Analysis 01-31-2015


America’s Two Biggest Middle Eastern Allies Roil Domestic Politics

Relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia spilled out of the foreign policy arena and into domestic affairs this week.

The first was Congress’s invitation for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress – an invitation that wasn’t first approved by the White House.  Relations between Obama and Netanyahu haven’t been cordial and the invitation by Congress was clearly meant to be a slap in the face of the president.

The issue also raised constitutional questions about the conduct for foreign policy, which is a power reserved for the president.  The criticism originated with Law Professor Michael Ramsey who maintained Congress cannot host foreign leaders, because none of the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution expressly covers such events. Second, the Constitution does expressly empower the president to “receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers,” and Congress’s invitation to Netanyahu undermines the president’s constitutional authority in this sphere.

Far from being an argument just between Republicans and Democrats, many conservative Republicans have joined in the condemnation.  In fact, the flagship of the Conservative Republican media, National Review, noted that a foreign leader may only appear before Congress at the invitation of the president.

Defenders have replied that congressmen have traditionally met with foreign leaders.  In fact, they noted that Senator Obama even travelled to Israel and met with then Prime Minister Olmert.  Supporters of the joint session of Congress also correctly noted that the Administration has approved Netanyahu’s visit to the US and therefore he has the right to speak to anyone he wants to.

The invitation and acceptance didn’t sit well with the White House.  A State Department official told Haaretz, “We thought we’d seen everything…. But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”

Constitutional issues aside, the invitation clearly shows the radical divide in American/Israeli relations.  While White House relations with the current Israeli administration are cool, Netanyahu enjoys warm and widespread support in Congress on both sides of the aisle.

A sign of the difference in policy between Congress and the White House is clearly seen with the state of US negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.  While the Secretary of State seems frantic to achieve any agreement with Tehran, Congress is wary of the current state of negotiations and warning Obama that any agreement with Iran must be approved by the US Senate.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation proposed by Sen. Robert Menendez (D., NJ) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) that would impose stiff sanctions on Iran if an agreement is not reached by the deadline of June 30.  Netanyahu’s speech before Congress will surely give the legislation a boost, even though it will probably be vetoed by Obama.

The speech before Congress will also boost the chances for other pro-Israeli legislation like additional foreign aid and military support.  In fact, the speech will probably be a platform for asking for more ballistic missile defense money.

But, more than anything, the speech before the joint session of Congress signals that as far as Netanyahu is concerned, Obama is no longer a factor in American foreign policy.  Netanyahu sees little benefit in working with Obama in these next two years and has decided that he has more to gain by working directly with Congress and speaking directly to the American voter.  Kerry and Obama may threaten Netanyahu and Israel, but Netanyahu’s acceptance of the Congressional invitation to speak shows that the administration has little leverage to influence Israeli policy during the next two years.

This attitude will also likely be seen in Israel’s response to the operation in Shaba’a farm by Hezbollah.  Although an all-out war is unlikely with Israeli elections just a month away, a reelected Netanyahu may be more likely to aggressively respond to both Hezbollah and Syria, while trying to ignor any attempts by Obama and Kerry to reduce tensions.

Saudi Arabia – The Future of Relations with America will not be decided in Washington

The death of the Saudi king last week has many Americans looking at the future of Saudi/American relations.

The fact is that the relationship is older than the American/Israeli one.  The alliance dates to the end of the Second World War, when an ailing Franklin Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Abdul Aziz, aboard the cruiser Quincy in the Suez Canal. Then, and for decades after, the relationship was simple: America would provide security, the Saudis oil.  They also have found themselves on the same side in terms of opposing Communism in the Cold War era, Iran’s growing influence, and al-Qaeda terrorists in the War on Terror.

However, the close relationship has been tense in the past six years as Obama has tried to extract American forces from the region, has supported the Arab Spring movement, has tried to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, and has failed to respond forcibly against extremist groups like ISIS.  And, it hasn’t helped that America is now the largest oil producer and is no longer as dependent on Saudi oil.

Despite this, the two countries need each other.  America retains a strong military presence in the Gulf, and cannot be replaced as the ultimate guarantor of Saudi security in the foreseeable future.  In the midst of turmoil across the region, and with the threat of terrorism ever-present, America still relies heavily on the Saudis for regional stability.

In many ways, both Saudi Arabia and America are suffering from a lack of clear leadership.  Saudi Arabia’s new king and crown prince are old and the inevitable fight for control of the kingdom is still to be settled.  Meanwhile, Obama has less than two years left and is increasingly being seen as ineffectual and unable to lead.  Relations are basically on autopilot and will depend to a great degree on the bureaucracies in Riyadh and Washington.

