CONGRESS WATCH: Mending Political Fences, Foreign and Domestic

Article excerpt

CONGRESS WATCH: Mending Political Fences, Foreign and Domestic

Most congressmen used the two-month recess between congressional sessions to mend political fences at home and begin preparations for the 1998 elections. However, many also took the opportunity for foreign travel (see separate article). Two new bills of interest were introduced during the closing days of the last session, and for several congressmen mending fences included issuing letters and press releases to remind the Israel lobby of their unwavering support for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his current standoff with President Bill Clinton.

TWO NEW BILLS

Iran Missile Protection Act. In the final days of the congressional session, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) introduced identical bills that, contrary to grammatical logic, are not designed to protect Iran's missiles. Instead, they are to "authorize additional appropriations for the Department of Defense for ballistic missile defenses and other measures to counter the emerging threat posed to the United States and its allies in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region by the development and deployment of ballistic missiles by Iran." The bill is co-sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX); the House bill has 109 co-sponsors.

As with the pending bills mandating sanctions on countries supplying missile technology to Iran (see "Congressional Preview" p. 33), this bill seems aimed as much against Russia as against Iran. It directs Defense Department officials to meet with Russian officials to determine the extent of Russian cooperation and assistance in developing Iran's ballistic missile capability, and to determine the extent and technical nature of that capability. It further prohibits the obligation of $3 million in FY-98 cooperative ballistic missile defense projects with Russia until the U.S. president certifies to Congress that Russia is cooperating fully in providing this information. The bill also authorizes additional appropriations for specified missile defense systems, radars, networks, and related activities, and it directs the secretary of defense to report to Congress on the Iranian ballistic missile threat in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions. Finally (and perhaps this is the hidden motivation for an otherwise seemingly noncontroversial bill), it authorizes appropriations for the Defense Department to conduct the necessary research, development, testing, and evaluation "for support of the Israeli Arrow tactical ballistic missile defense system to be used to protect a U.S. ally in imminent peril." (U.S. Defense Department officials have always made it clear that U.S. forces have no use for the Israeli-developed, U.S.-funded Arrow in their own strategic plans.)

It is too early to say what the prospects are for passage of this bill. Reportedly, in mid-December U.S. satellite reconnaissance detected an engine test just south of Tehran of a new generation of intermediaterange ballistic missiles. Clearly, additional reports of further development of Iran's ballistic missile capabilities will increase the chances that the Kyl/Weldon bill, or similar legislation, will pass with strong backing from the Israel lobby.

Silk Road Strategy Act. On Oct. 30, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), who is chairman of the Near East and South Asia Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced this bill (S. 1344) to "focus the attention of U.S. policy on the need to play an active and positive role in reviving the economies of the countries of the ancient silk road," which the bill defines as the South Caucasus and Central Asia countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Specifically, the bill proposes to amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to authorize humanitarian assistance, economic and technical assistance, infrastructure development assistance, security assistance, and assistance for the development of democratic institutions in these eight countries, six of which are predominantly Muslim. …