Week of November 8th, 2013

A Weekly Report of U.S. Think Tank Community Activities

This has been a busy week for the Washington think tank community – partially due to Kerry’s trip to the Middle East. Therefore, there are several papers dealing with aspects of the visit and US relations with the various nations he is visiting.

The Monitor analysis also looks at the trip in light of Obama’s political problems at home. Given his political problems and the fact that he isn’t a foreign policy expert, we see him abandoning foreign policy initiatives in the region to spend more time rebuilding his political fortunes domestically. This means that Kerry’s trip is more of a bandage to cover serious problems in the region rather than the beginning of a serious attempt to engage in solving problems.


Executive Summary

This has been a busy week for the Washington think tank community – partially due to Kerry’s trip to the Middle East. Therefore, there are several papers dealing with aspects of the visit and US relations with the various nations he is visiting.
The Monitor analysis also looks at the trip in light of Obama’s political problems at home. Given his political problems and the fact that he isn’t a foreign policy expert, we see him abandoning foreign policy initiatives in the region to spend more time rebuilding his political fortunes domestically. This means that Kerry’s trip is more of a bandage to cover serious problems in the region rather than the beginning of a serious attempt to engage in solving problems.

Think Tanks Activity Summary

The German Marshall Fund looks at how the West is hurting the Syrian rebel movement. They note, “Western reluctance continued to nurture factionalism inside the Syrian guerrilla and pave the way for increased jihadi aggressiveness. Clashes between the FSA and the jihadi groups intensified in August 2013. The United States’ refusal to sanction the massive use of chemical gas by the dictatorship dealt a devastating blow to the credibility of both the Coalition and the FSA.”

The Cato Institute looks at Egyptian subsidies of food, fuel and other consumer products, which are a major governmental expense. They suggest, “Eliminating subsidies and replacing them with cash transfers would produce significant savings and would be politically feasible. A successful reform of subsidies will have to be accompanied by a series of complementary reforms, which would reduce food insecurity in the country and improve supply chains in the areas of food and energy by introducing competition. Finally, prudent macro economic policies, including a reduction in inflation rates, will be necessary to contain the potential effects of food and energy price hikes on poorer households.”

The Carnegie Endowment looks at the rewriting of the Egyptian constitution. They note, “The most fundamental questions regarding state structure depend on the decision of a figure that is not even in the room. If Sisi decides to run for president, whatever document is produced by the committee will operate in a manner that revives (and even strengthens) the presidency that has dominated the Egyptian state since the office was created after the abolition of the monarch over half a century ago. If he does not run, the main institutions of the Egyptian state will operate in a more decentralized manner. Neither path is likely to be particularly democratic.”

The Hudson Institute warns that Kerry is taking the wrong course in Egypt. They note, “Sisi has no qualms about possibly tearing up his country by alienating the millions of angry Egyptians who elected Morsi president because he believes he has a popular mandate to uproot the Brotherhood. In other words, the general who is riding a wave of massive street support is a populist. The issue then is that populists must tailor their policies to fit the preferences of those they lead. The Obama administration seems to have overlooked the fact that two and a half years of street protest have shown the population of Egypt to be broadly anti-American and more dangerously yet anti-Israel. If Sisi doesn’t want to wind up out of power, his leadership will amount to him having to follow the crowd, whichever way it’s going. The signs are already there for the White House to see: this is not a return to the stability of Mubarakism, because Abdel Fattah Sisi is no Hosni Mubarak.”

The Heritage Foundation looks at the recent visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Washington and argues for greater cooperation between the two nations on regional counterterrorism issues. They conclude, “In a recent television interview, Maliki compared Iraq to a ship in a storm. President Obama should make every effort to convince Maliki that he needs to set a new course that minimizes sectarian tensions and isolates extremists in Iraq and in the region. This means Maliki should distance his government from the regimes in Iran and Syria, both of which purposefully manipulate tensions between Shias and Sunnis as a means of advancing their own agendas. If he continues on his present course, Iraq is likely to disintegrate, just like Syria has.”

The CSIS suggests rethinking American policies towards Saudi Arabia and recognizing its importance as a “front line” state in keeping the peace in the region. They note, “This does not mean giving up on patient evolutionary efforts to encourage reform in the more stable Arab states, but it does mean understanding the motives driving Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, and the regimes in key friendly countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. They are not sitting on the edge of some idealized political awakening. They are “frontline” states whose regimes and peoples are threatened by a set of forces that already has impoverished or halted economic development in most of the states affect by the so-called “Arab spring,” displaced 25% of Syria’s population or made it refugees, empowered Iran, and created a crisis of civilization within Islam.”

