Week of November 16, 2018

Think Tanks Activity Summary
(For further details, scroll down to the PUBLICATIONS section)


Washington remains wrapped up on election results as several critical elections are undergoing a recount due to the close results.

This week’s analysis looks at the expected resignations and firings in the White House.  We compare Trump’s White House turnover rate to previous administrations, who has been fired, who is likely to leave, who is expected to come onboard, and how foreign policy will change.


The American Foreign Policy Council looks at Trump’s Iran policy.  They note, “Even more important, however, is the current tug-of-war taking place over Iran’s banking sector. The Nov. 7 sanctions round is aimed in large part at blacklisting Iran’s Central Bank and other national financial institutions, isolating them from the global economy and thereby making it harder for the Iranian regime to fund its malign regional behavior. The single most potent way for the administration to do this is by demanding that Iran be “disconnected” from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunications (SWIFT), a key international body that facilitates foreign monetary transactions. Back in 2012, when SWIFT was successfully pressured to remove Iran from its rolls, it sent shockwaves through the Islamic Republic and helped bring the ayatollahs to the nuclear negotiating table. But as part of its concessions during the subsequent talks, the Obama administration allowed Iran to be “reconnected” to SWIFT, paving the way for Tehran to restore normal trade relations with a range of foreign countries. Not surprisingly, forcing SWIFT to disconnect Iran anew has emerged as a key element of the Trump administration’s reinvigorated sanctions strategy. But this effort may soon be abandoned as well.”


The Washington Institute says the United States should keep training and advising Saudi forces if they meet certain conditions, but it should end refueling support to Saudi aircraft operating near Yemen.  They note, “The latest statistics from U.S. Central Command suggest that American forces are supporting the Saudi air campaign in Yemen with an average of 101 refueling sorties per month, or around 3 per day. In military terminology, this means that approximately 400,000 pounds of daily “offload” is available to Saudi aircraft involved in fighter missions, command and control, intelligence, and reconnaissance Moreover, Secretary Mattis recently noted that the USAF provides less than 20 percent of the fuel consumed in daily Saudi air operations over Yemen—more than 80 percent is provided by the Royal Saudi Air Force’s thirteen large air refueling platforms. In other words, if Washington reduces or cancels this refueling support, it would have minimal effect on Saudi operations inside Yemen—with one important exception…Yet a refueling cutoff could complicate Saudi operations deeper inside Yemen, such as opportunistic airstrikes in Sana, Saada, and other urban locales that present a high risk of civilian casualties. On October 30, Secretary Pompeo stated that coalition airstrikes “must cease in all populated areas in Yemen,” suggesting that a cutoff might be a useful way of signaling Riyadh and shaping Saudi operations.”


The Heritage Foundation looks at the religious aspects of ISIS, they conclude, “The swift rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq presented the United States with yet another threat from a religiously motivated actor—yet American leaders struggled to “know the enemy.” American leaders have historically secularized the motives and commitments of religious actors, which weakens our ability to “know the enemy.” At the same time, secular political assumptions have limited our capacity to engage religious actors in the work of promoting religious freedom and pluralism. In the future, U.S. attempts to understand religious actors should treat the sincerity of religious commitments with due gravity. Doing so enhances our ability to distinguish friend from foe and helps anticipate hostile actions, as well as find avenues of cooperation in our pursuit of freedom, security, and peace.”


The CSIS looks at the centenary of WWI and notes how the war impacted several empires, including those who were in the Middle East.  They conclude, “For most of the twentieth century, the shadow of imperial collapse loomed most prominently over the states that emerged from the periphery of the Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman empires. Unfortunately, many of the conflicts set off by imperial collapse remain unresolved, as the violence in Syria and the fragility of the Balkans demonstrate. The old metropoles, conversely, viewed 1918 as the end of an era, blaming their imperial predecessors for bringing about the Great War and, ultimately, their own demise. They spent decades trying to pave over the legacies of empire. Now imperial nostalgia is back. It will be one of the primary factors shaping European and Eurasian geopolitics for years to come.”


The CSIS notes that US strategic planning is frequently merely a cover for funding line items in the defense budget.  They conclude, “It is time to recognize that U.S. national security planning has become a dysfunctional mess, and one where vague strategic goals are confused with an actual plan, and service-oriented annual budgets are confused with effective mission-oriented program budgets. The good news is that Secretary Mattis seems to be focusing on creating the kind of FY2020 budget submission that could turn the concepts and goals in the NSS and NDS into actual programs, mission capabilities, and budgets. The bad news is that it is far from clear that even the best Secretary of Defense can fix the current failures in the defense planning, programming, and budget system in the time – and bureaucratic and political environment – in which the Secretary has to act.”


The American Enterprise Institute says Israel’s embrace of China is wrong.  They conclude, “In sum, Israel is finding itself on the wrong side of a shift in geopolitics, and is allowing itself to become too cozy with a viciously repressive regime (one sign, incidentally, of the profound dissimilarity between Jewish and Chinese civilization). Yet this does not mean that Israel has to go out of its way to antagonize China. Washington is not asking any friend to do that—and Washington, for its part, has a role to play in its outreach to Jerusalem, much as it is attempting to do with others throughout Europe and Asia. Taking a cue from that playbook, Israel might adopt an approach more in tune with of Australia, Japan, or the smaller European nations—by, for instance, more actively aligning itself with U.S. policy on high-tech, on the One Belt One Road initiative, and on China’s attempts to build basing stations throughout the world.”




Prepare for Trump Administration Turnovers

The mid term elections are over and Americans are preparing for a number of resignations and firings inside the White House.  It’s obvious that a president who made the phrase, “You’re fired,” popular is getting ready to use the same words in Washington.

In this analysis, we want to look at the attrition rate of the Trump Administration and how it stacks up to previous administrations. Then we will look at the critical posts that will probably be vacant within the next few weeks.  Then we will look at possible replacements and the potential policy changes that this will engender.

Turnover is common in White House positions.  While they are attractive, they engender long hours and considerable pressure.  As a result, there is a above average turnover as people decide they don’t want the pressure and time away from their families, and their bosses decide that the person isn’t fulfilling the job requirements.

It’s also a fact that many people who go the White House only want to stay long enough to make contacts and add the job to their résumé.  Then they are off to a higher paying position in the outside world.

The post election period between November and January is a popular time to make these changes.  The White House can calibrate its policy and make changes (as Bush did in 2006 after suffering major losses in the Senate and House).  In addition, the holidays are a slow time, when positions can remain vacant until a new person is picked and confirmed (if necessary).

There is also the case of firing people that the president didn’t want to fire before the elections for political reasons.  That was surely the case with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Consequently, the Trump Administration is making several key changes.

Although the media has made an issue of the turnover in the Trump Administration, a Brookings Institution study shows that changes amongst Trump’s important White House executives are in line with turnovers in every administration since President Reagan.  In fact, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush made more mid term election year changes in their executive staff.

President Trump has had the largest percentage turnover in the first year since 1980 (about 35%).  However, his second year turnover rate is lower than other presidents (this figure includes Sessions, but may change in the next two months).  In terms of cabinet positions, Trump is tied with Clinton in number of turnovers. Obama is in third place.

Obviously, the media has made more of an issue of changes in Trump’s Administration than they did with other presidents.

However, that isn’t to say that the Trump Administration is not without its problems.  There have been reports of heated arguments in the hallways (the argument between Chief of Staff Kelly and National Security Advisor Bolton is a good example.

In some cases, the problem is that when Trump was elected he relied on advice from other Republicans because he knew little about the people in Washington.  The result was that he picked people that were not a good fit for his administration. In many cases, they advocated positions that he opposed.

The first post election casualty was Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was asked to resign.  As senator, Sessions was the first important politician to endorse Trump. Given his early support and former job in the Justice Department, he was a natural choice for the position.  However, he proved to be ineffective – partially because he recused himself from the Russian probe and he failed to take firm control of his department.

Although the Attorney General doesn’t have a major impact in national security issues, he is part of the national security team.  And, given the number of investigations that the Democrats are threatening, he will be a point man in defending the administration’s actions.

Trump’s temporary appointment of Matthew Whitaker as Attorney General fits the Trump criteria.  In recent writings, he has taken the same positions as Trump on the Special Prosecutor and Immigration.  He has also made it clear that he will not recuse himself from supervising the Special Prosecutor and will take over management of that from the current Deputy Attorney General.  This has raised objections from the Democrats that he can’t fill the position. The DoJ has countered with legal precedents and will probably win the case in the courts.

Since Whitaker is only temporary, he must be confirmed by the US Senate in order to be the permanent Attorney General.

There, are however, some changes that will have more of an impact on foreign policy.  One of those changes represented a first – being pushed out by the First Lady.

First Ladies traditionally stay out of major national and international policy formulation, and if they do, are subtle.  That wasn’t true this week when the office of the First Lady   called for the firing of Deputy National Security Advisor Mira Ricardel, who reported to National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Mrs. Trump’s office said, “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.”

A Wall Street Journal report suggests that the First Lady’s office had had it with Ricardel’s behavior.

The Wall Street Journal reported, “The president became involved in that decision at the urging of Mrs. Trump, whose staff battled with Ms. Ricardel during the first lady’s trip to Africa last month over seating on the plane and requests to use National Security Council resources, according to people familiar with the matter.”

“The first lady’s team told the president that they suspect Ms. Ricardel is behind some negative stories about Mrs. Trump and her staff.”

Politico also reports that Ricardel may also be responsible for a breakdown in communication between the Pentagon and NSC because of conflicts with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Ricardel is a tough bureaucratic infighter and supports more of a traditional Republican foreign policy than John Bolton does.

She has also had several run-ins with Washington power brokers.  Ricardel was part of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team as a Department of Defense advisor.  She was looked at for positions in the new administration in the Defense and State Departments, but was twice blocked based upon past bureaucratic run-ins, in the first instance by Mattis and in the second by Department of State Chief of Staff Margaret Peterlin.   Ricardel had blocked some nominees wanted by Mattis because they had Democratic backgrounds.

In the end, she lasted only 24 hours after the First Lady pushed for her ousting.

Personality issues may also account for other White House shakeups, namely Chief of Staff John Kelly and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

CoS Kelly has made it clear that he is willing to resign and talk of his departure has been common.  However, it seems that his presence has settled the White House Staff after a first year of turmoil.

However talk of his departure has grown since reports of his heated argument with National Security Advisor John Bolton.

The issue was border security and Kelly supported the more lenient position of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.  Bolton favored a stricter policy that would close the border. The issue became hotter when Bolton reportedly accused Kelly of having an affair with Nielsen, who served as Kelly’s deputy when Kelly was in charge of DHS.

After the blowup, aides whispered privately that one of the men might leave the White House given the deep disagreement over the border.  The fact that the President sided with Bolton only added to Kelly’s fury.

This isn’t the first time Nielsen’s handling of border security has been scrutinized by the Trump White House. Trump and Nielsen got into a heated argument during a Cabinet meeting in May over border security, a source with knowledge told CNN.

Trump said he didn’t think she was doing enough to secure the border and two people told The New York Times, which first reported the argument, that Nielsen drafted a resignation letter over the matter.

If Kelly leaves the White House the top choice for the position of Chief of Staff is Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Nick Ayers.  Ayers is only 36, but enjoys warm relations with some of the most important figures in Trump’s White House: his eldest son, Don Jr., his eldest daughter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Ayer also enjoys support among outside advisers who have Trump’s ear but have clashed with Kelly when he sought to regulate access to the president.

