The New Year is here and the Washington think tank community is now back from vacation. A number of studies have been released. Many look at 2015 and what the new Republican Congress should address.
The Monitor Analysis also looks at 2015 and what it sees for the US. While there are many uncertainties, there are some possibilities for Obama, including lower energy prices and a Republican Congress that appears to be willing to compromise in order to govern.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The American Enterprise Institute looks at the recent terrorist attack in Paris. They warn US policy makers, “As the U.S. Congress turns this year to the issue of whether to renew, reform, or let die key sections of the Patriot Act on terrorism surveillance, it might want to keep in mind what has just happened in Paris. If a country such as France—with as strong a counterterrorism effort as there is in a liberal democracy—is still vulnerable, it should give some pause to those members who think now is the time to water-down our own counterterrorism efforts.”
The Cato Institute looks at foreign policy for 2015. They warn against additional military intervention and note, “After all, our track record over the last dozen years is objectively terrible: Iraq is a mess, Libya is a mess, Syria is a mess, and Afghanistan is still, despite many years of effort, a mess. It says a lot that the advocates of U.S. nation building efforts have to go back over six decades, to the successful rebuilding of Germany and Japan, and the Marshall Plan in Europe, to make their case. Though these countries were deeply scarred by war, they retained institutions, and social and political norms, that allowed them to recover, some quite quickly. In other words, they weren’t failed states at all. Building healthy states out of weak or failed ones, it turns out, is actually really hard – and rarely worth the effort given that ungoverned spaces aren’t as ungoverned as they might seem.”
The Hudson Institute recommends the new US Congress focus on missile defense, even though some critics suggest suspending building. They warn, “Suspending construction of any of our missile defense systems is a risky venture; an unexpected North Korean or Iranian missile threat to the U.S. homeland could emerge before the new technology is ready. And there is no guarantee that future systems will be more effective than currently available versions. Therefore, the most prudent budget and security strategy for the Pentagon and Congress is to work on improving the existing interceptors while developing and testing new ballistic missile technologies.”
The American Foreign Policy Council suggests the new Congress address the ISIS threat immediately. As they look at the evolving threat, they note, “While the Islamic State is nominally an al-Qaida splinter group and thus fruit of the same poison tree, much has changed. Osama bin Laden is dead, the original al-Qaida organization has been dismantled and new terror leaders and groups have emerged. The country was then in the first year of the George W. Bush administration and is now in the seventh year of Barack Obama’s. Only 24 Senators in the new 114th Congress were also on hand to vote for the force resolution in 2001. It is clearly time to revisit the question.”
The Washington Institute looks at what the US should do when they start to defeat ISIS. They warn that solutions can’t be simple and note, “The Middle East is a cauldron of complexity, dysfunction, and conflict. The United States must remain engaged there given the critical interests reiterated by President Obama — combating terrorism, stopping proliferation, supporting allies and partners, and facilitating the flow of hydrocarbons — but it cannot “fix” the region. This was tried repeatedly in places such as Beirut and Mogadishu, and on a larger scale in Afghanistan and Iraq, with results best characterized as unsatisfactory.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the new leadership in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. They remind the reader that there are still regional differences and note, “These regional rivalries also played out during the contest for the Brotherhood’s top job. The Aleppo bloc initially put forward the candidacy of Aleppine ideologue Zuhair Salem, but withdrew his name in favor of Ghadban, then the head of the Brotherhood’s youth office, who was seen as a stronger candidate. Ghadban hails from the outskirts of Damascus, but he has lived for the past decade in Jordan, where many Brothers fled after the group was outlawed in 1982 following bitter clashes with the regime of Hafez al-Assad. During his time in Jordan, Ghadban befriended major figures from the Aleppine camp who lived there in exile. Walid, for his part, was elected thanks to the votes of the Hama bloc, whose figures could not agree on a name from within their own ranks. All of this suggests the continued relevance of regional rivalries within the group.
The Washington Institute suggests the Palestinian Authority’s move to sign the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is a mistake. They note, “The move is bound to deepen the mutual loathing between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Abbas, likely shutting down any political space for further negotiations any time soon. And if negotiations are no longer feasible between Abbas and Netanyahu, it may move the entire Israeli-Palestinian discourse toward unilateralism as long as they remain in office. In terms of Israeli political opinion, the PA’s move is bound to face opposition across the political spectrum, since the thought of Israeli political figures or soldiers being hauled before The Hague is unacceptable to officials and voters of most any stripe. With an election looming on March 17, Netanyahu will likely depict the ICC maneuver as the latest manifestation of international pressure, proving that he needs to remain prime minister in order to thwart such actions. At the same time, the opposition — led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni — will cite the move as a political metaphor for what they call Israel’s growing international isolation under Netanyahu, even as they staunchly oppose what Abbas has done.”