The future of US/Saudi relations does not lie either at the White House or Congress.  Rather, it probably lies in unlikely places like Madison, Wisconsin, home to likely presidential candidate Governor Scott Walker.  If not Wisconsin, look towards Florida, Texas, Kentucky, or Arkansas.

With the exception of Senator Rand Paul, who is considered an isolationist, most of the potential Republican candidates for president will likely pursue a Middle Eastern policy that more closely mirrors that of Saudi Arabia.  There will very likely be a more coherent policy of fighting ISIS and al Qaeda that will meet with agreement in Riyadh.  They will also advocate closer relations with the Sisi government in Egypt.

That’s not to say that the US and Saudi Arabia will not have disagreements under a Republican president.  Several of the potential candidates have commented on internal repression in the kingdom and that is expected to continue.  They will also side with Israel in any future talks with the Palestinians.  However, despite these differences, they will work more closely with Saudi Arabia seeking stability in the region.



Congress Should Refocus DHS on Crucial Cybersecurity Reforms

By David Inserra

Heritage Foundation

January 26, 2015

Issue Brief #4335

Several weeks ago, President Barack Obama announced that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would provide work authorization and protection from deportation to as many as 5 million unlawful immigrants. While Heritage has written on the harm done by the President’s executive actions to the U.S. immigration system and the rule of law, another serious side effect is the harmful redirection of attention and resources away from pressing homeland security issues ranging from terrorism to emergency preparedness to institutional reform at DHS. In order to implement the President’s sweeping order, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and other leaders at DHS will simply not have the time, money, manpower, or trust of Congress to make important reforms to these other areas of critical importance. It falls to Congress to correct these misplaced priorities. One important area where DHS needs to do more is cybersecurity. DHS is directly or indirectly responsible for large segments of federal cybersecurity as well for supporting private-sector cybersecurity measures. With cyber attacks and threats on the rise, Congress should call on DHS to focus more on making the U.S. more secure in cyberspace.

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Saudi Arabia: New Leader, Same Medieval State

By Emma Ashford

Cato Institute

January 23, 2015

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, though not unexpected, caused a spike in oil prices, and a frenzied interest in the succession process and the future rulers of Saudi Arabia, owing much to the state’s outsized role in global markets and Middle Eastern affairs. The succession was in fact painless. But the process highlights the archaic nature of the Saudi regime, and should prompt us to think more closely about why the United States still regards Saudi Arabia as one of its closest allies, despite the nation’s objectionable domestic politics and its foreign meddling.  The succession itself was smooth, elevating Crown Prince Salman to King, and Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin to replace him. Though Salman’s health has been regularly questioned by western commentators – it has even been suggested that he has Alzheimer’s or dementia — he seemed relatively healthy in his first broadcast to the nation. Regardless, he is 79, and the appointment of his half-brother Muqrin, who is ten years younger, as Crown Prince, was key for longer term stability.

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Saudi Arabia’s Smooth Succession: The King is Dead, Long Live the King

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

January 23, 2015

Once again, Saudi Arabia has managed its succession without problems, delay, or any signs of serious divisions within the royal family. One of its most competent and impressive kings has died, but the Crown Prince – Prince Salman – officially became king virtually at the time King Abdullah’s death was announced. Moreover, Prince Muqrin immediately became the full Crown Prince, ensuring that one of the youngest sons of Ibn Saud would become king or de facto ruler if Prince Salman became incapacitated or died.  Within less than 24 hours, the new King also announced a whole list of new appointments that gave the next generation of princes more power and helped prepare for the succession after Prince Muqrin.

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What would a Jordan-ISIS prisoner swap mean for anti-ISIS campaign?

By Tara Beeny

American Enterprise Institute

January 29, 2015

On December 24, the Islamic State (ISIS) captured Jordanian pilot Muath al Kasasbeh when his F-16 fighter jet crashed near Raqqa, Syria. After failed efforts by the United States and Turkey to secure Kasasbeh’s release, Jordan proposed a prisoner swap: one convicted al Qaeda terrorist in exchange for a captive Jordanian pilot.  Jordanian support for the anti-ISIS campaign has been tentative. Many Jordanians feel the campaign risks Jordanian lives and suggest the anti-ISIS fight serves US and Israeli goals rather than Jordanian ones. When ISIS published an interview with the captured pilot in its English-language Dabiq magazine, Jordanian officials began to walk back their commitment to the coalition. Jordanian MP Rula Al Hroob announced Jordan’s participation in the campaign against the Islamic State was “temporarily frozen.”

