The Washington think tank community is in its summer mode – fewer events and publications.
The Monitor analysis looks at the just completed presidential primaries and analyzes the factors that made this year special.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Heritage Foundation argues that the presidential nominees must become more aware of the ISIS threat throughout the Middle East and taking a firm approach to it. They conclude, “The progress against ISIS in Iraq and Syria could have occurred much sooner, resulting in fewer deaths, if it were not for the Administration’s ad-hoc incremental approach, which allowed ISIS to flourish and attracted over 30,000 foreign fighters. The United States cannot afford to duplicate this strategy in the up-and-coming ISIS regions.”
The Cato Institute looks at the Obama Administration’s “light footprint” strategy in the Middle East and its failures. They note, “The United States should therefore adopt a gradualist, nonmilitary strategy, which conceives of eradicating terrorism and promoting democratization throughout the world as very long-term objectives. Rather than attempting to defeat terrorism on the battlefield, the United States should focus on mitigating the risk of terrorist attacks through improved intelligence and law enforcement. And instead of catalyzing revolutionary democratization, the United States should encourage authoritarian states to introduce gradual liberal reforms—so that democratization is more likely to succeed when it does eventually occur.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at Erdogan’s recent grab for more power. They conclude, “It is becoming more and more apparent that Turkey has a parliamentary system on paper but has become a presidential state in practice. Turkey is not the only country masquerading as something that it is not…The biggest problem with Turkey is that its de facto presidential system seems to be teetering on the edge of authoritarianism and nobody is sure quite how far Erdoğan will go in his quest for power. There is no doubt that a referendum and constitutional change is the strongest and longest-lasting method for changing the Turkish system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. This still seems to be Erdoğan’s goal, yet the developments of the past month show that there are other political tools that Erdoğan is using to slowly change the way the Turkish government operates and, more troublingly, to concentrate his own political power.”
The Washington Institute looks at the improving Israeli/Russia relations. They conclude, “For Netanyahu, in the context of strained relations with President Obama it is especially important to create a better understanding with Putin, to reduce the possibility of accidental military clashes in Syria, and improve mutual understanding more broadly in order to maintain balanced ties. Russia and Israel will likely continue to cooperate, especially on the economic and military fronts. Indeed, according to Russian and Israeli press reports in February of this year, the two countries plan on signing a free trade zone agreement. Yet ultimately, Putin cares more about politics than anything else — sticking a finger in the eye of the West and, more broadly, weakening the West. Indeed, helping Assad increase refugee flows into Europe allows him to do just that. Putin’s assertion of influence in the Middle East in general, and especially in Syria, while the West is retreating, raises questions for Israel and suggests it has to walk a fine line in an increasingly complicated and unstable region.”
The Washington Institute looks at the problems that imperil Iraq’s democracy. This essay, the sixth in a series exploring prospects for political reform throughout the Middle East, analyzes the unique perils facing democratic governance in Iraq and the dangerous alternative of rule by militia gangs paying lip service to Islamist slogans. Iraq’s corrupt system of patronage politics illustrates the dangers of democratic electoral politics unrestrained by a strong legal tradition or an independent judiciary. Moreover, Iraq’s democracy currently faces a severe threat from radical Shia militias who, despite poor performance in elections, believe they can leverage their role in the fight against IS to gain permanent extralegal powers, with the ultimate aim of hollowing out Iraq’s democracy and turning it into a ideological Islamist state based on the Iranian model.
The Heritage Foundation says lawmakers should offset necessary defense investments by cutting federal spending on other, far less critical agencies. They conclude, “Some Senators are proposing to increase investment in readiness programs by $18 billion,” Johnson noted. “That would set our military up for a stronger future.” But, he added, “A stronger future should not be built on an unstable foundation of crippling debt. Any investment increases should be made in conjunction with spending cuts in non-defense accounts. We must increase our national security budget, but do it the right way.”
The Cato Institute looks at America’s tendency to challenge other nation’s “spheres of influence.” They conclude, “How would Americans feel if another major power enlisted the Central American countries and tried to enlist Canada and Mexico in a military alliance directed against the United States? We would regard that as a profoundly unfriendly and potentially very threatening act. Why do we assume that Russians should act differently to similar U.S. conduct on their border? That is not to say that either the Chinese or Russian regimes are model governments. They are far from it. But geography matters. Whatever the domestic nature of a major power, it is going to try to preserve preeminence in its neighborhood. The United States will continue to ignore that basic reality of international affairs at its great peril.”
Highlights: 2016 Presidential Primary Season
Although each presidential primary season is unique, 2016 has been different from others, including the 2008 election that also didn’t have an incumbent president running.
With that in mind, here are some of the highlights and differences.
THE ENTHUSIASM IS ON THE REPUBLICAN SIDE THIS YEAR. Turnout in the primaries frequently show where the enthusiasm is and which party might have the edge. In 2008, the GOP Primary Vote was 20,039,034 (36.12% of turnout). The Democratic Primary Vote was 35,442,193 (63.88% of turnout). This carried over into the General election, where Obama won 53.65 over McCain’s 46.31%.
In 2016, the GOP Primary Vote was 28,836,337 (50.67% of turnout, an increase of 8.7M voters). Meanwhile, the Democratic Primary Vote was 28,072,793 (49.33% of turnout, a decrease of 7.3M voters).
Although the numbers are virtually the same, it appears that the Republicans have become a bit more energized, while the Democrats have lost that excitement edge. This could mean a very close general election race.
MONEY ISN’T EVERYTHING. If money truly determined who would win the primaries, Hillary Clinton would have tied up the Democratic nomination months ago and Jeb Bush would have been the GOP nominee. Both of them had the big money donors and the super PACs backing them.
On the other hand, Sanders and Trump didn’t have super PACs, and did very well, even though Sanders failed to defeat Clinton.
The biggest losers are the political consultants of both parties, who could count on making big money every four years. Up till now, it has been a given that a winning candidate must have an expensive campaign machine that identifies voters, their concerns, and then gets them out to the polls on Election Day.
Trump and Sanders ignored this rule and managed to put together massive rallies that numbered in the tens of thousands. Meanwhile, Clinton and Bush used the traditional data gathering and ended up holding events with disappointing audiences numbering a couple of hundred.
VOTERS ARE MAD AT WASHINGTON. Polls show that the great majority of voters do not trust government. In fact only 19% of Americans say they can trust the government all or most of the time. About 80% say they can rarely or never trust the government. No wonder that the two outsider candidates, Sanders and Trump, were able to do so well.
This outsider role worked especially well with Trump and his supporters are hoping that may be the edge that propels him to victory in November. Unlike previous GOP candidates who focused on traditional Republican issues. Trump went in a new direction.
Trump differed with the GOP on trade, taxes, entitlement reform, increasing the minimum wage, and more. And, he’s only benefited from it. Trump’s strength lies not in his policies or political expertise, but in his personality and skills as a businessman.
Trump may very well have expanded the GOP base by going against traditional Republican dogma. Democrats are very worried that Trump will take millions of union votes that usually go Democratic. And, he has shown strength in the Northeast, where Republicans have been unable to win in the past few decades.
Although Sanders has been in Washington for decades – first as a congressman and then a senator – he has managed to be seen as an independent and outsider. Sanders mobilized millions of voters who are liberal but don’t align with the Democratic Party, in many cases registering as independents. Even without the nomination, he’s given progressives a stronger bargaining position headed into the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, and forced Clinton and other Democrats to grapple with the demands of younger Millennials (who prefer Sanders 4 to 1 over Clinton).
DISTRUST OF THE TWO MAJOR PARTIES. This was a bad year for both the Republican and Democratic parties as they were seen by many voters as manipulative. Sanders backers saw Clinton draw closer and closer to winning the nomination, even as Sanders won more and more primaries.
The same happened in the GOP as party leaders tried everything to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. – from talking about backing a third party candidate to plans to drastically change the convention rules to prevent Trump from winning the nomination.
These moves by both Democratic and Republican leaders only alienated voters, who saw the party leadership as bad as the Washington government that they don’t trust.
HISTORICAL FACTOR. Clinton is the first woman to win the nomination of a major American political party and she will try to use that to generate the same enthusiasm as that seen in 2008 with Obama. On Tuesday night she said, “Tonight’s victory is not about one person. It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.”
As we noted earlier, enthusiasm is a critical factor in getting voters to go to the polls and Clinton has failed to generate the enthusiasm as she did in 2008 as seen in the lower number of voters voting for her in 2016.
Clinton may also try to add another “historical” factor to her candidacy by picking a Hispanic for her vice president. The thinking is that the additional enthusiasm of both female and Hispanic voters will overcome the edge Trump has with whites.
VOTING AGAINST SOMEONE, NOT FOR SOMEONE. Both Clinton and Trump have high negatives with voters (both running around 60%). What this means is that the winner in November will not win because they were popular with the electorate, but less unpopular.
This could be a problem for whoever wins. When they become president, they will not be able to count on a degree of popularity that can help them in those critical first 100 days. It also means that they could quickly become unpopular if they make a mistake.
A high level of unpopularity also means that the winner may very well only have one term before being defeated in 2020.
SCANDAL. Not since 1972 election and the developing Watergate Scandal has a presidential election had the overshadowing threat of a scandal critically damaging one of the presidential candidates.
Although the Clinton email scandal hasn’t hurt her with Democrats in the primaries, it is one reason why Trump is leading her amongst independents – the group of votes who usually decide elections.
The constant stream of revelations is hurting her amongst critical voter blocks and an FBI recommendation to indict her could decisively destroy her hopes to win in November.
Another potential “scandal” waiting in the wings is the “cash for favors” allegations with the Clinton foundation and Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State.
As a remote possibility, this “scandal” issue is so critical that it isn’t impossible that she might be forced by the Democratic leadership and the White House to withdraw from the race if her poll numbers tank. If that happens, expect Vice President Biden to jump in to the dismay of Sanders supporters.
The email scandal, like Watergate, could continue even if Clinton wins. And, like Watergate, it could cripple Clinton’s political agenda, and even force her to resign or be impeached. If that is a possibility, then the choice of a vice presidential candidate will definitely be important.
Needless to say, there could be a Trump scandal that might hurt him in the coming months. However, there shouldn’t be anything rising to the potential criminal level that Clinton is currently facing.
EVENTS. Obviously any massive disruption (of the scale of Chicago 1968) at the national conventions could hurt the respective candidates. But there are other events that could be critical.
The economy is always a major factor in voting and the US economy is in a fragile state. Needless to say, an economic crisis could easily depress Clinton’s numbers. That is in fact what happened in September 2008. McCain was leading Obama in the polls until the stock market crash in September. If the market crashes within the next five months, it could guarantee a Trump election.
As the former Secretary of State, Clinton is also very vulnerable to an international crisis – especially one that involves American deaths. Clinton is running in part on her record as a decision maker in the Obama Administration and any international crisis could damage that part of her campaign narrative.
As ISIS Operations Develop, Leading Presidential Candidates Must Plan Ahead
By Daniel Woltornist
June 2, 2016
Iraqi forces are moving towards reclaiming key ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria according to Pentagon officials. The Heritage Foundation’s Senior Research Fellow for Middle East Affairs, Jim Phillips, warns that there is a long road ahead and the Obama Administration must take steps to stop ISIS expansion into neighboring territories. Leading presidential candidates must also take note of the current status of operations and begin planning for next steps. “ISIS continues to metastasize and expand in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other places. To defeat ISIS, the United States and its allies must counter ISIS in these countries. As things stand, the Obama Administration continues to deny the U.S. deployment of roughly 5,000 troops is in reality a combat operation,” explains Phillips.
Military Readiness Investments Must Be Offset by Spending Cuts
By Daniel Woltornist
June 6, 2016
As the Senate begins debate this evening on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), senators will present various visions on the future of America’s defense programs. Justin Johnson, a defense budget expert at The Heritage Foundation, argues that addressing the readiness crisis of the U.S. military is paramount. “That will require more money,” he said, “but lawmakers should offset those necessary investments cutting federal spending on other, far less critical agencies.” Earlier this year, Heritage published “The Budget Book,” identifying 106 ways to reduce the size and scope of federal government without weakening national defense.
The Problem with the Light Footprint: Shifting Tactics in Lieu of Strategy
By Brad Stapleton
June 7, 2016
In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Barack Obama has sought to avoid becoming embroiled in another conventional ground war. To minimize that risk, he has adopted a “light footprint” approach to military intervention: employing standoff strike capabilities and special operations forces, often in support of indigenous ground forces. That approach essentially represents a tactical shift. The United States has continued to attempt to defeat terrorism and promote democratization abroad with military force. Yet those strategic objectives are unlikely to be secured militarily—with either a heavy or light footprint.
Washington Must Stop Challenging Other Major Powers in Their Neighborhoods
By Ted Galen Carpenter
June 7, 2016
Every reasonable person understandably cheered the demise of the Soviet Union (a true “evil empire”) in 1991. But one unfortunate effect was to free the United States to meddle around the world in regions that previously were well outside Washington’s security perimeter. Not only did the absence of a powerful adversary entice the United States to launch ill-advised regime-change crusades in the Middle East, it has led U.S. policymakers to adopt military stances in the immediate neighborhoods of both Russia and China that are provocative and potentially catastrophic. Indeed, a succession of U.S. officials have displayed contempt for any concept of even limited “spheres of influence” for other powers in the international system. Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state, made that point explicitly in response to Moscow’s 2008 military intervention in Georgia. She scorned the notion of Russian primacy along the perimeter of the Russian Federation as the manifestation of “some archaic sphere of influence.” Secretary of State John Kerry clearly holds similar views. In November 2013, he even declared that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Kerry asserted that “you don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion” by invading a neighbor.
Turkey’s Parliamentary System has a Presidential Stage-Manager
By Tamar Friedman
Foreign Policy Research Institute
June 7, 2016
In the summer of 2015, I wrote a profile of Turkey’s electoral system and noted the following: “In essence, the [June] 2015 election was not only a high stakes gamble for the Kurds, it was also a referendum on Erdoğan himself and his ability to affect the structure of the Turkish electoral system.” Nearly a year later, on May 5th of 2016, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was pressured by strongman Erdoğan to resign from his position, and on May 22nd the seemingly more pliable Binali Yildirim was elected in his place as the leader of the AKP and new prime minister of Turkey.
The Maturing of Israeli-Russian Relations
By Anna Borshchevskaya
October 2016 will mark 25 years since Russia and Israel officially restored diplomatic relations after the Soviet Union severed them in 1967 following the Six Day War. New Israeli Ambassador to Russia Zvi Heifetz said in November 2015 that Russia and Israel plan to mark this anniversary “at the highest possible level,” as reported by the Interfax news agency. For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the same month, “We are satisfied with our constructive partnership with Israel. Relations between our states have reached a high level.” Indeed, Putin pursued improved ties with Israel since he came into office in March 2000 and the two countries have significantly improved ties on a number of fronts. Russian and Israeli officials hold meetings and telephone conversations on a regular basis and maintain multiple open channels of communication.
Iraq’s Imperiled Democracy
By Nathaniel Rabkin
Iraq’s transition from autocracy to multiparty elections has made it something of a test case in the Arab world. Although the Sunni-Shia divide has created difficult obstacles to good governance, it has led to a wider embrace of power sharing, at least as a political principle. Iraq’s Islamist parties play a dominant role in politics, but pose less of a threat to democracy than those of other Arab countries, in large part because of the endorsement of free elections by Iraq’s most influential Shia religious leaders. At the same time, Iraq’s corrupt system of patronage politics illustrates the dangers of democratic electoral politics unrestrained by a strong legal tradition or an independent judiciary. Moreover, Iraq’s democracy currently faces a severe threat from radical Shia militias who, despite poor performance in elections, believe they can leverage their role in the fight against IS to gain permanent extralegal powers, with the ultimate aim of hollowing out Iraq’s democracy and turning it into a ideological Islamist state based on the Iranian model.