The Washington Institute looks at Kerry’s visit to Algeria and Morocco later this week and their rivalry. The institute warns, “Acceding to either Morocco or Algeria’s view on Western Sahara would only cost the administration leverage with the other party — a counterproductive move at a time when there are gains to be made on security cooperation. The contest for influence, reputation, and U.S. favor remains the biggest contributing favor to regional counterterrorism cooperation. Accordingly, Washington should work with each country — bilaterally for now — to identify relative strengths and security priorities. If Algeria is helping militarily to contain the crisis in Jebel Chaambi, the administration should determine strategic openings there and offer its expertise. And if Morocco is playing to its strengths by taking a preemptive, soft-power approach to Malian de-radicalization, Washington should support that.

There is a growing concern about America’s military, which has undergone severe budget cuts in recent years. The Heritage Foundation addresses this concern in a paper authored by two former senators – Kyl of Arizona and Talent of Missouri. They note, “The Navy had shrunk to its smallest size since before World War I; the Air Force was smaller, and its aircraft older, than at any time since the inception of the service. The Army was stressed by years of war; according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, it had been underfunded before the invasion of Iraq and was desperately in need of resources to replace its capital inventory.”

The Washington Institute looks at Turkey’s shifting foreign policy in the Middle East and how it has impacted its push to become a major regional power. They note, “The events of the Arab Spring and the subsequent emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a hardline political force in the region have shifted the trajectory of Turkey’s rise to regional preeminence. Turkey realized that its soft power is not readily transferable to hard power, a realization that has prompted a pivot in Ankara’s foreign policy over the past two years.”


Obama Struggles to Firm up his Flank in the Middle East

It’s an axiom of politics that when a leader is in trouble domestically, he makes a major international move to deflect domestic criticism. That isn’t the way it is working for Obama.

Obama’s popularity ratings are falling as the sticker shock of his domestic cornerstone, Obamacare is hitting American voters. The website is still dysfunctional and several Democratic Senators in political trouble next year are calling for a delay in its implementation.

Unfortunately, Obama’s current diplomatic initiative has less to do with deflecting attention from his domestic problems than with patching up serious holes in his Middle East policy. Saudi Arabia, who is a longtime ally of American interests in the region, is clearly upset with Obama and his erratic\broken diplomacy in the Middle East. And, Egypt, which the US has favored with considerable foreign aid in order to retain its friendship, is considering a closer relationship with Russia.

That’s why Secretary of State Kerry was dispatched to the Middle East last week – to prevent further problems in a trouble prone second term presidency. Kerry’s visit to Egypt was the first by a senior US official since Mohamed Morsi was deposed as president in July and the first to Saudi Arabia since intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan warned last month of a “shift away” from Washington and announced the Saudi rejection of its seat on the UN Security Council.

Kerry visited Egypt first. He then arrived in Saudi Arabia on Sunday in order to address several areas of friction between the US and the Saudi kingdom, including Iran and its nuclear program. Then he continues to Israel and Palestine to meet the Israelis and Palestinian leaders. He will also make stops in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco.

An overriding problem with the Saudis and other US allies in the region is the continuing turmoil of the Arab Spring and how the American government will react. In the case of Egypt, Obama quickly abandoned US ally Mubarak for the Muslim Brotherhood. But, when they were removed from power by popular and military coalition, Obama stopped delivery of some military and economic aid.

Kerry addressed this concern when he said the US would stick with its friends. “We will be there for Saudi Arabia, for the Emirates, for Qataris, for the Jordanians, for the Egyptians and others. We will not allow those countries to be attacked from outside. We will stand with them,” he told reporters. Note the caveat to protect them from attacks from the outside.
There is also the problem of differing goals in Syria. The Saudis were angered last month when Obama backed away from the threatened military strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

While acknowledging that “some countries” wanted the United States to act differently on Syria, Kerry insisted that “differences on individual tactics on policy do not mean a difference on (the) fundamental goal of the policy…We all share the same goal … that is the salvation of the state of Syria and a transition government put in place … that can give the people of Syria the opportunity to choose their future,” Kerry said during a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.

There is also a concern about Egypt renewing its close ties with Russia that it had until the 1970s. The DEBKAfile reported that Russia has requested a naval base in Egypt for its Mediterranean fleet. In return for this port, Russia would provide arms and economic aid.

On Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi stated that his country is looking for partners other than the US to meet its security needs. Egypt expressed intentions to buy MiG-29 planes and other military equipment from Russia in a 15 billion dollar deal that may be partially financed by Saudi Arabia.

