Gaza remains a major area of focus in Washington, along with the growing tension in the Ukraine.
This week’s Monitor Analysis looks at the mid-term elections in the US in November and its impact on the Middle East. Although Obama isn’t on the ballot, the election will revolve around him and his policies. At this time, that means the Democrats will likely lose the Senate, which means that Obama will face more opposition in the last two years of his administration. A Republican Senate will also have an impact on American policy in the Middle East – ranging from a very pro-Israeli Jewish American becoming a part of the Senate leadership, to the confirmation of ambassadors representing the US in the region.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the fighting in the Gaza. Although Israel claims it is winning on the battlefield, they note that they are losing politically as Hamas is becoming more popular amongst Palestinians. They note, “Palestinian public opinion—as well as the mood across the Arab street—has significantly shifted in favor of Hamas. The pictures of civilian deaths on Arab television networks have been horrific, particularly the children and women. Israel’s claim of exercising caution to avoid hitting civilian targets is not believed in the Arab world.
The CSIS argues that the US must become more aggressive in attacking ISIS. They note that Maliki is the major problem to solving the ISI issue and say the US must stop his reelection. They state, “The United States should not try to force a leader on Iraq. It can, however, make it clear that the kind of aid that Iraq now desperately needs is conditional. It means Iraq must not give Maliki a third term or consider horrible alternatives like Ahmed Chalibi. Success means pushing for a truly national Iraqi government needs with strong and independent Arab Sunni and Kurdish voices. It means that U.S. efforts to strengthen and rebuild the Iraq security forces will also means rejecting any aid to Shi’ite militias, and creating truly national and professional forces that offer real opportunities to Sunnis and Kurds as well as Shi’ites. It means the United States must work with a new Iraqi government to limit Iranian and other outside roles to ones that do not compromise Iraq’s independence.”
The Washington Institute looks Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the force behind the ISIS. The report says that a biography states, “that Baghdadi was indeed a descendant of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad — one of the key qualifications in Islamic history for becoming the caliph (historically, leader of all Muslims). It highlighted that Baghdadi came from the al-Bu Badri tribe, which is primarily based in Samarra and Diyala, north and east of Baghdad respectively, and known historically for being descendants of Muhammad.” They conclude, “While we may not know the future of the Islamic State, it is clear that Baghdadi has steered the organization back to prominence. In many ways, he has eclipsed even the founder of the group Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last decade in prestige, resources, and potential for the future.”
His true significance will likely come more to light following his death, since, as we have seen with al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri has had a difficult time replacing Bin Laden. For now, the Islamic State’s “Caliph” is the new star of the ascendant “Caliphate Project.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at ISIS’s theft of some radioactive material in Iraq and the threat of a “dirty bomb.” They look at the types of material that may be available to ISIS and other international terrorists and what damage these compounds could cause.
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the interesting relationship between Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Although close in the past, with the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the relationship has cooled considerably.
Upcoming Election in America Could Impact Middle Eastern Events
Amidst the war crimes committed by Israelis and the carnage of Gaza is the fact that Americans hold a mid-term election in three months. And, although mid-term elections are seen mostly in a domestic framework, what happens will impact American relations in the Middle East.
Although the president has the constitutional responsibility for foreign relations, it is the Congress that has several checks on that power. First, the US Senate must confirm any US ambassador to the region and the election climate may make that a very critical issue. Second, Congress has the authority to authorize military action in the region and provide military and economic aid to nations in the region. Third, the US Senate must also ratify any treaty before it becomes legal. Finally, Congress has the “power of the purse,” which can be used to restrict administration actions by refusing funding. Given these powers and the potential election outcome in November, we can see some changes in how the US will interact in the region starting in a few months.
To understand how events could change, remember that the US government is divided with the Congress passing laws and providing money, while the President executes policy and enforces law. Currently the Congress is divided between the Democratic controlled Senate and the Republican controlled House of Representatives. With the Senate in the control of his political allies, legislation that comes out of the Congress has already been made more to Obama’s liking by the input of the US Senate. Without the Democratic control of the Senate, Obama would only have two options concerning legislation coming out of Congress – veto it in its entirety or sign it. He would also have to accept that his choices of ambassadors might be declined by a Senate in the control of his political opponents.
As a result, the key battle in November will be over control of the US Senate. Polling shows that the Republicans will likely retain control of the House of Representatives and a majority of the governorships in the states. So, the best hope for Obama to retain more control of his agenda lies in preventing the Republicans from gaining six or more seats in the US Senate, which would give the GOP control.
At this point of time, it is looking bad for the Democrats. Last weekend, the New York Times and CBS News, in partnership with YouGov, released some results of a massive polling and research effort across the country. YouGov was quite accurate in 2012 and the results indicate that this November could be disastrous for the Democrats in the US Senate. Republicans hold a clear advantage in races in three states: South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia. They also find the Republicans with a nominal lead in five additional states. These states are: Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina — where Democratic incumbents face tough re-election contests and where Mitt Romney won in 2012. Republicans also have a slight edge in Iowa and Michigan, two open seats in states that usually vote for Democrats in presidential elections.
That is not the only bad news for Democrats. Americans are so disappointed with Obama at the moment that, if they could do the 2012 election all over again, they’d overwhelmingly back Romney for President. That’s just one finding in a CNN poll, released Sunday, which shows Romney topping Obama in a re-election rematch by a whopping nine-point margin, 53 percent to 44 percent. That’s an even larger spread than CNN found in November, when a survey had Romney winning a redo 49 percent to 45 percent. Two years ago, Obama won re-election with about 51 percent of the vote.
Since mid-term elections are usually a referendum on the president in the White House, this is bad news. An electorate disappointed with the president will either vote for the opposing party or stay home.
Democratic strategists, however, aren’t panicking. They recognize that they will lose seats, but will try to limit their losses to 5, which allows the Democrats to retain control. To do this, they will remain focused on those seats they consider the easiest to hold, will move money into those campaigns, will try to cast the Democrat as an opponent to some of Obama’s policies and try to energize some of their voting base which they are afraid will not vote this November.
An important part of this election is to allow Democrats to keep their distance from Obama so as to not alienate independent voters who don’t like him. Of the ten states with the lowest approval ratings for Obama, Democrats have to defend seats in five: South Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Alaska, and Arkansas.
The most dramatic distancing comes from West Virginia Democrat Natalie Tennant, who is campaigning for a vacant Senate seat in a coal-producing state targeted by Obama environmental regulations. She is running an ad in which she hits a switch and plunges the White House into darkness in protest over his policies.
Obama has also traveled the country raising money for Senate candidates – often to the criticism of others who accuse him of spending more time in fund raising than governing the country. So far this cycle, Obama has headlined 11 events for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, while Vice President Joe Biden has hosted five and first lady Michelle Obama has been the top draw for two. The president also has added his weight to the Senate Majority Fund PAC, which has run ads against (GOP candidates Tom) Cotton in Arkansas, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, and other normally Republican states where Democrats are fending off Republican challengers.
The next challenge is to energize the voter block that gave Obama his two electoral wins in 2008 and 2012. As a result, he has focused on the “War on Women,” and “Economic Equality,” to encourage his 2012 voters to come out in November.
The desire to energize the Obama base may also be at the heart of the Obama threat to legalize millions of illegal immigrants between now and the election. Some Republicans have noted that such a move is illegal and would be grounds for an impeachment of Obama. Noting that the impeachment of Clinton actually helped the Democrats in the 1998 elections, many in the White House think that the threat of an impeachment would encourage Obama supporters to come out and vote for Democratic Senate candidates.
An idea of this strategy was noted by Dan Pfeiffer of the White House. In reporting of the event by the Los Angeles Times, they said, “Any such move would prompt a major clash with congressional Republicans, and at least some White House officials appeared to relish the prospect that the GOP might overreach in its response and act in a politically self-destructive manner. When the decision is announced, it will “increase the angry reactions from Republicans,” Pfeiffer said. “I would not discount the possibility” that Republicans would seek to impeach Obama over his next immigration moves, he said.
Pfeiffer made his comments at a breakfast for reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
However, despite such talk, the Republicans appear to be circumspect about impeachment. They could get articles of impeachment passed in the House, but would be unable to get a conviction, even if the Senate goes Republican. This would discourage such a course. Republicans also know that any unilateral action taken by Obama can be easily revoked under a Republican president in the future.
How a Republican Senate Would Impact the Middle East
Assuming the Republicans take the Senate in November, what impact would there be on the Middle East?
The most interesting change would be on the Democratic side of the Senate as the Senate Democratic leadership would likely become more pro-Israel and even less willing to deal with the Palestinians. That person would be New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish and very pro-Israel.
Schumer, is currently the Democrat’s number 4 person in the Senate, but has a realistic path to becoming the Democratic leader. Senator Tim Johnson, (D-SD), is retiring and Senator Jack Reed, (D-RI), will become the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee after 2014. That leaves Schumer as next in line.
If Republicans seize control of the upper chamber, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid might not keep his job. Reid’s departure would leave a major power vacuum among Senate Democrats, one most likely filled by Schumer, who has aggressively pursued the Democratic leadership post for years.
However, as the Senator for New York, which has a large Jewish voter block, Schumer has strongly supported Israel over the years. Last week, Chuck Schumer along with two other senators wrote to Obama that “the threats posed by Hamas rockets and tunnels whose only purpose is to kill and kidnap Israelis are intolerable, and Israel must be allowed to take any actions necessary to remove those threats.”
The senators wanted to impress upon Obama their “strong belief that any viable cease fire in Gaza must remove the threat to Israel posed by Hamas rockets and tunnels…Any cease fire should create a situation in which Israeli citizens no longer face the threat of brazen terrorist attacks,” they wrote. “Israeli citizens have faced over 1800 rocket launches from Hamas since June. While Iron Dome has saved countless lives, over five million Israelis live in fear of incoming rockets fired indiscriminately from Gaza. Twenty-eight tunnels have been discovered by the IDF since the ground operation in Gaza began. Israel has an absolute right to defend its citizens and ensure the survival of the State of Israel.” “…Any effort to broker a ceasefire agreement that does not eliminate those threats cannot be sustained in the long run and will leave Israel vulnerable to future attacks.”
In the past, Schumer has also taken Obama to task for a “hostile” attitude towards Israel. And, while Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been a supporter of Israel, a Jewish Senator from New York could be expected to be an even stronger advocate of Israel. In fact, as the Senate Minority leader and a member of the Congressional leadership, he would be the highest ranking Jewish American in the American government.
There are other ways that a Republican Senate could impact the Middle East. While Obama has been cool towards the el-Sisi administration in Egypt, the Republican leadership has been more supportive of the Egyptian government and increasing foreign aid. In addition, Senator McCain, who is in line to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee if the Republicans win, would use his power as part of the Senate majority to force more aid to Syrian rebels.
A Republican Senate might also make their mark on the diplomatic corps in the Middle East. Obama has made more large political contributors to his presidential campaign ambassadors than any other president. The result is that people totally unqualified to represent the US are finding themselves advancing US policy in countries that they have never visited or even know the language. “The Obama administration’s appointments suggest that the president isn’t being honest when he says that diplomacy is important to him,” Henri J. Barkey, Lehigh University professor and former State Department policy staffer, wrote in The Washington Post. “It’s illogical, and insulting, to presume that Norwegians are such wonderful and civilized people — and hence unlikely to cause any problems with Washington — that we can afford to send someone on a taxpayer-funded three-year junket to enjoy the fjords.”
A Republican Senate, which must confirm every ambassador, would be unlikely to let such egregious appointments be confirmed. Although most Democratic Senators are already pro-Israel, a Republican senate would undoubtedly remain pro-Israel – even if other major cuts are made in the foreign aid appropriations. Consequently, it’s nearly certain that aid to Egypt would continue in order to keep the Egypt/Israel treaty in place.
A Showdown between Obama and Congress in 2015
If the Senate becomes Republican in November, expect to see a major fight between the Congress and Obama in 2015 – a fight that may even lead to a government shutdown.
The Constitution makes it clear that the Congress has the power to appropriate money. And, the Congress can place any strings to that spending that it wishes.
Since the appropriations bill is the one bill that can’t be filibustered in the Senate, it’s likely that the US House will pass a bill that seriously limits Obama in several areas including immigration, NSA spying, Obamacare, and the power of the IRS. This bill will pass the Congress and will go to the President for signing – something he will be unlikely to do. The result will probably be a short government shutdown, political posturing, and bluffing. In the end, the shutdown will help neither party and some compromises will have to be made by both sides.
