Week of April 25th, 2014

Executive Summary

All eyes were turned towards the escalating events in Eastern Europe and the president’s visit to Asia.  However, there were several papers published on Syria, Afghanistan, and the Iraq crisis.

While tensions have increased around the world, there was a similar event in the US, where armed federal agents faced off against armed Americans.  The event, which had the overtones of a Hollywood western, ended peacefully, but brings about the question posed recently by a Russian academic that the US may be poised for a civil war and breakup.  This week’s analysis looks at what happened, the circumstances surrounding it, and the potential for an outbreak of violence in the US.  While much of the media coverage is about the rancher grazing his cattle on federal land, the issue, as many Westerners see it, is about federal ownership of vast amounts of land in the West.


Think Tanks Activity Summary

The issues of federal land ownership that came to a head in the Bundy ranch standoff mentioned in the analysis are looked at by the Cato Institute.  They conclude, “The solution is to transfer most federal lands in Nevada to the State of Nevada. Charges for the use of the land—such as grazing fees—should be set in the marketplace. Where feasible, environmentally significant land should be owned and managed by private non-profit land trusts. But these sorts of decisions should be made by the Nevada legislature. Politicians in Washington lack the knowledge to make the crucial land-use decisions that affect the lives of people such as Cliven Bundy, and they are far too distracted with all the other issues on the federal agenda.”

The Syrian conflict was the subject at a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute.  Former UK foreign secretary David Miliband noted the Syrian emergency has become the defining humanitarian crisis of our time. The international community’s failure to effectively deal with it has helped create an explosive cocktail of brutal dictatorship, communal sectarianism, and global and regional power plays. Because the country’s political and humanitarian challenges are interdependent, the failure to adequately address the latter has dangerous consequences for international law — not only for the Syrian conflict, but for future conflicts as well. The war’s fiercely sectarian nature has blurred the line between civilian and combatant, setting a potentially disastrous precedent.

The CSIS looks at the crisis in Iraq.  The country’s main threats, however, result from self-inflicted wounds caused by its political leaders. The 2010 Iraqi elections and the ensuing political crisis divided the nation. Rather than create any form of stable democracy, the fallout pushed Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to consolidate power and become steadily more authoritarian. Other Shi’ite leaders contributed to Iraq’s increasing sectarian and ethnic polarization – as did key Sunni and Kurdish leaders.  Since that time, a brutal power struggle has taken place between Maliki and senior Sunni leaders, and ethnic tensions have grown between the Arab dominated central government and senior Kurdish leaders in the Kurdish Regional government (KRG). The actions of Iraq’s top political leaders have led to a rise in Sunni and Shi’ite violence accelerated by the spillover of the extremism caused by the Syrian civil war.

The Carnegie Endowment also looks at the Iraq Crisis.  They conclude, “the continuity of the Sunni-Shia divide is a result of the failure to undertake successful nation-building processes and the exclusionary politics that have characterized the country’s modern history. A highly contentious environment, weak state institutions, the effects of political Islam, and geopolitical rivalries have heightened sectarianism in Iraq in the last decade. Increasing terrorist attacks against Shia civilians and the ISF’s operations in Sunni areas have exacerbated the risk of an outright sectarian conflict reminiscent of the 2006–2007 civil war.”

The American Enterprise Institute looks at the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates in recent years.  They fault the current strategy and note, “The misreading of the enemy and his objectives has led to the adoption of a strategy, centered on counterterrorism, that cannot defeat al Qaeda. The set of techniques known as counterterrorism is ultimately based on attrition—that is, killing or capturing the members of the terrorist group. Counterterrorism and attrition work best against small groups that are incapable of mass recruitment and therefore cannot replace themselves, are unable to hold territory, and lack the capacity to set up shadow governance. None of this is true of al Qaeda today. Given the resurgence of al Qaeda since 2011, one would expect a serious rethinking of US national strategy to combat the group, but so far this has not happened.”

The Institute for the Study of War looks at the White House plan to leave 5,000 troops in Afghanistan.  They conclude, “It is premature to conclude before the election is over that fewer than 5,000 troops will suffice after 2014. Violence will increase as the fighting season begins and the Taliban and other insurgent groups have not yet exercised their full strength. The White House’s thinking is based on a misleading single-day snapshot and does not consider the real picture of violence and persisting threats in Afghanistan.”









