Week of September 20, 2019

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


The American Foreign Policy Council says the attack on the Saudi refineries is a major test for Trump.  They say he must stabilize global markets, secure oil trade routes, and deter Iran.  They conclude by noting, “The stakes are exceptionally high. A cogent, hard-hitting response to the Saudi attacks could go a long way toward reassuring America’s Middle Eastern partners that it remains committed to repelling Iranian aggression and safeguarding their security. A lackluster U.S. reply, on the other hand, would inevitably result in a massive loss of confidence in the Trump administration among the countries of the region. That, in turn, raises the risks of a wider conflict, as the Saudis (and perhaps others) are prompted to take matters into their own hands.”


The CSIS says the world dodged a bullet when Iran attacked the Saudi refinery.  They conclude, “Traders and pricing complacency suggest that the oil market is currently well-supplied. Tankers that left Ras Tanura last Friday are en route to their planned destinations and will still unload their cargoes in the coming weeks, so no physical shortage exists just yet. But challenges remain. Restarting complex facilities is a tricky business, geopolitical tensions in the region remain unabated, and the brazen assault on what is arguably the most significant oil facility in the world represents a most worrisome development—and one for which there is seemingly no guaranteed near-term solution.”


The Washington Institute also looks at the Saudi refinery strike and the reasons for Iran’s actions.  They note, “One possibility is that Iranian security officials have decided they can keep testing U.S. and Saudi resolve without major consequences, perhaps with the goal of shaking or shattering both their trust in each other and their determination to confront Tehran. After all, the regime’s gradually escalating thrusts have all been issued with no real riposte, from the May 12 Fujairah attacks to the May 14 attack on Saudi Arabia’s East-West Pipeline, the June 14 daylight attack on two tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, and the June 20 shootdown of a U.S. drone. More immediately, Tehran may aim to compel the West into granting it sanctions relief in exchange for reducing such attacks and freezing its recent acceleration of nuclear activities. If so, it may believe that Abqaiq will merely strengthen its leverage rather than changing the game altogether.”


The CSIS looks at the Saudi refinery attack and the changing nature of warfare.  They conclude, “As Iran may well have already demonstrated, cruise missiles and UCAVs can also be used to counter or supplement economic warfare and deal with sanctions. They reinforce the fact that the ability to escalate in some military ways is not producing some new form of mutually assured destruction, but is integrating political, economic, and military warfare. Seen from a broader perspective, they are a warning that the only rules to future warfare are that there are no rules, and that the only fully predictable aspect of the future of warfare is that it will be at least as unpredictable as in the past.”



The Cato Institute argues that President Trump deserves to pick the National Security Advisor he wants.  They conclude, “More broadly, however, the next national security adviser can perform an invaluable service by bending U.S. foreign policy to conform with modern realities — including the wishes of the American people. America’s ability to police the world, while others watch from the sidelines, was waning long before Donald Trump took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Indeed, we should welcome the fact that the world is now populated by many like-minded actors who are able to defend themselves from harm. The United States should be working diligently to reduce its permanent overseas military presence, stop intervening in the affairs of sovereign states, and shed some of the burdens of being the world’s sole superpower, so that it can attend to more urgent problems here at home.”


The Heritage Foundation says that Iran has been boxed in by Trump and their policy towards Trump is hoping that he is replaced in the 2020 election.  They conclude, “So has Tehran really broken the back of the U.S. pressure campaign? All this “sturm und drang” from Tehran may amount to much less than headlines suggest. Indeed, unless the regime starts cutting a new and better deal with Washington pretty darn quickly, Iran may be facing 2021 in no better shape than it is in right now.”


The Cato Institute looks at why the US can’t seem to reduce its military footprint around the world – specifically Afghanistan.  They look at America’s continued military presence in Europe 80 years after WWII started and conclude, “Unfortunately, that is the likely scenario for the Afghanistan mission as well. The United States does not practice the old-style imperialism of conquest, the establishment of colonies, and the use of direct rule. Instead, U.S. imperialism consists of creating patron-client relationships with security dependents and enforcing that policy through a global network of military bases. Nevertheless, it is an imperial policy, and the U.S. military footprint in a client state becomes as permanent as if it were encased in concrete. Afghanistan is merely the latest arena in which that model is being used.”


The Heritage Foundation looks at policy towards Yemen.  The three key points are: 1. The U.S. has an interest in shoring up Yemeni cooperation to combat threats posed by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Houthis, and Iran. 2. The U.S. can play a supporting role in facilitating negotiations—but ultimately the prospects for peace will be up to the Yemenis and their Arab allies. 3. The U.S. should encourage negotiations that give as many Yemeni factions as possible a stake in a stable peace.




Trump Picks Robert O’Brien as New National Security Advisor

Looking into the mind and policies of O’Brian

In an interesting convergence of events, President Trump picked Robert O’Brien as his National Security Advisor at the same time Secretary of State Pompeo called the Iranian missile attack on the Saudi refinery an “Act of War.”

Pompeo said after arriving in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, “We were blessed that there were no Americans killed in this attack, but any time you have an act of war of this nature, there’s always risk that that could happen…This is an attack of a scale we’ve just not seen before.”

Although the military option remains a possibility, it appears that the US will push for additional economic sanctions on Iran – something made easier by the attack as European leaders were loath to sanction Iran before.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he and Trump had talked to each other by phone and discussed the need for a “united diplomatic response from international partners” after the Aramco attacks.

As for the claims that the Houthis had carried out the attack, Pompeo said the US has “high confidence” that they do not have the advanced weapons to carry out the attack.  “These line attack cruise missiles we have never seen there and we think we have seen most everything…We also know that these are systems that the Iranians have not deployed anyplace else, that they have not deployed outside of their country to the best of our knowledge.”

On Wednesday, the Saudis also held a press conference showing the debris gathered from the weapons.  According to them, there were 18 UAVs and 7 cruise missiles.  They included advanced GPS guidance and data indicates they were launched from the North, not the south, where Yemen is.

The Foreign Policy Philosophy of Robert O’Brien

Although this Iranian affair is being handled by Pompeo, the question is how O’Brien will handle similar situations in the future.

The new National Security Advisor is a lawyer who has considerable international expertise.  He has been alternate representative to the UN and Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs under President Bush.  He was a legal officer with the United Nations Security Council.  He was Co-Chairman for the State Department’s Public Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan.  Trump also considered him as a possible Secretary of the Navy in 2017.

O’Brien has also been a national security advisor for three presidential candidates – Mitt Romney, Scott Walker, and Ted Cruz.

O’Brien is also the author of the book “While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis.  It is a compilation of articles he has written for publications in the past.  Most of the articles were written before Trump even became a candidate, so it reflects his own views.  Although it isn’t a scholarly tome like Kissinger’s “A World Restored,” it is excellent review of his foreign policy views.

In it, O’Brien outlines his belief in American Exceptionalism, peace through strength, being a reliable ally to its friends, a respect for the rule of law, and a belief that there are “bad” nations.

Although not written for the Trump Administration, it clearly hews close to Trump’s foreign policy views.

Those who want to know what O’Brien’s views of Iran and its leadership are don’t have long to wait.  A chapter in section one, is titled, “Obama’s folly: the Iran Deal Disaster.”

O’Brien makes it clear where the US and Iran stand in relation to each other.  The book states, “Iran is a sworn enemy of the United States.  It is a revolutionary regime committed to changing the contours of the entire Middle East and destroying America’s key regional ally, Israel…There is simply no evidence to support the idea that we can trust revolutionary Iran to give up its long term goal of developing a nuclear weapon and a delivery system.”

Although he distrusts Iran, he has made it clear that war with Iran isn’t the only option.  He supports widespread economic sanctions by the US and as many nations as the US can bring into the fold.

As a warning, O’Brien ends his chapter on Iran with a reference to WWII and the Munich Accords that UK Prime Minister Chamberlain made with Hitler.  He wrote of Winston Churchill’s warning that the British people “should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war.”  He ends the chapter saying, “Sadly, his prophetic warning in 1938 appears to be applicable to us today.”

O’Brien sees a dangerous world.  “Vladimir Putin invaded and annexed Crimea – the first territorial conquest by force in Europe since World War II…China claims almost the entire South China Sea and plans to dot the Paracel and Spratly Islands with airstrips, lighthouses, and oil rigs.  In the East Chain Sea, Beijing is in a dangerous standoff with Japan as it seeks to wrest the Senkaku Islands away from Tokyo…Nuclear North Korea lurks in the background and Iran gets closer to breakout each day that it strings the West along in negotiations over its enrichment program.

Continuing on the issue of China, he notes, “China has not undertaken military action as dramatic as the Russian invasion of Crimea, but it has staked a claim to almost the entirety of the South China Sea…In the process, China’s Navy and Coast Guard have expelled the Philippines from the Scarborough Shoal, a reef just under 150 miles from the Philippines but almost 550 miles from Hainan Island, the nearest Chinese port.”

We can expect O’Brien to be an advocate of hard negotiating with China.  In the preface, he notes, “I have negotiated in Beijing with senior Chinese government officials.  They appear entirely confident that America and the West are in decline and that the Twenty-first Century will be theirs.”

Some of the areas of concern with China is its growing influence in Africa (O’Brien has lived in South Africa for a time), Chinese Air Identification Zones over Japanese islands, technological and personal data theft, and its human rights problems

It appears that O’Brien will not be an advocate of quick withdrawals from the Middle East – especially Afghanistan.  In addition to noting the “fiascos in Libya, Egypt, and Syria,” he notes the lack of a “clear exit plan in Afghanistan.”

As can be expected of someone considered for Secretary of the Navy, O’Brien sees the Navy, especially the American carriers, as the key to projecting power and keeping the peace.  He wrote, “Ever since Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet,” the US Navy has been how the country’s leaders have projected power on the world stage – but it’s clear from years of cutbacks, sequestration, and an aging fleet, that we’re going to be doing less of that power projection in the years ahead.”

He continues, “I can say with certainty that the shortcut to connecting with voters on national security is via a discussion of the strength of the United States navy.  The American voter knows that we cannot protect the seas and our interests overseas unless we have ships that can fight and deliver marines and carrier-based fighter jets to the world’s hot spots.”

O’Brien will not give the State Department a blank check and is suspicious of many in the State Department.  He writes, “Rather than create another bureaucracy in a foreign policy and national security arena, the conservative approach would be to bring strong leadership to bear in refocusing State. Defense, the CIA, and their sister departments on their roles in implementing US smart power initiatives.”

O’Brien appears to be a supporter of the UK as he finds fault with Obama’s treatment of the “special relationship” partner.  He noted, that Obama, “has made the United States an unreliable ally for our closest friends, Britain has been a stalwart ally of the United States in both Iraq and Afghanistan, notwithstanding the tremendous domestic political pressure on Labor and Conservative governments.”

He also points to Poland, the Czech Republic, Gulf States, Taiwan, and the Baltic nations, who deserve better attention than they received from Obama.

So, what will O’Brien recommend to Trump?  He made that clear in his introduction, when he concluded, “In the face of Russian aggression, Chinese expansionism, and Islamic extremism from both ISIS and the Islamic Republic of Iran, this is a lesion that Obama refuses to learn.  His successor will inherit a world in crisis that will require robust and strategic American leadership.  The good news is that while America slept during the Obama years, a new president, willing to lead can usher in another “morning in America.” That is good for our country and for the world.”

Apparently, O’Brien is in tune with Trump’s foreign policy.  While there may be some disagreements with Pompeo, in general, we can expect Trump, Pompeo, and O’Brien to speak with the same voice.



About that Counter-Iran Coalition

By Jon B. Alterman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

July 30, 2019

What if the United States threw a party and no one came? It is finding out in the Persian Gulf, where Trump administration’s calls to unite to counter Iranian aggression are being met with caution, circumspection and shrugs.  The reason is not fear of the Iranians. Instead, it is a calculus by Washington’s allies and partners that they may be safer staying far away from whatever the United States really intends and what they might be drawn into.  The Iranian government seems to be pursuing a policy that keeps tensions in the Gulf simmering but not boiling. The goal is to create a crisis but not a war. Iran is trying to force the world to engage with it and seeking to thumb its nose at the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign that threatens any multinational that does business with the Islamic Republic.

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Can Iran Break Out of Trump’s Box?

By James Jay Carafano

Heritage Foundation

September 11, 2019

In the Middle East, looking weak is the equivalent of wearing a “kick me” sign. And that’s now a problem for Tehran. Iran has hit a headwind in the person of Donald Trump. The president has basically taken back all the benefits the regime gained from the deal it cut with Barack Obama. Trump has made the mullahs look smaller on the global stage, crimped their economy, and messed with Tehran’s surrogates. Teheran’s top policy option now appears to be praying that Trump loses in 2020 and is replaced by a more pliant president. Still, the last thing they want to do is sit around meekly absorbing insults and injuries until January 2021 rolls around. To shake off the growing signs of weakness, Iran flexed its muscles by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. That hasn’t worked out so well. They almost prompted a retaliatory military strike from Washington. Now, the U.S. and others are committing resources to protect freedom of navigation in the gulf. That issue seems to be fizzling.

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A Way Forward in Yemen

By James Phillips and Nicole Robinson

Heritage Foundation

August 27, 2019

Yemen, a failed state destabilized by multiple civil wars, has become the world’s foremost humanitarian disaster, an arena for a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and a hotbed for clashing Sunni and Shiite Islamist extremists. Yemen’s brutal civil war has reached a stalemate. The unwieldy anti-Houthi coalition, which in recent years clawed back considerable territory seized by the Houthis, is disintegrating. Southern secessionists have ejected Yemeni government forces from some parts of the south, and the United Arab Emirates, a key contributor to the Arab coalition that intervened to fight the Houthis, has pulled back many of its forces. The U.S. has a supporting role to play in encouraging peace in the region.

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Trump Deserves a National Security Adviser Who Agrees with Him and Can Translate His ‘America First’ Vision into Concrete Action

By Christopher A. Preble

Cato Institute

September 11, 2019

For those who argued that Donald Trump’s foreign policy views were dramatically different from those of his predecessors, the skeptics always had a ready answer: John Bolton. Now that Trump has unceremoniously dismissed his hawkish national security adviser, that could pave the way for the change that Trump had promised and that the public anxiously wants. Over the course of his presidential campaign, Trump was rewarded for his willingness to challenge the policy elite. He even railed against the Iraq War, initiated by a Republican president, in a Republican debate in South Carolina — and won the primary there. Unlike nearly all of his rivals, Trump correctly sensed that Americans were disinclined to spend vast sums, and risk the lives of American troops, on regime-change wars and costly, open-ended nation-building projects abroad. In a major foreign policy speech delivered as he was closing in on the GOP nomination, Trump explained that “foolishness and arrogance [had] led to one foreign-policy disaster after another.” And he pledged “to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy” and “invite new voices and new visions into the fold.” But, once elected, he did nothing of the sort.

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Empire America: Why Washington Can’t Reduce Its Military Footprint

By Ted Galen Carpenter

Cato Institute

September 3, 2019

As negotiations between the United States and the Taliban continue, it is increasingly clear that even if an agreement emerges, any U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be partial, not total. President Donald Trump recently confirmed that point. “Oh yeah, you have to keep a presence,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News radio. “We’re going to keep a presence there.” He did indicate that the current troop level of more than 14,000 was being reduced to 8,600. Further reductions might take place if a final accord could be reached, but a sizable contingent of Special Forces personnel, intelligence operatives, and military contractors would remain indefinitely. Disappointed advocates of a complete withdrawal from America’s longest war believed that, once again, the president listened to military leaders and congenital hawks such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and backed away from his intention to extricate the United States from the seemingly interminable conflict. A similar pattern had emerged in the summer of 2017, when National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and other advisers successfully prevailed on Trump to abandon the pledge he made during the 2016 presidential campaign to terminate the Afghanistan mission.

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Saudi Strikes Are A Critical Test For Trump

By Ilan I. Berman

American Foreign Policy Council

September 18, 2019

On Saturday, two of Saudi Arabia’s most important oil facilities became the targets of the most significant attack on world energy infrastructure in more than a quarter-century. The coordinated strikes on Abqaiq and Khurais in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province — which appear to have been carried out by Yemen’s Houthi rebels as well as by Iran directly — were devastating, taking roughly 60 percent of total Saudi daily oil production — an estimated 5.7 million barrels from the 9.8 million total — offline and at least temporarily jeopardizing the country’s position as a global energy power. In the aftermath of the attacks, the Trump administration has pinned the blame squarely on Tehran. But it has also made clear that it isn’t eager for a military confrontation with the Iranian regime (though the Pentagon is still actively planning for some sort of response). Yet how Washington responds to the incident will have profound implications, both for its continued credibility in the region and for the future of its relations with Iran.

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Attack on Saudi Oil Infrastructure: We May Have Dodged a Bullet, at Least for Now . . .

By Frank A. Verrastro and Andrew J. Stanley

Center for Strategic and International Studies

September 18, 2019

This weekend’s attack on Saudi oil facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq represents the single largest daily oil supply disruption in history—larger than the maximum daily output loss resulting from the Iranian Revolution, the invasion of Iraq, the Venezuelan oil strike of 2002-2003, or any of the Gulf coast hurricanes and almost twice as large as the combined outages produced by U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and Iran. The attacks targeted two critical Saudi facilities: one of the nation’s largest producing fields, Khurais, and the crown jewel of the Saudi oil system, the massive stabilization and processing facility at Abqaiq. The total supply loss from taking these facilities offline amounted to some 5.7 million barrels per day (b/d) in oil output—more than half of Saudi Arabia’s recent output and about 6 percent of global supply—as well as 2 billion cubic feet per day of associated gas.

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Iran, Yemen, and the Strikes on Saudi Arabia: The Changing Nature of Warfare

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

September 18, 2019

The history of warfare has never been filled with good predictions of how warfare would evolve in the future. Aside from the odd science fiction writer, no one predicted the technical, tactical, and strategic nature of World War I. World War II began with gross exaggerations of the threat posed by poison gas and the air forces of the day. Navies that still emphasized battleships in a war that became dominated by submarines and carriers. The uncertain efforts to reshape land forces evolved into blitzkrieg, after armored offensives that initially involved German field commanders that disobeyed order from their high command. After World War II, massive efforts to restructure land, air, and sea forces for nuclear warfighting ended in the fear of mutual assured destruction and the practice of small conventional wars and insurgencies outside the key areas of NATO and Warsaw Pact confrontation. The first Gulf War in 1990 saw major advances in precision strike air power, but it also saw armored exchanges that were far more favorable to the U.S.-led coalition than most military planners and analysts predicted before the actual battles.

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A Credibility Test for U.S.-Saudi Defense Relations and Iran Deterrence

By Michael Knights

Washington Institute

September 16, 2019


The September 14 attack on Saudi targets in Abqaiq and Khurais—one of the world’s largest oil refinery complexes and the kingdom’s third-largest oil field, respectively—could take up to 5.7 million barrels per day off the global market for the next several months. This makes it the most comprehensive blow against the global energy sector since Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent destruction of both countries’ energy infrastructures. Now, as then, U.S. and international commitment to the security of global energy supplies is being tested. The strike was highly effective from a military perspective. The weapons hit at around 4 a.m. local time and appear to have struck from a northerly or northwesterly direction. This fits with a string of reporting that suggests related air defense alerts and engine sounds were concentrated in areas of the northern Persian Gulf, as opposed to an ingress route from Yemen. Strong U.S. government statements have ruled out Yemen (on September 14) and Iraq (on September 16), so the focus is narrowing to a direct strike originating from Iran.

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