While military efforts generate the bulk of the attention, there’s more than one facet to taking on ISIS. The Washington Post reported the other day on an angle that’s generating quite a bit of attention among members of Congress.
With Washington at loggerheads over how to counter the Islamic State on the ground, both parties are proposing expanded financial sanctions as a strategy to assail the terrorist group’s operations.Republicans like Jeb Hensarling (Texas), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, and Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) are calling for Congress to pass new laws to further cut off the group’s financial networks.
At face value, this makes a fair amount of sense. U.S. officials, most notably through the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, can undermine terrorist networks by cutting off their finances and access to international banking. It’s not the same thing as an airstrike, but it can matter just as much.
There are, however, two angles to this that Congress should be aware of. The first is that new laws won’t necessarily make much of a difference. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew hasn’t asked for new sanctioning tools from lawmakers, and he recently explained that Obama administration officials have already “shut the formal banking system off from ISIS.”
The second is that congressional Republicans can do something constructive – the Senate can confirm Adam Szubin, the acting Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes – but they don’t want to.
[E]quipping OFAC with people who can maximize the its existing tools is paramount, [Richard Nephew, head of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and a former top State Department official on sanctions policy] concluded.“The fact that Adam [Szubin] is where he is means that his replacements can’t be hired behind him,” Nephew said. “There may be some additional value of additional tools, but really, it’s having enough people on deck to use the tools you’ve got.”
Szubin, you’ll recall, was nominated for a job that involves “tracking terrorists to prevent them from raising money on the black market and elsewhere.” He’s extremely well qualified; he’s worked on blocking terrorist financing in previous administrations; and he enjoys broad, bipartisan support in the Senate.
But senators in the GOP majority decided that President Obama wants Szubin to work on disrupting terrorist financing, which means he can’t get a confirmation vote – because anything Obama wants must be rejected, no matter the consequences.
Szubin, who has no critics in either party, was first nominated in mid-April. Given his broad support and the importance of the issue, this should have been one of the year’s easiest votes. Republicans, for reasons even they can’t explain, prefer to keep him waiting, indefinitely, as a way of annoying the White House.
If GOP lawmakers are eager to take terrorist financing seriously, they have a funny way of showing it.