Is the United States on the Verge of a Second American Civil War?

On April 12th, just north of Las Vegas, Nevada, the US may have tottered on the edge of civil war as about 200 heavily armed federal agents faced a crowd of civilians – some on horseback and some clearly armed.  Despite repeated warnings from the federal agents for the crowd to disperse or be fired upon, the crowd continued to advance on their positions.  Finally, the government forces relented and pulled back – giving way and allowing a couple dozen mounted cowboys to reclaim the 300+ cattle that had caused the confrontation.

During the 15 or so minutes when both sides were standing their ground, gunfire from either side could have very easily caused a civil war, just as a single shot on the green at Lexington in 1775 ignited the American Revolution.


BLM agents facing protestors

Is America really on the verge of civil war?  It may closer than many imagine.  The response from many Americans indicates it may be – as militia groups from around the US came to the support the rancher at the center of this controversy, Cliven Bundy.  Even though the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has backed down for the moment, armed militia units remain at the ranch in order to fight any returning government troops.  And many expect the federal government to return, this time with more force.

The response to the incident was mixed and showed the fissures in American society.  The senior US senator from Nevada, Harry Reid, called the people at the ranch, “domestic terrorists.”  However the other US senator from Nevada, Dean Heller, called them, “patriots.”

Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, after visiting the Bundy Ranch, disagrees with BLM agents.  Although the Bundy Ranch is in Nevada, the grazing area borders Arizona and some Arizonan cattle have been known to wander across the state border.  “If there was any type of public-safety concern, it was with the Park Service and the BLM,” he said. To Gosar, Bundy represents victims of unwanted federal control in Western states like Arizona. “A government that can take all and can seize all, a government that doesn’t trust its citizens, a government that says it’s their way or the highway,” said Gosar, whose western Arizona district borders Nevada… that’s the scary part.”

This controversy is much deeper than one rancher and a handful of right-wing militia members.  The standoff is just the focal point in a debate on the vast amount of land controlled by the federal government in the West.  The issue is so hot that official delegations from other Western states like Arizona and Oregon went to the ranch in support of Bundy.  In fact, More than 50 lawmakers from nine Western states gathered last Friday for a summit in Utah, where an estimated 67 percent of the land is owned by the federal government and which has twice passed provisions seeking to reduce the reach of Washington’s control over that property.

The meeting at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City had been planned weeks ago, but the federal action at the cattle rancher’s property shed new light on the issue of federal control of Western land.  62 percent of Alaska is federally owned, as well as 62 percent of Idaho. More than 81 percent of Nevada is managed by federal authorities; 48 percent of California; 35 percent of New Mexico; 42 percent of Arizona; 53 percent of Oregon; 29 percent of Washington; and just over 48 percent of Wyoming.  Federal policy for the nation’s first 150 years was for the federal government to dispose of lands it acquired by handing it back to states, businesses, or individuals.  No wonder some westerners are on the edge of rebellion.

The Eye of the Storm – the Bundy Ranch

This analysis will skirt the complex legal issues surrounding the Bundy Ranch showdown.  It’s obvious that both Bundy and the BLM have made the situation worse.  Bundy has admitted that he isn’t paying grazing fees to the federal government.  However, the normal recourse for the Federal government to collect money owed them is to put a legal lien on the property, not send armed agents.

For many of Bundy’s supporters, the law isn’t as important.  They see it as civil disobedience, in the tradition of Dr. Martian Luther King, Gandhi, and the protesters of the” Arab Spring”.  In fact, many of the Bundy supporters are calling this the beginning of the American Spring – a clear reference to what happened in the Middle East.

The BLM had obtained federal rulings that they could take Bundy’s cattle off their land several years ago.  However, events came to a head on March 15th, when the BLM informed Bundy that they were going to impound his cattle for trespassing on federal land.  On the 27th, the BLM closed off 322,000 acres to the public in order to collect the cattle.  Bundy responded by contacting his supporters around the country.

On April 5th, the roundup of cattle began and the next day confrontations between the BLM and Bundy supporters started.  However, the situation heated up on April 9th when a violent confrontation between both sides took place, while being filmed by several people in the crowd.  This video quickly ended up on the internet and went viral.  This confrontation brought the issue to national attention and hundreds of supporters flocked to Nevada to support Bundy.  By the next day a protest camp had been set up on the side of the road near the ranch.

The major confrontation came on April 12th.  That morning, the BLM announced that they were suspending the roundup and were reopening the BLM land to the public.  Instead of accepting the BLM’s retreat, Bundy insisted the BLM leave the area and release his cattle.  When he didn’t receive an answer, he and dozens of cowboys and ranchers mounted up on horseback and rode towards the BLM corrals.

At this point, the confrontation began to look like a western movie – mounted cowboys versus federal agents as they both tried to get the other side to retreat.  The BLM repeatedly told the crowd that they had a court order and would shoot if the crowd advanced.  However, the crowd continued to move forward and up to the cattle gate, where the agents were.  Tensions remained high for about 15 minutes as armed federal agents and armed protesters faced off.


Ranchers on horseback, protesters, and militia members in foreground faceoff

against BLM agents under bridge

Finally cooler heads prevailed and the BLM agreed to leave and release the cattle.  Reports from the ground indicate that many of the government agents were uncomfortable with shooting fellow Americans, as well as being aware that they were also facing an armed crowd that could return fire.  They also knew events were being videoed and streamed live on the internet.

The following YouTube videos from two separate sources show the confrontation and the release of the cattle.



As of the time of this analysis, the standoff continues.  The BLM has made it clear that they will take legal action to remove the cattle.  The Bundys are standing their ground and a contingent of militia members is on the scene in order to guard them and their ranch.
Is Revolution Brewing?

Uprisings need a flash point and history and events in other countries show that when the government shoots at civilians, the chance for an outbreak of violence increases dramatically.  In the case of the US, the Bundy Ranch might serve as one, if shooting breaks out there.

There are several reasons to believe this.  The first is the American character, which has celebrated rebellion, whether it is protecting escaping slaves, the civil rights marches of the 1960s, or the American Revolution against Great Britain.  Certainly, the image of American cowboys standing up against government agents reinforces the image as cowboys have always been the American icon of independence.

The second reason is that the Bundy/BLM confrontation is only one of many that are taking place across the West.   Long before Cliven Bundy faced down federal agents in his dispute with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights, fellow Nevada rancher Raymond Yowell, an 84-year-old former Shoshone chief, had his herd seized by the BLM.  Other Shoshone families, the Danns, Colvins, and Vogts have had their cattle taken by the BLM.  Their cattle roamed Shoshone reservation land. But a 1979 Supreme Court decision held that even land designated for Indian reservations is held in trust for them, and thus subject to BLM regulation. The Shoshone say that the treaties with the federal government and ratified by the Senate, granted them the right to graze cattle on the land. The Western Shoshone say they have never relinquished their right to the territory.

Yowell represented himself in a successful effort to win a federal injunction to stop the BLM from impounding his cattle, as well as a subsequent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that reversed the lower court. He’s again representing himself in a petition to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear his case, in which he argues his cattle were taken without due process and in violation of multiple treaties.

Yowell said he sees some “commonality” between his fight and Bundy’s, but stressed his claim to the land is further strengthened by the Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863, which formally recognized Western Shoshone rights to some 60 million acres in Nevada, Idaho, Utah and California.  “There’s a definite pattern in the West, beginning in the 1990s, maybe in the late ’80s, of what I feel are illegal cattle seizures,” Yowell said. “[Bundy’s case] is the latest example of that pattern.”


The Bundy cattle at the center of the standoff being herded by cowboys after being released.

Other Nevada ranchers also note that in order to rush the process of making Nevada a state during the American Civil War, statehood was rushed along with the help of an enabling act promising that Washington would sell off surplus lands beyond what would be necessary for the construction of military bases and similar facilities.  The rush was to secure the vast silver deposits in Nevada, which were helping to finance the war.  They argue that the BLM’s vast holdings in Nevada violate this legislation.

Questionable BLM actions aren’t limited to Nevada.  It was also recently reported that the BLM intends to seize 90,000 acres belonging to Texas landholders along the Texas/Oklahoma line; Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott questioned the BLM’s authority to take such action.   “I am about ready,” Abbott told a reporter, “to go to go to the Red River and raise a ‘Come and Take It’ flag to tell the feds to stay out of Texas.”  The ‘Come and Take It’ flag was flown in 1835 at the Battle of Gonzales, the opening battle of the Texas Revolution and was a subtle reminder by Abbott that Texas had once fought for its independence and could do so again.

Abbott, who is running for governor of Texas, sent a strongly-worded letter to BLM Director Neil Kornze, asking for answers to a series of questions related to the potential land grab.   He later told reporters, “This is the latest line of attack by the Obama Administration where it seems like they have a complete disregard for the rule of law in this country …And now they’ve crossed the line quite literally by coming into the State of Texas and trying to claim Texas land as federal land. And, as the Attorney General of Texas I am not going to allow this.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a possible Republican nominee for president in 2016 has also gone on record.  “It’s not a dare, it’s a promise that we’re going to stand up for private property rights in the state of Texas,” Perry said.

In many ways, this has more potential to be a flashpoint as the BLM has no legal authority to seize the land without legislation.  This, and the fact that the agreement between the independent Republic of Texas and the US to cede all unowned land within Texas to the state rather than the federal government upon its entrance into the US, make this a situation to watch.  There is already a Texas succession movement and any abrogation of this agreement will only strengthen this movement.

Nor is this battle limited to Nevada and Texas.  State and local conflicts with federal government action are roiling politics in Oregon, California, Utah, and Wyoming.  Each of these areas offers a potential spark for an uprising.

There is also a growing concern amongst Americans about how the federal government enforces the law.  While the president purposely refuses to enforce some laws like border enforcement, he is strict in enforcing BLM regulations.  Many are asking why the federal government is allowed to pick and choose the laws it wishes to enforce and are wondering if the current system is broken.

The next reason for being concerned that the US may break out in civil war is the mood of the nation.  In a poll taken by Rasmussen after the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, 54% consider the federal government today a threat to individual liberty rather than a protector. Just 22% see the government as a protector of individual rights, and that’s down from 30% last November.

Even more troubling was the finding that 37% of likely U.S. Voters now fear the federal government.  Two-out-of-three voters (67%) view the federal government today as a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests. Just 17% disagree.  Only 19% now trust the federal government to do the right thing most or nearly all the time and 71% of voters believe that if America’s Founding Fathers came back today, they would regard the federal government as too big.

A poll taken a week earlier also had bad news.  It showed just 19% of Likely U.S. Voters believe the federal government today has the consent of the governed.  Sixty-sixty percent (66%) do not believe the federal government has the consent of the governed today, while 16% are unsure.  The wording is critical as the phrase, “Consent of the governed,” comes from Ameirca’s Declaration of Independence, which states that governments receive their power from the consent of the governed and when the government becomes destructive, the people have the right to abolish it.

These polls are consistent with the findings of other polling organizations.  Five months ago, the Gallup polling group found seventy-two percent of Americans say big government is a greater threat to the U.S. in the future than is big business or big labor, a record high in the nearly 50-year history of this question.

Clearly there is a serious level of unrest in the US, combined with a stagnant economy that has hit Middle America more than the ruling class.  History shows that this is an explosive mixture.

The final factor is the heavily armed American people and the rise of militias.  Although numbers are merely guesses, it is not out of line to assume that there is one privately owned firearm for every American.  That being the case, Americans are well positioned to fight, and win, if a clash occurs.


Militia stationed near Bundy Ranch

The federal government is also finding itself up against more trained militias than in the past.  As was seen in the Bundy Ranch standoff, these units can quickly mobilize and travel to a hot spot.  And, many of these units have cadres of militia members with military experience – especially from Afghanistan and Iraq.  They also have communications and other logistical gear necessary for sustained operations.

Although these militias say that they have thousands of members (the Oklahoma Volunteer Militia claims they have 50,000 supporters), only a few hundred showed up at the Bundy Ranch and currently only about 50 are at the ranch.  However, they have shown that they can reappear quickly.


Crowd advances on BLM agents

The biggest problem is not the militias, but the rest of the armed Americans who may quickly rally to a rebellion.  At the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, only 77 American militiamen were present when the shooting began.  By that afternoon, hundreds of armed Americans were shooting at the British as they retreated towards Boston.  By the next morning, a militia army of 15,000 American colonists were besieging the British in Boston.

The problem is not the few thousand militia members.  The problem is what will happen if a shooting war breaks out between federal agents and some Americans and militia members?  Could people with grievances, just like those in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, flood into the streets, but with a level of firepower that would overwhelm the government?

There has been some recent controversy about some racist remarks made by Bundy to the New York Times during an interview.  Although this has cast some doubt on Bundy and forced many of his supporters to declaim the statements, the core issues of massive federal land ownership remain.

These comments may lessen the support for the rancher and cause some of the supporters at the ranch to leave in the next few days.  However, only time will tell

It might not happen.  However, history tells us that it is quite possible.



BLM vs. the Nevada Rancher

By Chris Edwards

Cato Institute

April 21, 2014

The battle between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might be viewed as an overly aggressive federal bureaucracy enforcing misguided environmental regulations vs. an oppressed individual and his overly enthusiastic supporters with guns.  However, like the ongoing battles in California between farmers and environmentalists over water, the Nevada story is more complex than that. The issues are not divided neatly along left-right political lines. In both cases, the property rights issues are complicated, and the federal government has long subsidized the use of land and water resources in the West. The first step toward a permanent solution in both cases is to revive federalism. That is, to transfer federal assets to state governments and the private sector.

Read more



Iraq in Crisis

By Anthony H. Cordesman and Sam Khazai

Center for Strategic and International Studies

April 21, 2014

As events in late December 2013 and early 2014 have made brutally clear, Iraq is a nation in crisis bordering on civil war. It is burdened by a long history of war, internal power struggles, and failed governance. Iraq also a nation whose failed leadership has created a steady increase in the sectarian divisions between Shi’ite and Sunni, and in the ethnic divisions between Arab and Kurd.  Iraq suffers badly from the legacy of mistakes the US made during and after its invasion in 2003.  It suffers from threat posed by the reemergence of violent Sunni extremist movements like Al Qaeda and equally violent Shi’ite militias. It suffers from pressure from Iran and near isolation by several key Arab states. It has increasingly become the victim of the forces unleashed by the Syrian civil war.

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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.

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Iraq’s Sectarian Crisis: A Legacy of Exclusion

By Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee

Carnegie Endowment

April 23, 2014

One decade after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, violence and tensions between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds continue to threaten Iraq’s stability and fragile democracy. The political elite have failed to develop an inclusive system of government, and internal divides have been reinforced by the repercussions of the Arab Spring, especially the effects of the largely Sunni uprising against the Syrian regime and the reinforcement of transnational sectarianism. To prevent further fragmentation or the emergence of a new authoritarian regime, Iraq needs a political compact based less on sectarian identities and more on individual citizens.

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By Saša Hezir with Reza Jan

Institute for the Study of War

April 23, 2014

The White House is dropping strong hints that the number of American troops in Afghanistan after 2014 may fall below 10,000, possibly even below 5,000. Unnamed White House officials suggested to the press that lower levels of U.S. support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be sufficient to contain future Taliban threats, given the relatively smooth election on April 5 and lack of high-profile attacks that day.  In January, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, General Joseph Dunford, and other military leaders recommended leaving 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to train and assist the ANSF and to conduct counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

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The Syrian Conflict: Where Strategic Interest and Humanitarian Urgency Intersect

By David Miliband, Ambassador Robert S. Ford, and Andrew J. Tabler

April 21, 2014

PolicyWatch 2241

On April 17, 2014, David Miliband and Robert Ford addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. Miliband is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. Ford is a former U.S. diplomat who recently retired after completing four years’ service as ambassador to Syria. The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their remarks. Institute senior fellow Andrew J. Tabler moderated the event.

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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
National Security Affairs Analyst
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