Ayer has proven to be a settling influence on the Pence team – something needed in the Trump White House.  He also managed Pence’s 2018 campaign strategy, which impressed Trump.

Trump and Ayers had already discussed the chief of staff job in the early summer, according to a former senior administration official, but at the time it was unclear when Kelly would depart. And Trump spent the summer asking friends, White House advisers and former aides: “What do we think about Nick?” – an indication he is privately considering a staff shake-up.

Ayers first impressed Ivanka Trump, Kushner and then-Trump campaign chairman Steve Bannon as an aide to Pence during the presidential campaign. All three later encouraged Ayers to join the White House as a replacement for Pence’s first chief of staff, Josh Pitcock. If Ayers took over as chief of staff, he would be seen by some Trump allies as an improvement over Kelly, since he has far greater political influence and connections.

As for a DHS choice to replace Nielsen, Trump is considering Thomas Homan, former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to succeed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, three people familiar with the process told Politico.

Homan is a hardliner on immigration and immigration is an immportant issue for Trump’s voter base and necessary for his reelection in 2020.

Homan once recommended charging so-called sanctuary city politicians “with crimes” and has pugnaciously defended even Trump’s most controversial immigration moves, including separating children from their parents at the border.

In addition to Homan, other potential Nielsen replacements include Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and David Pekoske, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. Both have already been confirmed by the Senate.

The president is also considering Maj. Gen. Vincent Coglianese, who currently runs the Marine Corps Installations Command, according to two people familiar with the process. One of Coglianese’s sons serves as editorial director at the Daily Caller, a conservative outlet known for its favorable news coverage of the Trump administration.

Clearly, these resignations and replacements will fit Trump’s agenda.  However, there appears to be another personality in the changes – National Security Advisor John Bolton.

It was Bolton who precipitated the heated argument with Kelly over Nielsen – an argument that Trump sided with Bolton on.

If Nielsen or Kelly resign or are fired, Bolton’s hand will be in it.

We can also be sure that the departure of Deputy National Security Advisor Mira Ricardel, at least had Bolton’s acquiescence.  And we can be sure that the replacement will be in tune with Bolton’s policies.

This means that Bolton’s policies will have more support in the new Trump Administration.  Bolton has been called a neoconservative and is an advocate for regime change in Iran and North Korea and repeatedly called for the termination of the Iran deal. He has continuously supported military action and regime change in Syria.

Bolton is skeptical of international organizations and international law, believing them to endanger American sovereignty, and does not believe they have legitimate authority under the U.S. Constitution.  He is a critic of the European Union and praised Britain’s vote to leave it.

Bolton is known for his strong support for Israel.  Bolton opposed the two-state solution.  He is also a supporter of Taiwan, which has increased tension with China.

These are all policies that Trump advocates, which means that some of his new advisers will merely echo his opinions, instead of providing opposing opinions.

If this proves to be true, expect Trump’s policies in the run-up to the 2020 election to be less nuanced and more in line with his campaign promises.



Minding the “God Gap”: ISIS’ Genocide of Religious Minorities and American Statecraft

By Emilie Kao and Joshua Meservey

Heritage Foundation

November 8, 2018

The swift rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq presented the United States with yet another threat from a religiously motivated actor—yet American leaders struggled to “know the enemy.” American leaders have historically secularized the motives and commitments of religious actors, which weakens our ability to “know the enemy.” At the same time, secular political assumptions have limited our capacity to engage religious actors in the work of promoting religious freedom and pluralism. In the future, U.S. attempts to understand religious actors should treat the sincerity of religious commitments with due gravity. Doing so enhances our ability to distinguish friend from foe and helps anticipate hostile actions, as well as find avenues of cooperation in our pursuit of freedom, security, and peace.

