The holiday season has slowed the number of publications by Washington think tanks. However, it has not stopped news as Obama moved to normalize relations with Cuba and Sony stopped the showing of a movie that was critical of North Korea after a major cyber attack.
The Monitor Analysis looks at both of these issues. We look at the political problems that Obama will have in normalizing relations with Cuba and the political ramifications, especially in the 2016 presidential elections. Florida, a critical state in the 2016 election, is home to many Cuban-Americans hostile to this move. In addition, two Republican presidential contenders have Cuban-American roots.
The Monitor Analysis also looks at the North Korean cyberwarfare capability and finds it formidable. NK has a history of launching cyberattacks against South Korean entities and even the US government. The recent cyber attacks against Sony are a warning for all governments and corporations.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The CSIS looks at the rise of religious radicalism after the Arab uprisings in a new book. The book notes, “The chaos engulfing parts of the region convinced some citizens that they were better off with the governments they had, and many governments successfully employed old and new tools of repression to reinforce the status quo. In the Middle East, conflicts that many thought were coming to an end will continue, as will the dynamism and innovation that have emerged among radical and opposition groups. To face the current threats, governments will need to use many of their existing tools skillfully, but they will also need to judge what tools will no longer work, and what new tools they have at their disposal.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the growing political rift in Saudi Arabia. They recommend, “Washington should demand the repeal of sweeping new anti-terrorism laws that criminalize broad categories of social and political activism, such as that of Nimr and Shammari. The United States also should be wary of religion-based “counterradicalization” programs that are showcased by Riyadh’s state-funded clerical establishment as part of the fight against the Islamic State. “Counterradical” does not mean “countersectarian” in the Saudi context. Many of the clerical arguments in these programs are geared toward insulating the regime from the radicals’ attacks while ignoring the more intolerant, sectarian, and anti-American tenets of extremist discourse. And because the clerics delivering these messages are tied to the government, they often lack credibility in the eyes of the audiences most susceptible to the Islamic State’s appeal.”
The Cato Institute looks at the contradictions in Obama’s ISIS policy. They note, “Obama administration officials need to face the prospect that relinquishing the goal of preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria may be a price that must be paid to defeat ISIS. One of the most appealing secular allies in Syria is the Kurdish population in the north and northeast of the country. But most Kurds are ambivalent, at best, about restoring a united Syrian state ruled from Damascus. Instead, many of them favor creating an autonomous region similar to the self-governing Kurdish region next door in Iraq. U.S. officials need to ask themselves whether there is any compelling reason from the standpoint of U.S. interests to insist that either Syria or Iraq remain intact within current boundaries. It is hard to find even a reasonable justification for such a demand, much less a compelling one.”
The CSIS looks at the civil transition in Afghanistan. The report also warns that civil society and governance in Afghanistan have very fragile structures, and outside support for aid is limited. It is unlikely that simply having outside powers pledge more aid can be a substitute for well-planned efforts to help Afghanistan achieve some degree of economic stability over the next few years. It is also clear from the trends since 2012 that a failure to bring security can do far more in the future to cripple the Afghan economy, just as failures in governance and the economy can critically undermine security.
The Washington Institute looks at the thirty-fifth annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit, held December 10 in Qatar. The paper notes, “the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and to a certain extent Bahrain have reached a core consensus that opposition politics are equal to terrorism… By identifying the Muslim Brotherhood as the primary obstacle to regional stability, GCC leaders have sought to focus public attention outside of Gulf domestic politics. In doing so, they have created a narrative that equates political competition with economic downturn.”
America Normalizing Relations with Cuba
On Wednesday, Obama announced a prisoner exchange with Cuba and normalization of relations after over half a century of hostility between the two countries. The deal includes the exchange of several American and Cuban spies, and over 50 political prisoners. The deal also includes reopening embassies in both Washington and Havana and to take concrete steps toward ending of the sanctions against Cuba.
Needless to say, the reaction from the Cuban-American community was negative. Most of the Cuban-Americans fled Cuba when Castro took power.
But, there is much more to this move by Obama than merely normalizing relations with Cuba. It signals another battle with Congress, opens more questions about presidential overreach, and may even impact the presidential election in 2016.
In fact, the frequent appearance by Senator Rubio of Florida on TV shows since the Cuba announcement is being seen as an attempt to counter the recent publicity from Jeb Bush announcing that he is also exploring the possibility of running for president. Since Rubio and Bush are both from Florida, a Bush candidacy threatens Rubio’s presidential aspirations the most.
Traditionally sanctions have been a political football and opponents to sanctioning a country would invariably claim they did not pressure the government to change its behavior. For instance, during the Cold War, conservatives favored sanctions against the Communist Bloc, but opposed sanctions against apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, saying that sanctions didn’t work. Liberals would conversely argue leniency towards the Communists, but stricter economic sanctions towards South Africa and Rhodesia. Undoubtedly, these same arguments will be brought out again.
The collapse of oil prices may be one of the biggest arguments against lifting sanctions. Venezuela and Russia have been supporting Cuba economically and they have been seriously hurt by the fall of oil prices. Many will insist that continuing the sanctions will force Cuba to institute more liberal policies.
However, liberals will argue that this is the perfect time to erase Russia and Venezuela’s influence. If Cuba begins to turn toward the US, that does give Americans some influence on the Cuban policy for the first time in 50 years. The Castros won’t live forever, and this does give the US an opportunity to influence the next generation.
However, there is more to this change in relations than a simple change of course by Obama. Cuban sanctions have a legislative foundation that Obama can’t ignore. Congressional opponents to this move maintain that normalizing relations with Cuba, without congressional approval violates the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996, Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, Helms-Burton, and the Trading with the Enemy Act. Helms-Burton specifically states that diplomatic relations with Havana require the release of all political prisoners and free elections.
It’s possible that Obama may ignore these laws through the same principle used in his new immigration policy – lax enforcement. He can choose to ignore American firms breaking the law and doing business with Havana. The problem, however, is that on Tuesday a federal judge ruled that the way Obama is applying prosecutorial discretion is violating the US Constitution by undermining Congress’s sole authority to make laws.
The opinion filed Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Schwab, in Pennsylvania, said Obama’s immigration actions are invalid and effectively count as “legislation” from the Executive Branch.
If Obama chooses to ignore these, Congress still has the power of the purse. Opening an embassy requires congressional funding and that is hardly likely with a Republican Congress. Nor, is an ambassador to Cuba likely to be confirmed by the Senate. In the end, this means that Congress may have a significant say in how this relationship evolves.
So, with all of the opposition and likely resistance to the move in Congress, why is Obama doing this?
Admittedly, the Obama Policy has been a major failure internationally. And, Obama, who is looking at the last two years of his presidency, is looking for some international success that he can claim. A normalization of relations with Cuba would offer him an easy victory.
The deal also helps improve relations with the Vatican, which have been strained in the past few years. Pope Francis had asked the two nations to meet to discuss Americans and Cubans being held in jail. The Vatican had also hosted meetings between the US and Cuban delegations.
The deal may allow some of the Pope’s popularity to rub off on Obama. Among US Catholics, the Pope has a 68% favorability rating.
The deal may also indicate a shift in Vatican diplomacy. For the pontiff, this deal will testify to his influence and that of the Catholic Church. It’s also a signal that Francis will not hesitate to intervene in politics in the Americas. The first Pope from the Americas has resolved a half-century dispute, and done so with what will be seen abroad as a relatively even-handed approach. Francis’ reputation and significance as a diplomat will grow with this episode.
If this move was designed to boost Democratic chances with Cuban-Americans, Obama miscalculated. The Cuban-American community is powerful and the move was blasted by politicians of both parties. “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement.
“Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent. It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips. I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms.”
“This asymmetrical trade will invite further belligerence toward Cuba’s opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people.”
“It’s absurd, and it’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants by the Obama administration,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), also a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, told Fox News on Wednesday.
“These Cuban spies were involved in providing information to the Cuban government that [cost] the lives of Americans,” Rubio added. “Barack Obama is the worst negotiator as president since at least Jimmy Carter.”
Rubio said that there is no support in Congress for the lifting of the Cuban embargo. “I think they’re going to struggle to get the votes to fund an embassy or to get an ambassador appointed” he later told CNBC.
“The way that his release was achieved is outrageous and proves that once again, Pres. Obama is the Appeaser-in-Chief,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL). “[Obama’s] decision to allow the Castro regime to blackmail the US and abandon our pro-democracy principles is an outrage.”
But, this move goes beyond the politics of the moment. It will also have an impact on the presidential race in 2016. Cuban-Americans are a politically strong group in Florida, which is considered a toss-up state and nearly a necessity for any presidential candidate. Will an energized Cuban-American voter base provide the winning edge to a Republican presidential candidate, especially since Hillary Clinton has advocated better relations with Cuba?
