Congressional Committee Roundup, June 2-8

Returning from their brief holiday hiatus, foreign policy committees on the Hill fielded testimony last week about U.S.-Chinese cooperation in Africa and Iran’s latest strategic aspirations in the Middle East.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on African affairs began the week with a discussion of China’s involvement in Africa, and ultimately, its implications for U.S. foreign policy. James Swan and Tom Christensen, the deputy assistant secretaries of state for African affairs and East Asian and Pacific affairs, respectively, opened the hearing with a rather optimistic assessment of China’s African interests:

In general, we see China’s growing activity on the continent as a potentially positive force for economic development there, which is a goal we share with China and many others. As President Bush has said, we do not see a “zero-sum” competition with China for influence in Africa. Nor do we see evidence that China’s commercial or diplomatic activities in Africa are aimed at diminishing U.S. influence on the continent.

J. Stephen Morrison, the director of the African Program at CSIS, noted in his testimony later in the afternoon that much of the perception that the Chinese intentionally flood African markets is somewhat overstated. Private companies and families as well as state enterprises invest in the continent, and Chinese-born foreign investment has diversified their portfolios in recent years to include more than just oil, he said.

Moreover, generalizing China’s effects across the continent, as many U.S. leaders have tended to do, is nearly impossible, Morrison added. Even amid the most depressing economic forecasts, countries like Nigeria, Angola and Kenya have prospered (albeit slightly) from Chinese investment, so the U.S. should analyze China’s relationship with Africa more categorically, he said.

But despite these gains, Elizabeth C. Economy, director of Asia Studies at CFR, explained that Americans should not assume China’s African economic interactions are wholly benign. Although the state’s trade with Africa has increased from $8.92 billion to a whopping $73 billion in only six years, the Chinese have brought with them much instability, in the form of increased conflict (as in Darfur) or economic instability (in the form of trade deficits). Combined with poor environment and safety standards, China’s investment in Africa is as much of a risk as it is a benefit, she said.


Meanwhile, on Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia delved into Iran’s more intricate, long-term strategic goals. During his opening remarks, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, chairman of the committee, harshly criticized Bush administration policy toward Iran:

As I said in mid-April, the President has been aware of the threat of Iranian nuclear proliferation from day one of his administration. He has known, and done next to nothing. And now we face the real possibility that within the next two years Iran will have the means to make an atomic bomb. . . . Iran’s tactics are shrewd, effective and alarming. But they’re nothing new. There is a word for these methods, though we may have to dust off some Cold War cobwebs to put it back in use. The word is “subversion,” and in the days of George Kennan, when America had political leaders who knew the difference between talking tough, and getting results, we knew how to fight against subversion without bankrupting the nation or destroying our armed forces.

Taking a less partisan view, Dr. Judith S. Yaphe, Distinguished Research Fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, told the committee that two major factors shape Iran’s foreign policy goals: The need to reassert itself as a regional hegemon, and the need for an “enhanced capability” to defend itself against American or similar external aggression.

Predictably, the panelists agreed that Iran’s most reliable allies in those two pursuits are extremist, non-state actors, including Hezbollah and Hamas, which it funds regularly. But regardless of why Iran conducts its foreign policy in this fashion, Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at CSIS and occasional WPR contributor, pointed out that there was at least one common denominator in the state’s strategic goals, albeit a confusing one: Israel. According to his testimony:

One could well argue that Iran has no business caring about Israel. . . . In my judgment, the government of Iran uses its hostility to Israel strategically, as a way to open doors for a Shiite, Farsi-speaking power in the Sunni Arab heartland. By advertising its hostility to Israel — and supporting those who attack Israel — the Iranian government seeks to demonstrate to the disaffected throughout the region that it is more courageous and more true to their sentiments than their own governments.

With Iran slowly and effectively expanding its sphere of influence in the Middle East, the U.S. must reengage Iran diplomatically, Yaphe concluded. Unlike Washington’s current policy, which “punishes” Tehran’s rogue behavior with diplomatic silence, the U.S. must open new political and economic channels with Iran. “Acquiescence to a pipeline project to carry Central Asian gas and oil, for example, would be an important signal of U.S. awareness of Iran’s economic needs. It could also defuse potential Iranian dependence on Chinese investment in the energy sector of its economy,” Yaphe told the committee, adding that cooperation was possible because Iran and the United States do share similar interests, namely the successful development of Iraq.


On the Hill this week:

Diplomatic Assurances and Rendition to Torture: The Perspective of the State Department’s Legal Adviser (House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, Tuesday)
The New Challenge: China and the Western Hemisphere (House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Wednesday)
Sovereign Wealth Funds: Foreign Policy Consequences in an Era of New Money (Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Wednesday)
Oil, Oligarchs and Opportunity: Energy from Central Asia to Europe (Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Thursday)
Russia, Iran, and Nuclear Weapons: Implications of the Proposed U.S.-Russia Agreement (House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Thursday)

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