The Cable

Congress debates the Muslim Brotherhood and aid to Egypt

Today's first hearing of the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee was dominated by the question of how much the United States should fear the empowerment of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and what leverage should be used against the Egyptian military to get them to behave in accordance with U.S. interests.

Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) opened the hearing with a broad criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in Egypt, which she said is now tilting too far in support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and is failing to counteract the threat posed by the rise of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Instead of being proactive, we have been obsessed with maintaining short-term, personality-based stability -- stability that was never really all that stable, as the events of the recent week demonstrate," she said.

"Now the White House is reportedly making matters worse by apparently re-examining its position on dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but also stating that a new Egyptian government should include a whole host of important nonsecular actors. The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with driving these protests, and they and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt."

Ros-Lehtinen repeated her argument that the United States should try to impose strict criteria on the process to ensure only "responsible actors" can participate in Egyptian governance, which she defined as those who renounce violent extremism and pledge to uphold Egypt's international commitments, including its peace treaty with Israel.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart, didn't have any nice things to say about the Muslim Brotherhood either.

"Like many I am skeptical about the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to democracy. The Brotherhood wants Egypt to be governed by religious law rather than man-made law, a problematic position for a democrat. It has a bloody history," he said. "Even in the best-case scenario where the Brotherhood proves itself fully committed to democracy, there is every reason to believe it will try to influence the Egyptian government in ways that undermine U.S. interests and that will make Egypt a regressive, less-tolerant place."

Prior to the start of the hearing, Berman formally announced the names of the new ranking Democrats on the various subcommittees, including Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) on the Middle East subcommittee. Ackerman offered the most scathing criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the Egypt crisis at the hearing.

"In Egypt I fear that we are snatching failure from the jaws of success," he said. "The Obama administration now appears to be wavering about whether America really backs the demands of the Egyptian people or just wants to return to stability, which is a facade."

Ackerman turned the hearing into a discussion of the Egyptian military's role and the trustworthiness of Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former head of Mubarak's national intelligence agency. Ackerman criticized what he sees as a gap between the administration's rhetoric and its policy, and called on the White House to suspend military aid to Egypt now.

"The people yearn to be free. We must plant ourselves firmly on their side," he said. "We need to suspend our aid to Egypt. We simply cannot afford to be seen in Egypt as being a bankroll to oppression."

For his part, Berman disagreed with Ackerman and said that the United States should continue to use aid as leverage against the military, in order to pressure Suleiman and others to act in ways that support U.S. interests and values.

The foreign-policy experts that appeared before the committee largely agreed that military aid should be continued for the time being, but not if the Egyptian military proves to be impeding rather than advancing the course of reform.

"The Army may not have made up its mind yet. Now is the time to signal to them this aid is conditional," said former National Security Council official Elliott Abrams.

"The United State doesn't have so many levers," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Why would we throw away this arrow before it's absolutely apparent that the Egyptian Army has made a choice to suppress and refuse change? That seems to be unwise."

The experts disagreed on how the United States should handle the Muslim Brotherhood. Abrams said that "conditions that forbid religious parties are actually quite useful." Satloff urged a middle-of-the-road approach.

"Don't exaggerate [the danger of the Brotherhood], and also don't be naive," he said.

Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, argued that there are plenty of other secular political organizations in Egypt for the United States to work with besides the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We have to stop presenting ourselves with the choice that Mubarak gave us. There are groups in the middle," he said.

But Ackerman was skeptical that those groups were ready to take on a leadership role after decades of suppression. "If you over-pesticide your garden, you only get the weeds that survive," he said.

The other ranking Democrats on the committee announced today were Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) on the subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade; Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) on the subcommittee on oversight and investigations; Donald Payne (D-N.J.) on the subcommittee on Africa, global health, and human rights; Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) on the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific; Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) on the subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia; and Elliott Engel (D-N.Y.) on the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

Berman also announced a plan to introduce the "Hezbollah anti-terrorism act of 2011," which would limit U.S. foreign assistance to Lebanon until President Obama certifies that none of the funds will go to Hezbollah-controlled agencies and that the Lebanese government is dismantling Hezbollah's military infrastructure.

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The Cable

House to battle over funds to increase security at the U.N.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) will get her first chance to fulfill her promise to cut U.S. funding from the United Nations tomorrow, when the House votes on a bill to take back $180 million already given to the U.N.

The money, part of what's called the U.N. Tax Equalization Fund, is supposed to go to U.S. citizens who work at the United Nations, to compensate for the taxes they pay on their U.N. salaries. U.S. citizens don't pay these taxes because their foreign coworkers there don't pay taxes back in their countries. Over the years, the United States has overpaid the fund by $180 million, and House Republicans want that money back. The problem is that the United Nations Capital Master Plan has already designated $100 million of that money for security improvements at the U.N. headquarters in New York City. The Obama administration has thrown its support behind using the funds for that purpose.

"This is absolutely critical. The New York Police Department requested that security improvements be made to the U.N. complex because of concerns about terrorism," Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday. Since part of the U.N. building actually hangs over FDR Drive, the NYPD is concerned about the possibility of car bombs.

"We have thousands of employees who work there. We have tourists and schoolchildren who visit these buildings. We need to make sure they are as safe as possible," she said.

Brimmer noted that the entire U.N. headquarters building is being rebuilt now, making this the ideal time to upgrade security there. The funds have already been allocated and the project is underway, so if the Ros-Lehtinen bill passes and the funds are rescinded, it would be difficult and more expensive to go back and put in the security improvements later, she said.

The remaining $80 million would go to future U.S. dues to the United Nations, reducing the amount of future appropriations, Brimmer said. "We all share the desire to be absolutely scrupulous with every dollar of taxpayer money," she said. However, she also argued that the United States has treaty obligations to pay its dues, as agreed. "We're an international leader and we have to act like it."

The bill was selected for a vote because it was featured on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's "YouCut" website, which allows people to vote online each week for what legislation that introduces spending cuts they want to see on the House floor and received the highest bote. Cantor's site says that the administration has not decided how to , but Brimmer said congressional staffers were briefed on the security improvements last December.

"It appears that the U.N. is still holding the U.S. funds because the Administration has not instructed the U.N. on how it wishes to dispose of them. By instructing the U.N. to return those funds to the U.S. we can generate savings for American taxpayers," the website stated.

Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-NY) said in an interview with The Cable that's not true. King is opposed to the bill, will vote against it, and will do everything in his power to ensure that the bill does not get the two-thirds of votes it needs to pass under suspension of the rules.

"This would undermine security in New York City, it's wrong and it's indefensible," King said, adding that the push for increasing security at the U.N. has gone on for years and should not be scuttled now that it is actually happening.

King met with GOP leadership Tuesday afternoon to let them know his view. They told him that the funds should be appropriated through regular means. There could be a way to include the $100 million in the continuing resolution coming up next week, but Congress shouldn't take any chances, King said.

"We're talking about human life here. If someone is killed in an attack on the U.N., I don't think we will be able to go back and say, well, the money was in the wrong account," said King.

Supporters of the United Nations see the singling out of U.N. funds for cuts as placing a relatively small amount of savings above national security concerns.

"Both the State Department and the New York City Police have recognized the need to implement security upgrades to protect the U.N. and its workers from a terrorist attack and the funding must remain so that these improvements can move forward," Peter Yeo, vice president for public policy and public affairs for the UN Foundation, told The Cable. "The security of Americans and foreign officials working at the U.N. should not be compromised for the sake of political fodder."

Ros-Lehtinen will lead the floor debate on the bill. She will be opposed by committee ranking Democrat and former chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee Nita Lowey (R-NY).

"I strongly oppose this legislation, which will jeopardize critical security upgrades at United Nations headquarters in New York, put us back into arrears at the UN, and result in absolutely no savings to the American taxpayer," Berman told The Cable.

"Rescinding this funding would mean either killing necessary security enhancements or sticking New Yorkers with the full tab for protecting the world's diplomats," Lowey said in an interview. "Neither is acceptable."