- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2019

From the future of U.S. troops in Syria and nuclear war doctrine to the war in Yemen, the new Congress is showing little deference to President Trump on key foreign policy matters.

House Democrats, now wielding gavels in key committees after last year’s midterm elections, have predictably launched a string of early challenges to Mr. Trump’s foreign policy agenda, but the challenge is proving bipartisan: Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was the driving force behind a resolution that moved forward on a bipartisan 68-23 vote Thursday directly questioning the White House’s plans to draw down U.S. troops deployed in Syria and Afghanistan.

While facing regular sharp critiques from Capitol Hill on foreign policy, Mr. Trump in his first two years in office enjoyed a relatively free hand re-shaping American foreign policy, from an aggressive new protectionist approach on trade to withdrawing from international pacts such as the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

Things have changed.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington State Democrat, is among those leading the way, saying he is ready to challenge the administration on a range of fronts, scrutinizing Mr. Trump’s military budgets and the president “America first” priorities.

“We are working to reinvigorate oversight over the Trump administration’s handling of the military on any number of issues, from the use of military force to climate change to nuclear weapons strategy,” Mr. Smith told The Washington Times.

The new chairman has long been a critic of the Trump administration’s plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which called for a pricey overhaul of existing arsenals.

Earlier this week, Mr. Smith joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, in introducing legislation designed to ensure the United States does not fire the first nuclear shot in potential future wars, a radical departure from traditional U.S. warfighting doctrine.

“Our current nuclear strategy is not just outdated — it is dangerous,” said the lawmakers in a joint statement. “By making clear that deterrence is the sole purpose of our arsenal, this bill would reduce the chances of a nuclear miscalculation and help us maintain our moral and diplomatic leadership in the world.”

Sen. Deb Fischer, Nebraska Republican, quickly came out in opposition to the bill, arguing that “calculated ambiguity has long been an element of U.S. nuclear declaratory policy. … With Russia and China increasingly attempting to intimidate their neighbors – some of whom are U.S. allies – this is the wrong message to send. It betrays a naive and disturbed world view.”

Blizzard of legislation

The Warren-Smith bill is one of many Democratic bills likely to find little support in the Republican-dominated Senate, but Democrats say the blizzard of legislation will help them set the terms of the debate and force top administration officials — for the first time — to justify their policies in the face of pointed, public questioning.

Nuclear policy isn’t the only areas where Congress is likely to assert itself over the next two years. The House last week overwhelmingly passed a resolution expressing support for the NATO alliance — seen by many as a rebuke to Mr. Trump’s many comments questioning the pact and the failure of U.S. allies to pay their full share to the collective defense.

On another front, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Vermont independent and Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, joined Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah in sponsoring a joint resolution this week to end U.S. support of the Saudi-led war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Efforts to curb U.S. support for the war — and Mr. Trump’s close alliance with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — went nowhere in the previous Congress.

“We are going to send a strong signal to the president that the U.S. Congress is prepared to play the role designed for us by the framers of the Constitution,” Mr. Sanders said.

“With the new Democratic majority in the House, I am optimistic that Congress will once again sound the alarm over the atrocities committed in Yemen and end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition that is killing thousands of civilians, blocking humanitarian aid, and arming radical militias,” Mr. Murphy said.

On yet another issue, a bipartisan group of House members unveiled legislation this week that would make it more difficult for the administration to withdraw troops from both Syria and South Korea, where Mr. Trump has long complained Seoul has failed to offer sufficient financial support for the U.S. mission there.

The bills, sponsored by Rep. Van Taylor, Texas Republican, and Rep. Tom Malinowski, New Jersey Democrat, prohibit using Defense Department funds to lower troop presence in Syria below 1,500 and in South Korea below 22,000 unless the secretary of state, secretary of defense and director of national intelligence all verify to Congress that U.S. allies have been consulted and U.S. interests would not be threatened in each region.

“This legislation makes a strong bipartisan statement that it would be reckless to pull troops from South Korea while North Korea still threatens our allies with nuclear and conventional weapons and that if we are going to withdraw from Syria, we should do it with a plan, not a tweet,” Mr. Malinowski, a former human rights official in the Obama administration, told the New York Times.

At times the congressional pushback has resembled micro-managing, as when the Senate narrowly rejected a proposal to reverse a Treasury Department decision to lift sanctions on a Russian metals magnate and oligarch said to be close to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin. The administration said the lifting was justified under the law, but 11 Republicans crossed the aisle to join Democrats in trying to keep the sanctions in place.

Congress’s oversight powers and its control of the federal purse have already provided some tense moments for Mr. Trump’s policy priorities. A fuming Mr. Smith on Thursday stopped just short of accusing the Trump administration of lying to his committee at a hearing earlier this week on the president’s decision to dispatch thousands of active-duty U.S. troops to the Mexican border to help efforts to control illegal immigration.

Mr. Smith said Defense Department officials at the hearing made no mention of any new troop deployments in the works for the southern border — even as acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was telling reporters at the Pentagon that “several thousand” active-duty, reserve and National Guard forces were being deployed in the coming days.

“When given the opportunity to testify publicly about the mission at our southern border, the department balked,” Mr. Smith wrote in an angry letter to Mr. Shanahan released Thursday evening,

“This was at best an error in judgment and at worst flat-out dishonesty.”

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