Posted by on February 28, 2014 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Spring Intern, 2014

Fresh off their visit to Egypt, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Angus King (I-ME) are bringing their experiences back to Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, Kaine, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and Central and South Asian Affairs, led a subcommittee hearing on “Lebanon at a Crossroads.”

The hearing included testimonies from Lawrence Silverman, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Major General Michael T. Plehn, Principal Director for Middle East Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; Dr. Paul Salem, Vice President of the Middle East Institute; and Mr. Aram Nerguizian, Senior Fellow and Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Senators Kaine and King are also shedding light on other regional issues, including Syria’s humanitarian crisis, Egypt’s political unrest and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The visit to Lebanon was a first for both senators, who called the country an “overlooked neighbor” when it came to the impact from the Syrian crisis, a point also made by AAI President, Dr. James Zogby, last October. In Lebanon, the senators met with government officials and discussed the recent formation of a new government, upcoming presidential elections and U.S. humanitarian assistance to deal with the influx of refugees from Syria, which now make up a quarter of Lebanon’s population. The delegation also focused on growing security concerns related to Hezbollah and other extremist groups and discussed the security relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces.

The senators were particularly startled by the reaction on the ground to the twin suicide bombs that occurred in Beirut during their visit, which killed six and injured more than 120 people. “We thought we'd have to cancel the meeting because of the bombing, but that didn't happen,” Kaine said. “They say: life goes on even after a bombing...we sat with the president, as he was fielding calls, one from the Iranian ambassador, but he said he wanted us to see.” King, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, noted, “If this happened in Washington, the whole place would be shut down. So I guess you can get used to anything, even if it’s terror. I never want to be in that position.”

In his opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Kaine highlighted the importance of the U.S. Lebanese-American community.

“Our Lebanese-American population is such a strong part of America. One of the reasons you do hearings like this is not only to cast a spotlight on a part of the world where the story has not been told but also to honor Americans whose tradition and heritage is such that they have strong connections and lobby them. And Lebanese-Americans are often not removed from Lebanon, they’re deeply engaged with Lebanon. We find that in Virginia and so many communities throughout the United States.”

Virginia, the state Senator Kaine represents, ranks 11th nation-wide in its Arab American population, and a quarter of Virginia’s Arab American population are of Lebanese origin.

In addition to traveling to Lebanon, the visit to the region included meetings in Palestine with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. The senators also met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, members of the Knesset and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to discuss regional security and the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. 

In Egypt, ongoing crackdowns on journalists, academics and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood continue, and the recent resignation of the government has prompted speculation that Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will run for president. Kaine met with interim President Adly Mansour, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy and al-Sisi to discuss Egypt’s democratic transition, economic policies and concerns over the jailing of journalists.

Senator Kaine and other members of Congress are also drawing attention to the recent U.N. resolution on aid to Syria. On the Senate floor on Thursday, Kaine showed pictures of barrel bombs in Aleppo and residents awaiting relief in Yarmouk and said that that denying humanitarian aid to the Syrian people is “a war crime, pure and simple.” He has pressed for Russia and Syria to ensure aid access and said on Monday that “it is now incumbent on the Syrian regime to allow unhindered access of humanitarian goods to all Syrians.”   

The trip to the region is a noteworthy and significant move that helps highlight the ongoing, and sometimes distinct, issues plaguing the Middle East. However, the fact that the subcommittee hearing on Lebanon was poorly attended by members of Congress demonstrates the hard work still needed to raise awareness on these crucial issues. Despite gridlock, partisanship, and growing perceptions of triviality, Congress remains an essential component of U.S. foreign policy – whether regarding sanctions on Iran, humanitarian aid to Syria, or economic assistance to Egypt and other Arab transition countries.

Although Americans are increasingly skeptical and weary of U.S. engagement abroad, especially in the Middle East, it is important to note that economic, political and rhetorical pressures are valuable aspects of a holistic regional approach and should not be undermined by opposition to military action in Syria or by the recent calls for U.S. defense budget cuts.

Congress has a unique role to play given both its U.S. government oversight capacities and the ability for elected members to engage directly with their constituents and other government officials on pressing foreign policy issues. Congressional trips should continue to include stops in Arab countries, particularly unconventional and more potentially precarious locations that deserve notice. Senator Kaine’s hearing and visit to the Middle East with Senator King are laudable steps in bringing much-needed attention to the region.

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