The Middle East as seen from the Obama Administration

The fact is that the Obama White House is in a political meltdown and the Middle East is the least of their problems. Nor, do they see the Middle East as a way to make a political comeback. Kerry is visiting the region merely as a sop to regional leaders, not as a sign that Obama will commit more attention to the issues of the region.

First and most important, from the White House point of view, Obama is sinking in the polls. Last week the administration saw a record low in job approval for Obama. Only 42 percent of adults approve of the job Obama is doing as president, according to the NBC/WSJ poll conducted October 25–28, while a majority (51 percent) disapprove. The most recent Gallup poll shows Obama at 39% job approval and 53% disapproval. This was heading in the wrong direction at a time when the White House had hoped to focus on touting the rollout of Obamacare and push the post-shutdown damage done to the Republicans.

Even worse are his dropping likability numbers – numbers that have stayed up and helped him rebound in the past. Obama has always done quite well. Even in moments when a majority of Americans disapproved of his performance as president, he has always been at least neutral on this measure. People may not like how he’s running the country, but they don’t think he’s a bad guy.

What’s different about the last few weeks is that Obama has now crossed into negative territory on his favorable/unfavorable ratings, with only 41 percent holding a favorable view of the president in the most recent NBC/WSJ poll.

This is beginning to compare with the disastrous second term favorability ratings of Bush in 2005. Prior to Katrina, Bush too had faced dips in job approval, but his favorability had always been a net positive. July 2005 was the last time the NBC/WSJ poll would show less than 50 percent of Americans disapproving of the job Bush did. By the time November 2005 rolled around, Bush’s favorable were down to 38 as was his job approval (Obama has a 39% favorable rating). Neither Bush’s job approval nor his favorable rating ever really recovered.

Obama’s job-approval numbers are not good news for his administration. They could, of course, still come back into positive territory over the next year or three. However, the fact that fewer Americans view him favorably is a signal that bringing those job-approval numbers back up could be a greater challenge than it has been before.

There are several reasons for that and Obamacare is at the top of the list. Every day that it continues to make headlines for its problems, the worst Obama’s ratings become. In fact, the Obamacare issue has become so toxic for Democrats and Obama that the Republican leadership is taking the advice of Napoleon who once said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” Consequently, they are leaving town for a House recess and avoiding any talk about it.

However, Democrats are still talking about the failures of Obamacare – even Obama’s staunchest supporters. Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland noted how there is a growing lack of confidence in Obama and his keynote legislation Tuesday morning to describe the rollout of the new health care law as she questioned Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the health agency tasked with overseeing the law’s implementation. “I believe that there’s been a crisis of confidence created in the dysfunctional nature of the website, the canceling of policies, and sticker shock from some people,” said Mikulski, who has generally been a strong ally of Obama’s.

There is also the weak economy that is damaging the White House – the pocketbook issue that usually drives voters on Election Day. The US is experiencing the worst economic recovery since World War Two and a pick up isn’t in sight. This explains Obama’s recent “pivot” to jobs.

Which brings us to Election Day 2014, when the Senate and House of Representatives are up for grabs. At this time, it’s looking bad for Democrats and many vulnerable Democrats are abandoning Obama’s coattails in an attempt to survive. If the Republicans retain the House and take the Senate – which looks very likely, the last two years of the Obama Administration will be even worse.

What that means is that as far as Obama is concerned, the Middle East falls far down his list of concerns. His biggest problem there is avoiding an international incident that will worsen his problems. Small problems that don’t fill the front page of the newspaper are minor in his mind.

This is the mindset at the White House towards the Middle East. Obama thinks the Saudis’ disagreements with the US are temporary and will go away with time. Syria remains in flux and Assad is looking more likely to stay in power, so there is no overriding reason to support the rebels. Obama is counting on the short memories of the Saudis.

The White House isn’t currently worried about the potential Egyptian arms agreement with Russia because these deals take years to complete and the Egyptian military is currently wedded to American military technology. It will take years – long after Obama’s administration – for Egypt to once again be wholly reliant on Russian arms.

On the Iranian front, administration officials know there is no way they can stop Iran from building some nuclear weapons. The current talks are window dressing and the hope at the White House is that Iran keeps its nuclear capabilities off the front page of the American newspapers and out of the mind of American voters.

Obama also has very little interest in supporting American allies in the region,, since they do not offer any real time political benefit (except for Israel and the Jewish voters in the US). US agencies will continue to work with the current governments, but if a crisis occurs as was seen in Egypt, Obama may likely side with the rebels.
Although Kerry will continue to spend time in the Middle East, don’t assume that this indicates any desire by Obama to take serious initiatives there. He will basically push big decisions down the road, while trying to repair the domestic scene so he can limit the electoral damage in 2014.

