Prospects of Civil Unrest
in the United States?
Last week’s analysis of the stand off between armed federal agents and American protestors and militia members was well received by our readers and elicited questions about the potential stability of the United States. What are the chances of civil unrest in the US? What sort of threat do these militias pose to the US? Are divisions in the US really that serious? What sort of outcome could come of this?
America is a unique nation. Unlike most nations, it isn’t ethnically based – it is multicultural and multiethnic. It hasn’t had a hereditary ruling family. It is based on the concept that each person deserves the maximum amount of personal liberty and freedom from government – rights recognized in the US Constitution. This freedom of the individual means that there are a multitude of tensions as each person pulls in their own direction.
This set of circumstances has made for a durable society, but one that does have serious tensions in it. Over the years, these tensions have broken out into violence – the American Revolution, Shays Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, the Civil War, the Haymarket Affair, the great labor strikes in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Bonus Army, Battle of Athens, the race riots of the 1960s, the student riots of the 1970s, Oklahoma City Bombing, and many more. This doesn’t include the rioting that is common when the electrical power fails in urban areas.
While most violence causes Americans to coalesce, some cause even greater divides, especially when some deep philosophical differences are behind the violence like the race riots of the 1960s. The opening shots at Lexington and Concord at the beginning of the Revolutionary War and the firing on Fort Sumter at the beginning of the Civil War were such cases. The situation at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada is one that is showing those philosophical differences and could lead to a greater civil unrest, if both sides aren’t careful.
Currently, the situation at the Bundy Ranch is stable and quiet. The federal agents haven’t returned and much of the militia force has left. However, several small militia units remain and they are receiving logistical support from around the country. It remains a flashpoint.
Potential Instability in the US
The greatest threat to stability in the United States is not political, but its aging infrastructure. As has been noted in past reports, America’s electrical infrastructure is aging and over stretched. Not only that, electrical demand is growing, while many aging coal powered plants are being forced off line by environmental regulations. Power outages are becoming more common and longer, especially during extreme weather.
Urban areas are more susceptible to disruptions in power than suburban or rural areas. Cities do not have large warehouses nearby to store groceries for their populations. Consequently, they rely heavily upon transportation to move food and other necessities into the city. Electrical outages cause refrigerated foodstuffs to spoil and prevent a smooth flow of groceries into the city. A simple snowstorm or power outage can quickly empty grocery store shelves within hours. Even stores that remain open with food will not be able to process credit card transactions.
Without food or electricity, city residents can quickly riot and break into closed stores to loot food supplies – causing a level of civil violence that local police and National Guard can’t contain.
An example of how a widespread infrastructure dislocation can cause havoc was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Katrina was the strongest hurricane of the 2005 hurricane season and the sixth most powerful in American history. Shortly after the hurricane moved away on August 30, 2005, some residents of New Orleans who remained in the city began looting stores. Many were in search of food and water that were not available to them through any other means, as well as non-essential items.
Reports of carjacking, murders, thefts, and rapes in New Orleans flooded the news. Some sources later determined that many of the reports were inaccurate, because of the confusion. Thousands of National Guard and federal troops were mobilized (the total went from 7,841 in the area the day Katrina hit to a maximum of 46,838 on September 10) and sent to Louisiana along with numbers of local law enforcement agents from across the country who were temporarily deputized by the state.
Many are unaware of the level of tension in the area. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was to say, “They have M16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will.” Congressman Bill Jefferson (D-LA) told ABC News: “There was shooting going on. There was sniping going on.”
The fact is that the federal government is unable to handle severe problems that threaten civil unrest. In the case of Katrina, the government had planned to send evacuates to facilities such as the Louisiana Superdome (designed to handle 800, yet 30,000 arrived) and the New Orleans Civic Center (not designed as an evacuation center, yet 25,000 arrived).
Electric power industry and government officials are well aware of how fragile the American electrical power grid is and have recommended improvements. However, these will take years and billions of dollars. In the meantime, the government is aware that any electrical power outage covering a large sector of the nation for a period of time can spark widespread violence.
The concern is for more than extreme weather or a cascading technical failure of the electrical grid. The US power grid is also extremely vulnerable to a terrorist attack – either domestic or foreign. Last year, there were two attacks against the electrical infrastructure; an attack at a Tennessee nuclear power plant that involved gunfire and an attack by an unknown group of armed men against a substation in California, which destroyed 19 transformers. Fortunately, the California attack was at night, when power demand was minimal and resources were available to shift the load. However, if the attack had taken place during the day, the area would have experienced a blackout. In both cases, the attackers escaped. Many power companies are rushing to better protect their substations from such attacks in the future.
