(Persia Digest) - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on Capitol Hill Wednesday to defend the Trump administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2020. But lawmakers grilled him on a host of other hot spots around the world – from Iran to North Korea to Central America.
Deirdre Shesgreen writes in USA TODAY about four takeaways from Pompeo's nearly three hours before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
War with Iran?
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., suggested the Trump administration might be preparing to take military action against Iran – a longstanding fear among critics who point to the hard-line anti-Iran views espoused by both Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser.
Paul asked Pompeo if the Trump administration believes it has the authority go to war with Iran under Congress’ 2001 authorization to strike terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11.
“I’d prefer to leave that to lawyers,” Pompeo responded.
Paul pressed further, implying the State Department’s decision, announced Monday, to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps a foreign terrorist organization was intended to lay the groundwork for a military strike – using the 2001 law as justification.
“There is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and al-Qaeda. Period, full stop,” Pompeo said, referring to the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks.
“You do not have our permission to go to war in Iran,” Paul shot back.
'Deal of the Century' and U.S. policy toward Israel
Pompeo repeatedly refused to say whether the Trump administration would oppose Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow to annex the West Bank – or whether the U.S. still supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu secured a 5th term as Israel’s leader on Wednesday after campaigning largely on his success in persuading President Trump to make a series of pro-Israel policy decisions, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. During the campaign, he promised to annex the West Bank in a last-minute bid to rally the right wing.
Pompeo evaded questions about that by telling lawmakers they would soon see the Trump administration “vision” for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top adviser, is crafting the secret plan, which Trump has promised will be the “Deal of the Century.”
Pompeo said Kushner’s plan would be unveiled “before too long.”
Democrats said it was ridiculous Pompeo could not articulate current U.S. policy on such a consequential question.
“I’m kind of shocked that that cannot be stated clearly,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Cutting aid to Central American countries
Democrats also blasted the Trump administration’s decision to cut humanitarian aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in response to the current migrant crisis at the U.S. southern border. Pompeo announced the decision under pressure from Trump, who has complained that those countries are not doing enough to stop their desperate citizens from fleeing to the U.S.
“All this will do is create greater instability in the region and drive more people in fear and hopelessness to the border,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Pompeo defended the decision, saying the aid was not working to improve the living conditions in those countries.
“The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to try and build out solutions in these countries,” he said. “It has not been effective ... so we are endeavoring to change that.”
Pompeo also ducked a series of related questions, including whether he agrees with Trump that the U.S. should close its border with Mexico and whether the U.S. is "full" when it comes to immigrants.
Wiggle room on North Korea sanctions?
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., pressed Pompeo on whether the U.S. would maintain crippling economic sanctions on North Korea until the regime of Kim Jong Un took concrete steps toward giving up his country’s nuclear weapons cache.
“I want to leave a little space there,” Pompeo responded. If the administration makes “substantial progress” in its negotiations with North Korea, it might be “the right thing” to ease up the economic penalties, he added.
His remarks come at a critical moment. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in will be at the White House on Thursday and is expected to ask Trump to revive talks with Kim after a failed summit in Hanoi resulted in no agreement. Moon may ask the president to lift some sanctions in exchange for steps by North Korea to denuclearize.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., suggested the administration was not being tough enough on enforcing current global sanctions, pointing to a United Nations report documenting North Korea's evasion of some economic restrictions with the help of China and Russia.
"I see Kim Jong Un just trying to play out the string to the end of your administration with absolutely no results," Markey said.
Pompeo argued that the Trump administration had done more to constrain North Korea that the the Obama administration.
Click here for more political news.