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MURPHY PRESSES STATE DEPARTMENT ON U.S. ROLE IN ENDING CURRENT UNREST IN LEBANON AND IRAQ, WITHHOLDING MILITARY AID TO LEBANON, AND DRAWING DOWN U.S. DIPLOMATIC PRESENCE IN IRAQ

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, on Wednesday questioned U.S. Department of State Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood during a subcommittee hearing on the insights, implications, and objectives for U.S. policy of protests in Lebanon and Iraq. During his questions, Murphy pressed Hood on the Trump administration holding up military aid to Lebanon and the America’s role in helping resolve political unrest in the region.

On the Trump administration withholding military aid to Lebanon, Murphy asked: “…[Y]ou would agree that the administration cannot attach conditions to funding, policy conditions to funding, that are not in the underlying statute. I understand what you said, you need to make sure that the money is going to the right place. But it’s Congress that decides whether there’s going to be policy conditions on funding, whether it be to Lebanon or any other country. Isn’t that correct?”

After Hood confirmed the aid was held up due to an internal process, Murphy added on the performance of the Lebanese military: “You would agree that they have made remarkable progress over the course of the last decade in improving their ability to provide security for the people of Lebanon and securing the borders, something that was not done by the Lebanese military only a short time ago. You would assess that they’ve made tremendous progress in terms of professionalization and capability?”

On the administration’s drawdown of diplomatic personnel in Baghdad, Murphy said: “And maybe it’s coincidental that the political and security situation has unraveled in Iraq at the exact same moment that our diplomatic drawdown has happened. But maybe it’s not. Maybe the fact that we don’t have the personnel there that we used to in order to go out and try to convince our friends to make the right decisions when encountering difficulty is in fact correlated.”

Murphy also pressed Hood on the role of the U.S. in helping to bring an end to political instability in the region: “What role do you think is appropriate for the United States and others to play in trying to help bring an end to this moment of political instability? And how confident are you that we’re on the same page with other international players? That obviously worries many of us when we see the president departing in a huff from a NATO summit at the way that he was treated by the exact allies that we’re supposed to be talking to about how we land a very difficult political crisis in Lebanon.

Full transcript of Murphy’s exchanges with Mr. Hood is below. You can also read Murphy’s opening statement at the hearing.

MURPHY: “…I hope the administration knows that when it holds funding, whether it be for policy reasons – which I think we can agree or are not allowable if those policies are not articulated in the statute – or for bureaucratic reasons, it has an effect.

“But let me just get back to that fine point. I mean, you would agree that the administration cannot attach conditions to funding, policy conditions to funding, that are not in the underlying statute. I understand what you said, you need to make sure that the money is going to the right place. But it’s Congress that decides whether there’s going to be policy conditions on funding, whether it be to Lebanon or any other country. Isn’t that correct?”

HOOD: “Thank you, Senator. Yes, we have not attached any policy conditions on this funding. And no expenditures or deliveries or purchases of military materiel were delayed. So, we explained to Lebanese officials that this was just part of our internal process; we remain committed to our long-standing partnership with them. As I said earlier, no one working in the bureaucracy is happy with the speed at which we do things, but in this case, the delay was not related to anything having to do with the protests.

“The Lebanese Armed Forces, as you said, have shown themselves to be a model for security forces in the region with how well they’ve done to protect the peaceful protesters and how few incidents they’ve been involved in, that have to be followed up on. We believe, strongly that strengthening the capacity of the LAF is critical to securing Lebanon’s borders, defending its sovereignty and preserving its stability. And so that’s why we all made sure, as an interagency, that nothing was delayed, no expenditures, no purchases, no deliveries, and that, as I said, the funding has been approved.”

MURPHY: “Thank you for that statement in support of our continued partnership and training with the LAF. You would agree that they have made remarkable progress over the course of the last decade in improving their ability to provide security for the people of Lebanon and securing the borders, something that was not done by the Lebanese military only a short time ago. You would assess that they’ve made tremendous progress in terms of professionalization and capability?”

HOOD: “That’s right, Senator. Largely due to our assistance. Just a little over a decade ago, it was the Syrian military that was on the borders of Lebanon, now it’s the Lebanese Armed Forces. We haven’t seen a substantial ISIS presence in Lebanon, even though there was one directly over the border, because of the professionalism and the capability of the Lebanese Armed Forces. They have coordinated with us on a number of counterterrorism operations that have taken down a number of plots that were not able to see their way to fruition. And as I pointed out, again earlier – it bears emphasizing – their role in protecting the peaceful protesters from Hezbollah thugs and Amal thugs has been absolutely extraordinary.”

