Washington was focused on Obama’s State of the Union Speech this week.
The Monitor analysis looks at the speech, its implications, and what it says about Obama’s policy towards the Middle East. We also look at a speech by Secretary of State Kerry that addressed White House policy in the Middle East and Syria.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Cato Institute finds America’s counterterrorism campaign failing. They conclude, “Responsible counterterrorism policy, therefore, must not merely disrupt terror cells, impede their planning, and thwart their ability to attract new recruits; it must also tackle the fear that terrorists seek to induce… “overreaction does most of the work of terrorism,” and therefore public policies should be aimed at thwarting counterproductive responses: Instead of exalting and fearing remotely possible — or impossible — threats, the nation should address real threats steadfastly and confidently. The alternative is more of the same: spending huge sums on dubious security measures, shedding liberties, and sacrificing American lives to attack overhyped threats.”
The Washington Institute looks at how Obama created a political vacuum in the Middle East. They see much of the problem in Obama’s perceptions of the Iraq War and Syria and note, “In many ways, the vacuum in Syria has been compounded by the sense that the U.S. is retrenching in the region, creating a larger void that has helped to produce the increasing competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Iranians saw they ran little risk with the United States as they ramped up their regional activism and made the Qods force — the action arm of the Revolutionary Guard outside of Iran — more prominent in both the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts…For the Saudis, the nuclear deal and the greater Iranian regional involvement fed their perception that the Obama administration was not prepared to set any real limits on Iran — or act on its red lines. As a result, it has decided to draw its own lines. It has done so in Yemen and will probably find it difficult to extract itself. Its execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr may have been done as much for domestic reasons, particularly given the number of Sunni Al Qaeda operatives that were being executed at the same time, but the Saudis knew the Iranians would react.”
The Washington Institute looks at the House of Saud and who is likely to become the next king of Saudi Arabia. They note, “Speculation is mounting that the next ruler of Saudi Arabia after King Salman will not be his nephew Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef but rather his own thirty-year-old son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman…Although this week’s developing crisis with Iran has dominated foreign coverage of the kingdom, domestically the war in Yemen, closely identified with Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), is the issue most likely to stop the young prince’s career dead. Apparently still popular with the Saudi public, the fighting is hugely expensive in financial terms and seems destined to continue a long time with no clear outcome. Tight budgets, a consequence of the low oil price, which is also linked to current Saudi oil policy and MbS, could force the issue. MbS is viewed in Washington as out of his depth, his experience and immaturity evident in his comments in his Economist interview, in which he seems determined generally to double down rather than shift direction. He certainly doesn’t appear to want to admit defeat.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at Saudi Arabia’s escalating conflict with Iran. They see a strong domestic aspect and note, “Meanwhile, Sunni Islamist networks continue to challenge key Saudi policies. The domination of the Syrian insurgency by sectarian jihadist factions has created powerful groups with their own agendas. Long time Saudi nemesis al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has gained significantly from Yemen’s chaos. The push to repress and criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood remains extremely unpopular with many influential Saudi Islamists. Executing Nimr and provoking confrontation with Iran has been far more popular with these Islamist elements, helping to keep them on board for a time.”
The American Foreign Policy Council looks at Iranian cyber-warfare capability. They conclude, “Over the past year and a half or so, experts have noted a marked decrease in Iranian hacking – a development that tracks closely with Iran’s attempts to conclude an agreement with the West over its nuclear program. But now, in the wake of this summer’s deal, the Islamic Republic is ramping up its offensive cyber capabilities, for both political and strategic reasons… Given the emphasis that Iranian leaders place on the exploitation of cyberspace, this confluence of political priorities and anticipated capital suggests that Iran is on track to become an increasingly formidable cyberpower in the not-too-distant future. In the process, Iranian cyberwarfare will become an increasingly grave challenge to the United States. Policymakers in Washington should be planning accordingly.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at Iranian/North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile cooperation. The piece looks at the known evidence and concludes, “If — and it is impossible with sufficient confidence to dismiss it outright — Iran offshored its nuclear weapons program to North Korea in the run up to the JCPA, then we must rapidly and radically shift our view of the Islamic Republic’s intentions. It would mean among other things that Iran is a pivotal locus within a much broader transnational threat that extends to the Korean peninsula and beyond. The product of the known Iranian-North Korean collaboration — the three-decade-long one around ballistic missile development — is a robust, evolving threat within a continuously outward expanding geographic penumbra. It requires something of a JCPA-like willing suspension of belief to accept there is no continuing collaboration between Iran and North Korea to develop deliverable nuclear warheads for their jointly developed ballistic missiles, given so much evidence to the contrary.”
