It has been an unusually quiet week for the Washington think tank community as it is a short week because of American Independence Day on July 4th.
Although the American government has proven to be quite stable and resilient, this week saw several cracks in the American system of government as the Supreme Court ruled against Obama on several key cases and polls show a plummeting favorability rating for the president. In fact, one poll showed that Americans consider Obama to be the worse president in the last 70 years.
The Monitor Analysis looks at these issues in light of the American system of government, its separation of powers, how it evolved in its early years, and the unique role of the people in the American system.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Institute for the Study of War thinks that IS may be readying itself for the battle of Baghdad. They note, “ISIS is formidable, but it is also predictable. ISIS has exposed many of the core elements of its strategy, and it is possible to anticipate their next steps. ISW assesses with confidence that ISIS’s urban offensive begun in Mosul has not culminated, and its campaign for Iraq is not over. ISIS’s next urban objective will likely be to clear the Haditha-Ramadi corridor along the Euphrates River in Anbar. ISIS’s ultimate military objective in Iraq is likely to destroy the government in Baghdad.”
The Center of Security Policy argues that the crisis in Iraq isn’t a failure of the American intelligence community, but a policy failure. The paper says, “There was a wealth of information in the news media over the last year that a sectarian war was brewing in Iraq and ISIS was gaining strength in both Iraq and Syria. I am certain U.S. intelligence agencies provided similar assessments to U.S. officials based on classified information.
The event that should have caused Obama officials to shift their approach to Iraq occurred last December when ISIS seized control of Fallujah and parts of the city of Ramadi. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn issued a public warning about the significance of this development in February when he testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that ISIS “will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group’s ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria.” That sounds to me like a top U.S. intelligence official was doing his job by warning U.S. officials about major global security threats.”
The Hudson Institute looks at what Kurdish independence would mean. They note, “The problem, however, is in getting to the point where you can draw borders, which has little to do with the right to self-determination, or even material wealth, which the potentially oil-rich Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, may soon have in abundance. Rather, it’s about geopolitics and the disposition of larger, more powerful states. And at this point it seems that besides Israel, none of the regional and international players involved—above all, Turkey, Iran, and the United States—have any interest in promoting Kurdish statehood.”
The Washington Institute takes a different position and argues that Turkey will want a Kurdish state as a buffer. They note, “ISIS’ advances in Iraq — including a June 11 attack on the Turkish consulate in Mosul, during which the group took Turkish diplomats and security officials hostage — has added urgency to the drive to improve relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds. It also made Turkey go back on some clear redlines it had previously set for the Kurds; back in 2005, Turkey had threatened military action should they occupy Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq. Kirkuk’s oil reserves would have given the Kurdish regional government independent income (it relies on Baghdad for financial transfers), which would have been a first step toward full sovereignty. But on June 12, when Kurdish forces moved to occupy Kirkuk, Ankara did not utter a word.
It now seems safe to say that if the Iraqi Kurdish regional government declared independence, Ankara would be the first capital to recognize it. In today’s Middle East, in other words, ISIS is a bigger threat to the Turks than Kurdish independence in Iraq.”
The Carnegie Endowment also argues that the European Union must reassess its relationship with Iran. They note, “The EU should also work more closely with the United States, beyond the well-established cooperation between their negotiating teams. Broader outreach to U.S. policymakers and the American think tank community is necessary given that the EU’s role on the Iran file is generally poorly appreciated by the American public and that Congress plays a crucial part in many decisions regarding U.S. sanctions. In a concerted effort, the EU delegation and member states’ embassies in Washington should work with members of Congress, both before and after the midterm U.S. elections that will take place in the fall of 2014, to secure the necessary U.S. support for sanctions relief if a comprehensive agreement is achieved—or indeed to devise a new common approach to Iran if the talks break down.”
The Carnegie Endowment argues that NATO must reexamine its priorities. They conclude, “Contrary to intuition, the Ukraine crisis has not provided NATO with a new raison d’être. Quite the opposite: the fact that allies have such widely differing views on whether Russia constitutes a threat could actually pull NATO apart even further. The example of Poland shows the effects of disappointment in the alliance’s cohesion. That country may become even more unwilling to engage in pooling and sharing if it believes it cannot trust NATO to show full solidarity in a conflict. If NATO turns itself into a convenient toolbox for coalitions of the willing, it will not be sustainable as a coherent alliance. NATO needs to re-create a sense of solidarity among its members, and this will be possible only if all of them regain at least some shared perception of threats. This is the challenge that lies behind the post-Afghanistan narrative. The Ukraine crisis is no solution, but it does have the merit of highlighting what NATO and its members urgently need to do.”
Ruptures in the Governing Fabric of America
As Americans celebrate their independence from Britain this weekend, the American system of government is showing cracks in it – cracks that were quite evident this last week. That system, outlined by the US Constitution, creates a limited form of government with checks and balances. It also recognizes the central power of the people, who not only have a right to vote for their leaders, but also retain the power, according to the original founding document, the Declaration of Independence, to abolish a government they don’t like.
But, it is becoming increasingly clear that many Americans think that the government and president has exceeded its authority and is restricting the freedoms expressly written into the US Constitution? Polls are reflecting disapproval of their leadership and the institutions of government. The US Supreme Court, which has the traditional role of interpreting the Constitution, is frequently ruling against the government in key court cases. And, people are taking to the streets, not to demonstrate, but to physically stop government actions.
All three of these things have happened just in the last week. A string of newly released polls showed high disapproval percentages for Obama and the other branches of the Government. They are also showing that the American people are becoming more pessimistic about their freedom and future. The highest court in the United States ruled in four cases in the last week alone that the Obama administration has exceeded its powers granted under the US Constitution. And, finally, Americans physically stopped the movement of illegal immigrants by government employees in California on Tuesday.
Is America at the brink? Can we expect more unrest?
Although it’s very hard to predict, there is a likelihood that America is on the edge of civil unrest.
To better understand these problems, we have to look at how America is governed and how Americans perceive their relationship with the government.
Limited Government – Separated Powers and Shared Sovereignty
Unlike the governments of many other countries, the US government has limited powers and those powers are separated into three different branches of the federal government – the presidency, congress, and the judiciary. In addition, sovereignty is shared between the federal government, the states, and the people. However, this isn’t the way the American government began and the United States underwent 15 years of trial and error before settling on the current system of government.
The first government of the United States was the Continental Congress, which was assembled on September 5, 1774. Its president, and therefore the first president of the United States, was Peyton Randolph. It was this government that fought the American Revolution and was recognized by France, the Netherlands, and Morocco. Although it did handle foreign policy and the conduct of the war, it had very few powers. The problem was that the Continental Congress was an assembly of sovereign states and it could do little unless all the states agreed.
As the war continued, the Continental Congress form of governance was shown to be too weak, so it was replaced by a second form of government formed under the Articles of Confederation, which gave the central government more power, but recognized that the states retained full sovereignty. The US operated under the Articles of Confederation from 1779 to 1788.
When this central government proved to be too weak, a new Constitution was proposed – the one that the US currently operates under. However, the states were worried about an all powerful central government, so certain checks were put into the document. These checks provide the tension that governs the US today.
One new power that was granted in the Constitution was the recognition of the sovereignty of the people. While the previous forms of government gave sovereign power to the states, the US Constitution stated in its opening words, “We the People of the United States,” a radical and controversial statement giving ultimate power to the citizens. In fact, well known Founding Father Patrick Henry stated, “What is this “We the People” in the Preamble? This is a Confederation of states.” Future president Samuel Adams stated, “I stumble at the threshold. We are a confederation of states.”
Therefore, the United States represents a balance of powers granted to several entities, with the idea, that although not the most efficient government, it is the best one to protect the rights of the people and states. It also prevents the central government from becoming too powerful.
The balance between the three sovereign powers is as follows:
Federal government – powers granted by the Constitution
President – executes laws, carries out foreign policy, Commander-in-Chief of military
House of Representatives – power of the purse, must initiate budget and tax bills
Senate – Originally represented states, but now an upper chamber that must pass bills
Supreme Court – Interprets the constitution
State Government – powers granted by the Constitution and the 10th and 11th amendments. The bulk of laws and police enforcement reside here.
People – Power to elect federal, state, and local leaders. Also powers and rights granted by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (Amendments 1 – 10). These include freedom of religion, assembly, and speech; right to own weapons; prohibiting the quartering of soldiers in peacetime; privacy against searches; rights of the accused; right to a fair trial and counsel; trial by jury; ban on excessive punishment; and recognition that all other powers not given to the federal government or states reside in the people.
The role of the People in the United States is relatively unique. In most countries, even democracies, sovereignty resides in the government or in the person of a monarch. However, the key founding documents of the US, the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution recognize that ultimate sovereignty resides in the People. In fact, the Declaration of Independence states, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
This position was ratified in the 2008 Supreme Court Ruling of the District of Columbia vs. Heller, which held that keeping and bearing arms was an important constitutional right of the people because, “they are better able to resist tyranny.”
That right of the American people to abolish a government and the right to own weapons, “to resist tyranny,” gives it a unique power people in other countries don’t have. And, the average American is well aware of this power, which is one reason why attempts by the government to control gun ownership in America always fail.
This brings us to the current situation. The federal government, especially the presidency, has moved rapidly to centralize power. It has acted without the approval of the Congress, it has tried to assume powers reserved to the states, and it has tried to restrict the freedoms of the People.
And, the people aren’t happy.
Obama Versus the Supreme Court
One tool the state governments and the people have to remedy the overstepping of power by the federal government is the Supreme Court, which has the traditional role of interpreting the Constitution. And, it has been this court that has dealt some of the most far reaching losses against the Obama Administration, even though Obama has named two of the justices sitting on the court himself. Since January 2009, the Obama administration has suffered at least 20 unanimous defeats in cases it argued (not counting cases in which it filed an amicus brief), according to Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
“President Obama’s unanimous Supreme Court loss rate, for the five and half years of his presidency, is nearly double that of President Bush and is 25 percent greater than President Clinton,” Cruz notes in a survey of how Obama’s lawyers performed before the high court.
Last week, in a unanimous, 9-0 rebuke, the justices ruled Obama had overstepped his constitutional authority when he went around the US Senate and unilaterally appointed three members to the National Labor Relations Board. This clearly upheld a US Senate Constitutional right to approve the people nominated to key positions in the US government.
They also ruled 9-0 that the government couldn’t search cell phones without a search warrant. Although the case dealt with a state law, the Obama Administration had argued for the additional power. However, the court ruled unanimously that the 4th Amendment of the Constitution protected the people from such abuses.
Several Freedom of Speech rulings went against Obama as the court ruled last week that the government couldn’t force people to join a union and pay dues for political speech that they didn’t agree with. They also agreed that anti-abortion protesters had a right to speech around abortion clinics.
Freedom of Religion also was defended when the court ruled that private companies can refuse to provide some contraceptives, mandated under Obamacare that the company owners felt were against their religious beliefs.
States have also used the Supreme Court to shift power back to themselves. The court ruled against Congress and the Department of Justice by declaring some of parts of the Voting Rights Act, which gave the federal government power over some states voting laws, unconstitutional.
The Declining Popularity of Government in America
Although the Supreme Court has acted in its traditional role of determining the role of government and its limitations under the Constitution, the damage to the image of the government and Obama is great.
Currently Obama is suffering from approval ratings lower than any president in recent history. According to a new poll from Quinnipiac, Americans pick Obama as the worst president in the last 70 years (Ronald Reagan was voted the best). There is also a considerable amount of buyer’s remorse as voters now say America would be better off if Republican Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election (45 percent to 38 percent).
An Investors Business Daily poll this week gave Obama more bad news. 59% of Americans blame Obama for the current immigration crisis. 56% think his withdrawal of troops from Iraq has caused the current conflict there. And, 65% think his administration is trying to cover-up wrongdoing in the IRS.
“Mr. Obama finds himself in the uncomfortable position where every age group, independents, and whites all agree that the public has given up on his ability to accomplish anything before the end of his term,” said pollster John Zogby.
This negative perception isn’t limited to Obama. It has permeated feelings towards government as a whole. According to a Gallup poll released this week, 79% of Americans think that corruption is widespread in the US government. That is up 20 points since 2006 and places the US government in the top 30% of nations in terms of perceived corruption.
The poll also showed that only 29% of Americans have great confidence in the presidency, down from 36% at the beginning of the Obama Administration. Congress’s approval rating is only 7%. The Supreme Court ranked highest at 30%.
Americans, who have traditionally felt America was the freest country in the world no longer think so. The same Gallup Poll showed fewer Americans are satisfied with the freedom to choose what they do with their lives compared with seven years ago – dropping 12 percentage points from 91% in 2006 to 79% in 2013. In that same period, the percentage of Americans dissatisfied with the freedom to choose what they do with their lives more than doubled, from 9% to 21%.
Today, countries like Cambodia and Uzbekistan rank higher in freedom (New Zealand and Australia come in first and second). America comes in 36 out of 150 countries. The decline in American freedom isn’t as great as that experienced in Egypt according to the poll, but is similar to the loss of freedom in Yemen and Pakistan from 2006 to 2013.
What does this mean for America?
The fact is that America’s society is much more brittle than many think. A decreasing standard of living, a perception that freedom is declining, a lack of faith in government, and a perception that the US has a corrupt government have seriously hit the underpinnings of American society.
While the Supreme Court has been a relief valve in some cases, there is a growing sense of frustration in Middle America – frustration that is leading to action. This week about 200 Americans in California physically blocked three buses that were going to drop illegal immigrants off in their town and forced the Border Patrol to reroute them to another destination. The action was very similar to the incident 10 weeks ago at the Bundy Ranch, where people stopped the BLM from rounding up cattle. There are also reports of armed private militia units patrolling the border in Texas and Arizona.
Historically in cases where a society becomes brittle and likely to break down, governments that back down usually can restore normalcy. However, leaders that continue to pursue unpopular policy often face rebellion. Czar Nicholas II in Russia is an excellent example.
Will Obama step back from the actions that have elicited rebukes from the Supreme Court and plummeting approval ratings from the public? Possibly not. Despite dramatic disapproval from the public, Obama has announced he will unilaterally make changes to American immigration law. He has also promised other unilateral actions that are currently unpopular. This will only fuel more unrest.
How far can Obama push? We can’t say. However, a belief that the current course of action can continue without repercussions to the government and society is likely wrong.
Why Defense Matters: A New Narrative for NATO
By Judy Dempsey
June 24, 2014
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is in search of a new narrative. While Russia’s involvement in Eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea will not give NATO a new sense of solidarity, these events have highlighted what the alliance and its members must urgently do. It is time for all NATO countries to engage in a real strategic debate about why defense matters and what members should do to uphold the transatlantic relationship. Alliance countries face many threats apart from Russia, including terrorism, cyberattacks, instability south of the Mediterranean and in the Sahel in particular, Iran’s nuclear program, and China’s strategic ambitions. NATO has no strategies to deal with them.
EU-Iran Relations: A Strategic Assessment
By Cornelius Adebahr
June 23, 2014
The EU’s approach to Iran has emerged as one of the few successes of European foreign policy. In particular, the signing of an interim agreement in November 2013 that put limits on Tehran’s nuclear program for the first time marked a historic victory for EU diplomacy. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s top diplomat, continues to lead negotiations with Iran on behalf of the international community and aims to reach a “comprehensive” long-term agreement by late July 2014. Even so, the EU is not thinking strategically. Despite the EU’s central position in the P5+1 talks, a strategic assessment of its overall approach to Iran reveals that Europe falls short.
The Iraq Crisis Is Not a US Intelligence Failure
By Fred Fleitz
Center for Security Policy
July 2, 2014
Stories are being circulated by Obama officials and some former intelligence officers that the Obama administration was caught off guard by the recent offensive in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) terrorist group because of a failure by U.S. intelligence agencies to provide warning about the ISIS threat. Some former intelligence officers are blaming this failure on a lack of human intelligence sources in Iraq and an over-reliance on technical intelligence collection. Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, disagrees. He says the Iraq crisis is a policy and not an intelligence failure. Rogers says the signs were there about the ISIS threat and the deteriorating situation in Iraq but Obama officials ignored them. He contends that “It was very clear to me years ago that ISIS was pooling up in a dangerous way — building training camps, drawing in jihadists from around the world. We saw all of that happening.”
ISIS Battle Plan for Baghdad
By Jessica Lewis
Institute for the Study of War
June 27, 2014
There are indications that ISIS is about to launch into a new offensive in Iraq. ISIS published photos of a military parade through the streets of Mosul on June 24, 2014 showcasing US military equipment, including armored vehicles and towed artillery systems. ISIS reportedly executed another parade in Hawijah on June 26, 2014. These parades may be a demonstration force to reinforce their control of these urban centers. They may also be a prelude to ISIS troop movements, and it is important to anticipate where ISIS may deploy these forces forward. Meanwhile, ISIS also renewed the use of suicide bombers in the vicinity of Baghdad. An ISIS bomber with a suicide vest (SVEST) attacked the Kadhimiya shrine in northern Baghdad on June 26, 2014, one of the four holy sites in Iraq that Iran and Shi’a militias are most concerned to protect. ISIS also incorporated an SVEST into a complex attack in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, on June 25, 2014 in a zone primarily controlled by the ISF and Shi’a militias on the road from Baghdad to Karbala. These attacks are demonstrations that ISIS has uncommitted forces in the Baghdad Belts that may be brought to bear in new offensives. ISIS’s offensive has not culminated, and the ISIS campaign for Iraq is not over. Rather, as Ramadan approaches, their main offensive is likely imminent.
What Kurdish Independence Would Mean
By Lee Smith
July 1, 2014
The president of the Kurdish Regional Government Massoud Barzani announced today that he intends to call for a referendum on independence within the next few months. And if the Kurds do elect to break free of the central government in Baghdad, they’ll have at least one regional actor eager to acknowledge them as an independent state—Israel.
“They are a warrior nation, that is politically moderate,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the Kurds in a speech Sunday. They are “worthy of statehood,” Netanyahu continued. “We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. They deserve it.”
Turkey‘s Kurdish Buffer
By Soner Cagaptay
July 1, 2014
If anything good comes out of the turmoil in Iraq, it will be improved ties between Turkey and the region’s Kurds. Until recently, they were bitter enemies. Ankara had never been able to stomach the idea of Kurdish self-government — in Iraq or Syria or Turkey — and it had generally refused to give in to Turkish Kurds’ demands for cultural rights. Instead, it preferred to crack down. Meanwhile, the region’s Kurds had never been able to stomach Iraqi, Syrian, or Turkish rule and, taking issue with Ankara’s treatment of Kurds within Turkey’s borders, threw their support behind the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a violent separatist movement in Turkey. The Syrian civil war and developments in Iraq have started to change all that. These days, from Turkey’s perspective, Kurdish autonomy doesn’t look half bad. The portions of northern Iraq and Syria that are under Kurdish control are stable and peaceful — a perfect bulwark against threats such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)…It is a tall order, but the stars may be aligned in favor of a Turkish-Kurdish axis.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
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