The think tank community remained focused on Obama’s new strategy against ISIS this week. In fact, much of this week’s commentary is on that subject.
The Monitor analysis looks at the politics of Obama’s plan to build a Syrian rebel army. Ironically, it was the Republicans in congress that supported Obama, while many Democrats opposed Obama’s strategy. The reason is politics and the likelihood that the Republicans can gain control of the US Senate in November. By working with Obama, they increase their chances, even though they are actually pessimistic of the final success of Obama’s ISIS strategy.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The CSIS looks at the American campaign against ISIS and argues for a broader strategy. They conclude, “The Islamic State is only one battle in the fight for the future of Islam and the stability of Islamic countries. If the United States is to succeed in creating anything like a broader pattern of stability, secure the flow of world petroleum exports, and secure its own role in the global economy, it must create a far broader structure for working work with its Muslim and other allies, and building on the lesson learned from dealing with the Islamic State to fight a far longer war.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the risks of Obama’s strategy against ISIS. One problem they see is, “The focus on targeting the Islamic State’s leadership—drawing from what Obama hailed as successful campaigns in Yemen and Somalia—doesn’t create the conditions on the ground for a lasting solution to the movement. High-value leadership targeting through precision strikes carries the risk of collateral casualties and radicalization. And the record shows that militant leadership cadres can reconstitute themselves quickly, making such a strategy akin to a game of Whac-a-Mole.”
The Cato Institute argues that Obama’s “war” on ISIS will not remain popular with voters. In terms of framing the ISIS threat, they note, “In the wake of 9/11, Al Qaeda represented a clear and present danger to U.S. national security. But the American public does not yet see the threat from ISIL in the same way, thanks in part to collective ignorance about the group and its designs, but also in part to the fact that the U.S. intelligence community is on record as saying there is zero evidence that ISIL has any plans to attack the United States. In the absence of a concrete threat from ISIL, the invisible benefits of the campaign will pale next to its visible costs and frustrations. In the worst case, the extended U.S. engagement in the domestic politics of Iraq and Syria will persuade many people that the entire exercise is primarily an effort to reshape the Middle East, rather than a necessary act of self-defense. If this happens, we can expect support to drop to levels similar to the current levels of Iraq and Afghanistan. There is not much the American people like less than nation building.”
The Center for Security Policy argues that the United States must resist the temptation to draw Iran further into the crises in Iraq and Syria. They note, “Iran bears significant responsibility for the outbreak of sectarian tensions in Iraq since 2011 due to its strong support for the Nouri al-Maliki government and by its training of Shiite militias that have massacred Iraqi Sunnis. An increased Iranian presence in Iraq would alienate Iraqi Sunnis and make it more difficult to bring them back into the political process.”
The Center for a New American Security looks at the potential for ISIS to fund its terrorism through oil sales. They note, “Currently, ISIL controls oil fields in both Eastern Syria (most notably, the Al-Omar oil field in Raqqa), and Iraq, including Najmah, al-Qayyara, Ujayl, Himreen, and al-Dujail. In total, these fields produce between 30,000 and 70,000 barrels per day (bpd). Although a small number for any significant oil producer, for a non-state actor to be in control of as much oil production as the countries of Bahrain or France is extremely concerning. Not only do they have the ability to use already refined oil to power their cache of military vehicles, but they are also able to illegally sell oil. Even when only fetching below-market prices, ISIL is sitting on an ever-growing hoard of cash. Currently, ISIL is reported to be generating around $2 million per day solely through discounted and illegal oil sales. As ISIL moves farther into Iraqi territory, the possibility that they could overtake oil fields farther into Kurdistan and potentially into Southern Iraq is a very real possibility that cannot be ignored. If this were to happen, their influence, and their financial assets, would only grow.”
The German Marshall Fund looks at Turkey’s recent turn towards the European Union. They conclude, “Critics suspect that embracing more positive leanings toward the EU could very well be merely a stepping stone for the ruling authorities in Turkey to restore imperial Turkic and Ottoman glory, or a tactical move to further consolidate their power for the extension of their immunity. Reasons aside, it is up to opposition parties and the EU to use this opportunity to lock Turkey into the implementation of reforms for sustainable Europeanization.”
The Carnegie Endowment argues that Qatar’s desire to increases its influence in the region has been disastrous. They note, “Qatar has long pursued a foreign policy that is both expansionist and pragmatic. In a bid to claim a greater regional role, the tiny Gulf state has relied on picking winners, riding political trends, and engaging with multiple actors, even volatile ones like jihadist groups. Its foreign policy activities have evolved from focusing on mediation between conflicting parties to direct funding and training of military groups. But since the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, Qatari foreign policy has been plagued by miscalculations, domestic challenges, and international pressure—all of which, to a significant degree, are connected to Qatar’s relationship with it main regional rival, Saudi Arabia. As a result, Qatar’s regional role has entered a new, diminished phase…As a result of those external and domestic pressures on Qatar, Saudi Arabia has been able to bring Doha back into its orbit. But although this is a loss for Qatar’s regional ambitions, it is not a gain for Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-Qatari rivalry has damaged both Gulf countries’ degree of external power and increased levels of instability in the Middle East. Looking ahead, Qatar’s will and ability to overcome its rivalry with Saudi Arabia when addressing mutual challenges will be key to its regional influence.”
America Responds to ISIS
Strategy or Political Cover
A week after outlining his strategy against ISIS, Obama went to Congress for the legislative support for his program of building a Syrian opposition army. The $500 million was added to a stop gap funding bill that will keep the federal government funded until December. The House voted 273-156 Wednesday to insert the amendment, which authorizes Obama’s plans, into the spending bill. The yes votes included 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats, while 85 Democrats and 71 Republicans voted against the amendment.
Ironically, although Republicans lambasted his plan last week, the Republican congressional leadership and 2/3rds of the Republicans gave the president what he wanted. Speaker of the House John Boehner said, “I frankly think the president’s request is a sound one. I think there’s a lot more that we need to be doing, but there’s no reason for us not to do what the president asked us to do,”
Republicans have also backed off from requiring Obama to come to Congress for authority to use military force. In an attempt to sidestep the issue, Boehner said that typically, the White House would be the one to make a request to have Congress vote on such an authorization and the administration has not done so yet. “This is an interim step to do what the president’s asked for, it does not preclude us from revisiting the issue of a broader use of military force,” Boehner said. “As you heard me say last week, I believe that it’s important, frankly, for the Congress to speak on this issue, and when we get to that point, we will.”
Interestingly enough, the opposition in Congress came from Obama’s own party, which saw 40% of the Democratic congressmen oppose the bill. “The more I get briefed the more concerned I am,” said Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern. He said Obama’s assertion he has authority to conduct air strikes under a 2001 law passed to authorize military force against Afghanistan “ludicrous” and said the administration’s plan didn’t make sense. “I don’t get it, I don’t understand the end game, I don’t understand how this is supposed to work,” McGovern said.
In another example of the military unsoundness of the strategy, military veterans on both sides of the House opposed the bill. California Republican representative Duncan Hunter, a Marine who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, said the authority “does nothing” to destroy the Islamic State. Democratic Congressman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a captain in the Hawaii National Guard who served in Iraq, called Obama’s strategy “unrealistic” and worried “it will take way too long” to work.
However, in the end, it was the Republicans who delivered the victory to Obama.
Why is Obama getting support from Republicans? The answer is the upcoming mid-term elections. Republicans are looking forward to winning the Senate in November and don’t want to take any political stand that risks that possibility. They also want to take advantage of the political opportunity offered by Obama to work with him on bipartisan legislation. That makes it harder for Obama and the Democrats to attack them in the coming weeks for causing gridlock in Washington.
Polling in the last week has shown an increase in support for Obama’s action in Iraq and Syria. For instance, YouGov poll showed that American support for air strikes against ISIS in Syria had gone from 42% to 53% after the president’s speech. This is not the attitude of a war weary electorate.
Other polls show the same shift in opinion. Three different polling groups now find majority support for Obama’s more aggressive strategy against ISIS: 62 percent per NBC, 64 percent per Reuters, and 53 percent per Pew, which includes 60 percent support among Democrats and 64 percent support among Republicans. The Pew poll now also shows voters evenly divided at 41 percent on whether Obama’s strategy goes too far or not far enough. A month ago, that split was 51/32. Likewise, Reuters notes that 53 percent of the public say they’ll support the mission even if it takes two to three years, as the White House has estimated.
Although Obama still remains unpopular, this shift has made Republicans leery about opposing the president on this issue especially since Republican voters are more likely to support a more aggressive strategy against ISIS.
This leaves the Republican leadership in a tough position. Either they can oppose the president’s ISIS strategy, which most military experts think is flawed and take the political risk of fighting the plan and end up giving Obama the political ammunition of attacking Republicans for leading a “do nothing” Congress. Or they can support Obama in this one vote. Clearly House Speaker Boehner has decided to take the political option in hopes of winning the Senate in November. Just like a military leader, Boehner has decided to only fight the political battles he can win.
That’s not to say that the political battle is over. Obama has won the initial battle for funding until December, but as Commander-in-Chief, he still responsible for executing the strategy. Republicans have reluctantly given him what he wants, but they have expressed enough reservations about the strategy that they will have ammunition if the strategy backfires. And, if he succeeds, they can take part of the credit, while the Democrats who failed to back Obama will have to take the brunt of criticism.
The Battle for the US Senate
Republican strategy is clearly revolving around gaining control of the US Senate in November.
Although polls continue to shift, the Republicans clearly have a better than average chance to take the Senate by winning at least six seats. First, mid-term elections in the 6th year of a sitting president usually go strongly against the party that controls the White House. That is especially true when the president is as unpopular as Obama currently is.
Second, the Democrats are fighting to hold seats that they won in their landslide year of 2008, when Obama won. Eight of the Democratic seats being contested are in states that voted for Republican Romney two years ago. None of the Republican seats are in Democratic states. Polls show Republicans holding at least nominal leads in eight contests for Democrat-held seats, while retaining all Republican seats.
Although some major pro-Democratic media outlets have indicated that Democrats are rebounding in some Senate races, professional political watchers still insist that the Republicans have the advantage.
First, it’s important to remember that American voters usually don’t engage in politics until after Labor Day. That means that most movement in the polls comes in the last month – and that usually goes in the favor of the party out of power in mid-term elections. For instance, in late September of 2010, Republicans held a three-point lead on the generic ballot in Real Clear Politics’ poll averaging. By Election Day, that gap had widened to nine-plus points. The GOP ended up winning the election by about seven points.
At this point in time, there is still a large undecided voter population that historically breaks depending on how they view the performance of the president. Currently, vulnerable Democratic senators are collecting nearly all of those voters who support Obama. The undecided voters are overwhelmingly opposed to Obama and his policies. This means that they historically will vote Republican by a large margin.
An excellent example of how this works is in the Iowa senate race that pits Democrat Braley against Republican Ernst. The race had been very tight up to now, but a newly released poll by Quinnipiac show that Ernst had jumped ahead 50% to 44%. The movement had been by previously undecided voters, who are upset with Obama and are breaking for the Republican candidate.
Another example is in Colorado where Democratic Senator Udall, who comes from one of the most successful Democratic families in the American West, has fallen behind in a state that voted for Obama. The survey shows Udall at 42%, Republican challenger Cory Gardner at 43% in what is essentially a tie. By 2-1 margin, 37%-19%, those surveyed say they think of their vote for Congress as a vote against Obama, not for him.
For Udall, the most frequent specific responses by those surveyed were that Udall was: “Obama follower/puppet,” “liberal” and “dishonest/untrustworthy.” His job-approval rating is 42% approve, 49% disapprove. His favorable-unfavorable rating is 43%-44%.
If undecided voters are upset with Obama and tending to break for the Republican in the generally Democratic states of Colorado and Iowa that means any Democratic Senator who is polling less than 50% is in trouble.
This is why Democrats are very worried. Even supposedly safe seats in Democratic states like Minnesota, Delaware, and New Jersey have their incumbent Senator under 50%, which means a Republican landslide could potentially defeat them.
Meantime, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll released on September 17th, Republicans hold a six-point lead on the Congressional ballot among likely voters, winning independents by nine points and holding a double-digit enthusiasm advantage. Those are all very significant numbers. The GOP holds substantial voter preference edges on the economy (+11), terrorism (+21) and foreign policy (+12), while pulling even with Democrats on immigration and largely erasing Democrats’ wide, decades-long lead on healthcare. Obama’s overall approval rating is sagging at 40 percent, underwater by double-digits. He’s fallen to new lows in this poll on his handling of terrorism (41 percent approval) — formerly a bright spot amidst otherwise ugly numbers — and foreign policy (34 percent).
This brings us back to the decision by the congressional Republican leadership to go along with Obama’s ISIS strategy. Voters want a more vigorous response to ISIS and trust the Republicans more. At the same time, by supporting Obama’s Syrian “ moderate opposition” strategy, despite their reservations, they show themselves to be willing to work on bipartisan legislation with the president, which undermines one of Obama’s campaign talking points that the Republican Congress is a “do nothing” Congress.
In the end, unless there is a major Republican landslide that overwhelms several Democratic senators in Democratic states, the chances are that the Republicans will probably gain 7 or 8 Senate seats and reclaim control of the Senate.
Why Obama’s War on ISIL Won’t Hold Its Popularity
By A. Trevor Thrall
September 17, 2014
With the prime-time announcement of his campaign to destroy ISIL, President Obama is staking his presidency in a place he certainly never intended. Obama launches his campaign with what appears to be a reasonable level of public support. A September CNN/ORC poll found that roughly 75 percent of the public supports airstrikes against ISIL, a figure that may climb a bit higher in the wake of Obama’s address to the nation on September 10. This support compares relatively favorably with most U.S. military interventions of the past (see Gallup’s list of public support by major intervention here), closer to initial levels of support for Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, than to the invasion of Panama or the Kosovo air war. Despite the apparently strong initial wave of support for confronting ISIL, however, Obama’s campaign will almost certainly become a very unpopular affair. This will occur despite his best efforts to frame the campaign as part of the war against terrorism, despite his strategy to maintain support by avoiding the use of ground troops and U.S. casualties, and it will happen regardless of how much damage the United States manages to inflict on ISIL.
The Campaign Against the Islamic State. Key Issues and Demands for Action from the Administration and Congress
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
September 16, 2014
If there is any one lesson of the Afghan and Iraq Wars, it is that it is far easier to begin a conflict than to manage it well and achieve a meaningful form of victory. The President’s announcement of a strategy for seeking to degrade and destroy the Islamic State — and de facto Congressional acceptance of the need to fight a new conflict — has now committed the United States to a high risk, low-level war of indefinite duration. Winning that war will require persistence, resources, effective planning and management, and sustained domestic and international political support. The Obama Administration now needs to show that it will both commit the necessary resources, and manage them effectively. It needs to show that it is doing its best to address the key risks it has accepted in going to war. It needs to provide an honest picture of the course of the fighting and its impact on the stability and security of the region.
Five Hidden Risks of U.S. Action Against the Islamic State
By Frederic Wehrey
September 11, 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama’s four-pronged strategy of air strikes, support to local proxies, defense against the Islamic State’s attacks through intelligence and counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance leaves many unanswered questions. It’s hardly a clear articulation of the sort of long-term, holistic strategy needed to deny the Islamic State the fertile ground it needs to thrive. The approach is fraught with trade-offs, risks, and hidden costs that need to be addressed.
Qatar and the Recalibration of Power in the Gulf
By Lina Khatib
September 11, 2014
Long a minor regional actor in the shadow of Saudi Arabia, Qatar wants to increase its influence. But Doha’s expansionist foreign policy has been plagued by miscalculations, domestic challenges, and international pressure—all issues connected to Doha’s relationship with Riyadh. As a result of these setbacks, Qatar’s regional role has diminished, and for the foreseeable future, its external influence is likely to remain under the direction of Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s Strategic Miscalculations: Qatar’s desire to chart an independent path led it into confrontation with Saudi Arabia, particularly in Egypt and Syria. This has damaged both countries’ external power and increased instability in the Middle East.
No Place for Iran in ISIS Plans
By Fred Fleitz
Center for Security Policy
September 17, 2014
Secretary of State John Kerry’s awkward denial that the United States has not proposed “coordinating with Iran” against ISIS suggests the Obama administration did indeed propose this and is engaged in damage control after its efforts were revealed by Iranian officials. I wrote in a Sept. 3 Newsmax article that while the U.S. should attack ISIS — also known as ISIL and the Islamic State — in Syria even though this will help keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, the United States must resist the temptation to draw Iran further into the crises in Iraq and Syria. I believe this because Iran bears significant responsibility for the outbreak of sectarian tensions in Iraq since 2011 due to its strong support for the Nouri al-Maliki government and by its training of Shiite militias that have massacred Iraqi Sunnis. An increased Iranian presence in Iraq would alienate Iraqi Sunnis and make it more difficult to bring them back into the political process.
Turkey’s Turn Toward the EU: Superficial or Real?
By Diba Nigar Göksel
German Marshall Fund
September 12, 2014
The Transatlantic Trends 2014 survey reflects a swell of support for the EU in Turkish society. Meanwhile, in the last days of August, the top echelon of Ankara’s ruling party also made more positive statements about Turkey’s commitment to EU accession than
they had in years. It seems the EU is making a comeback in Turkey. The reasons why will be decisive in whether Ankara merely takes cosmetic steps toward reforms, or accepts EU-style checks and balances. On the other hand, given the rise of Turkoskepticism in Europe, whether Turkey will be able to make a comeback in EU
is an open question.
ISIL: A Well-Oiled Machine
By Rachel Rizzo
Center for a New American Security
September 12, 2014
The speed at which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has swept through and taken control of parts of Syria and Northern Iraq is both shocking and unexpected. Thought to number between 30,000 and 50,000 fighters, ISIL has proven that it not only has the wherewithal to control huge swaths of territory, but that it is also a self-sufficient, financially viable entity with over $2 billion in assets. The group is funded through various illicit income-generating activities, and supplied from the military bases in Iraq and Syria from which they have looted weapons and equipment. However, the possibility of controlling and exploiting key oil fields is what truly has the ability to tip the financial scale further in ISIL’s favor. One facet of the long-term U.S. strategy to counter ISIL laid out by President Obama is to “redouble our efforts to cut off its funding.” Part of this strategy must be ensuring that they do not gain control of, and financially exploit, additional Iraqi or Syrian oil fields.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
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