The German Marshall Fund looks at the economic consequences of the current tensions between Turkey and Russia and the resulting sanctions. They conclude, “Turks and Russians will pay dearly for the sanctions. Will the economic cost eventually lead Ankara and Moscow to back down? Probably not. For both countries’ leaders, Syria is about aims more important than beach holidays and citrus fruit. Turkey’s government believes its own fate depends on how the war in Syria is resolved, and fears the Kremlin’s aims. Russia, too, is willing to sacrifice to achieve its aims in Syria. The Kremlin has imposed sanctions on many of its major trade partners in recent years, banning European foodstuffs, Moldovan wine, and Ukrainian chocolate — despite little evidence that the prohibitions actually achieve the Kremlin’s goals. But the geopolitical stakes are high, and the losers from economic sanctions are mostly weak and disorganized. So the Turkish-Russian trade war is likely to continue.”
The Washington Institute looks at the implications of Turkey’s military base in Qatar. They conclude, “Finally, while a mutual defense agreement of the sort Ankara and Doha are contemplating is normally reciprocal, Turkey is much more likely to come to Qatar’s help than the other way round. The mere fact of maintaining a permanent military presence on such a tiny territory as Qatar means that Ankara will durably underwrite the emirate’s security. Even so, the Turks may still need an underwriter of their own. In a 2013 study on British military forces in the Gulf, Gareth Stansfield and Saul Kelly noted, “There is a danger that the deployment would be large enough ‘to get us into trouble’ but too small to get us out of trouble when it starts.” The same applies to the 3,000-strong Turkish deployment envisaged in Qatar. Although the North Atlantic Treaty does not extend collective defense to allied forces deployed in the Gulf, the United States has its own military headquarters in Qatar, as well as its largest air base in the Middle East, al-Udeid. Washington is thus in the same boat as Ankara and could become the Turkish base’s de facto guarantor.”
Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) Speech – Cementing a Legacy or Running for a Third Term?
Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech was probably best summed up by a Bloomberg News Headline, “Obama’s State of the Union Optimism at Odds With Voter Anxiety.”
Admittedly, no president is going to admit that the country is a mess, that his approval ratings have been negative for the last two years, and that he has frequently pushed programs not popular with the public. However, it was not the type of SOTU speech that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton gave after relatively successful administrations.
For all of the congratulatory phrases, Obama has not won. In fact, the majority of American voters think that Obama has been a lackluster president that hasn’t come close to the promises made during 2008. More than half the people dislike Obamacare, are dissatisfied with the economy, disapprove of his foreign policy, and want a new direction in Washington, D.C.
Nothing set the tone for the speech as much as the news that Iran had seized two US Navy boats and their crewmen just hours before the speech. Most agreed that Obama owed the nation an update on that crisis and an explanation of what he planned to do to secure the release of those sailors. In most cases, the American President would issue a stern warning to Iran – to the thunderous applause of both Republicans and Democrats in the room.
Obama said nothing about the event, even though he praised his nuclear deal with Iran by saying, “As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war.” Instead, his avoidance of the seizure only projected his weakness.
The Evolution of the SOTU
The SOTU has evolved from a simple report to a publicity event.
Article II, Section 3 the Constitution reads, “He (the president) shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
There is no requirement that it be an annual report. Nor, is there a requirement that it be delivered in the form of a speech in the Chamber of the U.S. House. Jimmy Carter delivered all four of his State of the Union addresses in written form. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower delivered their final SOTUs in writing.
However, in the era of TV, presidents both Republican and Democrat have used the SOTU as an address to the nation, complete with flowery rhetoric, patriotic statements about the greatness of the US, a legislative wish list, and special guests sitting next to the First Lady. Very few in recent history have really reflected a real report on the state of the nation.
This one continued the tradition.
Obama’s SOTU and Events in the Middle East
Although much of his speech was on what he had done and what he hoped his successor would keep in place, he did touch on other Middle Eastern issues aside from Iran.
Obama did note that the region has become more dangerous over the past few years. He confessed, “I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not because of diminished American strength or some looming superpower. In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states. The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia…Even as their economy contracts, Russia is pouring resources to prop up Ukraine and Syria – states they see slipping away from their orbit. And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality.”
