options, let me be very frank. These are not easy decisions. They are difficult choices that have to be made. So this has been very good, the conversations today were very frank, very candid, and we will be taking those conversations away. I know the foreign minister and the president and the prime minister, they will consider all of the exchanges we had today, but ultimately, Turkey and the United States will stay together in the fight as part of the broader coalition to defeat Daesh.”
In a shift from the Obama Administration’s policy, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) Nikki Haley said on Thursday that the U.S. policy is no longer focused on Bashar al-Assad stepping down from power. Secretary Tillerson also said in Ankara that Assad’s longer-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.” Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) denounced this shift in policy.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis met with British officials, including Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, in visit to London last week. In a joint press conference on 31 March, Secretary Fallon confirmed that the U.S. and U.K. stand “shoulder-to-shoulder as leading members of the counter-Daesh coalition.” On Syria, Secretary Mattis said that the U.S. is working on the “Assad issue…one day at a time.”
Iran – Congress Considers Legislation
On 28 March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on U.S. policy towards Iran, including enforcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Syrian conflict, Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, and Iran’s relations with other countries in the Middle East. Lawmakers expressed their concern over Iran’s non-nuclear activities in the region, and several senators, including Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), who advocated in favor of stricter enforcement of the JCPOA. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) raised the possibility of cooperation between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but the witnesses testifying noted that such cooperation would remain unlikely so long as Iran continues its destabilizing behavior. Several senators voiced support for the recently-introduced Iran sanctions legislation, the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 (S. 722), which would impose sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program, support for acts of international terrorism, and violations of human rights.
On 29 March, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing focused on Iran’s pursuit of ballistic missiles and the potential impact of non-nuclear sanctions legislation, such as the recently-introduced Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act (H.R. 1698). Several Members expressed support for additional sanctions but the witnesses cautioned that if pre-JCPOA sanctions are re-imposed under a different justification, Iran would likely withdraw from the nuclear agreement entirely.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Joseph Votel identified Iran as “the greatest long-term threat to stability” in the Middle East during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on 29 March. He cited operations in the Straits of Hormuz and support for Houthi forces in Yemen as examples, expressing that Iran’s objective is to become “the regional hegemon.” He added that, “We need to look at opportunities where we can disrupt [Iran] through military means or other means their activities.”
When asked about comments made in 2012 that the three primary threats the United States faced were “Iran, Iran, Iran,” Defense Secretary Mattis told reporters last week that Iran’s behavior had not changed in the years since. “At the time when I spoke about Iran I was a commander of U.S. Central Command and that (Iran) was the primary exporter of terrorism, frankly, it was the primary state sponsor of terrorism and it continues that kind of behavior today,” Secretary Mattis said.
On average, CENTCOM reports more than 300 incidents with the Iranian Navy in the Straits of Hormuz per year, according to Gen. Votel, and of those, the command classifies about 10 to 15 percent as “abnormal, unprofessional, or unsafe.” But he noted that Iran’s actions in the Straits of Hormuz very rarely prevent the U.S. Navy from accomplishing its missions.
Russia – House Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing on Russian Activities in Europe
During a House Armed Services hearing on 28 March, General Curtis Scaparotti testified that the European Command has made a “shift to deterrence and defense” in response to Russian aggression and the increased threat from terrorist groups operating on the continent. He shared that the Kremlin is modernizing its hybrid, conventional, and nuclear forces in an attempt to re-establish itself as a great power.
Using hybrid warfare as an example, Gen. Scaparotti said that it includes cyber intrusions to disrupt public utilities, disinformation campaigns using media outlets, and “political provocations,” such as trying to influence elections in Western Europe. Gen. Scaparotti shared that he is looking for more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability to better understand Russian actions. He added that more armored ground forces, including permanently stationing another Brigade Combat Team in Europe, improved antisubmarine warfare and strike capacity, modernized prepositioned war stocks, and enhanced missile defense systems, would bolster deterrence and defense.
NATO – 2 Percent Military Spending Requirement Emphasized; Congress Voted on Montenegro
Secretary Tillerson was in Belgium on Friday at NATO headquarters, where he acknowledged that the “Alliance remains the bedrock for transatlantic security,” but added, “Allies must demonstrate by their actions that they share U.S. government’s commitment” to the Alliance. The Secretary was reinforcing the Trump Administration’s position that NATO members must meet 2 percent GDP defense spending requirements. Secretary Tillerson also said: “As we plan for the May Leaders meeting, the United States is considering what more NATO might do, particularly in bringing stability to Iraq and contributing to the Coalition to Defeat ISIS.”
During a joint press conference with his British counterpart on 31 March, Defense Secretary Mattis reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defending its NATO allies, calling it an “absolute bedrock,” in response to a question about Russian aggression. “I think the point I would make is that NATO stands united,” Secretary Mattis said. “We are going to maintain Article 5 as an absolute bedrock of the NATO alliance.” Article 5 requires that NATO members come to the defense of other members of the alliance as if they themselves had been attacked. It has been invoked only once, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Secretary Mattis was in London on his third trip as Defense Secretary, which included an earlier stop at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York.
Mattis’ statements came after the Senate voted overwhelmingly on 28 March to back Montenegro’s NATO membership, sending the treaty to President Trump’s desk. Republican Senators Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Mike Lee (Utah) opposed approving the country’s NATO membership, but lawmakers from both parties stressed that the move will help push back against Russian influence. Russia opposes NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe.
Europe – EUCOM’s Ability to Surge Forces at Risk
The Commander of the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) shared that the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) is concerned about whether it could surge forces in the event of a contingency. “Our capacity on the lift side is being challenged,” TRANSCOM Commander Gen. Darren McDew told the House Armed Services’ Subcommittees on Readiness and Seapower and Projection Forces, citing recent decision to shift two C-17 and eight C-5 transport aircraft into back-up inventory, adding that, “We need those assets in primary inventory.” Gen. McDew explained that TRANSCOM has sufficient assets to support forces now deployed to Europe as part of the European Deterrence Initiative, but an unforeseen contingency could pose a problem. TRANSCOM is also assessing how to effectively move equipment on European railways, where the spacing of the rails in different than American tracks, according to Gen. McDew’s testimony.
North Korea – New SDN Designations Announced; The House Considers Legislation
On Friday, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added a number of individuals and entities to its list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN), including some with ties to China. The designations were made for alleged involvement in North Korea’s ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction and continued violations of U.N. Security Council Resolutions. More information on this action can be found on the Treasury Department’s website here.
The House of Representatives is scheduled to consider two pieces of North Korea-related legislation under suspension of the rules on Monday, 3 April: (1) H.R. 479 – North Korea State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation Act of 2017, as amended; and (2) H.Res. 92 – Condemning North Korea’s development of multiple intercontinental ballistic missiles, and for other purposes, as amended.
U.N. Nuclear Ban Proposal – U.S. Air Force General Opposes
On 31 March, Air Force General John Hyten, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, expressed his disagreement with a draft U.N. resolution to ban nuclear weapons. He argued that nuclear weapons have prevented conflicts from escalating into large-scale wars with large numbers of casualties. Gen. Hyten emphasized that although the U.S. has de-emphasized investment in its nuclear capabilities, the rest of the world has done “exactly the opposite,” pointing to investments made by Russia and China, as well as advancements by North Korea and Iran in developing nuclear weapons. The United Nations began considering a draft resolution last week that would call for a global ban on nuclear weapons.
While Gen. Hyten was adamant about the need to update the U.S. arsenal, he also noted that arms control agreements with other nuclear powers are equally important. He expressed support for the 2011 New START Treaty, which limits the number of nuclear warheads in the United States and Russia and requires regular inspections by both sides. President Trump has previously referred to the agreement as a “bad deal.”
Africa – Pentagon Increases Airstrikes in Somalia, AFRICOM Commander Discusses Africa Strategy
On 29 March, President Trump signed a directive giving the U.S. military authorization to conduct offensive counterterrorism airstrikes in Somalia targeting al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group. Pentagon spokesman, Capt. Jeff Davis stated, “The president has approved a Department of Defense proposal to provide additional precision fires in support of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces operations to defeat al-Shabab in Somalia.” Until now, the U.S. carried out airstrikes in limited circumstances in Somalia, but senior military officials had sought leeway to approve strikes more quickly. This decision comes after a year in which militants took some territory back from the Somali government, and as regional peacekeeping forces begin withdrawing from the country next year.
Early last week, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) Commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser visited the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he discussed the significant challenge of strengthening the Somali National Security Forces against threats from al-Shabab and other militant groups. He also shared the AFRICOM’s efforts in North Africa, where at the request of Libyan leadership and with the assistance of European allies, AFRICOM has conducted over 500 precision strikes against ISIS strongholds.
Foreign Policy Congressional Hearings This Week
On Tuesday, 4 April, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “The European Union as a Partner Against Russian Aggression: Sanctions, Security, Democratic Institutions and the Way Forward.”
On Tuesday, 4 April, the House Financial Services Subcommittees on Monetary Policy & Trade and Terrorism & Illicit Finance are scheduled to hold a joint hearing titled “Increasing the Effectiveness of Non-Nuclear Sanctions Against Iran.”
On Wednesday, 5 April, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Assessing the Iran Deal.
On Wednesday, 5 April, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Turkey’s Democracy Under Challenge.”
On Wednesday, 4 April, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “A Progress Report on Conflict Minerals.”
On Thursday, 6 April, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human Rights and International Organizations is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Enforcement Is Not Optional: The Goldman Act to Return Abducted American Children.”
Defense-Related Congressional Hearings This Week
On Tuesday, 4 April, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity is scheduled to hold a closed hearing titled “Cyber Threats to the United States.”
On Wednesday, 5 April, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense is scheduled to hold a closed hearing titled “Classified Hearing to Review Intelligence Programs & Threat Assessment.”
Cyber-Related Congressional Hearings This Week
On Tuesday, 4 April, the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing to examine efforts to protect U.S. energy delivery systems from cybersecurity threats.
On Tuesday, 4 April, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Cybersecurity in the Health Care Sector: Strengthening Public-Private Partnerships.” The witnesses will be announced.
On Wednesday, 5 April, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Facilitating the 21st Century Wireless Economy.”
Washington is expected to focus on the following events:
Early April: Trump Administration expected to formally notify Congress of intent to renegotiate NAFTA
3 April: President Trump welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to the White House
5 April: President Trump welcomes King Abdullah II of Jordan to the White House
6-7 April: President Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping to Mar-a-Lago
12 April: President Trump welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to the White House
21-23 April: World Bank/International Monetary Fund Spring Meeting in Washington
28 April: U.S. Federal Government funding expires
25 May: President Trump to attend the NATO Leaders Meeting in Belgium
Pooja Virkar is co-author of this article.
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