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A Century after the Armistice, the World is Still Coping with the End of Empires

By Jeffrey Mankoff

Center for Strategic and International Studies

November 13, 2018

A century after the Armistice that ended World War I on the Western Front, much of the world remains haunted by the legacies of that conflict. Apart from the deaths of more than 9 million soldiers and an untold number of civilians, the most lasting impact of the First World War may be the collapse of the old empires that dominated Europe and Eurasia until 1918. From Poland to Syria, states that emerged from the peripheries of the old empires struggled to reconcile nationalist ideologies, the principle of self-determination, and the reality of diversity. Meanwhile, the old imperial cores—states like Russia and Turkey—still wrestle with the loss of status and territory that accompanied the end of empire. With the post-Cold War order giving way, instability along the old periphery remains, even as the centers of the old empires increasingly look to the past for inspiration, seeking to recreate something like an imperial order in the regions they once ruled.

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America’s FY2020 Defense Strategy and Programming Crisis

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

November 13, 2018

For several decades, American strategic planning has been little more than a facade for annual line item budget debates. Arguably, U.S. strategic planning peaked when Harold Brown was Secretary of Defense in 1981. From that point onwards, efforts to create and manage U.S. national security using some effective linkage between strategy and real-world planning, programming, and budgeting activity steadily declined. Meaningful posture statements by the Secretary that tied strategy to plans and budgets faded away, along with real-world force goals, future year defense plans and budgets, and efforts to link strategy and spending to key joint mission areas like the categories in the program budget system or to the major regional and functional military commands.

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Testing Trump’s Iran Strategy

By Ilan I. Berman

American Foreign Policy Council

October 30, 2018

On Nov. 6, Americans will go to the polls in midterm elections that are likely to reshape the complexion of national politics. But even before they do, U.S. foreign policy will face a crucial test of resolve vis-a-vis the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Back in May, President Trump formally announced that the United States was withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and that pre-existing sanctions which had been waived by the Obama administration would begin to “snap back” into place against the Islamic Republic. The first step in this direction was the re-imposition on Aug. 7 of restrictions on Iran’s ability to buy U.S. currency, its trade in precious metals, and commercial sales of aircraft and auto parts to the Islamic Republic. These steps have already begun to have a marked impact on Iran’s economy, prompting a veritable exodus of foreign companies from the Islamic Republic and cratering the value of Iran’s national currency, the rial. But the second tranche of sanctions, which is set to be reinstated on Nov. 4, promises to be even more serious. The new measures will include massive restrictions on Iran’s global oil trade, as well as a severing of Iran’s Central Bank from the global financial system.

Taken in isolation, these steps have the power to deal a severe blow to Iran’s fragile, energy-dependent economy. Taken together, the impact on Iran’s radical regime — which is already said to be on the verge of economic collapse — could be nothing short of catastrophic.

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Israel’s embrace of China is sorely misguided

By Dan Blumenthal

American Enterprise Institute

November 15, 2018

Israel’s embrace of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) under Xi Jinping is morally and strategically misguided. This has become increasingly evident as Xi has transformed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the “soft authoritarian” developmental state created by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s into the “hard totalitarian” state it is today, both at home and abroad. In turn, Washington is gradually changing its own strategy to one of vigorous competition with China as its main great-power rival. As Washington shifts course, Israel would do well to align itself accordingly.

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U.S.-Saudi Security Cooperation: Restricting Operational Support in Yemen

By Michael Knights and Lt. Col. August Pfluger, USAF

Washington Institute

November 6, 2018

Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis laid out a sequence for ending hostilities in Yemen: the Houthi rebels are expected to cease border and missile attacks, after which the Saudi-led coalition is to halt high-risk airstrikes in populated areas, thus laying the ground for peace talks. Yet if the hoped-for talks wind up failing (as the previous round did earlier this year in Geneva when the Houthis refused to attend), Washington will likely intensify its scrutiny of U.S. operational support to the Saudi war effort. Since the conflict began in 2015, Congress has debated whether to end support activities such as refueling coalition aircraft and providing advise/assist functions in Saudi Arabia. Yet discussion of these missions often loses sight of their limited scale and, in the case of advisory support, their crucial defensive and diplomatic value.

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