The CSIS looks at Iran and the evolving threats in the Gulf. The brief provides maps, charts, trend analysis and key data on US military capabilities in the Gulf, and how the military spending, arms sales, and forces of the individual Arab Gulf states and the GCC compare with those of Iran. It notes Iran, “has also built up a major missile force that currently has serious accuracy and reliability problems, but which can become far more lethal even if Iran is unsuccessful in acquiring nuclear weapons. Precision-guided conventionally armed missiles could radically change the regional balance, replacing weapons of mass destruction with weapons of mass effectiveness.”
America in 2015
A new year has dawned and there are many questions about how America will react to events in the next 12 months. There are serious questions about the economy, Republican control of the Congress, civil disturbance; Obama’s growing use of executive action to bypass the Congress, and Obama’s weakened foreign policy.
Traditionally, Americans view their circumstances in terms of their economic situation – something that destroyed the Democrats in the mid term elections in November. Unfortunately for them, the economy remains in a state of flux. The good news is that gasoline prices have dropped by nearly 50% in the last few months, which gives the average American consumer more money to spend. And, since energy costs are a major driver in economic growth and the price of consumer goods like food, the economy will get a definite boost, which will help Obama’s currently dismal approval ratings.
However, what makes the future economic situation uncertain is the rest of the economy. Although unemployment figures are down, the percentage of people not working is unusually high. And, although the stock market is still moving up, it has been driven by abnormally low interest rates from the Federal Reserve. And, while the stock market still goes up, investors are growing more worried about a major crash.
However, if the stock market doesn’t crash and fuel prices remain low, Obama will have an opportunity to regains some of the popularity he has lost in the past two years.
Obama has made it clear that he will compromise with the Republican Congress only up to a certain point. He has said that he is willing to veto some legislation that will come to his desk, even legislation that is supported by both Democrats and Republicans.
With only two more years remaining in his presidency and no more elections to worry about, Obama is expected to issue more executive orders in order to bypass Congress. These include more environmental regulation, more gun control, more business regulation, and more control of communications.
However, the path isn’t clear for unilateral executive action. Congress still controls the budget process and he will face some opposition. Homeland Security is funded only into February, there needs to be congressional approval of a debt limit in the next few months, and a government budget must be approved by the end of September.
Obama also desperately wants a legacy – something positive that will define his administration. Obamacare was supposed to be that legacy, but it is increasingly likely that it will be gutted by the Congress or the US Supreme Court.
The problem for Obama is that long term legacy legislation requires working with Congress – something he has been unable to do, even when the Congress was controlled by the Democrats. Executive action may make a change, but it can be just as quickly modified or eliminated by the next president.
The one area where Obama can make a long term difference is in foreign policy, since that is his Constitutional prerogative. However, most of his foreign policy initiatives like Iran, ISIS, Cuba, and Russia have come in for heavy criticism.
If Obama wants a foreign policy legacy, he will have to change course enough that some Republicans will support his initiatives.
The Republican Congress
Control of both the Senate and House represents both advantages and disadvantages for the Republicans. Obviously, the GOP can force Obama to accept some Republican legislation, as they did with the omnibus bill passed in December. And, even with the veto threat, they can pass popular legislation and force Democratic congressmen to either uphold the presidential veto or vote to override the veto and remain popular with their constituents.
However, the downside for the GOP is that control of the Congress also means they have a responsibility to keep the government running. That means that they are responsible for unpopular votes like raising the debt limit and continued funding of the government – even unpopular parts of it.
This leaves the Republican leadership walking a find tightrope. They will have to find a fine line between closing down the government and forcing Obama to sign legislation that contains unpopular items.
Ironically, a Republican Congress may be able to do more than the Democratic Congress. As was seen in the omnibus bill passed in December, a Republican House was able to work a compromise with Obama that neither party totally liked, but were willing to accept.
The problem with this compromise legislation is that the left wing of the Democratic Party and the right wing of the Republican Party will not accept such compromise willingly. As the 2016 election gets closer, politicians from both sides will be forced to listen to these voices and the compromise that is possible in early 2015 may be impossible by December 2015.