The only other critical issue will be the threat of impeachment of the president. This is unlikely given the polls that show only about a third of Americans support Obama’s impeachment. Although Obama is unpopular with the majority of voters, there isn’t the political support for his impeachment – a fact the Republicans are well aware of. They are more likely to rely on the courts, the power to appropriate money, and even a reliance on state powers to negate Obama in the last two years of his administration.
Obama’s Ineffective Gaza Foreign Policy
The Israeli attacks on Gaza appear to be expanding. Southern Command Major General Shlomo Turgeman spoke to Arutz Sheva about the expansion of the operation throughout new areas of Gaza. “Yesterday, we expanded operations throughout central and southern Gaza,” he said. “We are hitting wherever we identify tunnels and where Hamas terrorists operate.”
Why hasn’t Obama been able to stop this escalation?
Since the formation of Israel, American presidents have been able to exert some degree of influence on Israeli leadership when it comes to observing a truce. However, for the first time in seven decades that is not happening. Is it Israeli intransigence or is it a failing American president.
It is, in fact, both. Israeli leaders are determined to continue their shelling and ground attack on Gaza. Meanwhile, Obama is unable and unwilling to exert any pressure on Israel.
One issue that has been recently raised concerning Israel’s bellicose response is the fact that there are significant natural gas reserves off the Gaza Strip that Israel covets. Daily Sabah reported, “In 1999, the Palestinian Authority granted the British Gas Group (BGG) and Consolidated Contractors International Company gas exploration rights off the coast of Gaza in a 25-year agreement. Following that, two wells were drilled and extensive gas reserves were discovered in the area. The reserves, which hold an estimated 1.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas, has made Israel’s mouth water since then. Negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel in the early 2000s went back and forth, leaving Palestine with no concrete steps to benefit from the natural resource.
Furthermore, the course of events became even more inextricable in 2006 when Hamas won a victory in elections and took over Gaza, ousting its rival Fatah, who ended up governing the West Bank.”
Hamas has rejected the 1999 agreement and wants new terms that give more money to Gaza. This is something Israel opposes. Consequently, the destruction of Hamas (and thousands of Palestinians) would give Israel more leverage in benefiting from these natural gas reserves.
That explains Israel’s continued attacks in Gaza. But, what is the strategy behind Obama’s weak response to the slaughter?
Although many have accused Obama of being weak in his response to international crisis, he has moved aggressively to support Israel militarily. Obama has agreed to re-supply Israel with ammunition, after Israeli military officials made its request to the U.S. Defense Department. The U.S. will give access to the massive stockpile of American weapons stored in Israel, CNN reported.
The little-known stockpile is officially known as War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition-Israel and has been maintained inside Israel since the 1990s by United States European Command, according to ABC News. The location of the stockpile as well as the types and quantities of ammunition it stores are classified. However, a Congressional Research Service report from April says, “the United States stores missiles, armored vehicles and artillery ammunition” in the stockpile.
Compare this action to Obama’s refusal to give any significant military aid to the Ukraine. Obviously Israel has more political importance to Obama than the Ukraine.
The answer is found in domestic politics and recent polling. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, the public is sour on Obama’s failure to contain that conflict. “When it comes to Obama’s handling of the increasing tensions in Gaza, the poll shows 39 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove, with one-third disapproving ‘strongly,’” The Post reported on Wednesday. In fact, the poll shows that Obama gets lower marks for his handling of the crisis in Gaza than he does for either his approach to the downing Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 or his management of America’s foreign affairs overall.
Interestingly enough, the anger doesn’t come from Jewish voters or pro-Israel Christians, but from his own base, Democrats and young voters. According to the Washington Post, “Sixty-five percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s efforts, but this falls significantly below the number approving of him on foreign policy overall (77 percent). Likewise, while respondents aged 18 to 39 split evenly on Obama’s general handling of foreign policy (47 percent apiece), this age group disapproves of his efforts in the Middle East by a 21-point margin, 54-33. Separate surveys from the Pew Research Center and Gallup have found younger Americans are significantly more skeptical of Israel’s actions than are older Americans.” (Italics added for emphasis)
What this means is that Americans disapprove of Obama’s Gaza policy and, at the same time, Obama’s supporters are more likely to disapprove because they see it as being slanted towards Israel, not the Palestinians.
Meantime, there is some question about Obama’s sudden focus on using Qatar and Turkey in the peace negotiations. The Washington Post notes, “Kerry turned to Turkey and Qatar, which as friends and financial backers of Hamas had more leverage. That put the deal first and a stable solution to Gaza’s problems second. The deal blew up anyway, victim of Israeli and Palestinian inability to get to yes.”
However, Turkey and Qatar are critical in controlling the problems in Syria and Iraq. This opens the possibility that Obama and Kerry are willing to let the slaughter in Gaza continue in order to gain leverage in the conflict against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The domestic politics for Obama is attractive. Since younger voters are less likely to vote in mid-term elections than Jewish-American voters, giving Israel more weapons and allowing Israel to continue its attacks is more likely to appease his voter base in November. At the same time, he positions himself for countering ISIS, which appears to be a more serious concern with the White House because a failure in Iraq will damage Obama politically more than additional killings in Gaza.
The result is more deaths in Gaza, while politics continue as usual in Washington.
Dumping Maliki and Striking at ISIS
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
July 28, 2014
It is time that the United States stopped waiting for good options that could somehow quickly solve its problems in the Middle East and accept the reality that the United States faces an unstable mess in the entire Middle East/North Africa region that is likely to take at least a decade to play out before there is any real stability. There are no “good,” quick, or simple options that can avoid this reality, or avoid the fact the United States must choose between unpleasant alternatives in many cases. The United States cannot continue to wait, hope that negotiations and half-hearted use of “soft power” can somehow substitute for more tangible action, and “lead from behind” to the point it does not really lead at all. It needs to become far more active in dealing with issues like Iraq and the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), and not let critical turning points pass while it waits for Godot.
What the Gaza War Means for the Middle East
By Nathan J. Brown, Michele Dunne, Lina Khatib, Marwan Muasher, Maha Yahya
July 28, 2014
As a result of Israel’s incursion into Gaza, Hamas is now more popular than Fatah according to a recent poll—for the first time in years. And if Israel’s intention is to disarm or weaken Hamas, the historical record does not suggest these objectives will be achieved. Three earlier ground incursions, in the last six years and another ground war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, failed to weaken Israel’s opponents. And they didn’t disarm either organization. Both Hamas and Hezbollah have actually strengthened their military capabilities over time. Israel seems to be pursuing tactical objectives to appease its domestic audience and the hardliners in the Israeli cabinet—at the expense of thousands of Palestinian casualties.
The Seesaw Friendship Between Turkey’s AKP and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood
By Senem Aydın-Düzgit
July 24, 2014
The seesawing relations between the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) demonstrate how ideological linkages can clash with geopolitical priorities in an unstable neighborhood. Between 2007 and 2013, the AKP capitalized on its ideological kinship with the MB to foster closer relations with the movement and to increase its weight in the region. Relations turned sour with the coup in Egypt and Turkey’s fear that links with the MB would lead to retaliation from both the new Egyptian government and the Gulf states (with the exception of Qatar). The once warm relationship between the AKP and the MB has measurably cooled as geopolitical realities have shifted, especially since the most recent presidential elections in Egypt.
“Dirty Bombs:” Reason to Worry?
By John R. Haines
Foreign Policy Research Institute
The recent report that the jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized a quantity of heretofore unreported material from a university laboratory in Iraq sparked much commentary about the possibility of a malefactor fashioning and detonating a so-called “dirty bomb”—formally, an explosive radiological dispersal device or “Erdd.” Knowledge of three recent incidents involving the theft or attempted theft of radiologic material in Mexico further amplified discussions about the risk that such material could be moved covertly into the United States and fashioned into an eRDD for detonation in a major American city. The purpose of this essay is to further explore recent incidents involving the theft or attempted theft of radiologic material, and to assess whether, and if so what, threat such material may pose.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Islamic State’s Driving Force
By Aaron Y. Zelin
July 30, 2014
On 5 July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known by his supporters as Caliph Ibrahim, left the shadows and showed his face for the first time, in a Friday sermon in Mosul, Iraq. While previous pictures of him had been leaked, Baghdadi had not shown himself in the four years since he became leader of what was then the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq (forerunner of ISIS, then the Islamic State). Before April 2013, Baghdadi also did not release many audio messages. His first written statement was a eulogy to Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. His first audio message was released in July 2012 and predicted future victories for the Islamic State. Since the group’s resurgence, which began 15 months ago, Baghdadi’s media output has risen. The amount of specific information about his background has also increased.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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