However, Obama didn’t outline what the solution was, although he did say priority one was the defeat of ISIS. “Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks. Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage,” he said.
However, his response was low key and seemed to be a continuation of the past policy of ignoring ISIS gains and downplaying their capability. He said of ISIS, “But they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.”
Ironically Obama did note that the US and its allies were “taking out…their oil,” even though the Russians have been much more aggressive and successful in attacking ISIS’s oil infrastructure.
In one of the few requests for legislative action, Obama did ask for Congress to grant him war powers to pursue the war in Syria. He said, “If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, you should finally authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote.”
Obama also used the issue to take a shot at Republican presidential candidates who are attacking Obama for his lack of forcefulness. He shot back at them by saying, “The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”
Obama was even more pointed in his attacks against Donald Trump, the current GOP leader in the presidential nomination race. He chastised him by noting, “That’s why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith…When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer.”
Although Obama was upbeat on his accomplishments, he did admit one failing – one that the majority of Americans agree with him on – the growing divide in the US. He said, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”
In the end, the SOTU was one that tried to show his administration in the best light, but was sparse in tangible recommendations for legislation.
Kerry Outlines Foreign Policy for Next Year
While Obama avoided detailed foreign policy issues in his SOTU, Secretary of State Kerry went into more detail the next day during a speech at the National Defense University.
In terms of future strategy towards ISIS, Kerry noted, “Our efforts are directed both at Daesh’s core networks in Syria and Iraq and at strangling attempts by the terrorists to establish branches and inspire attacks elsewhere in the world, including in the United States.”
He also was more detailed in terms of outlining recent victories against ISIS. “The progress we have already made towards that end of defeating them is undeniable. Last month, Iraqi forces, with coalition support, retook most of the provincial capital of Ramadi, further reducing the area that was controlled by terrorists. In the past half year, the coalition and its partners have worked with Iraqi forces to liberate Tikrit, and 100,000 Sunni have been able to return to begin to rebuild homes and find homes. We’ve been able to free Sinjar, remove terrorist commanders from the battlefield, including nearly a dozen leaders in the past few weeks alone. And we have worked together to cut off the terrorist supply lines, to hammer their oil facilities, to take away their resources, to deprive Daesh of more than 40 percent of the territory that it once occupied in Iraq. Daesh has not been able to seize a major town or city since last May.”
Kerry also held out the hope of better cooperation with Russia when he said, “We are intensifying airstrikes in northern Syria, assisting our partners along the border between Syria and Turkey, and helping to squeeze Daesh’s remaining strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, and we are opening the aperture for further cooperation with others in the region, including Russia.”
Undoubtedly, the mention of Russia was to set up the Syrian talks taking place later in January. The US realizes that the cooperation of Iran and Russia will be critical to get any movement by Assad on any plan to end the civil war.
Kerry also talked of the Iranian nuclear deal and how Iran was in the process of dismantling some of its nuclear infrastructure. He noted, “Iran is now well on its way to dismantling – dismantling – critical elements of its nuclear facilities. Just yesterday the foreign minister reported to me that the calandria of the plutonium nuclear reactor is now out. And in the next hours it will be filled with concrete and destroyed. All of their enriched material has been put on a ship and taken out and gone to Russia for processing.”
However, like Obama the night before, he didn’t talk about the capture of the two Navy boats by Iran, even though Iran had already indicated it would release the boats and sailors. He may have felt that bragging about how this event showed the improved cooperation between the US and Iran might be upset by any last minute snags.
The White House Chief Of Staff Speaks Out
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough pushed back against the notion that Obama was going to be passive in his last year. McDonough promised “audacious executive action.”
During a breakfast with reporters in Washington, DC, McDonough responded to the observation that Oama’s final speech before Congress lacked the usual pledge to “go it alone” if lawmakers failed to act. Reporters wondered if Obama had rethought the utility of acting unilaterally on issues important to the White House?
“We’ll do audacious executive action over the course of the rest of the year, I’m confident of that,” said McDonough, explaining that Obama’s decision not to outline specific executive actions was more about a commitment to process than a lack of willpower.
“Process is your friend, but process also dictates what you can do,” McDonough said. “And we do want to make sure that the executive actions we undertake are not left hanging out there, subject to Congress undoing them.”