The Presidential Election
2015 will be the year when politicians will announce that they are running for president.
Currently, the Democratic Party is in a state of suspended animation as they await a decision by Hillary Clinton as to her intentions. This is likely to be a mistake as Clinton has high negatives, although she has name recognition. Should she run, she is not guaranteed to win. On the other hand, she is forcing other potential Democratic candidates to stay out of the race and not begin the critical fund raising necessary for a viable campaign.
The Republicans have a wide field of candidates and several have made it clear that they intend to run. This list includes Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and Rand Paul. There are also several others that may throw their hat into the ring.
Although Bush may have the advantage since he comes from the Bush Family, has name recognition, the support of the Bush fund raising machine, and a record as Florida’s governor, a substantial number of Republicans are uneasy with the creation of a Bush presidential dynasty. But, Republicans will likely back him if he is seen as the best candidate to win the White House.
Opposition to Bush may coalesce around Huckabee or Walker – both governors with good records. Huckabee has better name recognition as a former candidate for president in 2008 and the host of his own national TV show. He also has a strong base of conservative Christians. He also has a technical advantage since many southern states, where he is strongest, will have primaries early in the election cycle.
Although not as well known nationally, Walker has a reputation of toughness that will appeal to many in the GOP. Eventually, his success will depend on his ability to raise money in 2015.
The Middle East
American policy towards the Middle East has been fragmented. Obama ran in 2008 on the promise to pull the US military out of Iraq and Afghanistan and mend relations with many of the nations of the region. Instead, the US military is still active in the region and air activity is so extensive that the American drone force is stretched to breaking.
With a Republican Congress and hawks like Senator John McCain having a major impact on foreign policy, expect the US to become more aggressive in fighting ISIS. Syrian rebels and Kurds can expect to see more aid in the next year.
A Republican Congress will also make a nuclear agreement with Iran more difficult. Although Obama can make some economic sanction concessions to the Iranians, Congress may make it harder to reopen full relations with Iran as that would require Congressional funding for opening the embassy and approving a new ambassador to Iran.
One area where little or no movement will be seen is in an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Israel is currently headed towards elections, which makes any agreement in the near future impossible. In addition, both Obama and Kerry have little credibility with either the Israelis or PA to act as a good faith negotiator.
The growing reach of ISIS and al Qaeda, as seen in the Paris attacks, will also become an issue. While Obama has been reticent to take action or even admit to such a terrorist threat, a Republican Congress may force the issue in coming months, especially if more attacks take place in Europe or in North America.
The new Republican Congress may help Obama in facing down Russia. Russia recently named NATO’s buildup on its border as its top threat. For the first time, the new doctrine says that Russia could use precision weapons “as part of strategic deterrent measures,” without spelling out when and how Moscow could resort to them.
This is one foreign policy arena that Obama could come out looking good. With Senator McCain in charge of the Senate Armed Service Committee, Obama will have more flexibility in terms of responding militarily to Russia. Not only could he ask for, and receive, more money for stationing more US forces in Eastern Europe, he could ask for additional money to build up conventional military units that have been degraded in the past few years.
Obama also has two other levers to use against Putin and Russia. The lower oil prices are seriously impacting Russia and its ability to act militarily. Russia is already facing financial difficulties in supporting its defense modernization and expansion – not to mention the additional military operations in the Ukraine. The drop in oil revenue not only lowers his desired influence, it makes Eastern European countries that rely on Russian energy less financially dependent on them.
The other lever Obama has is improving relations with Cuba. As oil revenue drops, Russia will be less able to assist the Cuban regime and the more attractive Cuban/American relations will become.
Dropping oil prices, NATO resolve, and the movement of NATO forces into Eastern Europe are forcing Putin’s hand. If there is one area where Obama may pull of a foreign policy achievement based on mutual compromise, this is it.
One situation that has grown worse this last year is the level of civil unrest in the United States. At the beginning of 2014, there were no ongoing demonstrations, clashes with police, or riots.
That has changed dramatically. While Ferguson grabbed most of the headlines, there were major disturbances this year in scores of cities, including New York, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And, even though the winter weather has cut back the level of violence, there are weekly disturbances throughout the country like those in restaurants in New York on Sunday.
