The U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) is an often overlooked gold mine of information on U.S. policy on an array of topics, including foreign affairs. A division of the Library of Congress, it offers analysis of issues for members of congress and their staff and is written by individuals knowledgeable in their chosen field. While some of its reports are classified, most can be found on line.
Reports issued by CRS’s division of foreign affairs are predictably stilted but their descriptive content is indispensable for those seeking data on U.S. foreign military and economic assistance, succinct histories of U.S. foreign relations, and summarizes of U.S. policy concerns toward select countries. It’s a bonanza of information collected in one place. The Middle East division has been particularly busy in recent months, having issued 12 reports in January 2011 and December 2010, compared to their monthly average of two. Issues include political reform in Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait, U.S. relations toward Syria and Lebanon, background reports on Hezbollah and Hamas, and U.S. foreign aid to Israel.
The most recent releases are Tunisia: Recent Developments and Policy Issues and Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations. The 13 page Tunisia report was written soon after President Ben Ali fled the country and highlights following the Tunisian uprising the “potential implications for Congress related to the oversight to U.S.-Tunisian bilateral relations and assistance.” It offered the understated prediction that “many analysts believe the events in Tunisia could affect political stability in other countries in the region with authoritarian-leaning, Western-backed regimes.”
The 28 page report on Egypt, released January 18, 2011 at the rise of the Egyptian rebellion, presents an overview of Egypt’s political structure and parties and U.S.-Egyptian relations, including a chart showing U.S. aid to Egypt from 1948 to the present. It recognizes the tension between some U.S. policy makers advocating an “orderly” transfer of power from Mubarak to new leadership that insures “Egypt’s peace with Israel, U.S. access to the Suez Canal, and general bilateral military cooperation” and others wishing to see in Egypt “a genuine democracy even if it empowers the Muslim Brotherhood.”
CRS also issued in early January 2011 Iran Sanctions, a report detailing the evolution of international sanctions against Iran. It succinctly reviews the myriad of U.S. sanctions legislation, U.N. resolutions, and action by other countries against Iran. It outlines the policies that target Iran’s energy sector, restrict its ability to make or import gasoline, and isolate Iran from the international financial system. The report states that by “all accounts,” sanctions is “having a growing effect on Iran’s economy” by intensifying “the effects of Iran’s economic mismanagement and key bottlenecks.” But the CRS study concedes that a “consensus [opines] that sanctions have not, to date, caused such an Iranian policy shift.” It suggests that the White House and Congress may be promoting Iran’s domestic opposition by “emphasizing measures that would sanction Iranian officials who are human rights abusers, facilitate the democracy movement’s access to information, and express outright U.S. support for the opposition.”
The report’s author, Kenneth Katzman, is prominent among Washington’s Middle East foreign policy establishment and a long time Iran watcher, having started his career at the CIA’s Middle East analytic section and authoring one of the earliest books on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. He has written an extensive series of fact laden CRS publications on Iran, with one title, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses, periodically updated. Glenn Greenwald, however, considers him a neocon whose opinions “reveal the grotesque indifference and banal evil that characterizes much of America’s war-loving Foreign Policy Community.”