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After King Abdullah, Continuity

By Frederic Wehrey

Carnegie Endowment

January 23, 2015

A king has passed in Saudi Arabia. And yet, despite the breathless speculation over the seismic effects of succession, the kingdom’s foreign policies are likely to remain unchanged. What is often overlooked is that Saudi foreign policy has been remarkably consistent since the reign of King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz. The Al Saud family is a tightly knit, conservative coterie that shares a similar vision of the world and Saudi Arabia’s place in it.  There are several indications to suggest that the Saudi succession is unlikely to lead to major changes in policies over the short term. King Abdullah had been largely incapacitated before his death, functioning for, at most, a couple hours a day. The new king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, and Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz had represented King Abdullah at various functions in the past few years.

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The Regional Impact of Saudi Succession

By Lina Khatib

Carnegie Endowment

January 23, 2015

The naming of Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince in Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud signals an important milestone in the kingdom’s domestic and foreign policies. With the ascension of Abdullah’s half brother Salman to the throne, while having Abdullah’s half brother Muqrin as crown prince, bin Nayef’s new position means that he is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.  Since assuming his role in 2005, King Abdullah led an activist foreign policy for the kingdom, resurrecting Saudi engagement in the affairs of other Arab states and standing up to an increasingly influential Iran. The new Saudi King Salman, who is much more conservative than his late sibling, is one of the “Sudairi seven”—half brothers of Abdullah whom he had sought to weaken politically in his bid to consolidate power within his own descendants.

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What’s Behind the Kurdish-Arab Clashes in East Syria?

By Aron Lund

Carnegie Endowment

January 23, 2015

Major clashes broke out on January 16 in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah between fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The fighting shatters a long-standing local truce between the Assad regime and the YPG, who had teamed up to confront the Sunni extremist group known as the Islamic State, which controls much of the countryside around Hasakah.  By Hasakah standards, the past week’s fighting has been severe. The YPG has accused the government of using cluster bombs and claims to have killed dozens of soldiers. The violence is also, unsurprisingly, taking on the contours of an ethnic dispute, with pro-YPG Kurds fighting against pro-regime Arabs. The Syriac Christian minority and its so-called Sutoro forces have tried to stay neutral, but their areas have been hit by grenades and attacks on Hasakah’s Assyrian Cathedral.

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Time for Realism: The Need to Refocus Turkish-Western Cooperation 

By Emiliano Alessandri

The German Marshall Fund

January 28, 2015

While failures in areas ranging from democratization to foreign policy have taken place in Turkey, over the same period the European Union nearly collapsed and the Middle East plunged into chaos. In this context, Turkey’s shortcomings are not greater, nor more worrisome, than those of its neighbors. For Turkey, the absolute priority is to decisively address the Kurdish issue. Because of the crisis of the Middle East state system, this long-standing question again threatens the Turkish state, despite the progress made internally. Though this is mainly a domestic undertaking, the EU and the United States could play an important supporting regional role.

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‘Uncoordinated Deconfliction’ in Syria: A Recipe to Contain, Not Defeat, ISIS 

By Andrew J. Tabler

Washington Institute

January 26, 2015

PolicyWatch 2361

Washington’s nascent policy of “uncoordinated deconfliction” with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the fight against the “Islamic State”/ISIS may not be a formal alliance, but it does have the potential to foster serious problems. The regime’s tacit agreement to avoid firing on coalition strike aircraft — juxtaposed with long delays in the Obama administration’s train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition and the president’s October 2014 letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader on cooperation against ISIS — is creating widespread perceptions that the United States is heading into a de facto alliance with Assad and Tehran regarding the jihadists. If Washington continues this policy as is, it will merely contain ISIS, not “defeat” or “destroy” the group as called for by President Obama. Worse, it could lead to a deadly extremist stalemate in Syria between Iranian-backed/Hezbollah forces and jihadists, amplifying threats to U.S. national security interests.

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Slow Thaw: Testing Possibilities for Cooperation with Iran After a Nuclear Deal 

By Ilan Goldenberg, Jacob Stokes, Nicholas Heras

Center for a New American Security

January 15, 2015

The prospect of a nuclear deal between the West and Iran has generated a robust debate about whether such an agreement might generate opportunities for U.S.-Iranian cooperation on a broader set of issues. Any deal will address only the Iranian nuclear proliferation threat; even if successful, it will leave on the table many other unresolved sources of tension that have hobbled U.S.-Iranian relations since the Islamic Revolution. The Obama administration has stressed that any deal regarding the “nuclear file” remains separate and distinct from the overall question of U.S. policy toward Iran. The lead U.S. nuclear negotiator, Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, stated this clearly: “engagement on one issue does not require and will not lead to silence on others.”1 Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been equally insistent upon compartmentalizing and isolating the nuclear question from the broader U.S.-Iranian relationship.2 But these negative statements do not determine what may happen in the days and years after an agreement.

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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor