The Washington think tank community remains focused on the Russian moves into Ukraine’s Crimea region, although some papers came out on Egypt and Syria. One paper also looks at how US failures in turkey and Iran led to the Ukrainian crisis.
Domestic and international affairs have seriously dented Obama’s popularity amongst voters – so much so that many see the US Senate being won by the Republicans in November. The Monitor analysis looks at the various Senate seats that are vulnerable and the chances for Republican victory.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Hudson Institute marks the third anniversary of the Syrian crisis by looking at American foreign policy missteps. This brutal critique of Obama concludes, “The president has waged a three-year-long strategic messaging campaign full of half-truths and lies because even if he’s convinced that he’s right and he has the American people on his side, he’s still worried. He understands the scope of the humanitarian catastrophe and fears the strategic disaster that may befall American allies and the United States itself. Obama’s messaging campaign, the White House’s disinformation and evasions, is how the president has tried for the past three years to put some distance between him and the Syrian conflict. He’s right to fear that it will forever be a black mark on his legacy.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at non-Islamist parties in Egypt. A major issue in Egypt’s political transition of the last three years has been the chronic weakness of political parties not associated with Egypt’s Islamists. With crucial elections coming up later in 2014—first a presidential election, probably in late spring, and then a parliamentary election in the fall—questions about the role that non-Islamist parties will play are once again coming to the fore. In this Q&A, Ahmed Morsy, a nonresident associate at Carnegie, addresses some of the key issues related to these parties. He says that although non-Islamists still face a host of challenges, they might have a chance to win over swing voters who helped bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in 2012.
The Washington Institute looks at Egypt’s growing invisible insurgency. They note, “To promote these violent efforts, Muslim Brothers appeal to their supporters through social media, establishing violent Facebook groups that have attracted thousands of “likes.” For example, the “Execution Movement” Facebook page, which was founded in early September to call for the deaths of Egypt’s top security officials, urges its roughly 3,000 followers to burn police cars. “There are 34,750 police officers in Egypt…80% of them have cars,” reads a January 26 post that spread across pro-Brotherhood Facebook pages. “If we exploit the current situation of chaos and, during the night…burned 1000 [police] vehicles…Either the government will compensate [the officers] with new cars, which will cause imbalance in the budget and popular anger…or leave them without cars like the rest of the population, and this of course will have a big impact on their morale and their performance.” Indeed, police vehicles appear to be these groups’ most frequent targets.
The CSIS argues the United States does not need to rebuild its alliance with Saudi Arabia as much as build a new form of alliance based on the new realities of the Middle East. They note, “But, years of alliance and many close U.S. and Saudi friendships scarcely mean that they do not have different values and priorities. The United States is a secular democracy with Western values and global interests and priorities. It sees democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as global extensions of its own society and values. The United States has no immediate threats on its borders or peer competitors… Saudi Arabia is an Arab, Sunni Islamic monarchy. It has steadily modernized in virtually every dimension, but its royal family gives its own security and that of the Kingdom first priority, and sees the world in terms of its view of Islam and Arab interests.”
The CSIS looks at Islamic theology and how it impacts government actions in the Middle East. They conclude, “The credibility of state institutions has eroded in part because they are less appealing to younger audiences. Since strengthening state religion requires depoliticizing religion, state-employed preachers are unwilling to address the challenges of daily life which are inherently political: poor governance, economic exclusion, and corruption. By steering to safe topics, state clerics undermine their credibility with young people, who are then more susceptible to violent extremist messages…This ideological struggle poses deep challenges for U.S. policymakers because there is no obvious U.S. role in this debate. Yet, a deeper understanding of the forces at play is crucial. Governments in the region seek to de-radicalize their populations by making them more religious, not less. These messages may not always sound tolerant to American ears. Yet governments in the region are not looking to please the United States in this debate. They are betting that more controlled religious messaging can ultimately produce populations that are less rebellious. It is a gamble whose outcome will help determine the religious values of the next generation in the region.”
The AEI tries to tie the US failure to understand Putin to past attitudes towards leaders in Turkey and Iran. They note, “Only by studying past mistakes can future diplomats hope to avoid repeating them. The same holds true with Turkey: Warning signs extend back well over a decade, but the State Department refused to recognize them…about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s money laundering schemes and slush funds…The ambassador at the time blindly accepted the idea that Erdoğan was a reformer; he did not ask who the sources were and upon what the allegations were based… It is wrong to suggest that there were no negotiations with Iran in the decades between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama: There was plenty, but John Kerry and negotiator Wendy Sherman seem intent on reinventing the wheel without consideration to how the same people upon whom they now rely have in the past lied and cheated. That does not mean that history is bound to repeat, but repetition is much more likely if senior American officials do not care to learn from past mistakes.”
The Heritage Foundation argues that freeing energy markets is one way to curb Russian power, which is based to a great degree on its energy reserves. In arguing for lifting regulations that restrict America’s ability to have more of an impact on international energy markets, they conclude, “Increasing domestic energy production and lifting bans on energy exports would help the U.S. economy and Ukraine. And by increasing energy supplies to the global market and diversifying global supplies, these reforms would diminish the ability of any nation, including Russia, to use energy as a weapon to impose its will in the future. For these reasons, Congress should open access to America’s energy resources and allow for the free trade of energy resources.”
Who Will Take Control of the US Senate This Year?
Democrats were shaken last week in a closely watched special election in Florida. The results weren’t very promising for Democrats and seem to presage the loss of the US Senate to Republicans in November. If that happens, Obama will find the last two years of his administration even more challenging than the last few weeks.
This was to be a chance for the Democrats to gain a seat. The Democratic candidate Alex Sink, was the state’s former chief financial officer, a former candidate for governor, and a woman. Although there is a very slight Republican voter registration advantage, the congressional district voted twice for Obama and had voted for Sink, when she ran for governor. Sink had also outspent Republican David Jolly in the special election.
That loss was followed the next day by an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that showed Obama approval at historically low numbers and the Democratic Party in trouble. When the poll asked whether they were more or less likely to support a candidate endorsed by President Obama, respondents turned thumbs down on Obama by 42 percent to 22 percent. Asked whether they would be more likely to back a candidate who was a strong supporter of Obama, the results were worse: 48 percent to 26 percent.
This is bad news for the Democratic Party, which holds about 20 of the seats up for election in November. The Republicans only need to flip 6 seats to take control and currently there are 11 Democratic seats where there is no incumbent running or where the incumbent is in serious trouble.
Here’s the run down of those vulnerable Democrat seats. In each case, Obama’s unpopularity makes the race even harder for the Democrats. Democrats are defending seats in five states — Arkansas, Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia — where Obama’s approval rating was at or below 35 percent in 2013, according to Gallup. In four other states where Democrats hold a Senate seat that’s up in 2014, Obama’s approval rating was well below his national average of 46 percent: Louisiana (40 percent), Colorado and Iowa (42 percent), and North Carolina (43 percent). In New Hampshire and New Mexico the president had a 45 percent job-approval rating, just below his national average. That’s a total of 11 Democratic seats that could potentially be in play this November.
There are two Republican seats that may be lost. However, Obama’s low popularity ratings make these hard pick ups for the Democrats. In Georgia, where the GOP must defend an open seat, Obama’s approval rating of 45 percent is below his national average. In Kentucky, where Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is running for reelection, only 35 percent of voters have a favorable view of the president.
When it comes to campaigns for the Senate, Arkansas is probably the one that Democrats are most likely to lose. Arkansas has changed dramatically since the days of Bill Clinton and the once reliable Democrat state is now Republican. In fact, it gave Romney a 20% margin of victory in 2012.
Last week, Hickman Analytics, a Democratic polling firm, showed Arkansas Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor behind 51% to 42%, over a lesser-known GOP challenger, Representative Tom Cotton. Since undecided voters usually break for the challenger and Obama and his policies are unpopular in Arkansas, this is the Democrat’s most likely loss.
Another formerly Democratic state, Louisiana, also bodes ill for Democratic chances to retain the Senate. Once a Democratic bastion in the South, Romney won this state by 17% in 2012 and Obama is very unpopular there. Democratic Senator Landrieu narrowly won her 1996, 2002 and 2008 elections, and 2014 looks even harder.
Louisiana is an energy-producing state that has suffered from Obama administration “clean energy” policy. Recent polling shows Representative Bill Cassidy (R.) leading Democratic senator Mary Landrieu (D.) by 46 percent to 42 percent among likely voters and a full 49 percent to 40 percent among definite voters. Cassidy is only half as well known as Landrieu but, as a physician critical of Obamacare, is an effective messenger on health care.
In North Carolina, incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is doing everything she can to avoid being associated with Obama. Although she leads GOP candidate Thom Tillis 45 percent to 41 percent among likely voters, being under 50% is a dangerous sign for an incumbent.
In Colorado, which President Obama carried twice, a Rasmussen poll shows Democratic incumbent Mark Udall with a lead of only 42 percent to 41 percent over Republican representative Cory Gardner. Again the incumbent is underperforming where he should be at this point in the race. This had been considered a safe Democratic seat until Gardner announced he was running. Udall has also been plagued by a scandal concerning the bullying of Obamacare exchange employees.
In Alaska, Democratic Senator Begich is in big trouble. He is trailing both major Republican candidates in recent polling and Alaskan anger regarding Obamacare is strong. Romney received 55% of the vote here in 2012 and this is a likely Republican pickup.
Although Montana has become more of a swing state in the recent past, Republicans have a shot at the Senate seat thanks to the resignation of Democratic Senator Max Baucus to become Obama’s new Ambassador to China. Former Lt. Gov. John Walsh was appointed to replace him in the Senate, but the Democrat faces multiple sexual harassment and wrongful termination lawsuits. He may not be tied to a vote for Obamacare, but questions of his ethics will make the voters of Montana wonder if he can be trusted. Romney received 55% of the vote and, with Walsh’s personal issues, Republican candidate Daines is polling over 10% ahead of the Democrat and can take this seat from him.
The once Democratic state of West Virginia has been trending Republican and in 2012 Romney won the state by nearly 30% thanks to Obama’s attempt to close coal mines – a major industry in the state. With Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller retiring, this is an open seat and a potential Republican pickup. GOP Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito has a record in Congress of fighting the EPA on coal mining rules and polling shows her ahead of possible Democratic candidate Natalie Tennant by double digits.
In South Dakota, Romney won 58% of the vote, which may be why Democratic Senator Tim Johnson is retiring. Republican candidate, Governor Mike Rounds, is leading Democratic candidate, Rick Weiland by 20%. Baring a major upset, this is a probable win for the Republicans.
Iowa is losing retiring Democratic Senator Tom Harkin and Democratic Senate hopeful Congressman Bruce Braley is polling 6% ahead of all of the announced Republicans. However, these numbers are giving him 40% – 41%, which indicates some softness in his support. The poor polling of Obama (42%) and how well the Republican challenger (as yet, undecided) campaigns will determine if this seat remains Democratic.
One of the surprise states is Michigan, which voted for Obama in 2012. Democrat Senator Carl Levin is retiring and the GOP is looking surprisingly strong in 2014. Republican Governor Rick Snyder is polling very strong and that should help the Republican nominee. Although Obama did particularly well here in 2012, the Republican Senate nominee, probably former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, can win with a good campaign. Polls of likely voters show Land running 2% to 5% ahead of probably Democratic candidate Gary Peters.
Obama has a 45% approval rating in New Hampshire, which makes it harder for Democratic Senator Shaheen, who is polling a little below 50% in most polls. Her biggest threat may be former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown who is moving to New Hampshire and challenging her. Some pollsters find a Brown versus Shaheen Senate race competitive. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, had Shaheen ahead by just 3 points in January. The bipartisan Purple Strategies had the race tied. But more recent polls, such as one conducted by Suffolk University and the Boston Herald, show Shaheen ahead by 13 points with Brown getting less than 40 percent of the vote. However, Brown has shown a knack of winning in Democratic territory, so he can’t be discounted. However, in the long run, this state will probably stay in Democratic hands.