MURPHY: “And last question on this topic, what would be the impact if the capabilities of the LAF were severely curtailed? Hezbollah has claimed that they are the only legitimate defender of the people of Lebanon and every day and week that LAF becomes more capable of defending the country, my impression is that it is a blow to Hezbollah’s argument that only they can be trusted with defending the security of that nation. My impression, especially having spent some time on the ground there is that if the LAF is weakened, then it accrues to the benefit of Hezbollah. They seem to be the counterweight.”

HOOD: “You’ve got it absolutely right Senator. Let’s enter your remarks as my answer to your remarks.

“No, you’re exactly right. And you see people out in the streets right now who are starting to say, “well look, we do have a pretty good army. We do have a non-sectarian, non-ideological, pan-Lebanese institution that is doing a really good job defending us and our rights to raise our voices.” And so, the more that that happens, the less legitimate are Hezbollah’s arguments for having their own armed force, right alongside the legitimate institutions of the state.”

MURPHY: “Let me turn to Iraq. What level of detail can you provide to the committee about the drawdown of diplomatic presence in Baghdad? The reports that I stated at the outset suggests that there are perhaps six USAID staffers and maybe over a dozen diplomats. What is our presence today? What is our diplomatic and USAID presence today in Baghdad and how does that compare to what it was, you know, perhaps when you showed up on the ground there several years ago?”

HOOD: “Sir, primarily for security reasons we don’t get into discussion of specific numbers. But I have personally come up and briefed staff members of the SFRC and the SACFO and I would be willing to do so again in as much detail as they would like. But we believe that the numbers that we have now are exactly what we need – no more, no less, to get the mission accomplished. And that is something that we worked, and I personally worked very hard on before I left, to get those numbers, right. We’re always reviewing our numbers, weighing security risks, weighing what the mission is before us in every high threat post, but especially in Iraq.

“But to emphasize again, we believe that we’ve got exactly the right number there that we need to get the mission done and they’re doing a tremendous job under Ambassador Tueller’s leadership. Having lots and lots of meetings with Iraqis from across the spectrum, including those in Tahrir Square, and they’re sending lots of good reporting back to us. I’d like to welcome my senator, Senator Shaheen.”

MURPHY: “Okay, so I will take your reservation for sharing numbers with us in open session. But as you know, Iraq has always been a very dangerous post and we are so thankful for both the military and diplomatic personnel who are willing to put their lives at risk by serving in a place where you are constantly under threat of attack. But it is a little hard to sort of accept as the rationale for the drawdown the security risk, given the fact that, I think we can all agree, that the security risk was probably much higher during a time in which we were in active combat in large parts of the country and large parts of the capital city and yet we managed to have thousands of personnel there.

“And maybe it’s coincidental that the political and security situation has unraveled in Iraq at the exact same moment that our diplomatic drawdown has happened. But maybe it’s not. Maybe the fact that we don’t have the personnel there that we used to in order to go out and try to convince our friends to make the right decisions when encountering difficulty is in fact correlated.

“And so, again, I understand you can’t share with us the intel on the security threats. But isn’t it true that Iraq has always been a place where there was threat of attack against diplomatic personnel, and we were able to manage that threat because we thought it was so important to have hundreds of diplomats rather than a handful of diplomats? If we could do it in 2006 and 2007, why can’t we manage that security risk today?”

HOOD: “Senator, a few points on that, compared to 2006 and 2007, we had probably 150,000 American troops in the country, which is a very different story than today. We, from time to time, review our numbers and our capabilities and our mission set in front of us and that’s what we did in Iraq. And we believe that we’ve got the right mix of people there.

“Now, I would invite you to visit again. I know all three of you on the committee right now, have been out there this year and I think it’s just invaluable to have you out there to help brief you on these things in detail. I can say the ambassador and his team are as active as ever. They’re just making even more meetings than ever before and having just as much impact as ever before. So, I think that their capability is there and if he were to ask us for more capabilities in this area, or that area, we certainly would not be in a position to say no.”

MURPHY: “All right, well, let me just submit that I disagree with you. I do not think you can cover the panoply of threats in that country presented to us and to our allies with the numbers that you have. I do think there’s a correlation between the two. And the last comment I’ll make before turning it over is that I accept your invitation. I thank you for how hard you worked to make Senator Romney’s and my visit productive.

“But I will also say it’s never been harder than today for members of the Senate or Congress to visit Iraq. This administration is making it very difficult for members to get there and do the kind of oversight that we would like. When we were there, we were able to see our diplomatic personnel but we were not able to go and visit our military personnel. And I’ve heard from other members expressing this same frustration with our ability to see how our taxpayer dollars are being spent there.

“And again, I’m speaking above your pay grade. But I just think it’s important to state for the record that many members of Congress would like to be there, would like to accept that invitation, but find it often hard to do given some of the constraints, but I appreciate the invitation.”

[…]

MURPHY: “Thank you very much Senator Cruz.

“I think we all share in the objective of lessening Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. And let me sort of restate in a different way a question I asked you earlier. It is the State Department’s belief that helping to stand up the LAF, as an independent, non-sectarian, guarantor of security in Lebanon is a part of our strategy to decrease the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon?”

HOOD: “Yes, sir”

MURPHY: “ I just have a couple of additional questions to close out.

“So, there was a real sense when I was on the ground there a week ago that this crisis of leadership couldn’t last much longer. And that those nations that have typically stood by the side of Lebanon, the United States at the top of that list, needed to play a more active role and trying to help resolve it. There are reports, as you mentioned, literally as you were coming in to see us today that there may be, a pending breakthrough, a businessman who’s being put forward as perhaps the next prime minister.

“But what role do you think is appropriate for the United States and others to play in trying to help bring an end to this moment of political instability? And how confident are you that we’re on the same page with other international players? It obviously worries many of us when we see the president departing in a huff from a NATO summit at the way that he was treated by the exact allies that we’re supposed to be talking to about how we land a very difficult political crisis in Lebanon. How confident are you that we’re working in a multilateral way to try to help end this leadership crisis in a country that matters so much to our interests?” 

HOOD: “Senator, I’m very confident that we’re working multilaterally and in an effective way. In fact, Assistant Secretary Schenker is right now on a trip to consult with British counterparts. Last week, he was in France and Italy, doing the same thing with counterparts there. And we believe that they do share our goal of making sure that whatever government comes along next in Lebanon is not just a set of pretty faces, but is a group that is entirely committed to real reform, and is backed up by those sectarian leaders and others who have influence in the country, whether we like it or not, with a real commitment to reform. Because if they don’t have that commitment, then it really doesn’t matter who they put in what chair.

“But what we’re proposing, the way we’re trying to help, is not by saying pick this one and not that one. But by holding out that hand and saying, we’ve got a $22 trillion economy here, we’ve got a pretty robust assistance budget, thanks to the Congress, we’ve got a lot of tools and levers that we can use to help a reform minded government and so take our hand, take that $11 billion in CEDRE funding, take the private investments that we would be able to advocate for, if the environment allowed for it.”

MURPHY: “One last question on Iraq, and I’m sorry if this ground has been covered, tell me if it has been. But we’ve spent $5 billion to train Iraqi security forces and today we’re spending you know, about three or four times as much money on security assistance as we are in reconstruction, rebuilding and economic aid, which I don’t understand. I don’t understand the justification for that division of funding.

“But we now are seeing reports that it may be that U.S.-trained units were amongst those involved in the killing of around 400 civilian protesters. I mean, we need to make sure that our dollars are not going to security forces that are firing on peaceful protesters. What is being done about accountability for the decisions that were made to potentially turn U.S.-trained and U.S.-funded forces on protesters in Iraq?”

HOOD: “I appreciate that question, Senator, because we have a full-time staff dedicated to Leahy Law vetting, to figure out exactly the answer to this question. And that person works, you know, 50-60 hours a week with other colleagues just on this very question. I’m looking at one of the individuals that has been responsible for that right now, sitting behind you, Jon Weadon. They do a tremendous job. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of slogging through the data and making important decisions and recommendations.

“This is exactly the kind of policy oversight and policy deliberations I was trying to explain to Senator Kaine earlier that we go through for this sort of funding. So, rest assured, we will take it very seriously. We are taking it very seriously. And we will make sure as we have done in the past, in Iraq and elsewhere, that any unit or leader that is implicated in human rights abuses will be barred from our assistance through the Leahy Law.”

MURPHY: “Well, this is a perilous moment, but it’s a moment that also is flush with opportunity. These are protesters who are not seeking to increase the ideological divides and separation in the region, they’re seeking to unite folks around a common set of good governance and economic demands. And I think you and those that work with you are doing a very, very good job amidst difficult circumstances, but one of those circumstances is the person you work for, who is sending mixed messages every single day about whether we support or don’t support these protesters.

“The idea that the president was asked whether we supported the protests in Iran and said that he didn’t want to get into it, but the answer was no. Only to correct himself an hour later, makes your job and others’ immensely, immensely difficult and sends a signal of mixed policy to the region that ultimately may mean that we miss this opportunity to support these, I think very, very promising protest movements.

“But thank you for the good work that you do. Thank you. Mr. Chairman.”

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