McDonough said the White House is considering executive action on many issues, and that the main question Obama plans to ask himself is “Why not?”
“And so that’s the spirit through which we’ll approach this last year,” McDonough said.
This approach will only work if Obama can count on a Democratic victory in November as several Republican candidates have promised to undo any Obama executive action.
Since the Obama’s legacy is based on executive actions, not legislation (Obamacare being the only exception), Obama’s place in history is solely dependent on the permanency of his executive orders.
This means that in many ways, Obama is running for a figurative third term. Not an actual third term, which is not allowed by the US Constitution, but one where a sympathetic Democratic president will keep Obama’s executive orders in place and cement his place in history.
The problem, however, isn’t just hoping for a Democrat president. It’s the national angst that’s the problem. Obama addressed that in the SOTU as Americans being afraid of progress.
But, as we noted in last week’s Monitor Analysis, Americans aren’t fearful. They’re angry. Federal agencies as a whole have not only failed the American people, they’ve often turned against the very citizens they’re required to serve. The IRS attacks the conservative movement. The Veterans Administration lets veterans to die. The EPA expands its power and restricts vast sectors of the American economy. The list can go on.
This isn’t being helped by stock market reverses which represent the worst start to a year in history.
It’s this anger that is more likely to be the landmark of the Obama Administration than his executive orders, foreign policy, or legislative successes.
We Are Terrorized: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing, and Why It Can’t Be Easily Fixed
By Christopher A. Preble
January 8, 2016
According to a recent poll, Americans are more pessimistic about terrorism than at any time since 9/11. The CNN/ORC survey asked, “Who do you think is currently winning the war on terrorism — the U.S. and its allies, neither side, or the terrorists?” Forty percent of respondents said that the terrorists were winning, while a mere 18 percent believed that the United States and its allies were winning. After the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, just 9 percent believed the terrorists had the upper hand. This recent poll, conducted in mid-December after the San Bernardino attacks, is hardly a fluke. Others have found U.S. fears of terrorism to be at or near all-time highs. “Although other issues — particularly economic ones — often crowded out terrorism as a topic of daily concern,” explain my Cato colleague John Mueller and co-author Mark Stewart, “terrorism has won an apparently permanent space in the American mind.”
Why Saudi Arabia Escalated the Middle East’s Sectarian Conflict
By Marc Lynch
January 4, 2016
The Jan. 2 execution of Saudi Shiite cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr has escalated sectarian hostilities in the Middle East to dangerous new levels. Following the sacking of a Saudi embassy in Iran, Saudi Arabia has severed ties with Iran and expelled its diplomats. Tensions are running high, with apocalyptic rhetoric on all sides. However, for all the fireworks, this escalation will probably not change much. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in a proxy war at various temperatures over regional order for many years. The Syrian peace process may be derailed, and even more weapons pour into its horrifyingly destructive stalemate, but few really believed in its prospects anyway. The war in Yemen will likely continue on the same current destructive course as before, where even the coming and going of a cease-fire affected fighting on the ground little. The campaign against the Islamic State may become a bit more complicated, but the Gulf states long ago shifted most of their military attention toward Yemen. The United States has not become any more likely to walk away from its painstakingly negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran.
Fallout Ploy: Iran’s Cyberwarfare Contingency Plan
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
January 12, 2016
Iran’s cyberwarriors are back in action. Late last fall, The New York Times reported that Iranian hackers had carried out an extensive hack on U.S. State Department employees. Among the victims were U.S. diplomats working on the Middle East and on Iran specifically, who had their email compromised and their social media accounts infiltrated. The hack was the latest in what U.S. officials say are increasingly aggressive attempts to glean information about U.S. policies toward Iran in the wake of this summer’s P5+1 nuclear deal. Iranian cyberwarfare is not new, of course. The past several years saw numerous and increasingly capable Iranian cyberattacks on Western and allied interests. Such strikes have receded in severity, frequency, and prominence as Iranian nuclear diplomacy has accelerated, culminating with the nuclear deal concluded in Vienna in July. Yet behind the scenes, Tehran has been quietly investing in the strength and capabilities of its cyber army.
Foreseeable, Foreseen, Ignored: Is Iran Advancing Its Missile Program at Home While Offshoring its Nuclear Program to North Korea?