Kerry will continue to visit Middle Eastern capitals and talk to national leaders. He will be seen to work on the Iranian nuclear problem and Syria. However, the leaders in the region can rest assured that these and other Middle Eastern problems will not receive any credible attention from Obama. He is too busy trying to save his presidency at home.

Off Year Election Results

There were a few elections last Tuesday in the United States and they gave mixed results. One Republican governor – Chris Christie – won reelection in traditionally Democratic New Jersey and set himself up as a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

In Colorado, voters decisively defeated a major tax increase. Results were mixed for a referendum in several Colorado counties seeking to create a new, more conservative state. Only 5 of 11 counties voted for cessecion, which kills any potential momentum. The push to cessede came from conservative rural counties who were upset by the domination of the state by the populated Denver/Boulder area.

In Virginia, while the Republican retained the state legislature, Democrat McAuliffe won the governor’s election by a narrow margin despite leading by double digits earlier in the campaign.

McAuliffe’s close win was propelled by changing demographics in Virginia. In “on year” elections in 2008, and 2012, only 70 percent of Virginia voters were white. However, in “off year” elections in 2006 and 2009, 78 percent of voters who turned out to the polls were white. In yesterday’s election, the racial makeup of the Virginia electorate looked much more like a presidential year than an “off-year,” with only 72 percent of voters saying they were white.

Younger voters also turned out in higher numbers than in 2009; some 13 percent of voters were under age 30, compared with only 10 percent four years earlier. While a far cry from the nearly one-out-of-five voters they comprised in 2012, the uptick in young voters in an off-year election is a sign that the Obama/Democratic coalition is not fading away or only reliable in presidential years. This could cause problems for Republicans in 2014.

On the other hand, exit polls show some hope for Republicans next year. Exit polls showed Virginia voters opposed Obamacare rather than favored it by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin. When asked who was more to blame, 47 percent of voters said Republicans in Congress and 46 percent said Obama. Considering that individuals almost always poll better than groups of people—particularly Republicans (or, for that matter, Democrats) in Congress, this is a devastating result for Obama. It also means the government shutdown didn’t seriously damage Republicans.


Greater Iraqi–American Cooperation Needed on Counterterrorism, Syria, and Iran
By James Phillips
Heritage Foundation
November 5, 2013
Issue Brief 4079

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came to Washington last week in search of greater U.S. security assistance in battling the al-Qaeda-led insurgency that increasingly threatens Iraq’s internal security as well as regional stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The United States shares Maliki’s goal of defeating al-Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq, which has expanded into neighboring Syria. But it should be assured that Maliki’s Shia-dominated government does not use U.S. arms to crush the legitimate rights and aspirations of Iraq’s Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and Christian minorities, which are enshrined in Iraq’s constitution. Washington should also press Maliki to distance himself from Iran’s outlaw regime and halt Iraqi smuggling operations that undermine international sanctions against Iran.

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A Strong and Focused National Security Strategy
By Jim Talent and Jon Kyl
Heritage Foundation
October 31, 2013

When President Obama took office, the armed services of the United States had already reached a fragile state. The Navy had shrunk to its smallest size since before World War I; the Air Force was smaller, and its aircraft older, than at any time since the inception of the service. The Army was stressed by years of war; according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, it had been underfunded before the invasion of Iraq and was desperately in need of resources to replace its capital inventory. Since the President took office, the government has cut $1.3 trillion from defense budgets over the next ten years. The last such reduction was embodied in sequestration. At the time sequestration was passed, the top leaders of the military, and of both parties (the very people who enacted sequestration), warned that it would have a devastating effect on America’s military.

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Solving Egypt’s Subsidy Problem
By Dalibor Rohac
Cato Institute
November 6, 2013

Subsidies to consumer goods, including fuels and food, account for almost one third of Egypt’s public spending, or 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Not only are subsidies highly ineffective in helping the poor, they are also an increasingly unsustainable drain on the country’s public finances and its foreign reserves. Yet reform remains a thorny issue in Egypt’s unstable political environment—mostly because subsidies are the main instrument of social assistance used by the government. Subsidies to consumer goods and fuels have existed in the country since the 1920s. Various approaches are available for scaling them down or eliminating them altogether. However, most of the prior attempts to reform the subsidy system in Egypt have failed. Cash transfers targeted at the poor would be a superior policy relative to the status quo.