Interestingly enough, there are two Republican presidential possibilities with Cuban roots. Senator Rubio of Florida is of Cuban extraction and his parents immigrated to the US in the 1950s before Castro took over. Rubio has already blasted Obama’s action and said, “It’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants by the Obama Administration.”
Another Republican presidential hopeful with Cuban ties is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. He is also a Cuban-American and his father Raphael Cruz was imprisoned and tortured by Cuban President Batista for his opposition to the oppressive Cuban government. He fought with Castro in the 1950s, but left in 1957.
Senator Cruz has also criticized Obama on Cuba. On Wednesday he said, “We have seen how previous Obama administration attempts at rapprochement with rogue regimes like Russia and Iran have worked out, with our influence diminished and our enemies emboldened. Now they are revisiting this same disastrous policy with the Castros, blind to the fact that they are being played by brutal dictators whose only goal is maintaining power. And if history be our guide, the Castros will exploit that power to undermine America and oppress the Cuban people. First Russia, then Iran, now Cuba – this is one more very, very bad deal brokered by the Obama Administration.”
Should Cruz or Rubio decide to run for president in 2016, their Cuban heritage (and obviously Hispanic heritage) will be used to attract the votes of the Cuban-American voters in the Florida presidential primary.
This may set up some interesting strategies for presidential candidates seeking to win Florida. Since Florida usually is one of the first primary states and offers one of the biggest delegate prizes, it frequently creates the momentum for the winner of that primary to win later primaries.
However, instead of a “winner take all” election that gives the whole delegation to the winner, in 2016 Florida will probably parcel out the delegation by the percentage the candidates take in the primary. This means many candidates may not invest the money in running a major campaign in Florida and spend their money elsewhere, since Rubio and Bush may take the bulk of the delegates.
However, if Rubio decides not to run and Bush has problems gaining traction with the Republican base, Cruz may put more effort into Florida in order to peel Cuban-American and conservative voters from Bush. That might make a Bush nomination less likely.
No matter who runs the presence of both Cruz and Rubio in the US Senate means that the Obama decision to normalize relations with Havana will be undergoing some severe battering in the next few months. Rubio is the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee and any embassy funding or ambassadorial nomination will have to go through his committee.
Nor can we expect any major trade improvements with Cuba, despite Obama’s declarations. The laws that are sanctioning Cuba remain on the books and any company that decides to trade with Cuba remains a legal target. No lawyer would advise his client to ignore the law, even if the current occupant of the White House is promising not to take them to court. Most companies will likely wait it out to see if Obama or the Congress prevails.
North Korean Cyberwarfare Capabilities Cripple Sony
Hours after an announcement that U.S. authorities determined North Korea was behind the recent cyber attack on Sony Pictures, the company announced it was pulling the release of the film The Interview. North Korea had made it clear for months that they opposed release of the movie and when Sony refused to relent, decided to carry out a cyberattack.
What happened to Sony should serve as a warning to governments and corporations about North Korea’s cyber capabilities and their willingness to use it.
Although many are surprised about North Korea’s cyberwarfare capability, a Hewlett-Packard report released earlier this year warned that NK is probably third behind the US and Russia in cyberwarfare capability. North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) is in charge of both traditional and cyber operations, and is known for sending agents abroad for training in cyber warfare. The RGB reportedly oversees six bureaus that specialize in operations, reconnaissance, technology and cyber matters — and two of which have been identified as the No. 91 Office and Unit 121. The two bureaus in question comprise of intelligence operations and are based in China.
Since North Korea strictly controls the internet inside its borders, the NK attacks are launched outside of the country – frequently from computer cafes. The NK cyberwarfare team consists of about 6,000 members.
According to the report, the regime regularly exploits computer games in order to gain financially and orchestrate cyberattacks. In 2011, South Korean law enforcement arrested five men for allegedly collaborating with North Korea to steal money via online games, specifically the massive multiplayer online role-playing game “Lineage.” The games were believed to act as conduits for North Korea to infect PCs and launch distributed denial of service attacks against its South Korea.
North Korea also tested a logic bomb in 2007 — malicious code programmed to execute based on a pre-defined triggering event — which led to a UN sanction banning the sale of particular hardware to the country.
South Korea views North Korea’s cyber capabilities as a terroristic threat, and has prepared for a multifaceted attack in the future. According to a report written by Captain Duk-Ki Kim, a Republic of Korea Navy officer, “the North Korean regime will first conduct a simultaneous and multifarious cyber offensive on the Republic of Korea’s society and basic infrastructure, government agencies, and major military command centers while at the same time suppressing the ROK government and its domestic allies and supporters with nuclear weapons.”
The cyber attack on Sony isn’t the first time NK has used its cyber capability. North Korea reportedly was able to gain access to 33 of 80 South Korean military wireless communication networks in 2004, and an attack on the US State Department believed to be approved by North Korean officials, coincided with US-North Korea talks over nuclear missile testing in the same time period. In addition, a month later, South Korea claimed that Unit 121 was responsible for hacking into South Korean and US defense department networks.
In 2009, a virus launched through a series of “zombie” computers sent waves of Internet traffic to a number of websites in South Korea and the US. The U.S. Treasury and Federal Trade Commission sites were shut down for a weekend. The attack also crippled a number of government sites and media outlets in South Korea. There were also massive cyber attacks against South Korea in March 2011 (which left 30 million people without ATM access for days) and March 2013 (which deleted the critical master boot records of 48,000 computers and servers associated with South Korean banks and media outlets).
Dmitri Alperovitch, vice president of threat research for McAfee Labs, said the attacks had the mark of a North Korean “cyberwar drill” and theorized that Pyongyang had built an army of zombie computers, or “botnets,” to unleash malicious software.
Washington Refuses to Face Contradictions in ISIS Fight
By Ted Galen Carpenter
December 12, 2014
Obama administration officials clearly regard ISIS as a serious, perhaps even existential, security threat both to the Middle East and the democratic West. Accordingly, Washington has assembled a numerically impressive international coalition and assigned a high priority to defeating that extremist organization. But there is a disturbing, somewhat mystifying, aspect to the administration’s strategy. U.S. leaders steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that there are major contradictions in Washington’s various goals regarding the fight against ISIS. Nowhere is that more evident than with respect to the ongoing civil war in Syria. The United States simultaneously seeks to defeat ISIS while continuing to undermine the government of Bashar al-Assad. Both goals might be achievable if there were legions of political moderates in Syria that had a reasonable chance of coming to power. But moderates—especially those committed to preserving Syria’s territorial integrity—are relatively few in number.
The Civil Transition in Afghanistan: The Metrics of Crisis?
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 16, 2014
It is natural to focus on the security problems of Transition in Afghanistan, and the challenges of forming an effective government with Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. As the combined reporting of the World Bank, IMF, and SIGAR indicate, however, Afghanistan may face equally serious challenges in coping with cuts in military spending, aid, capital flight, and the inability of its government to be effective in raising revenues and controlling expenditures.
Religious Radicalism after the Arab Uprisings
By Jon Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 15, 2014
The Arab uprisings of 2011 created unexpected opportunities for religious radicals. Although many inside and outside the region initially saw the uprisings as liberal triumphs, illiberal forces have benefited disproportionately. In Tunisia, formally marginalized jihadi-salafi groups appealed for mainstream support, and in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood triumphed in elections. Even in Saudi Arabia, not known for either lively politics or for political entrepreneurship, a surprising array of forces praised the rise of “Islamic democracy” under a Muslim Brotherhood banner.
Everyday Sectarianism: The Paradox of an Anti-Islamic State Ally
By Frederic Wehrey
December 3, 2014
Since 2011 (and even before), al-Awamiya has been ground zero in a largely forgotten corner of the Arab Spring: the struggle of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites — who comprise about 15 percent of the country’s population — for greater political and economic rights, and especially equal treatment by the country’s dominant Salafi establishment, which regards them as deviants from Sunni orthodoxy. Since the first wave of protests in 2011, approximately 20 young men from al-Awamiya and other Shiite towns have died at the hands of government forces, sometimes during peaceful demonstrations and occasionally in violent exchanges with police. Many of their demands extended far beyond Shiite-specific reforms, encompassing changes to the very structure of power in Saudi Arabia: reform of the judiciary, the release of political prisoners, a constitution, and greater power for elected bodies. This is precisely what made them so threatening.
The GCC in 2015: Domestic Security Trumps Regional Integration
By Karen E. Young
December 15, 2014
The thirty-fifth annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit, held December 10 in Qatar, was probably the most efficient meeting the group has ever held. With the diplomatic schism between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain papered over three weeks earlier, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani hosted the rulers of Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as senior substitutes for the ailing leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. The meeting was purposefully brief, with delegations in and out of Doha in a day. The unity message of fighting terrorism — via support for military rule in Egypt — served to cement Qatar’s reentry into the brotherhood of Gulf monarchies, while leaving the more pressing matters of economic integration, labor market reform, and political reform off the agenda.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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