By John R. Haines
Foreign Policy Research Institute
A 1994 exposé published in the Russian language newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda asked, “Will Kim Il-sung Explode Our Atomic Bomb?” Today one might substitute “Iran” for “Russia” given the Islamic Republic’s continuing aspirations in the realms of nuclear weapon and ballistic missiles. These ambitions and signs of an ongoing collaboration with North Korea’s lineal dictator beg a new question: Will Kim Jong-un explode Iran’s atomic bomb? Evidence of a long-term strategic relationship to transfer nuclear weapon and ballistic missile technology between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran is unmistakable. Indeed, longstanding ties between the North Korean and the Iranian ballistic missile programs are well established. The relationship between their respective nuclear weapons programs is less easily traced through open sources, but strong indicators exist nevertheless. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in April 2015 that North Korea and Iran “could be” cooperating to develop a nuclear weapon. Earlier, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the intelligence community “remain[s] alert to the possibility that North Korea might again export nuclear technology.” Other evidence is more anecdotal, relying on unconfirmed reports that Iranian officials witnessed North Korean nuclear tests, and uncorroborated ones of North Korean officials present at suspect Iranian nuclear facilities.
An Expensive Fight for Russia and Turkey
By Christopher Miller
German Marshall Fund
January 12, 2016
It was “a stab in the back,” Russian President Vladimir Putin declared. Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian jet over Turkish airspace in late November sparked angry denunciations from Moscow. But rather than “stab in the back,” the more relevant bodily metaphor is “shot in the foot.” For both Russia and Turkey, the spat over the downed plane — and about Syria more generally — is imposing painful economic costs. Russia’s trade sanctions on Turkey, which were announced after the bomber was shot down, formally took force on January 1. They target several sectors of the Turkish economy, banning Russian firms from organizing package tours to Turkey, restricting the operation of Turkish construction companies in Russia, and prohibiting the import of most food products. On top of that, Russia canceled the Turk Stream project, a pipeline that was intended to ship gas from Russia via Turkey to European markets. These sanctions will inflict serious damage on Turkey’s economy.
How Obama Created a Mideast Vacuum
By Dennis Ross
January 10, 2016
Few issues have confronted President Barack Obama with tougher dilemmas than Syria. Over the course of the nearly five years of the war within Syria, Obama has faced choices on how the United States should respond and he consistently decided to do the minimum. From the outset, when Bashar Assad’s response to calls for reform was draconian and turned peaceful demonstrations into an uprising, the president’s first instinct was avoidance. He looked at Syria and he saw entanglement in another ongoing Middle East conflict where our involvement would be costly, lead to nothing, and potentially make things worse. In nearly every meeting on Syria when presented with possible options to affect the Syrian civil war, the president would ask “tell me where this ends.” He was surely right to ask this question. But he failed to ask the corollary question: Tell me what happens if we don’t act? Had he known that not acting would produce a vacuum in which a humanitarian catastrophe, a terrible refugee crisis, a deepening proxy war and the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria would occur, his responses might have been different. However, it was hard for him to ask that question because when he looked at Syria, he saw Iraq.
Turkey’s New Base in Qatar
By Olivier Decottignies and Soner Cagaptay
January 11, 2016
In December, Ankara announced that it will establish a new military base in Qatar, putting Turkey in a small group of nations willing and able to project power in the Persian Gulf. As with France’s previous creation of a military base in the United Arab Emirates, the Turkish effort signals the willingness of Washington’s NATO allies to engage in the Gulf on their own. It also highlights the pairing of small but wealthy Gulf states with militarily powerful NATO countries in a series of nonexclusive partnerships, largely in anticipation of a resurgent Iran, among other perceived regional threats.
The Next King of Saudi Arabia
By Simon Henderson
January 8, 2016
Speculation is mounting that the next ruler of Saudi Arabia after King Salman will not be his nephew Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef but rather his own thirty-year-old son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. How this succession process will occur is hard to predict, but the crown prince, previously a U.S. favorite, is being increasingly marginalized both in the kingdom and the wider world. Instead of MbN, as he is known, the dutiful but dour fifty-six-year-old counterterrorism chief, the new face of Saudi Arabia, when King Salman dies or steps aside, is likely to be the bearded, sandal-wearing MbS, who combines the stature and looks of a Hollywood Desert King. But whether MbS is the right leader when the House of Saud is exchanging diplomatic insults with Iran, countering the narrative of the Islamic State, and fighting rebels in neighboring Yemen, while also coping with a historically low oil price, is being actively debated in the major world capitals, as well as apparently in palaces at home.