In the end, what may be just as important will be the ability of the Republicans to hold their seats in Georgia and Kentucky – Senate seats the Democrats feel they can pick up.
In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is barely ahead of his Democratic challenger Alison Grimes. He has been hurt by a primary challenge by the more conservative Matt Bevins, who is far behind in the polls, but is undoubtedly hurting the senator amongst more conservative voters.
Georgia, another Republican seat, is in danger as Saxby Chambliss is retiring. Michelle Nunn is the likely Democratic candidate and she is consistently holding a 2% – 4% lead over her potential Republican opponents.
What may save the Republicans in both of these states is that the mid term election is usually a referendum on the sitting president. Both of these states went comfortably for Romney in 2012 and although polling shows them potential Democratic wins, history indicates that the Republican candidate will likely squeak out a win, especially if disheartened Democrats stay home on election day.
If the Republicans can hold Georgia and Kentucky, the math for them to win control of the Senate is great. Arkansas, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia are currently leaning towards the Republicans. That means they need only win one of the current toss up states, Alaska, Iowa, Louisiana, or Michigan.
If, however, Georgia and Kentucky are won by the Democrats, the battle to control the Senate becomes considerably harder for the Republicans.
What a Republican Senate Would Mean
In the current climate of deadlock in Washington, a Republican Senate will not mean a great change. Legislation might be passed by the Republican House and Senate, but end up being vetoed by Obama. The only difference is that now, legislation passed by the House dies in the Senate rather than at the White House.
The biggest change might be with Obama’s nominations. Without a majority to count on, Obama might be forced to either leave some positions unfilled or put forth nominees that have a better chance of being confirmed by the Republican Senate.
This problem has already been considered and many Democrats are pressuring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg to retire at the end of this SCOTUS term so Obama can nominate and the Senate can confirm a replacement before the Republicans can take charge.
Free Ukraine by Freeing Energy Markets
By Nicolas Loris and Jack Spencer
March 13, 2014
Issue Brief #4170
Whether military, diplomatic, economic, or otherwise, the U.S. government has an array of policy options to bring to bear in response to Russia’s unacceptable aggression against Ukraine. However, one must not discount the impact that free markets and free trade can ultimately have on the situation. Much of Russia’s power in the region is the result of its control over energy supplies and distribution systems. Diminishing Russia’s economic leverage over the region should be a key component of America’s response. This could be largely accomplished simply by liberalizing global energy markets. The U.S. has antiquated and unnecessary restrictions on exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) and crude oil, and Congress should make lifting these restrictions a priority.
Middle East Notes and Comment: Traditional Remedies
By Haim Malka
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 14, 2014
In the decade after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government promoted democracy as an antidote to al Qaeda’s violent ideology. Whether or not U.S. democracy promotion had much to do with it, the revolts and revolutions of 2011 recast Arab politics. To many U.S. allies, the principal product of casting aside dictatorships was not more democratic governance, but instead weakened security structures. As they see it, the new environment provided public space for violent extremist ideology to spread and reignited a debate over how to fight it. This time around, U.S. voices will be much less relevant to the debate. Rather than promoting Western values, which can imply separating religion and state, governments in the region are doing the opposite. They see controlling religious space, both physical and ideological, as the key to combating extremism. Their strategies are not about creating “moderate Islam,” as some Americans have advocated, but strengthening an interpretation of Islam that accepts state authority. In North Africa, defining a “traditional” or “national” Islam is at the core of this effort. The outcome of this struggle and whether governments can create viable religious alternatives to extremist narratives will shape the next generation of Islamic values across the region.
The Need for a New “Realism” in the US-Saudi Alliance
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 17, 2014
The United States does not need to rebuild its alliance with Saudi Arabia as much as build a new form of alliance based on the new realities of the Middle East. Both sides need to recognize these changing realities, and the uncertainties involved, and develop a new level of cooperation. At the same time, they need to be more tolerant of the other side’s positions. The United States and Saudi Arabia have many common interests, but often have different values and priorities. This requires the leaders of both countries to face facts in private that they may not be able to face in public, and to build a more functional partnership based on the new realities that shape the region.
Were mistakes made on Russia, Turkey, and Iran?
By Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute