Although Trump’s Asian trip was the focus of the think tank community, they also provided a lot of commentary on the events in Saudi Arabia. We have gathered much of it for you this week.
The Monitor analysis this week looks at the Trump presidency one year after the election. We find that despite the drama of the Trump Administration, he is following conventional Republican policies, especially in terms of foreign policy. We look at the differences and how he has evolved in the White House.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Heritage Foundation asks if Saudi Crown Prince Salman is leading a revolution from above. They conclude, “These reform efforts have appealed to young Saudis, particularly the 70 percent of the population that is under the age of 30. They also are likely to support the anti-corruption campaign. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be positioning himself to lead a revolution from above. If he succeeds, it will be a welcome alternative to the disastrous revolutions from below that destabilized many countries in the region during the “Arab Spring” uprisings. But, in pushing for rapid political, economic and social change, MBS risks provoking a backlash from Wahhabi religious leaders, as well as from disgruntled branches of the royal family who have been squeezed out of power or sidelined. It remains to be seen how enduring his reforms and anti-corruption campaign will be. But the Crown Prince deserves credit for seeing that Saudi Arabia’s status quo was unsustainable.”
The CSIS looks at the implications of the events in Saudi Arabia. When looking at Crown Prince Salman’s chance of success, they say, “There is a 75 percent chance that this will consolidate power behind the crown prince. After all, when he moved against his cousin, the previous crown prince, he won a pledge of allegiance relatively quietly and smoothly. Crown Prince Mohammed has substantial public support, and many Saudis feel that change is necessary and that he is the leading change agent. We should expect to see a broadly popular effort to root out corruption and confiscate wealth. Much as President Xi Jinping has done in China, the effort can build legitimacy and undermine opponents. Fines and confiscated wealth could also be steered toward state projects. Politically, however, the crown prince’s changes will undermine many of the established power centers in the kingdom, and many billionaires inside and outside of the family will find their business models shredded. They will look for ways to protect themselves, and some may not choose to curry favor. Simultaneous to these moves, the crown prince is taking on the religious establishment and social conservatives. It is not unthinkable that a coalition against him will consolidate, but the window of opportunity to blunt the crown prince is closing. If this settles in his favor, there is not likely to be another chance.”
The Heritage Foundation says the agreement with Russia on Syria undermines US interests in the region. They conclude, “While the defeat of the terrorist threat in Syria should be the highest immediate priority, the administration needs to keep in mind that ISIS terrorism is only a piece of the Syrian and Middle Eastern puzzle. Iran is a bigger long-term threat than ISIS and the U.S. will need reliable allies on the ground to roll back Iranian influence in Syria and prevent Tehran from consolidating a land bridge across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. To shore up regional stability and protect U.S. interests and allies, Washington must remain engaged in Syria. If the U.S. merely walks away from Syria after the defeat of ISIS, it will enable Russia and Iran to consolidate their dominance in that key country and further undermine the U.S. and its allies in the region. The administration needs to look at the region as a whole rather than solely focusing on the defeat of ISIS. While Russia and Iran may also seek to destroy ISIS, both nations are part of the larger problem that threatens U.S. interests in the Middle East.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at Prince Salman’s attempt to remake Saudi Arabia. They conclude, “The centralization of royal authority, the consolidation of the bureaucracy, the diminution of the influence of religious scholars, and the stronger role of law originating from official (rather than religious) texts are creating a state that purports not to obstruct but instead furiously encourage such change. The crown prince is both a product of and an agent of the emerging system. Yet in one important way, the current restiveness is contradictory. It is based on, and fosters, attempts to meet the needs of a growing (and younger) country, whose citizens are more engaged with public affairs—and with each other. But the unmistakably authoritarian top leadership pursuing these efforts seeks to tightly grasp the reins of power to guide Saudi society according to its vision of social and economic transformation. How Saudi Arabia emerges from this experience—and the current leadership’s success, in part—may hinge on whether this odd mix of politicization and repression can continue to coexist.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at the events in Saudi Arabia. They conclude, “Be that as it may, the Trump White House has given MbS a green light to drive Saudi Arabia 90 miles an hour over a cliff. Consider the components of likely disaster. The Yemen war will not be won, and Saudis—soldiers and civilians—may die in politically significant numbers. Missiles may fly into Saudi cities now from many directions, and not all of them will be intercepted. Most Saudis have gotten used to almost perfect material and physical security in recent years; this is a pampered and brittle society not used to pulling together or suffering hardship. The touted MbS-signed economic reforms, though indeed necessary, may not work; or, maybe worse, they will work and catalyze the usual social instability that comes from rapid change—except it could be much worse than the historical norm given the rigidity of Saudi Arabia’s frozen neo-fundamentalist social mindset. At some point, too, those now designated as the family “delinquents,” with much of the clergy in support, might use failure at home and abroad to try to get rid of MbS; after all, not only was one Saudi king deposed after 11 years on the throne, another, Faisal, was assassinated by a relative. What might that look like? For now, it’s safe to assume that the eleven arrested princes are in effect hostages and hence useful for deterrence: If their near kin try to discomfit MbS, the detainees might lose their heads. But that tactic has a half-life. And if foreign and domestic threats combine at a sour moment to threaten the Saudi regime itself, will the Trump administration send U.S. forces to save it? What would that look like?
Trump’s First Year
It’s been a year since Donald Trump surprised the pundits and was elected President of the United States. Although these same analysts quickly predicted how he would govern, they have proved to be wrong. Rather than governing as a bombastic nationalist, his actions have been more like a conservative Republican president, although he continues with the “off the cuff” remarks that annoy friends and enemies alike.
He is definitely more eccentric than most American presidents. Trump has struggled to translate the experiences he gained over 40 years in real estate, in entertainment, and in campaigns into governing the complex and recalcitrant executive bureaucracy, negotiating with Congress, and leading a divided nation. Always improvisational, blunt, controversial, fast-moving, personal, creative, unconventional, and sometimes comedic, Trump is no different than his celebrity real estate magnate image of the past few decades.
That “Trump” style has gotten him into major trouble several times over the last year. First when, barely a week into office, he signed a rushed executive order banning travel from several Muslim-majority nations. Although it was popular with the majority of American voters, it set the tone for his future battles with the Washington Bureaucracy and the judicial branch.
Second, Trump decided in May to fire FBI director James Comey, leading to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election has proven a long-lasting headache for the president, among others. He might have avoided much of the problem if he had fired him hours after taking office.
Finally, Trump has discovered that picking successful businessmen to head government departments doesn’t always mean that they will be successful in the bureaucratic quagmire of Washington. As Trump’s second echelon of political appointees has been stalled by the Senate, conservative cabinet secretaries have discovered that they have been frequently outmaneuvered by Obama under secretaries and deputies still in office.
The year since Donald Trump was elected president has not been without accomplishment. He has restored a conservative Supreme Court (which he promised during the campaign) with the appointment and confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch. And, he is now doing the same to the whole judicial system with several lower-court appointments.
He can claim that he carried out more successful campaign against ISIS than Obama, although the future of Syria, Iraq, and the Kurds remains a mystery.
As a businessman, Trump advocated the rollback of what perceived by conservatives as intrusive government regulations. He pushed for the approval of the Keystone and Dakota XL pipelines. And, for the first time in a few years, the coal mining industry is expanding. The ongoing boom of record employment and stock-market prices cannot be denied.
Trump is also responsible for the reduction in illegal border crossings – a policy popular with voters, if not with Washington and businessmen needing cheap labor.
Other campaign promises made and kept are the decertification of Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the withdrawal from UNESCO, and the withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
One of the differences the bureaucracy must understand is that he isn’t a politician or military man, which means he doesn’t have the government mindset. That, in turn has helped cement his relationship in Middle America. When he denounced professional football players for not standing for the National Anthem, Washington and the media condemned him. However, voters supported him and boycotted professional football for the first time in history.
Although Trump isn’t a professional politician, he realizes that the GOP is increasingly a working-class party of the forgotten Middle American men and women of the 21st-century global economy. There is a divergence of interests between lower-middle-class and middle-class Trump voters, traditional upper-middle-class Republicans, and corporations. This explains Trump’s legislative problems repealing Obamacare and passing tax reform.
It also explains Trump’s legislative successes, which have received broad support amongst corporations and upper-middle class Republicans.
But, Trump understands electoral politics. He understands that corporations do not vote. He has been forced (like Obama) to rely on executive orders, high-profile announcements, and public confrontations to fulfill some campaign promises. Trump is also careful to win over important special interests on the right, such as the National Rifle Association and social conservatives.
However, the irony is that he will work within the parameters set by a Republican establishment. Trump has sided with the legislative calendar of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, allowing Obamacare repeal and tax cuts to take precedence over funding for the border wall and infrastructure bill. He even supported the establishment Republican Alabama senate candidate, even though the challenger, Moore, was a pro-Trump candidate.
Trump’s administration is much more “establishment” than many think. Mattis, McMaster, Kelly, and Powell are certified members of the national security establishment. Vice President Pence, Attorney General Sessions, CIA Director Pompeo, and UN Ambassador Haley are Republican stars, who were frequently mentioned as presidential possibilities by the same politicians who now condemn Trump.
However, like a businessman, Trump will not tolerate problems with subordinates. When subordinates run into controversy, they are dropped, from Michael Flynn on down the line through Scaramucci, Bannon, and Price. When his original pick for secretary of labor, CEO Andy Puzder, ran into trouble, Trump replaced him with Alexander Acosta, a noncontroversial attorney. Pleased with Janet Yellen’s performance as Federal Reserve chair but wanting also to make himself distinct from Obama, Trump nominated Yellen ally Jay Powell to replace her.
And, the firings are probably not over. CIA Director Mike Pompeo has risen to the top of Trump’s list of candidates to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose position with the administration has been tenuous for some time, according to a report from Politico. Tillerson has continued disputes with Trump over North Korea, the Iran nuclear deal, and immigration.
“Pompeo is a skeptic toward the traditional thinking in Washington about Iran and North Korea,” said Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “Tillerson pushed back on policy things and at times he reflected that there’s always a diplomatic solution.”
Pompeo, a former congressman from Kansas, a former Army office, and graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, has assumed a prominent role in the administration by giving Trump his daily intelligence briefing, where the president levels him with questions about everything from national security threats to the internal dynamics of Congress.
This shows the evolution from “Trump the businessman” into “Trump the Republican politician.”
Trump has also proven he is a traditional Republican president by spending more on defense, striking Syrian military target with missiles, reassuring traditional allies in the Pacific and Middle East, and above all speaking harshly of America’s enemies. The continuation of the American presence in Afghanistan, the pursuit of an elusive Palestinian -Israeli peace deal, the war on ISIS, even the desire for improved relations with Russia are shared characteristics of the last three presidential administrations.
Trump’s Visit to Asia
The president’s recent trip to China shows a conventional president following conventional American foreign policy.
Candidate Trump blamed the People’s Republic for devaluing its currency, dumping commodities into American markets, and stealing U.S. production through mercantilist policies. If China did not change its predatory economic behavior, Trump said, he would label it a currency manipulator and slap tariffs on Chinese imports.
President Trump was quite different. Once in office, Trump decided personal diplomacy with Chinese President Xi Jinping was the way to improve relations between the two powers and to counter North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. When he spoke at the Great Hall of the People last Thursday, Trump said he did not blame China for the gargantuan trade surplus it enjoys with the United States. It was his predecessors who were responsible.
But, Trump showed he was willing to show what President Teddy Roosevelt called “The Big Stick.” The US Navy has conducted at least three freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea during his presidency. Currently three carrier battle groups are within striking distance of North Korea.
Trump also acted like the president of the world’s superpower while in Asia. He scored some points domestically and internationally by simply behaving like a President expected to behave.
The last time an American president visited China, the Chinese government literally didn’t roll out the red carpet. When Obama landed in Beijing in September 2016, no ramp was provided for him and he had to descend via Air Force One’s own stairs. Though both sides were quick to assert that this wasn’t an intentional slight, the contrast between the cold shoulder given Obama and Donald Trump’s warm welcome in Beijing this week could not be greater.
Upon arrival, President Trump got the ramp, complete with a crowd of flag-wavers, and was soon whisked away for a tour and state dinner at Beijing’s Forbidden City, making him the first foreign leader ever to receive what China called a “state visit-plus.”
This was ironic showing at least in one part of the World, that Trump Doctrine is more popular overseas that the Obama Doctrine. Critics of Obama asserts that he was never comfortable overseas as the American president. He often acted like he was ashamed of the United States and gave speeches that blurred the distinction between friend and foe. Other nations couldn’t understand why the head of the world’s only superpower would deliberately project weakness rather than strength. They also wondered if the US would support them in a crisis.
Trump was much clearer than Obama. He was open and forthright about his aims: he was in Asia to address North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, help right America’s trade imbalance with China, and reassure allies about American staying power.
As far as commercial policy, he wants to see additional Chinese investment in the American market, and has threatened to invoke Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act to punish China for its forced technology transfer of U.S. intellectual property.
However, Trump’s China policy remains muddled and could change course. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was bellicose about China during his confirmation hearing, could be getting his walking papers soon.
Of course, muddled American policy towards China has been a hallmark for the last couple of administrations. While George W. Bush entered the White House intent on containing China, the events of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left Washington distracted and gave China room to expand its power. When Obama took office, he, too, remained preoccupied by the War on Terror and disengaged from East Asia. The administration eventually attempted a “pivot to Asia” that failed completely. In the meantime, China continued its aggressive moves in the region by building islands in the South China Sea and launching its first aircraft carrier.
In the end, the test will be Trump’s willingness to show stability and not be distracted by other international issues like Bush and Obama.
How Trump Has Evolved
Trump is neither the first nor the last president to change his approach once confronted with the realities of presiding over the government of the richest and most powerful country in the world. He has compromised with establishment Republicans and Washington, but has made it clear that he will go with his own instincts if necessary – which was seen in his attack on professional football, which proved to reflect the majority of Americans.
Trump’s actions suggest an attempt to take power away from unelected establishment “elites” who previously had been given carte blanc to implement policies as they saw fit rather than carrying out the plan of the elected president. It’s possible that a Trump foreign policy doctrine is already taking shape, characterized by a shift from political engagement to economic engagement, and a reduction in the unelected Washington establishment’s influence – especially that of the State Department.
But, this is about more than Trump and the Washington establishment. The divides in America remain and have possible grown in the past year. Polls show his supporters continue to back him, while his opponents are even more opposed to him, which means that the fractures in American society are unlikely to be healed.
The problem is that if the divides between Americans aren’t healing, that means they will only get worse.
Is Mohammed bin Salman Getting Ready to Lead a Revolution from Above?
By James Phillips
November 15, 2017
Change usually comes slowly, if at all, in Saudi Arabia. But its ruling elite have been wracked by a sudden, stunning shakeup in recent days. Two weeks ago, King Salman announced the formation of an anti-corruption commission. By Monday, 11 Saudi princes, several business tycoons and at least 38 former or current government officials were reportedly under house arrest. The driving force behind the surprise purge is King Salman’s favorite son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. An ambitious young man in a hurry, Crown Prince Mohammed has spearheaded rapid changes in the political, economic and social spheres.
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Agreement with Russia in Syria Undermines U.S. Interests in the Region
By James Phillips
November 3, 2017
Long before he became president, Trump saw the pitfalls of U.S. policy toward Syria that entrapped the Obama administration. But now, even under the Trump administration, Moscow continues to “outsmart” Washington by ignoring the deconfliction arrangement when it suits its interests. “Deconfliction” is an informal agreement reached in 2015 between U.S.-led coalition forces and Russian military forces in Syria to avoid clashes.
But as the ISIS “caliphate” has been whittled away, Russian, Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces have begun operating in closer proximity to U.S.-backed Syrian rebel groups on the ground, and have frequently attacked them.
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Arrests in Saudi Arabia: Causes and Implications
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 6, 2017
What caused the sudden arrest of dozens of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful individuals? These individuals were swept up by an anticorruption commission that King Salman had created merely hours before the arrests. Reports claim that the arrested include some of the most important economic actors in Saudi Arabia. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the world’s most prominent Saudi investor, has gotten a great deal of attention, but the sweep included other billionaires, senior royals from other branches of the family, and technocrats who began guiding Saudi Arabia’s economic reform program under King Abdullah. These include Adel Fakieh, who served as minister of labor before becoming minister of economy and planning, and Ibrahim al-Assaf, who was minister of finance. While businesspeople in Saudi Arabia complain about the problems of corruption, and some of it involves granting special favors to the royal family, the pattern of these arrests suggest that they were intended to consolidate power and loyalty behind Crown Prince Mohammed and his ambitious plans to move the kingdom forward economically and socially. The arrests of two of the late King Abdullah’s sons, Prince Miteb and Prince Turki, suggest a strategic political calculus. Miteb commanded the National Guard, which was an armed force separate from the army to protect the royal family and could have blocked some of Mohammed’s moves against the family; Turki was governor of Riyadh, which gave him a political role building support among royals, a job King Salman himself used to great effect for decades.
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The Remaking of the Saudi State
By Nathan Brown
November 9, 2017
The arrests of leading Saudi princes and other prominent political figures in early November 2017 indicate that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is consolidating his influence. King Salman and his chosen heir are strengthening their position vis-à-vis the rest of the ruling family, seeking to centralize elements of the Saudi governing structure, and reining in the autonomy of the religious and judicial apparatuses. Saudi Arabia has long followed a distinctive, dilatory path in building its modern state. Riyadh features a political system that has evolved in insulated ways, with fiscal needs oversupplied by oil and a Wahhabi religious establishment that has dominated the religious and legal systems from the country’s founding to the present. Recent political changes may be led by a brash and ambitious crown prince, imposed by unsustainable welfare commitments, and rendered more urgent by apparent Saudi foreign policy overreach. They still seem to be products of a different country.
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The 1002nd Arabian Night?
By Adam Garfinkle
Foreign Policy Research Institute
November 8, 2017
It was on the fourth night, very early in the great Arabic tale that Shahrazade, in telling the story of King Yunan and his evil vizier, says as follows: “Oppression hideth in every heart; power revealeth it and weakness concealeth it.” It’s hard to say from Washington, D.C. how oppressive it really is for a passel of princes (eleven at last count) and assorted retainers (as many as 500, according to some reports) to be held under “hotel arrest” at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, but it’s easy to suppose that Mohammad bin Salman, the 32-year old Saudi Crown Prince—and King for practical purposes in all but formal title—senses that his burgeoning power gives him license for a bit of what he no doubt considers necessary oppression. It no longer hideth entirely in his heart. We’ll see how all this ends in due course: whether MbS remains the banquet hall’s premier diner long into the future, or rather sooner than that becomes the entrée. Both outcomes are possible. What is not possible the longer his coup from above lasts is putting Saudi political arrangements back the way they were pretty much since the end of 1953. He has destroyed the status quo, presumably with his feeble 81-year old father’s blessing—or maybe not. He did so possibly because he thinks the future of the Kingdom depends on it, possibly because his will to power and personal ambition far outrun his wisdom and experience, and likely because he shrouds, even to himself, the latter truth with the former conviction.
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