Although much of the violence can be blamed on a small number of extremists, it appears that these groups – both on the right and left – are preparing for major violence in 2015. The New Black Panthers – a major player in the Ferguson riots – have rented apartments in the St. Louis area so a core of extremists is on-site if more trouble occurs. The New Black Panthers have also started encouraging blacks to start buying firearms and practicing with them in preparation of civil unrest. There is also some indication that ISIS is attempting to recruit some individuals to join future unrest by these groups.
The New Black Panthers aren’t the only ones promising further activities. In Baltimore, a member of the Black Guerilla Family, the same ones blamed for the execution of two New York City policemen, have been testing the security at police stations. Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the 29-year-old man walked into the Northeastern District station “fully armed and loaded with drugs on him.”
“An organized gang in the city of Baltimore sent an armed suspect into our building to see our security, to test our security. That is alarming to us, to me. I am going to send a message that we are not going to cower, we’re not going to back down,” Mr. Batts said.
It’s not just black militants promising trouble. A member of the right wing Michigan Militia warned that 2015 was the year when violence would explode and warned militia members to buy more guns and ammunition.
There is also unrest elsewhere. The police, who are increasingly becoming targets of extremists are at odds with political leaders. In New York City, they are ignoring the mayor, who is in charge of the police department – a situation that concerns politicians of all parties. In America, the police are under the control of the elected officials and any indication that they will not obey those officials is a concern.
Although the cold winter discourages violence, the chance of widespread civil unrest will increase as the summer approaches and temperatures increase.
2015 – Better or Worse?
Predictions are always hazardous and where the US will stand on December 31, 2015 is impossible to accurately predict.
No matter what, the presidential election cycle will be in full swing as the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses will be just weeks away. The only big questions will be if Hillary Clinton is in the race and how effective Jeb Bush will be in corralling Republican votes.
Economically, it will be a mixed bag as the stock market remains volatile and the US work force remains at high unemployment levels. That, however, will be offset by low energy prices that will boost consumer spending and lower the cost of production.
Meanwhile, Obama and the congressional Republicans will be forced to work together. Compromises that will anger the extreme wings of both will be necessary to pass the necessary legislation to fund the government. Meanwhile, it’s quite possible that Obama and the GOP may find that they have more in common than they thought.
The biggest wildcard is the threat of civil unrest, which has grown in 2014. Extremists at both ends of the political spectrum are preparing for violence and it will become more likely as the weather warms up in the spring. How extensive the unrest will be will depend on the incident that sparks the confrontations and the police responses to them.
Although the last two years of an eight year presidency are usually bad, Obama has some unique advantages. Energy prices are dropping and at this point in time, it appears that the Republican Congress and Obama can work together. If he ignores ideology and focuses on the practical and encourage republican leadership to do the same, he may be able to create the legacy that every American president desires.
Foreign Policy Lessons for 2015 and Beyond
By Christopher A. Preble
January 5, 2015
A new year offers a fresh start, an opportunity to reminisce about the year past, and to set goals for the future. 2014 was a busy year. Vladimir Putin hosted the world at Sochi, then reacted to a popular revolt in Ukraine by supporting a counter-revolution and annexing Crimea. Other civil wars raged in Libya and Syria, while Egypt’s military quashed any remaining semblance of democracy that had survived from the 2011 protests. The not-destroyed insurgency returned to Iraq with gusto, fueled by American weapons left behind by an Iraqi army unwilling to fight. And the United States continued its habit of conducting numerous tactical operations abroad without any overarching strategy. The news wasn’t all bad: Germany and the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; President Obama proposed normalizing relations with Cuba; and NATO operations in Afghanistan have (kind of) ended.
The lessons from these episodes suggest some useful resolutions for U.S. policymakers:
Iran, Evolving Threats, and Strategic Partnerships in the Gulf
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 22, 2014
The U.S. and its Arab partners in the Gulf face a wide range of threats. These include the Islamic State and other Jihadist elements, civil war, instability, and divisions in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. It is Iran, however, which poses the most severe military challenge, and one that goes far beyond its search for nuclear capability. Iran has been able to greatly increase its military influence in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria – as well as in some southern Gulf states. Iran has built up a major sea-air-missile force that can conduct asymmetric warfare throughout the Gulf, at the Strait of Hormuz, and in the Gulf of Oman.
Islamist terror attack in Paris
By Gary Schmitt
American Enterprise Institute
January 7, 2015
The Islamist terrorist attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which, so far, has resulted in 12 deaths and many more wounded, should come as no surprise. The satirical weekly has been the target before, having been fire-bombed back in late 2011 after running a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed and its editor has been under police protection for some time. Even though a target of Islamist ire, the magazine has not shied away from running other stories and cartoons offensive to Muslim sensibilities. Just this week it ran a cover story on a new book that imagines a future France in which the country is led by an Islamic party and has a Muslim president who, among other things, bans women from the workplace. Nor is the attack a surprise in the sense that the Islamist threat in France has been reaching crisis proportions in recent months. According to French president Francois Hollande, this attack follows on several more terrorist plots that French security forces had thwarted over the recent holiday season.
New Leaders for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood
By Raphaël Lefèvre
December 11, 2014
After three decades in exile, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has been working in recent years to rebuild its influence within Syria. The Islamist group’s 2014 leadership elections have been seen as a key test of whether the Brotherhood can make the changes needed to strengthen the organization and boost its role in the country. While the Brotherhood is often described as one of the most effective forces in Syria’s exiled opposition, it has faced divisions within its ranks. The group’s previous leader, Mohammad Riad al-Shaqfa, completed his four-year term in the summer of 2014 amid low levels of popularity with the base, which blamed him for failing to transform the Brotherhood into a coherent political and military player, among other things.
Congress Should Act Against The Islamic State Group
By James S. Robbins
American Foreign Policy Council
January 6, 2015
U.S. News & World Report
One of the first orders of business for the new Congress may be to consider a resolution authorizing the use of force resolution in Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led combined joint mission against the Islamic State group. Such a move would be long overdue. Operations against these militants began in June 2014, and are currently being conducted under the authority of a resolution passed three days after the September 11th attacks. That 2001 bill authorized the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the [9/11] terrorist attacks… or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Congress’ Missile Defense Opportunity
By Richard Weitz
January 6, 2015
One of the first tasks the new Congress will need to consider is how to strengthen the U.S. National Missile Defense program. No congressional responsibility is more important than protecting the American people against nuclear threats from North Korea and other U.S. adversaries. Congress can have an early impact by highlighting the issue during the Senate confirmation hearings for Former Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter. He is a renowned ballistic missile defense expert who, in his response to Senate questions, can help dispel some misconceptions about how next to proceed on this critical issue. The House can augment this process thorough its joint work with the Senate on the Fiscal Year 2016 defense authorization and appropriations bills.
The Palestinians Go to the ICC: Policy Implications
By David Makovsky
January 6, 2015
On December 30, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas signed twenty different international conventions, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The name of the statute refers to the 1998 conference that established the treaty-based court, which began operations in 2002. In principle, the PA’s move enables the ICC to assert jurisdiction over future developments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and empowers any signatory to the Rome Statute — currently including 160 countries — to claim that Israel should be brought to the court on charges of war crimes. Palestinian officials have said that they want the ICC to investigate Israel’s settlement policies. Once any such inquiries were concluded, it would be up to the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Gambian lawyer Fatou Bensouda, whether to move forward with actual cases against Israeli officials. Abbas’s move comes on the heels of his failure last week to garner the votes needed for the UN Security Council to approve Palestinian statehood. Although that failure averted a potentially controversial U.S. veto, the ICC move raises other thorny problems.
Coping With Success Against ISIS
By James F. Jeffrey
December 29, 2014
The battle against the “Islamic State”/ISIS has just begun, and officials in Washington are reiterating that it will be a long-term fight even in the Obama administration’s priority front, Iraq. Nevertheless, recent successes by Kurdish peshmerga and federal forces controlled by Baghdad point to a reversal of the jihadist group’s offensive in Iraq, likely leading to its containment and eventual eviction from Mosul, Falluja, and Tikrit. As in any military campaign, once the United States and its allies gain the upper hand, their momentum will fuel even more success, as ISIS itself experienced in June when it overran most of Sunni Arab-majority Iraq. Within a year, coalition successes could destroy the group as a major conventional force in Iraq, assuming the administration can answer the “who provides the ground component?” question for offensive action. (One answer to that question could be a mix of twelve Iraqi army and peshmerga brigades reequipped and retrained as planned by the United States, along with Sunni Arab national guard elements and a more aggressive U.S. forward ground presence involving Joint Terminal Attack Controllers and unit advisors; limited American ground troops might be needed to augment such a local force, however.)
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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