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Saudi Arabia and the Arab “Frontline” States
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 4, 2013

The United States needs to rethink its attitudes and polices towards Saudi Arabia and the Arab “frontline” states. The “Arab spring” has not become some sudden window to democratic reform. It has instead unleashed a broad pattern of regional instability in an area already deeply destabilized by extremism and terrorism, growing religious struggles between Sunni and other sects as well as between Sunni extremists and moderates, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its removal as a military counterbalance to Iran, a growing Iranian set of threats at every level, and massive demographic pressures on weak structures of governance and economic development. The day may come some years in the future where the resulting convulsions in states like Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen produce the conditions for effective reform: political parties capable of producing effective leaders and governance, politics based on compromise rather than a history of conspiracy and winner’s take all, elections that produce national rather than ethnic and sectarian tensions, and a rule of law rather than winner takes all and repression. Today, however, upheavals mean political instability and violence, massive new economic problems, power struggles, repression and refugees. The issue is not democracy and the more ideal human rights, it is the most basic set of human rights: security and the ability to lead a safe and secure life.

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One Word Will Define Egypt’s Constitution
By Nathan J. Brown
Carnegie Endowment
November 1, 2013
Foreign Policy

Those interested in following every word of the work of the Committee of 50 drafting comprehensive revisions to Egypt’s constitution now have a variety of sources to follow: one “official” twitter feed; an “unofficial” one; and the latest addition, an “official” Facebook page. But the most important word governing Egypt’s future constitutional order will not be mentioned in any of those places. Indeed, it will not even be placed in the final text scheduled to be submitted to voters next month. That fateful word will be spoken only by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and it will be a simple “yes” or “no” concerning his candidacy for the presidency of the Egyptian republic.

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How the West should Stop Crippling the Syrian Opposition
By Jean-Pierre Filiu
German Marshall Fund
November 06, 2013

Since its start in March 2011, the Syrian revolution has presented a challenge to classical interpretations of political protest and conventional attitudes toward armed insurgencies.

The markedly grassroots nature of this popular uprising has made the quest for a monolithic leadership elusive. In addition, the various underground groups that make up the opposition have nurtured complex dialectics with exiled militants. The Syrian National Council (SNC) that was established in Istanbul in October 2011 was, therefore,
a self-proclaimed patchwork, whose doors were left open to other groups.

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John Kerry’s Wishful Thinking About Egypt
By Lee Smith
Hudson Institute
November 5, 2013

Last week, in the midst of his latest trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry told Egypt’s ruling military junta to keep up the good work. The Obama administration wants General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man who removed Muslim Brotherhood affiliated president Mohamed Morsi from office in a coup on July 3, to return Egypt to civilian rule as quickly as possible. And that road map, said Kerry, “is being carried out to the best of our perception.” In reality though, it looks as though Egypt is heading in exactly the other direction.

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Ankara’s Middle East Policy Post Arab Spring
By Soner Cagaptay
Washington Institute
November 2013

When Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered office in 2002, it launched an ambitious plan to become a regional power. Aided by phenomenal economic growth, Turkey ultimately became the Middle East’s largest economy with a foreign policy based on wielding soft power to gain influence. To this end, the new elites in Ankara pursued deep economic and political ties with the region’s governments, including Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. Nevertheless, the events of the Arab Spring and the subsequent emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a hardline political force in the region have shifted the trajectory of Turkey’s rise to regional preeminence. Turkey realized that its soft power is not readily transferable to hard power, a realization that has prompted a pivot in Ankara’s foreign policy over the past two years.

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Kerry’s Visit to Morocco and Algeria: Navigating Between Competitors
By Vish Sakthivel
Washington Institute
November 4, 2013

Over the past few days, following the State Department’s announcement that Secretary John Kerry would be making his first official visit to North Africa, Morocco temporarily recalled its ambassador from Algeria. The symbolic gesture came after the two countries exchanged insults over Western Sahara, accusing each other of hegemonic ambitions and disregard for human rights. Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s statement about the urgency of dispatching human rights monitors to the disputed region, which triggered Rabat’s reaction, coincides with three imminent events: the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue, the annual summit that Kerry will inaugurate during his current trip to the region; Kerry’s visit to Algiers, also scheduled for later this week; and an expected mid-November visit to the United States by Morocco’s King Muhammad VI. Indeed, this latest squabble was aimed squarely at agenda-setting. In responding to the brouhaha, the Obama administration should be mindful of the complicated diplomatic and security issues at play, careful in its reassurances to committed allies in Morocco, and realistic about the limits of potential cooperation between the two countries.

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