SUMMARY, ANALYSIS, PUBLICATIONS, AND ARTICLES
Think Tanks Activity Summary
(For further details, scroll down to the PUBLICATIONS section)
The number of reports coming out of the Washington think tanks is slowing as the US heads into its holiday season.
The Monitor analysis looks at the state of politics in Washington – including the latest charges from the special prosecutor that implicate Trump, the new Democratic leadership in Congress, and how Trump is responding. We see all these issues as either impacting the push to gain power in Washington or the 2020 presidential election.
The Heritage Foundation writes that sanctioning Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi murder is dangerous. They note, “Senators must remember that Saudi Arabia is not the only belligerent in Yemen. A cutoff of U.S. support would also hurt the elected and internationally recognized government of Yemen, which was ousted by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in 2015 in a bloody coup that violated a U.N.-brokered ceasefire. Withdrawing U.S. support would also harm the interests of other U.S. allies fighting in Yemen, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The war in Yemen is complex. Those who rush to blame Saudi Arabia entirely for the suffering of the Yemeni people ignore the war crimes and heavy-handed treatment meted out by the Houthis to their opponents and the ruthless role that Iran plays in supporting the Houthi Ansar Allah (“Supporters of Allah”) movement, a Shia Islamist extremist group. The Saudis are rightly criticized for not doing more to prevent civilian casualties as they target Ansar Allah positions. But the Houthis should not be given a free pass for deliberately targeting civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with increasingly sophisticated Iranian ballistic missiles.”
The CSIS looks at Erdogan, Trump, and the Khashoggi murder. They maintain that Turkey and Erdogan used the incident for their own purposes. They note, “Erdogan wished to use interaction on this issue with Washington to improve his relationship with Trump, which had been shaken by the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey and the associated U.S. sanctions to bring about his release as well as by the continued absence of progress on issues, which have long divided the two countries, such as Fethullah Gulen’s stalled extradition, Pentagon’s engagement with the Syrian Kurdish YPG, and the Halkbank case. Finally, Erdogan expected to leverage Turkey’s vigorous advocacy for justice in the horrible crime against a journalist on Turkish soil to try to reverse the negative stream of news relating to Turkey’s record on press freedom.”
The CSIS looks at the military balance between the Arab Gulf States and Iran. They note, “While Iran is sometimes perceived as the military “hegemon” of the Gulf, the spending and modernization data show that many of Iran’s conventional military forces are equipped with aging, battle-worn, and mediocre weapons that make it something of a military museum. Iran has not had good access to modern weapons since the fall of the Shah, and the Arab Gulf forces are generally equipped with the most modern and effective weapons available from the U.S. and Europe and would be supported by the U.S., Britain, and France in any serious warfighting contingency. At the same time, Iran has made major advances in fielding a large mix of ballistic and cruise missiles, and asymmetric forces that can threaten shipping throughout the Gulf and in the Gulf of Oman and Red Sea. It also is expanding its military influence and presence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran has also skillfully exploited a combination of asymmetric warfare, arms transfers, and support of pro-Iranian regimes and non-state actors. It has taken advantage of the self-destructive divisions within an Arab world that failed to create an effective structure of alliances, wasted much of the money it has spent on military forces and arms transfers, and is now divided by the Saudi-UAE led boycott of Qatar.
The Heritage Foundation says the Syrian group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is more dangerous than ISIS. They note, “Recent estimates have placed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s size somewhere near 10,000 fighters in the Idlib region, making it the largest armed group in the province, which contains an estimated 70,000 fighters in total. These include many foreign fighters, including Arabs, Turks, Chechens, Uzbeks, and Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province. Some of these groups, like the Turkistan Islamic Party, are allied to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham… Internal strife inside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has given rise to assassinations of senior leaders in the group. Turkey and ISIS also are rumored to have committed several of these targeted killings. Despite the discord within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Islamist extremist network still poses one of the greatest long-term challenges for the U.S. and other countries trying to stabilize Syria. Amid the confusion of Syria’s kaleidoscopic and multi-sided conflict, one thing remains certain: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham must be isolated, marginalized, and defeated before a stable peace can emerge in Syria.”
The Washington Institute looks at Iran moving missile technology to Lebanon. This new Policy report examines Tehran’s objectives, Russia’s regional goals, and the way these translate to long-term threats and short-term risks for Israel. If Hezbollah continues working on precision missiles inside Lebanon, Israel may feel compelled to respond one way or another. To avoid a disastrous escalation, the international community will need to plan and take concerted action on several fronts: UNIFIL’s shortcomings, increased sanctions on Iran’s commercial airlines, U.S. aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, ministries headed by Hezbollah officials, and State Department transparency regarding its intelligence on Iran’s activities in Lebanon.
American Politics Roiled as it Heads into Christmas Season
Politics and politicians usually take a break as America heads into the holiday season. Congress goes into recess and the president usually heads off to his favorite holiday retreat.
This year is different. American politics is facing instability just as its two long-time allies, Britain and France, are experiencing. All three nations are asking themselves, “Who is really in charge here?” The only difference is that Trump seems more secure than either British PM May or French President Macron.
But, at the core, the three are facing the same problem. Who exercises power in Washington, London, and Paris? And, who will come out of the current problems as the winners.
As the US faces a divided government, the question is, “Who can push their agenda successfully for the next two years?” Will it be the Republicans who control the White House and Senate or will the Democrats, who control the House, wrest control from the GOP.
There is also the question of the next presidential election in two years. Can Trump win reelection? Can the Democrats injure him to the point that he either doesn’t run for reelection or loses the general election?
And, finally, can the Democrats find a winning presidential candidate in the next year?
So, let’s break this down.
Who is in Charge Here?
Traditionally, when Washington faces a divided government, the president calls for the leaders of the other party to come to the White House for talks. In the public parts of the meeting, both sides pledge themselves to working in a bipartisan manner as befits a great democracy.
Not this time.
On Tuesday, President Trump clearly shocked House speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer with his televising of the Oval Office sit-down over his demand for $5 billion in funding for border security, including funding of critical parts for his border wall. Knowing well that Pelosi had already vowed publicly that “transparency and openness” would characterize the Democrat-run House starting next month, her plaintive request to speak in private scored points for Trump and revealed her agenda before any substance at all was considered.
Trump’s second strategy is his bold declaration close the government if he doesn’t get the wall money – something Pelosi and Schumer don’t see from the voter’s eyes. Since federal workers are now a major and solid constituency for Democrats, this skews their perception of the public’s concern. However, aside from closing national monuments and national parks, the fact is that life goes on well for nearly all Americans during the shutdown. The problem for the Democrats is that this allows the voters to learn that there are a lot of non-essential government workers. The result is that shutting down the government is quite popular with most Republicans and many independents.
The fact is, after multiple shutdowns, including the last one that bore the label “Schumer Shutdown” and was quickly conceded by the Democrats, the public is no longer afraid of non-essential services (roughly 25% of the government) being suspended.
What Trump made clear to Pelosi and Schumer is that the Republican control of the levers of power is still in place. Trump can still take executive action as Obama did and GOP control of the Senate makes any legislation passed by the Democratic House of Representatives “dead on arrival.”
What this means is that the Democratic legislation agenda is nothing more than political window dressing.
On the other hand, the Republicans and Trump will discover that executive action is limited. Trump can do many things, but there is no guarantee that these initiatives will last beyond his administration, especially if a Democratic president resides in the White House.
Which brings up the next issue – most of the politics taking place in Washington is geared to setting the stage for 2020, the presidential elections, and forcing Trump out of the White House.
Gearing up for 2020
It’s not just the Special Council and parts of the government that want Trump forced from office. New York Attorney Gen.-elect Letitia James says she plans to launch sweeping investigations into President Donald Trump, his family and “anyone” in his circle who may have violated the law once she settles into her new job next month.
“We will use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family as well…We want to investigate anyone in his orbit who has, in fact, violated the law,” said James.
This means the Trump Administration will be fighting a legal battle on several fronts in the next two years. Although there appears to be little tangible concerning Trump/Russian collusion, the investigation goes on with questionable indictments and an FBI that both sides admit is less concerned about rights than getting something on the people it investigates.
This was highlighted in a lengthy court filing Tuesday, when attorneys for former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn alleged that then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe pushed Flynn not to have an attorney present during the questioning that ultimately led to his guilty plea on a single charge of lying to federal authorities.
The document outlines, with striking new details, the rapid sequence of events that led to Flynn’s sudden fall from the Trump administration. The filing also seemingly demonstrates that the FBI took a significantly more aggressive tack in handling the Flynn interview than it did during other similar matters, including the agency’s sit-downs with Hillary Clinton.
While Flynn is among several Trump associates to have been charged with making false statements as part of the Russia probe, no one interviewed during the FBI’s Clinton email investigation was hit with false statement charges – though investigators believed some witnesses were untruthful.
Although Democrats were anxious to see what Mueller had last week, what was revealed was not something that would be considered “High crimes and misdemeanors,” as demanded by the Constitution for impeachment.
Federal lawyers prosecuting Michael Cohen in the Southern District of New York dropped a bombshell in a memorandum they filed with the court this past Friday — accusing President Trump of campaign finance crimes.
Cohen was Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. During Trump’s campaign, Cohen paid off two women to remain quiet about stories of Donald Trump. The purpose of the hush-buys, according to prosecutors referencing Cohen’s statements, was “to prevent the story from influencing the election.” The money for these hush-buys came from Trump’s corporation. Federal prosecutors titled this activity “Illegal Campaign Contributions.”
Was this activity, in fact, illegal? Were these hush-buys a type of campaign contribution?
Expert campaign finance law attorney Dan Backer, who beat the federal government in a landmark Supreme Court case, disagrees.
Cohen says that the purpose of the expenditure was “to prevent the story from influencing the election.” But Donald Trump has done this for years, having paid off individuals to stay quiet about potentially damaging stories throughout his career. “Trump” is a brand, after all. To protect the reputation of the brand, Trump participated in hush-buys before the election and likely will continue to do so after he completes his term. He’s not the only brand to do so. Small businesses like restaurants will provide complete refunds to dissatisfied customers, for example, to prevent bad reviews.
Is such activity a campaign contribution? No, Backer answers, “brand protection is not a campaign contribution.” The hush-buys were done to protect Trump as a corporate brand, not to protect him as a candidate. No evidence was presented by the federal prosecutors explaining how a lawful business deal was converted into an illegal campaign finance contribution. “The notion that every penny a candidate personally or professionally spends is somehow reportable to the FEC is utter nonsense.” Backer further explains that a campaign finance crime is “not a question of speculation, it’s a matter of proof, and there isn’t any [in this case].”
Almost everything Mueller has, the perjury cases, are crimes he created through the process of investigating. Mueller created most of his booked charges by asking questions he already knew the answers to, hoping his witness would lie and commit new crimes literally in front of him. Nobody should be proud of lying, but the DoJ and FBI tactics seem to be inconsistent with the legal right promised to Americans.
Mueller’s report will most likely claim that a lot of unsavory things went on. But it seems increasingly unlikely that he’ll have any evidence Trump worked with Russia to win the election, let alone that Trump is now under Putin’s control. If Mueller had a smoking gun, we’d be watching impeachment hearings by now
As the New York Times said in a rare moment of candor, “From the day the Mueller investigation began, opponents of the president have hungered for that report, or an indictment waiting just around the corner, as the source text for an incantation to whisk Mr. Trump out of office and set everything back to normal again.”
Consequently, a solid impeachment case based on the Mueller report is out of the question.
Getting Rid of Trump
The Democrats have several options to get rid of Trump – none of them foolproof. The one that seems the most straightforward is impeachment. Although the Democratic House can draw up articles of impeachment, hold hearings and then pass them, what has been released (and what will probably be released) isn’t will probably be weak and not enough to get a conviction in the Republican controlled Senate.
The articles of impeachment may not even get out of the House as several Democratic congressmen represent districts that voted for Trump and are aware voters may punish them at the ballot box if the charges aren’t solid.
There’s also the question of massive civil unrest if a legally elected president is impeached for minor issues.
President Donald Trump dismissed the notion that Democrats would try to impeach him, asserting that his supporters would revolt. “I’m not concerned, no. I think that the people would revolt if that happened,” he said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday when asked about the possibility of impeachment. Trump did not appear worried, despite the ongoing Russia investigation and criminal charges against his private lawyer Michael Cohen. Trump: People Would ‘Revolt’ If I’m Impeached “It’s hard to impeach somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong and who’s created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump said.
An alternative to impeachment is to hold congressional hearings on Trump, his allies, and actions until he is so unpopular that he resigns or his political base stops supporting him. However, the recent past shows that Democratic opposition to Trump only solidifies his support.
Congress can also pass legislation that embarrasses Trump. One currently under consideration is legislation to sanction Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, who Trump supports. A modest bill put forward by outgoing Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee is the most likely to pass.
Mr. Corker’s bill would formally declare Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “responsible” for the October murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
A more radical bill would cut off US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen – which would be an embarrassment for Trump and his relations with MbS.
The Democrats may also look at other possible legal ways to get rid of Trump. With a Democratic Speaker of the House, the line of succession now is Trump, Vice President Pence, and then a Democratic Speaker of the House. If Trump and Pence can be pushed out, the White House belongs to the Democrats.
If VP Pence was forced to resign, it could be argued that the Speaker of the House, as next in line for the presidency, might be able to use the 25th Amendment and declare Trump unable to discharge the duties of president.
This is not an unlikely scenario. It’s much like that which occurred in the Nixon years when VP Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to corruption charges. Before Ford was picked to fill the office of vice President, it is quite likely that the Democratic Speaker of the House could have declared (along with most Cabinet members) that Nixon was unable to discharge the duties of President.
That being the case, don’t be surprised to see investigations into Pence’s background and possible illegal activity.
Since impeachment or the use 25th Amendment are unlikely alternatives, the goal of the Democratic Congress will be to injure Trump politically so he either doesn’t run for reelection or losses the election.
But defeating Trump and the Republicans also requires a viable Democratic candidate for president – something which the Democrats don’t have yet.
The current crop of Democratic candidates consists of old, familiar candidates like Biden, Sanders, and Clinton. But, none of these engender the enthusiasm that the Democrats want in a candidate. Some like Beto of Texas are young and exciting but have thin resumes. There are others who project fresh faces or women without Hillary’s baggage, but still deliberating internally.
Of course, Trump also had a thin political resume.
Defeating Trump requires damaging his image AND finding an attractive alternative. Since the first presidential primaries and caucuses are only a year away, the pressure is on them to find and sell a reasonable alternative.
In other words, real Democratic control must wait until they find and elect a viable Democrat to the White House.
Ending U.S. Military Support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen Would Trigger Dangerous Consequences
By Madyson Hutchinson Posey and James Phillips
December 6, 2018
In a new resolution, a bipartisan group of senators is calling for the United States to end its involvement—specifically its support of Saudi Arabia—in the Yemen conflict.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 63-37 to pass a procedural measure that will clear the way for a floor debate on the issue next week. The push comes largely in response to the recent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Trump administration has banned 21 Saudi suspects in that murder from entering the U.S., imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials, and expressed its willingness to take further action if warranted by ongoing investigations. Many senators seek to do more to punish the Saudis, even if it means sacrificing the interests of the Yemeni government and making a negotiated settlement of the conflict more difficult.
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This Little-Known Terror Group Poses a Greater Threat Than ISIS in Syria
By James Phillips and Austin Avery
December 3, 2018
The war in Syria is heating up again this week after recently subsiding from the front pages of newspapers. On Sunday, Russia claimed that rebels in northwestern Syria had fired shells filled with chlorine gas near the city of Aleppo. Although the rebels have not demonstrated such a chemical capability in the past, Syria’s Assad regime has repeatedly used illegal chemical weapons to demoralize insurgents and stampede their civilian supporters away from the front. Moscow could use this alleged incident as a pretext to resume the postponed offensive against Idlib province, the last major stronghold of Syria’s fractious rebel coalition. Already, Russia has resumed airstrikes in Idlib for the first time since the Sept. 17 Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey produced a tenuous cease-fire. Syria’s Assad regime, which is committed to retaking “every inch” of Syria, also escalated artillery attacks on rebel-held towns in southern Idlib.
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Erdogan, Trump, and the Khashoggi Murder
By Bulent Aliriza
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 12, 2018
Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was posthumously named Time’s “Person of the Year,” along with four other journalists, for “taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths” on December 11. The terrible fate of Khashoggi, who paid the ultimate price in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 at the hands of 15 agents who had arrived from Riyadh the previous day, not only triggered a global storm of indignation but also set in motion a major diplomatic gambit by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the pursuit of a number of related objectives involving President Donald Trump and impacting U.S.-Turkish relations. Erdogan’s primary aim was to effectively and irrevocably tie Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder to Saudi Arabia and, without ever naming him directly, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, who had elevated himself into an obstacle to Turkish regional calculations through his public identification of Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership as ‘a major threat in the region along with Iran’ as well as his ongoing blockade of Qatar. His next goal was to try to force the Trump administration, which had been backing MBS without any apparent reservation prior to the murder as a key partner in its Middle East plans, to review its relationship with him. Lacking significant direct leverage over Riyadh, Erdogan hoped to induce pressure by Trump—inconceivable before Khashoggi’s murder—to either force MBS out or to weaken him into ineffectiveness.
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The Arab Gulf States and Iran: Military Spending, Modernization, and the Shifting Military Balance
By Anthony H. Cordesman and Nicholas Harrington
Center for Strategic and international Studies
December 12, 2018
The military balance between Iran, its Arab neighbors, and the United States has been a critical military issue in the Middle East since at least the rise of Nasser in the 1950s. The risks this arms race presents in terms of a future conflict have not diminished with time, and many elements of the regional arms race have accelerated sharply in recent years. Clashes with Iran in the Gulf struggles for influence in Iraq and Syria, and the war in Yemen all act as warnings that new rounds of conflict are possible. The Iranian reactions to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement, the growing tensions between the Arab Gulf states, the boycott of Qatar, and the unstable outcome of the fight against ISIS, and the Syrian civil war all contribute to an increasingly fragile and dangerous security environment.
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Iran’s Precision Missile Project Moves to Lebanon
By Katherine Bauer, Hanin Ghaddar, and Assaf Orion
Upon securing most of its war goals in Syria, Iran appeared to shift its objectives toward establishing a military presence in that country while upgrading Hezbollah’s fire precision and effectiveness in Lebanon. But once its Syrian facilities came under increased Israeli fire, Tehran began moving some of these activities into Lebanon, knowing that Israeli strikes would be more complicated there due to the escalation potential. Yet the prospect of Hezbollah acquiring or producing advanced “precision” weapons is Israel’s main redline and could put the parties on a collision course that leads to conflict in Lebanon.
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