Congressional Committee Roundup, May 19-23

WASHINGTON D.C. – Financial, FATA and fuel security concerns dominated Congressional foreign policy committee meetings this week – no surprise, given the dismal economic and political news simultaneously coming out of Wall Street and Islamabad.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs began the week with a hearing to determine the full impact of sovereign wealth funds and, according to Chairman Howard L. Berman, “the power that these massive funds may have over U.S. national security interests.”

But contrary to Berman’s opening remarks, the experts seemed to agree that SWFs are symptomatic of U.S. economic downturn, if not a changing world economic order. Dr. Gerald Lyons, chief economist at Standard Chartered Bank, explained it most succinctly:

“The subprime crisis has, indeed, seen huge capital injections by SWFs into many western financial firms, but this has been generally welcomed, with such stakes preventing, or at least delaying, a consolidation of the financial sector. It has also prompted debate as to whether SWFs should take a more active role in poorly managed firms, or should continue to invest passively, often through third parties as they do at the moment.”

Indeed, Lyons (as well as his fellow testifiers) acknowledged potential security risks of untamed SWFs – that government-owned capital of any kind affords investing states some degree of political leverage. But the general consensus on the Hill this week certainly transcended the mainstream media’s more alarmist conceptions of SWFs, with the committee’s discussion instead focusing on potential measures to encourage transparency and fairness in SWF investment practices. The funds, they posited, have existed for decades, so ignoring their (even temporary) utility would be to the detriment of the American economy.


Also on Tuesday, the Senate focused its attention on U.S. security operations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that the United States was working extensively with Pakistan to reintegrate the state’s tribal areas back into the “economic and body politic.”

But, according to the GAO’s more detailed report, also presented on Tuesday:

“The United States has not met its national security goals to destroy terrorist threats and close the safe haven in Pakistan’s FATA. According to U.S. officials and intelligence documents, since 2002, al Qaeda and the Taliban have used Pakistan’s FATA and the border region to attack Pakistani, Afghan, as well as U.S. and coalition troops; plan and train for attacks against U.S. interests; destabilize Pakistan; and spread radical Islamist ideologies that threaten U.S. interests.”

Of course, the news that Pakistan intends to sign a peace agreement with extremists in the state’s tribal areas – conspicuously missing from Negroponte’s remarks – renders the GAO’s conclusions even more dismal. As WPR’s blog reported earlier this week, the negotiations include no mention of Afghanistan whatsoever, perhaps to the chagrin of Mr. Negroponte, who spoke ad nauseum about the Afghanistan’s inexorable security relationship with Pakistan.


On Thursday, the House revived the conversation about the national security impacts of American dependence on foreign oil. In his opening statement, Berman told the chamber,

“[M]any sources of fossil fuels on the world market are in parts of the world that are either unstable or politically unfriendly to the United States. This provides leverage for those who control these energy supplies, enabling them to challenge U.S. foreign policy objectives… We have seen examples of this in recent years: Russia cutting off gas supplies to the Caucasus, the ever more brazen rhetorical attacks against the United States by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and the flow of petrodollars from the Middle East supporting extremism — sometimes even terrorism.”

Predictably, the experts touted the benefits of alternative energy, but their testimonies seemed dampened by the recent news linking biofuel consumption to the world’s food crisis.

Avoiding any substantive mention of ethanol, Brookings’ David Sandalow instead advocated plugging drivers into the energy grid: “If we built cars that ran on electricity and plugged into the grid, the potential for displacing oil would be enormous.”

But while these electric cars would certainly reduce consumers’ dependence on foreign oil at the pump, the environmental impacts of plugging vehicles into the power grid are significant. Too much strain on the nation’s fossil-fuel power plants, among the most polluting sources of domestic energy, would create an environmental crisis of its own, transforming a national security debate into something considerably more complicated.

Nevertheless, the Nixon Center’s Paul J. Saunders summarized the debate the best:

“Some have called for a “Manhattan Project” or a “Man on the Moon” commitment to energy technology. This is appealing rhetoric and it is true that new technology could make a real difference. But the time scale is misleading. It will take more than five or ten years to change America’s energy realities—it will take decades, and a level of political commitment and bipartisan collaboration comparable to the fighting the Cold War. Delays and zig-zags resulting from partisan approaches will only increase the cost and slow our success.”


Also on the Hill this week:

International Convention Against Doping in Sport (Senate)

The US-Israel-Egypt Trilateral Relationship (House)

Burma in the Aftermath of Cyclone Nargis: Death, Displacement, and Humanitarian Aid (House)

Export Compliance: Ensuring Safety, Increasing Efficiency (House)