Although civil disturbance due to an electrical blackout is the biggest threat against the social fabric of the US, the threat of an armed conflict between the government and citizens has grown, especially in light of the Bundy Ranch confrontation. And, at the tip of that threat are the mysterious militias – groups of armed Americans who are at odds with the federal government.
Little is known about these groups, although the Bundy Ranch confrontation has brought some of them out in the open. The foremost of these is Oathkeepers, a group of about 3,000 who are either former or serving military members or police, who have sworn that they will not obey unconstitutional orders given by the government.
Oathkeepers created a high profile for itself in the Bundy Ranch standoff because their headquarters are in Las Vegas and their nationwide network of members was able to quickly funnel money and supplies to the people at the Bundy Ranch. Although not a militia, the presence of armed Oathkeepers and their visibility gained a lot of attention for the organization.
Several other militias are also present at the Bundy Ranch, although their numbers are unknown – although they undoubtedly number less than an infantry company in total. Texas, Montana, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Nevada militias have claimed to have sent forces to the Bundy Ranch, although numbers aren’t mentioned. Other militia groups include the West Mountain Rangers, 912 Movement, and the III%. In most cases, the numbers from each group probably are probably less than a dozen, although the amount of supplies streaming into the site indicates that a large number of supporters are providing logistical support.
The reality is that these militias are more of an armed presence than an actual military force. Although many have former military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, each militia has a separate command structure and disagreements on tactics are frequent. Each militia group also has differing agendas – ranging from simply protecting the Bundy family to seeking an armed confrontation with federal agents.
As was mentioned in the analysis last week, the Bundy Ranch has the potential to become a tipping point for rebellion in America. In fact, many of the extremist militia members at the ranch are aware of this and are hoping for a confrontation with federal agents that will spark a rebellion that spreads across the country. Fortunately, it appears that the government is also aware of the situation and has decided not to push them and to let the militia members drift home.
At this time, the Bundy Ranch situation is less of a flashpoint than it was a few weeks ago. That could, however, change if the federal government stages a raid that results in a loss of life.
However, even if the Bundy Ranch situation is peacefully defused, that doesn’t mean there won’t be political consequences. Another rebellion took place in the early days of the nation that has many similarities. It changed the complexion of the political landscape and led to the creation of the two party system in America and led to the election of Thomas Jefferson. That event was the Whiskey Rebellion.
Although the 1794 incident was a vastly larger rebellion than the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, the situations share important parallels including the use of what many people in each situation considered the disproportionate use of force by the government. It also reflects the differing political views of the people in the more urban parts of the country and those in more rural areas.
The rebellion began in 1791 when Congress passed an excise tax on distilled whiskey with the firm backing of President George Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s plan was to federalize the debt accumulated by the states during the Revolutionary War and pay it off through a variety of measures, including domestic taxation. On top of that, Hamilton wanted to fund a more widespread extension of government investment in the new country’s military and infrastructure. The tax was excessively high–about 25 percent of the value of each gallon of whiskey. Needless to say, it encountered almost immediate opposition.
Opposition was fierce on the western frontier (then around Pittsburgh, PA), where farmers would turn excess corn into whiskey. Not only was whiskey cheaper to transport over the dirt roads, in the money starved west, it was used as a form of money. In addition, frontier people rarely saw the benefits of federal spending. In a quote vaguely similar to the statements coming from the Bundy Ranch, one westerner wrote, “To be subject to all the burdens of government and enjoy none of the benefits arising from government is what we will never submit to.”
Western Pennsylvania rose up. In four western counties of Pennsylvania, excise officers were terrorized; the Pittsburgh mail was robbed; federal judicial proceedings were stopped; and a small body of regular troops guarding the house of General John Neville, excise inspector for western Pennsylvania, was forced to surrender to the rebels.
Patriotic organizations, called “democratic republican societies” were formed, which were viewed as subversive by the federal government. President Washington would later write, “I early gave it as my opinion to the confidential characters around me, that if these societies are not counteracted (not by prosecutions, the ready way to make them grow stronger)… they would shake the government to its foundation.”
Historian John Miller would later write that Hamilton “knew that he was committing the government to a trial of strength with Westerners, but he deliberately courted the contest” to display the power and legitimacy of the federal government. Goaded by Hamilton, Washington assembled one of the largest armies built in America up until that time. The president, with the treasury secretary by his side, would lead this force from the capitol in Philadelphia into to wilds of western Pennsylvania. The size of the assembled army was astounding given the threat.
This force, called the “Watermelon army” by detractors, ended up arresting 30 rebels without any resistance. Although the rebellion was quashed, the political damage was enormous.
Some Americans viewed the sudden expansion of government power as a blow to the principles fought for during the Revolution, and worried about a government quick to pull the trigger on legitimate freedom of assembly and protest. The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, attacked the excise tax an “infernal tax” and said that the “conduct of the ‘rebels’ was no worse than riotous.” He and many others called for an elimination or reduction of the hated tax.
From the scattered protests of leaders like Jefferson and others, a new party was formed to oppose the administration. Panicked Federalists, sensing the rise in support for “Republican” opposition, started to become more repressive in their tactics. Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 under President John Adams in response to the Republican protest during the short “Quasi War” with France, which severely curtailed civil liberties. The acts targeted Jefferson’s supporters. The political storm was growing, and Jefferson and Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, calling out the laws as unconstitutional and repressive.
The Resolutions became a political platform for the new party, and a massive wave of supporters was swept into office in 1798. That year’s election became known as the “Revolution of ‘98” and marked a major change in American politics. Jefferson was elected president in 1800 and he appointed Albert Gallatin, who had spoken up for the rights of the western farmers, as his treasury secretary. By tapping into these “patriot” societies of the time, he was able to politically establish a political counterbalance to the Federalist Party.
Although the political parties of that time have disappeared, they have set up the continuing philosophical differences of the two parties of today – one calling for more federal control, and one calling for more state and local control.
In the end, the fallout of the Bundy Ranch standoff may not be violence, but political reform – just as it was for the Whiskey Rebellion.
But, in the background, the threat of civil upheaval remains. Although the situation at the Bundy Ranch has cooled considerably, the fractures in American society remain and social upheaval is still a possibly – either through a massive disruption of the electrical infrastructure or some sort of standoff like that at the Bundy Ranch.
Palestinian Intent to Accede to 15 Treaties and U.S. Response
By Brett D. Schaefer, Steven Groves, and James Phillips
April 30, 2014
Issue Brief #4209
President Mahmoud Abbas announced on April 1 that the Palestinian Authority (PA) will seek to join 15 international conventions and treaties. This is a new facet of the existing Palestinian policy of seeking international recognition by other governments and membership in international organizations to bolster claims of statehood absent a negotiated peace treaty with Israel. Now that the April 23 Hamas–Fatah reconciliation agreement has provoked Israel to suspend negotiations with the Palestinians, Washington should reiterate to Palestinian leaders that they cannot gain statehood by doing an end run around Israel. Such a unilateral strategy would kill any chances for a genuine Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. The United States has, correctly, opposed this effort and should take additional steps to dissuade the PA from further pursuing this strategy and discourage United Nations organizations from abetting it.
Evolving Threats and Strategic Partnerships in the Gulf
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 30, 2014
The current US and P5+1 negotiations with Iran may or may not remove nuclear weapons as a major new threat in the Gulf. Nuclear weapons, however, are only one aspect of the threats that affect US allies in the region. The full range of threats includes the following seven major categories of strategic challenges to the US strategic partnership with its Gulf allies: Internal stability: The internal tensions and instability within each GCC state are a threat that each Gulf state must address largely on a national basis. Economic growth, distribution of wealth, demographic pressures and major problems in employing young men and women, the role of foreign labor, the impact of social change and hyper-urbanization, and the role of religion and religious extremism within the state are very real issues that compete for resources with military forces.
Getting it right: US national security policy and al Qaeda since 2011
By Mary Habeck
American Enterprise Institute
April 24, 2014
Current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates throughout the Muslim-majority world. While there are many reasons for this failure, three key issues stand out: a poor definition of the enemy, an incorrect view of its objectives, and the adoption of a strategy that will not defeat the latest evolution of this adaptive organization. If the US understood al Qaeda as it is: the leadership and field army of an insurgency with worldwide linkages that hopes to impose its extremist version of shari’a, govern territory, and overthrow the leaders of every Muslim-majority country, the current national strategy for combating al Qaeda would not be confined to counterterrorism and attrition, but would instead make counterinsurgency—without large numbers of American ground forces—its main technique for confronting and defeating the organization.
Is the Armed Rebellion in Syria on the Wane?
By Yezid Sayigh
April 24, 2014
Syria’s armed rebellion has undergone visible consolidation both in the field and at the command level since September 2013. Long overdue, this is a highly positive development. Still, it is unlikely to be enough to best the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While the armed rebellion is far from being defeated, it has plateaued, both militarily and politically. Fragmentation and dysfunctional competition among the rebel groups persist, and new rebel alliances have not yet demonstrated a notable increase in operational effectiveness. Credible estimates, moreover, indicate that overall rebel strength has not increased over the past year, suggesting that the rebellion has a “shrinking population of potential new recruits,” as a Carter Center report based on exhaustive field data noted in March 2014.
Good Riddance to John Kerry’s Middle East Peace Talks
By Fred Fleitz
Center for Security Policy
April 29, 2014
The U.S.-mediated peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians ended today after Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and Palestinian president, announced an alliance last week with Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas is the Palestinian group which controls Gaza and has been designated a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, and the European Union. Islamic Jihad is a terrorist organization backed by Iran. Israel’s decision to end the talks was long overdue. Like several prior U.S. administrations, the Obama administration has tried to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. However, the peace process begun by Secretary of State John Kerry last year differs from past U.S. efforts due to an inexplicable anti-Israel bias.
The Thin Red Line: Policy Lessons from Iraqi Kurdistan
By David Danelo
Foreign Policy Research Institute
The hotel maid in Sulaymaniyah had red hair, weathered eyes, freckled skin, and a wide smile. Shirin was originally from Baghdad; she spoke the slang Iraqi Arabic jargon I had learned a decade before. As a Kurdish woman, she had married, settled, and somehow survived. In 2007 she fled north, escaping chaos and civil war. In Sulaymaniyah she had a husband and young son, but she also had a husband and son in her past. “Saddam,” she said, drawing her finger across her throat. She paused and repeated the name and gesture, smiling. It seems Saddam killed them, and that she was happy the dictator is dead. Shirin, along with the other Iraqi Kurds I met in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, is among those few Iraqis who still celebrate the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation.
How the Kurds Got Their Way, Economic Cooperation and the Middle East’s New Borders
By Marina Ottaway and David Ottaway
April 29, 2014
The surge of ethnic and sectarian strife in Syria and across the Middle East has led a number of analysts to predict the coming breakup of many Arab states. This potential upending of the region’s territorial order has come to be known as “the end of Sykes-Picot,” a reference to the secret 1916 Anglo-French agreement to divide up the Middle Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire into British and French zones of control. Because the European treaties that created new Arab states in the aftermath of World War I upheld the outlines of that agreement, Sykes-Picot became the convenient shorthand for the map that colonial powers imposed on the region, one that has remained essentially constant to the present day. With bloodshed from Aleppo to Baghdad to Beirut, it is indeed tempting to predict the violent demise of Sykes-Picot. But although the worst fighting is spilling over borders and pushing some countries, such as Syria, toward fragmentation, there is another force crossing national lines and even realigning national relationships: trade. New transnational zones of economic cooperation are making Middle Eastern borders more porous, but in a way that does not directly challenge existing states. Instead, mutual economic interests, especially in the oil and gas industries, may signal a softer end to Sykes-Picot.
Lebanon’s Presidential Race
By David Schenker
May 1, 2014
Last week, Lebanon’s parliament convened for the first round of balloting to elect a new president. While Samir Geagea — who leads the Christian “Lebanese Forces” party, which is aligned with the pro-Western March 14 coalition — received the most votes, he failed to secure the requisite two-thirds parliamentary support. In the coming weeks, legislators are slated to continue meeting until a president is selected. Unlike last week’s session, in which the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc did not challenge Geagea’s candidacy, the voting promises to become increasingly contentious in subsequent rounds. Perennial sectarian tensions exacerbated by the war next door in Syria have complicated the historically wrought and arcane election process. Should a compromise candidate not emerge by May 25, the term of current president Michel Suleiman will expire, leaving the post vacant. In the past, the presidency — which by law must be held by a Christian — was the dominant office in Lebanon’s government. But the 1989 Taif Accord effectively stripped the position of its powers, delegating them to the prime minister, who must hail from the Sunni Muslim constituency. Given the post’s largely symbolic nature, some might argue that the tense selection process is much ado about nothing. Yet the presidency remains an emotionally evocative issue for Lebanese Christians, and both the March 8 and March 14 blocs see a sympathetic chief executive as an important advantage worth fighting for.
Assad’s Reelection Campaign Matters — Really
By Andrew J. Tabler
April 30, 2014
The United States and the international community have spent the better part of the last year backing peace talks in Geneva to bring about a “political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” and ultimately end the war between the Alawite-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Sunni and Kurdish-dominated opposition. But Assad has his own transition in mind: running for a third seven-year term as president. On April 28, the Syrian president nominated himself as a candidate in Syria’s June 3 presidential poll, “hoping the parliament would endorse it.” This was hardly a surprise. Assad has hinted at his candidacy for months, and “spontaneous rallies” calling for him to run — many complete with images of Assad beside Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — have sprung up across regime-controlled areas of the country, while shopkeepers have been encouraged to paint their storefronts with Syrian flags and slogans supporting the leader.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
National Security Affairs Analyst
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