Week of February 8th, 2019

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


It seemed as if the think tank community held its breath as they waited for Trump’s State of the Union Speech (SOTUS).

The Monitor Analysis looks at Trumps’ SOTUS speech and its implication for foreign policy.  We note that despite criticism for policies like withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan, Trump is remaining firm in his determination and has strong legal and constitutional backing to prevent Congress from stopping him.


The CSIS argues that the US must develop a slower withdrawal that takes 5 years but leaves American and Afghan gains in place.  They conclude, “The United States, Afghanistan, and allies have invested too much blood and treasure to depart precipitously. The progress, which gets little if any coverage in the press, is real and embodied in millions of Afghans, as is the desire for peace among the Afghan people and their international friends. It is good to have an open and frank debate in Washington about Afghanistan options. Those who would argue for withdrawal from Afghanistan should question whether they are prepared to sacrifice hard-won gains, see the loss of political and economic freedoms and of education gained by Afghan women and youth, and risk having Afghanistan once again become a training ground for terrorists…A gradual reduction of security, economic and military support over a five-year period on a timeline based on progress and increased burden-sharing by the Afghans is a scenario that the United States and its partners should be willing to support. U.S. allies and adversaries are watching closely what the United States does in Afghanistan. History will judge if the United States can make reasonable and good decisions.”

The Cato Institute says it is time to leave Afghanistan.  They note, “The answer is not to keep fighting an unnecessary, unjustified war which everyone else realizes is a mistake. Most major powers have had to acknowledge geopolitical errors and cut their losses, despite the resultant embarrassment, even humiliation. Afghanistan offers a powerful reminder: do not make commitments out of proportion to the interests involved. Better to learn the lesson and not make the same mistake next time, then to expect Americans to keep dying in an attempt to hide the obvious today. It is hard for anyone to admit failure, especially government officials who have squandered thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. However, it is time for America to leave Afghanistan. A negotiated settlement would be best, of course. But a genuine settlement is only possible among Afghans.”

The Hudson Institute says Trump is winning his foreign policy war with the Washington establishment because the public is cool to the post cold war consensus. They note, “It is now clear the president’s foreign-policy and national-security approach faces increasing and often bipartisan congressional opposition. Yet the White House shows no sign of backtracking. Far from meeting his critics halfway, Mr. Trump and his foreign-policy team announced progress in Afghanistan negotiations that opponents call a surrender, doubled down on plans to withdraw troops from Syria, announced its impending withdrawal from an arms-control agreement many consider foundational to the post-Cold War security order in Europe, and attacked the judgment of his senior intelligence officials.”

The American Foreign Policy Council looks at hypersonic weapons.  In reviewing the threat of these weapons, they note, “In other words, a new arms race is already underway. As the hypersonic weapons programs of America’s adversaries continue to mature, so too does their ability to hold the U.S. military and our allies at risk on several fronts. First, these weapons travel so fast that the amount of time decisionmakers will have to respond, or even to react, will be dramatically reduced. Second, the speed and unpredictability of their flight path represent a major concern—and could allow an adversary to destroy high value mobile targets (such as aircraft carriers or mobile ballistic missile launchers) and leave forward-deployed U.S. troops unprotected. Third, if hypersonic weapons are deployed before the United States has developed a response, they may become a (relatively) low cost solution by which adversaries can rapidly erode our current military advantage. Finally, because hypersonic weapons can carry both nuclear and conventional payloads, any launch could leave military leadership guessing and could lead to uncontrolled military escalation.

The Heritage Foundation looks at the INF Treaty and its cancelation by Trump.  They concluded that after five years of failed attempts to get Russia to return to compliance with its Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty obligations and verifiably destroy its 9M729 missile system, the United States officially announced its intentions to withdraw from the treaty. While the U.S. should continue to encourage the Russian government to return to compliance with the INF Treaty, in parallel, it should develop and field new low-yield nuclear weapons as well as improved conventional ground-based cruise missile systems and cruise missile defenses. These actions would better deter Russian use of low-yield nuclear weapons and better defend America’s NATO allies from Russian cruise missile threats.



Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Speech

Undoubtedly the framers of the US Constitution had no idea that the constitutionally mandated State of the Union Message would one day become such a political event.

The 2019 SOTUS event was no different.  Aside from the political wrangling about when and where it would be held,

the one-week delay in the speech only helped President Trump.  According to polling done by CBS news, three out of four Americans liked the speech and 71% now believe there is a problem at the southern border.  The polling showed that while the Democrats remain skeptical, Trump made serious inroads with the all-important independent voters who usually decide elections.

Parts of the speech was surprisingly conciliatory and bipartisan.  In fact, Speaker of the House Pelosi at one time even had to signal to her backbenchers to stand and applaud the president.

Trump’s attempted to sound bipartisan.  He said, “The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people.”

 “Many of us campaigned on the same core promises: to defend American jobs and demand fair trade for American workers; to rebuild and revitalize our Nation’s infrastructure; to reduce the price of healthcare and prescription drugs; to create an immigration system that is safe, lawful, modern and secure; and to pursue a foreign policy that puts America’s interests first.”

The speech highlighted three areas: fair trade, immigration, and foreign policy.

The foreign policy part of the speech had no new initiatives.

Although Congress is pushing legislation to prevent Trump from leaving Syria and Afghanistan, the president made it clear he intended to continue the withdrawal.  He stated, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”

He outlined the cost to the US since 9-11.  “Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years. In Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 7,000 American heroes have given their lives. More than 52,000 Americans have been badly wounded. We have spent more than $7 trillion in the Middle East.

Trump made it clear it was time to leave.  “When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. Today, we have liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty killers.”

 “Now, as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”

He added, “In Afghanistan, my Administration is holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban. As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counter-terrorism. We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement — but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace.”

These comments contrasted with an earlier vote by the US Senate that conflicted with the Trump policy of withdrawal.

In a bipartisan 77 to 23 votes, the Senate passed and sent to the House the “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act,” which includes a provision from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell warning against a “precipitous” withdrawal of troops from the area.

 “It would recognize the dangers of a precipitous withdrawal from either conflict and highlight the need for diplomatic engagement and political solutions to the underlying conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan,” McConnell said of his provision to the bill on the Senate floor last week.

The rest of the bill, sponsored by Florida Republican Marco Rubio, would impose new sanctions on Syria’s bank and those supporting Syria’s government while increasing military aid to Israel and Jordan. It also includes a controversial measure that divided Democrats, which would allow states and local governments to refuse contracts to entities involved in the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement that seeks to punish Israel.

Although the legislation warned of a “precipitous withdrawal,” it didn’t have the force of law – probably because an attempt by the US Congress to force US troops to stay in Syria and Afghanistan would be politically and legally fraught with danger.

If the Congress tried to keep US forces in these two countries and something happened that took American lives, Congress would find itself being blamed.

Second, the US Constitution makes it clear that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the US military and in charge of foreign policy.  Any attempt by Congress to direct the conflicts or decide the troop levels in Syria and Afghanistan would probably be found unconstitutional in the courts.

The only legislative tool available to Congress would be to declare war on ISIS and the Taliban – a very unlikely option since the US Congress has avoided declarations of war since WWII.

The result is an innocuous “warning” that allows Congress to say, “I told you so” without facing any consequences.

Trump also made it clear that Iran remained a major threat.  The president said, “My Administration has acted decisively to confront the world’s leading state sponsor of terror: the radical regime in Iran.”

 “To ensure this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons, I withdrew the United States from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal. And last fall, we put in place the toughest sanctions ever imposed on a country.”

Although they weren’t mentioned, this made it clear that countering Iran would remain US policy whether it was in Yemen or Venezuela.

While Iran remains a major concern for Trump, he made it clear that there is progress with North Korea.  Trump noted, “As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months. If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed. Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one. And Chairman Kim and I will meet again on February 27 and 28 in Vietnam.” Trump’s claims about war with South Korea was met with criticism as one of his self-congratulation gestures.

In one change, an organization that has frequently been criticized by Trump was praised in the SOTUS.  Trump praised the nations of NATO by noting, “We are also getting other nations to pay their fair share. For years, the United States was being treated very unfairly by NATO — but now we have secured a $100 billion increase in defense spending from NATO allies.”

Trump also added two points of interest for NATO nations – missile defense and the INF treaty with Russia that Trump has pulled out of.  He said, “As part of our military build-up, the United States is developing a state-of-the-art Missile Defense System.”

He also accused Russia of violating the INF treaty in the past.  He said, “For example, decades ago the United States entered into a treaty with Russia in which we agreed to limit and reduce our missile capabilities. While we followed the agreement to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms. That is why I announced that the United States is officially withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty.”

 “Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t — in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.”

No statement received widely differing responses as Trump’s comments in reference to events in Venezuela.  He said, “We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom — and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.”

What was controversial was what he said next – eliciting verbal shouts of approval from some, while receiving stony silence from others.  Trump veered from Venezuelan socialism to talk of American socialism, “Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.

Trump used support for Israel as a wrap up to his speech.  He said, “My Administration recognized the true capital of Israel — and proudly opened the American Embassy in Jerusalem.”

In reference to Iran, he said, “We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants death to America and threatens genocide against the Jewish people. We must never ignore the vile poison of anti-Semitism, or those who spread its venomous creed. With one voice, we must confront this hatred anywhere and everywhere it occurs.”

He went on to mention the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue and recognized two guests who were survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.  Then mentioning the rescue of these and other concentration camp survivors by American soldiers in 1945, he closed with an appeal to American greatness.

 “Why did they do it? They did it for America — they did it for us.”

 “Everything that has come since — our triumph over communism, our giant leaps of science and discovery, our unrivaled progress toward equality and justice — all of it is possible thanks to the blood and tears and courage and vision of the Americans who came before.”


In the end, what did the SOTUS accomplish?

There weren’t any dramatic legislative initiatives in the speech.  Everything mentioned by Trump had been covered in previous campaign events.

No doubt, Trump’s popularity will take a bump up – for a little while.  State of the Union speeches always help the president for a week or so before they are forgotten by most voters.

Although more conciliatory and bipartisan than campaign speeches, he refused to back down where there has been a difference of opinion between the Democrats and him.  He made it clear he was pulling American forces out of Syria and Afghanistan, despite any congressional votes.  He also repudiated the drift towards socialism by many in the Democratic Party.

In the end, it will go the same way as previous SOTUS events – drama beforehand, only to be quickly forgotten afterwards.



The Way Forward for the United States in a Post-INF World

By Thomas Callender

Heritage Foundation

February 1, 2019

After five years of failed attempts to get Russia to return to compliance with its Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty obligations and verifiably destroy its 9M729 missile system, the United States officially announced its intentions to withdraw from the treaty. While the U.S. should continue to encourage the Russian government to return to compliance with the INF Treaty, in parallel, it should develop and field new low-yield nuclear weapons as well as improved conventional ground-based cruise missile systems and cruise missile defenses. These actions would better deter Russian use of low-yield nuclear weapons and better defend America’s NATO allies from Russian cruise missile threats.

Read more at:


The President Understands Afghanistan: It Is Time to Just Leave

By Doug Bandow

Cato Institute

February 4, 2019

As he began his presidency Donald Trump had the right idea about Afghanistan: “Let’s get out.” However, he surrounded himself with conventional thinkers who thwarted his wishes and refused to provide him with withdrawal options. After two years of additional, unnecessary American deaths, he apparently again is pushing for troop cut-backs. Perhaps for this reason, administration officials are negotiating with the Taliban seeking a peace agreement that will allow an American pullout. The Kabul government, which purports to be both an essential U.S. ally and legitimate representative of the Afghan people, is on the outside looking in. Nevertheless, progress supposedly has been made. But who will hold the Taliban to its promises, the president’s hawkish critics ask? Whatever the treaty’s terms, enforcement would require a continued U.S. military presence. Once American troops go home, they won’t return, absent overwhelming need. Saving the Kabul authorities won’t count. Thus, if the administration fulfills the president’s wish to pull out America’s 14,000 military personnel, the ability to hold the insurgents to their promises will disappear. That doesn’t matter. The troops should come home. Quickly and permanently.

Read more at:


Finishing Strong: Seeking a Proper Exit from Afghanistan

By Daniel F. Runde and Earl Anthony Wayne

Center for Strategic and International Studies

February 6, 2019

A precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would endanger many of the social, political, economic, and health gains that have been achieved in Afghanistan over nearly 20 years. Afghanistan has a myriad of problems, including corruption, violence, and poverty, but these challenges often overshadow improvements in mortality rates, media and cellular access, tax collection, and women and girls’ education and political freedoms, among others. To prevent these gains from dissipating, the international community should encourage the Afghan government to meet certain governance benchmarks and continue on its path to self-reliance. The United States and its international allies should also consider a gradual withdrawal of troops, funding for the Afghan security forces, and economic assistance, based on a timeline that reflects facts on the ground and progress on peace negotiations.

Read more at:


Welcome to the Hypersonic Arms Race

By Richard M. Harrison

American Foreign Policy Council

January 19, 2019

These days, with Capitol Hill divided and at odds with the White House, the opportunities for political compromise seem dimmer than ever. However, all concerned can still agree that an emboldened Russia and increasingly aggressive China represent a threat to the national security of the United States, and to the safety of our allies. So, it should be troubling to both sides of the aisle that these two nations are rapidly developing weapons against which the United States currently has no defense. According to a recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons because their speed, altitude, and maneuverability may defeat most missile defense systems, and they may be used to improve long-range conventional and nuclear strike capabilities. There are no existing countermeasures.” Indeed, hypersonics represent a very real and rapidly maturing threat. These systems fall into two categories: hypersonic cruise missiles, which are propelled by jet or rockets, and hypersonic boost-glide vehicles that are launched from a ballistic missile. These highly maneuverable missiles can carry conventional or nuclear payloads and can travel at more than five times the speed of sound.

Read more at:


Trump’s Foreign Policy Critics Are Losing

By Walter Russell Mead

Hudson Institute

February 5, 2019

Is President Trump losing control of the foreign-policy agenda? Last week the administration suffered a stinging political defeat as the Senate voted 68-23 to advance a bill that criticizes his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan. This comes on the heels of Congress’s refusal to accede to Mr. Trump’s demands for further funds to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border and the Senate’s December vote to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen. It is now clear the president’s foreign-policy and national-security approach faces increasing and often bipartisan congressional opposition. Yet the White House shows no sign of backtracking. Far from meeting his critics halfway, Mr. Trump and his foreign-policy team announced progress in Afghanistan negotiations that opponents call a surrender, doubled down on plans to withdraw troops from Syria, announced its impending withdrawal from an arms-control agreement many consider foundational to the post-Cold War security order in Europe, and attacked the judgment of his senior intelligence officials. The administration also advanced an aggressive hemispheric strategy aimed not only at Venezuela, but also at Cuba and Nicaragua—the other two regimes in what national security adviser John Bolton calls the “troika of tyranny.”

Read more at:


Week of February 2nd, 2019

Trump Intervention in Venezuela
and the Monroe Doctrine

After US orchestrated the challenge to President Maduro legitimacy in Venezuela and recognizing the leader of general assembly Guaido as an interim president, the conflicting claims of who is president had a new layer of complexity added to it. On Monday during a press briefing by National Security Advisor John Bolton he was photographed carrying a notepad which appeared to have a handwritten note saying, “5,000 troops to Columbia.”

Was this a breach of security or a deliberate psychological warfare ploy?  Bolton did tell reporters, while holding the notepad, “We also today call on the Venezuelan military and security forces to accept the peaceful, democratic and constitutional transfer of power.”

Is there a serious plan to send 5,000 troops to Columbia?

Undoubtedly, the US is making contingency plans, especially after Venezuelan President Maduro ordered all US diplomatic personal to leave the country within 72 hours – a move he has modified to show flexibility and desire for peaceful outcome.

The question asked by many is why Trump is considering military action in Venezuela, when he is actively withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan.

In addition to Trump obsession with Venezuela and its resources, the justification can be a nearly 200 years old doctrine that is one of the keystones of US diplomatic/intervention policy – the Monroe Doctrine.

The Monroe Doctrine was a policy of opposing European colonialism in the Americas beginning in 1823. It stated that further efforts by European nations to take control of any independent state in North or South America would be viewed as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” At the same time, the doctrine noted that the U.S. would recognize and not interfere with existing European colonies nor meddle in the internal concerns of European countries. The Doctrine was issued at a time when nearly all Latin American colonies of Spain and Portugal had achieved, or were at the point of gaining, independence.

The US was afraid that European countries would try to recolonize South America after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  Austrian chancellor and foreign minister Prince Metternich of Austria was angered by the statement and wrote privately that the doctrine was a “new act of revolt” by the U.S. that would grant “new strength to the apostles of sedition and reanimate the courage of every conspirator.”

It helped that Great Britain also supported the aims of the Monroe Doctrine, which added some military might to the policy of the fledgling United States.

The Monroe Doctrine has undergone many interpretations over the last two centuries and has been invoked by many presidents including presidents Grant, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan.  However, Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry told the Organization of American States in November 2013 that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”

Although the doctrine was originally seen as a warning to European powers to keep out of the Americas, it later was a statement that the Americas were part of the United States’ sphere of influence.  As a result, the opinion of South America regarding the doctrine has fluctuated from positive to negative.

However, Trump’s apparent interpretation is much in line with American past policy.  The Roosevelt Corollary asserted the right of the U.S. to intervene in Latin America in cases of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation,” – as move that sparked outrage in South America at the time.  However, as many South American countries are now refusing to recognize the Maduro regime as legitimate, there is little criticism of the doctrine – now.

Clearly, the Monroe Doctrine is being applied as in February 2018, when former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praised the Monroe Doctrine as “clearly … a success”, warning of “imperial” Chinese trade ambitions and touting the United States as the region’s preferred trade partner.

Since then, CIA Director in Aug 2017 Mike Pompeo declared that Venezuela’s deterioration was the result of interference from Iranian- and Russian-backed groups. “The Cubans are there; the Russians are there, the Iranians, Hezbollah are there. This is something that has a risk of getting to a very very bad place, so America needs to take this very seriously,” he said.

– a clear statement that the Monroe Doctrine can be applied.

This is not out of line with the policy of the majority of American presidents. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy justified the quarantine of Cuba by mentioning the Monroe Doctrine.  He said, “The Monroe Doctrine means what it has meant since President Monroe and John Quincy Adams enunciated it, and that is that we would oppose a foreign power extending its power to the Western Hemisphere [sic], and that is why we oppose what is happening in Cuba today. That is why we have cut off our trade. That is why we worked in the OAS (organization of American States) and in other ways to isolate the Communist menace in Cuba. That is why we will continue to give a good deal of our effort and attention to it.”

The Trump Corollary

The Monroe Doctrine has been defined by several corollaries and interpretations in the past two centuries.  Now it appears that Trump is prepared to add his own.

In fact, this is not the first time that the Monroe Doctrine has been used to interfere in Venezuela affairs.   The Olney declaration was United States Secretary of State Richard Olney’s interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine when a border dispute occurred between Britain and Venezuela governments in 1895. Olney claimed that the Monroe Doctrine gave the U.S. authority to mediate border disputes in the Western Hemisphere.

Intervening in Venezuela’s domestic affairs is to be justified in American eyes as a preemptive measure to the increasing instability in Central America and the northern part of South America, which is creating a refugee problem on America’s southern border.  By stabilizing Venezuela, it can stabilize the region and lower the rate of illegal immigration.

Today, the US is clearly worried about the military and economic influence of Iran, Russia, and China in Venezuela.   However, despite the handwritten note on Bolton’s notepad, there are a multitude of options available.

Sending 5,000 American soldiers to Columbia is an unlikely option because aside from protecting the Columbia/Venezuela border, they can do little but provide humanitarian aid to refuges.  It’s also likely to anger Columbian and Venezuelan people.

A more likely option is to provide arms to the supporters for interim President Guaido.  This may already be taking place as it has been reported that a Venezuelan colonel living in exile was arrested as he tried to slip back into Venezuela in order to organize and arm the opposition.  How much backing the rebels have is unknown, however, it could be considerable if American intelligence services are committed to backing them.

Defectors from Venezuela’s Army are asking for arms instead of a broad military intervention.  “As Venezuelan soldiers, we are making a request to the US to support us, in logistical terms, with communication, with weapons, so we can realize Venezuelan freedom,” Guillen Martinez told CNN.

Hidalgo Azuaje said: “We’re not saying that we need only US support, but also Brazil, Colombia, Peru, all brother countries, that are against this dictatorship.”

They told CNN they flatly reject any suggestion of a broader US military intervention in support of Guaidó. “We do not want a foreign government [to] invade our country, A” Hidalgo Azuaje said. “If we need an incursion, it has to be by Venezuelan soldiers who really want to free Venezuela.”

Of course, merely arming the rebels may not be enough.  Venezuela has a large military and the loyalty of the units is currently lies with president Maduro.  If they continue to support Maduro, they can expect to remain in control of the cities.  This leaves the rebels in control of the rural areas and could mean a long civil war.

Much may depend on the intentions of Russia and Iran.  If they decide to intervene militarily, the US could face another failure like Syria.

Russia does have a significant economic interest in Venezuela.  They have invested about $6 billion in loans that are to be paid off in oil exports.  There also reports that 20 tons of Venezuelan gold is being moved to Russia.

Russia has made it clear that it intends to protect its economic investment.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Moscow will do “anything” to support Maduro.  “Russia is prepared to help resolve the political situation [in Venezuela] in any way possible, without interfering into the country’s internal affairs.”

Another tool that the US can use is economic sanctions against Chinese, Iranian, and Russian companies that are in Venezuela.  This is a tool that hasn’t been used much before in supporting the Monroe doctrine.

The economic sanctions would likely be directed towards Venezuela’s biggest asset – oil.  Unfortunately for Venezuela, its oil is a “sour” petroleum, unlike the benchmark oil that is considered “sweet.”  Consequently, it sells at a discount to premium “sweet” oil like West Texas Intermediate Crude.

Since the world is experiencing an oil surplus, especially of sweet oil (the US is now the largest oil exporter and much of its oil is sweet West Texas oil), Venezuela’s oil isn’t in great demand because it requires additional refining and many of these refineries have experienced reduced production.

Supporters of US aggressive policy in Venezuela are claiming that although Russia, Iran, and China could give active support for Maduro, all three nations must evaluate the risk and potential gain.  Is the availability of sour oil from a collapsing oil sector worth intervening in the American backyard?  If they try to keep Maduro in power, will the US try to leverage its position by intervening in the South China Sea, Syria, or Yemen and the Gulf region?

The fact is that all three nations may feel that recognizing Venezuela as part of the American backyard may make more sense than forcing the US to increase its activity in Iran, Russia, and China’s backyards.

What we may be seeing is a new corollary of the Monroe Doctrine – The Trump Corollary.  It would reaffirm the right of the US to interfere in South and Central American nations if it feels that it impacts American interests.  Unlike previous interpretations that focus more on military intervention, and despite Trump’s threats to use military option and retaining the War hawks (Bolton, Pompeo and Abrams) to deal with the crisis, the Trump Corollary looks at alternative options like support for non-conventional military forces, economic sanctions against nation and their companies, and taking a more active role in other parts of the world in order to counter a nation that is trying to increase its influence in the Americas.

No doubt, even though the Monroe Doctrine is nearly 200 years old, it remains a key tool of American foreign policy.

Week of January 25th, 2019

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



Washington has been focused on the back and forth between President Trump and Speaker of the House Pelosi.

This week’s analysis looks at what appears to be a dysfunctional US government.  We also look at the polling of American voters and how they view the government closing and how they view the US government in general.  We also compare what is happening in the US with problems with European governments. 


The Carnegie Endowment looks at the problems of democracy in the US.  They conclude, “Given the dispiriting state of U.S. democracy, it is hard not to give in to the temptation to blame the democratic model itself and start to imagine that non-democratic alternatives might do better in delivering basic governance. But this is misguided thinking. Chronic short-termism, an unwillingness to accept short-term pain for long-term gain, undue policy influence of the wealthy, a startlingly high level of division and conflict within the society, and voter ignorance and irrationality all do appear in many democracies. They are not, however, inevitable characteristics of democratic governance.  They can be limited, sometimes greatly, through smart policies and good leadership…In short, Americans concerned about the state of U.S. democracy need to focus less on what they might believe to be shortcomings of democracy itself, and more on what specific and often distinctive elements of the U.S. political system are exacerbating these issues. Blame for our current political predicament belongs much less with the idea or model of democracy than with ourselves.

The Heritage Foundation says Iran is testing Trump more than Obama.  They say the Iranian regime did not see the changed policies of President Trump coming. Times were good for Tehran during the Obama years as it pursued its goal of expanding influence by destabilizing the rest of its region. But, the U.S. withdrawal from Obama’s nuclear deal has dealt a series of hammer blows to Iran’s economy. Even Tehran admits the new U.S. sanctions are hitting hard.

The American Foreign Policy Council says the Trump administration is concerned about the commercial relationship between Israel and China – and the strategic vulnerabilities those ties have created.  They note, “Israel’s emerging China problem is bigger than Haifa. U.S. officials are also carefully watching China’s increasing penetration of Israel’s vibrant high-tech sector. After years of systematic investments, the Chinese may now directly control or have influence over as much as 25% of Israel’s tech industry. The U.S. wants to strengthen Israeli control of China’s growing economic sway in the country. When a foreign nation wants to make a substantial investment in a sensitive sector of the American economy, it is reviewed by an interagency body known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. Cfius has the authority to nix deals that could have an adverse impact on national security. But Cfius has no Israeli analogue; the Israeli government’s decisions about foreign investment are too often driven more by economic than security considerations.”

The Foreign Policy Research Institute asks if Iran’s space launch is ICBM development or a Space Program.  They conclude, “If Iran truly is developing ICBMs, then it isn’t building them off of the space launcher. As previously stated, the Iranian space launch fleet is built on much older technology, which is suboptimal for use as an ICBM. Presently, Iran has demonstrated access to the technology that would allow the country to follow in North Korea’s path to an ICBM, but this technological transfer hasn’t been fully observed in the Iranian space program either. We have not seen a Khorramshahr-based SLV, or an SLV with more powerful engines than the current cluster of old Shahab-3 engines on the Simorgh.”

The CSIS looks at Pompeo’s speech in Cairo.  They note, “In his speech last week in Cairo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abandoned that useful tension. He criticized the human rights performance of hostile governments (Syria and Iran) and voiced full-throated support of all the rest, which he termed partners and allies. He criticized the Obama administration for its “eagerness to embrace only Muslims and not nations,” but his concept of “nations,” consistently expressed throughout the speech, was not the broader understanding of nations that the United States has long maintained, of people and their rulers. In his construction, it was limited to governments. There is an irony underlying all of this. A U.S. administration with an unprecedented amount of distrust for the workings of the U.S. government is seeking to double down on its ties to Middle Eastern governments, which, in almost all cases, lack the honesty, efficiency, and efficacy of their U.S. counterparts.”

The Cato Institute warns about the dangers of using cyber warfare.  They conclude, “For a variety of reasons, including the ineffectiveness of cyber operations and the fear of weapons proliferation, a normative system of restraint has gradually emerged in cyberspace. A policy of restraint that maintains control over the weapons of cyber war is therefore appropriate and strategically wise. Loosening the rules of engagement in pursuit of a more offensive posture, as the Trump administration advocates, violates norms and can lead to disastrous consequences for the entire system. Given the ambiguous nature of signals in cyberspace, it is difficult to be sure that an offensive operation will be correctly interpreted as a warning shot designed to get adversaries to back down. Platitudes like “the best defense is a good offense” are best left for sports, not international politics. The evidence suggests that in cyberspace, the best defense is actually a good defense.”

The Heritage Foundation looks at the INF Treaty.  The takeaways are: There seems to be little disagreement in the United States and NATO about Russian non-compliance with the INF Treaty. China is unconstrained by any of the INF Treaty’s missile restrictions—while the U.S. and, nominally, Russia, face a complete ban on INF-class missiles. The U.S. has good reason to consider leaving the INF Treaty—and may have to do so to protect its interests and those of its allies and partners.



 America’s Dysfunctional Government

Watching the news coming out of Washington DC reminds one of a comedy about some small country.  President Donald Trump and House speaker Nancy Pelosi traded jabs at each other — she cancels the State of the Union Address, he cancels her trip overseas — rather than come together to restart the government. The largely symbolic battle between the two sides has now grown so vindictive that it has shuttered 20 percent of the government and furloughed 800,000 federal workers. And neither side seems to care, except insofar as they can gain leverage over the opposition.

While Trump and Pelosi are in the center ring, the media obsessed over a report from BuzzFeed that claimed Special Independent Counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that the president instructed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. Huge, if true. The problem, of course, is that it isn’t true. Indeed, the BuzzFeed story wa off the mark, that Mueller’s office publicly disputed the report, an unprecedented move.

Next, the Right to Life March produced a bit of drama, as Catholic-school students from Kentucky seemed to get into a nonphysical conflict with a Native American activist at the National Mall. In a normal era, an otherwise unknown teenager would not make national news for being a teenager. But this is not a normal era. The critics from left and right, gathered in full force on social media, and they drove news coverage into the weekend, denouncing the teen, even calling for his expulsion from school.

Behind the scenes, a high-profile Republican donor quite possibly managed to rewrite the law governing his business.  The Justice Department reversed course this week with an opinion that paved the way for online gambling.  The rational closely followed arguments made by lobbyists for casino magnate and top Republican donor and Israel’s supporter Sheldon Adelson.

Clearly, America’s government isn’t working like it’s supposed to.  While big donors from both parties’ craft regulations that suit themselves, America’s political leadership is fighting over when and where a speech is to be made – a minor Constitutional issue that doesn’t require a speech, just a written report.  And, the media is focused on shaping events to fit their narrative.

This doesn’t include the fact that about 20% of the federal government is closed over the issue of building a wall between Mexico and the US aiming to prevent illegal immigration.

Surprisingly, the while American electorate isn’t up in arms about these events.  That’s because the electorate is so deeply divided over the value of the US government.

Part of the government has been closed for over a month, but polls show that the number hurt by the closing is small.  Only 10% say that they have been personally affected by the shutdown in a major way.  54% say they that it hasn’t impacted them at all. Of course, this situation will change leading to protests in the streets if closing continue.

Of course, it doesn’t help the government’s case when 75% of voters think that the government doesn’t do the right thing some or all of the time.  A December poll showed that 56% of likely voters agree with President Reagan’s statement that government is the problem.  An August 2018 poll showed 53% of voters think the US government doesn’t have the consent of the governed. (latest polls about who’s responsible for closing is needed here).

Despite reports, Trump retains the support of his core voters.  And, for them, shutting down the government in order to get a border wall is okay.  They have little faith in the government, think it’s too large, and see the shutdown as an effective way to get the funding to build the wall.

Pelosi, on the other hand has strong support for her position and sees little downside risk in pushing Trump.  She understands if she can prevent the wall from being built, she will cripple Trump’s reelection chances in 2020.

For Trump, proof that his position has the backing of grassroots Republicans came this week at the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) winter meeting.

 “Among the grassroots Republicans that I know, they’re right behind the president. They don’t want him to give in at all. The money he’s asking for, for the wall, is pocket change. It’s lunch money,” Peter Goldberg, the RNC committeeman from Alaska, told the Washington Examiner.

 “The Democrats are not willing to negotiate,” added Glenn McCall, the RNC committeeman from South Carolina. “Everyone I talk to — they hate to see the workers impacted. But this could have been solved weeks ago if the Democrats would have come to the table in earnest and negotiated with the president.”

That’s why Republican and Democratic politicians in Washington are standing behind their leaders and their radical positions instead of pushing for compromise.  They are giving their core voters what they want.  That’s why legislation in the Senate that could break the impasse is likely to fail (has failed), even though it gives both Democrats and Trump what they want (the wall for Trump and a path to citizenship for young illegals).

But, is the American government any more dysfunctional than most other Western governments?

Maybe not.

In France, President Macron is hanging onto power despite a favorability rating of about 20% and 10 weeks of increasingly violent “Yellow Jacket” riots against him.

Sweden finally formed a government after 133 days without one.  However, it’s a minority government.  The major reason for the minority government was the insistence of some of the parties that the Sweden Democrat Party be excluded from the government because they support restrictions on immigration.  This even though the Sweden Democrat party is a major party that showed impressive strength in the last election.

Most observers don’t think the government will be able to last the four years to the next election.

Political analysts said the election and governing agreement show that Sweden’s politics are becoming more like those across Europe, with greater fragmentation, and fights over issues like migration and cultural identity that cut across old ideological lines.

The Belgium government collapsed in December over immigration policy and there is concern if the current minority government can last until the May 2019 elections.  This is the third political crisis in the last year.

Of course, Belgium is not a stranger to political crises.  In fact, Belgium went without a government for 589 days in 2010 – 2011.

A few months ago, Germany faced a political crisis over immigration policy.  The result is also a minority government for Chancellor Merkel.

There is also the Brexit in Great Britain.  Prime Minister May is finding it impossible to get any majority in Parliament to support a plan to leave the EU – even though the British voters voted to leave.

There are other dysfunctional governments in the West like Italy and Spain.

Which brings us back to the question – Is America’s government dysfunctional?  Maybe not any more than other Western governments.

Whether it is the wall between the US and Mexico, the resistance to immigration in Sweden, Germany, France, Belgium, and other European countries, migration issues are threatening governments around the world.  Large factions in governments are pushing for lenient immigration, while the voters are rebelling.

What we are seeing between Trump and Pelosi is only the American version of an issue that is shaking the while Western world.  Don’t be surprised to see the issue to grow larger and cause more dysfunction in the US and Europe.



The INF Treaty—What It Means for the U.S., Russia, and China Today

By Peter Brookes

Heritage Foundation

January 15, 2019

First, a little background about the INF Treaty. As you’re aware, the bilateral INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House. It entered into force in mid-1988. The treaty prohibits the production, testing, and deployment of all ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 kilometers to 1,000 kilometers (shorter-range), and 1,000 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers (medium-range and intermediate-range). It also eliminated all missile launchers for this category of missiles. It is worthwhile to note that the treaty addressed both conventional and nuclear weapons, but only restricted ground-based missile systems. It did not apply to sea-based or air-launched weapon systems.

Read more at:


Iran Keeps Testing Trump Because It Knows He’s Much Tougher Than Obama Ever Was

By James Jay Carafano

Heritage Foundation

January 18, 2019

N one of the world’s truly bad guys stays out the headlines for long. After keeping a relatively low profile for several months, Iran earlier this week found itself back in the news twice. First came reports that U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton asked the Pentagon last year for military options to respond to two Iranian-sponsored terrorist acts in Iraq. Then came news of a failed Iranian missile launch. Iran claimed it was merely sending up a satellite, but U.S. officials said the failed launch was part of Iran’s effort to test and expand its ballistic missile weapons capability. While Iran is back in the headlines now, it’s the months when it was out of the news that may tell us more about what the regime is up to. Clearly, the Iranian regime did not see the changed policies of President Trump coming. Iran got a sweetheart deal from the Obama administration to temporarily put its nuclear weapons program on hold. In addition, the Iranian regime watched President Obama draw and then ignore red lines in Syria and pursue ambivalent policies in Syria and Iraq until ISIS erupted and could no longer be ignored. And Iran saw President Obama soft-peddle the U.S. alliance with Israel, so that America might appear more even-handed in dealing the Palestinians.

Read more at:


The Myth of the Cyber Offense: The Case for Restraint

By Brandon Valeriano and Benjamin Jensen

Cato Institute

January 15, 2019

Great-power competition in the 21st century increasingly involves the use of cyber operations between rival states. But do cyber operations achieve their stated objectives? What are the escalation risks? Under what conditions could increasingly frequent and sophisticated cyber operations result in inadvertent escalation and the use of military force? The answers to these questions should inform U.S. cyber­security policy and strategy. In the context of recent shifts in cybersecurity policy in the United States, this paper examines the character of cyber conflict through time. Data on cyber actions from 2000 to 2016 demonstrate evidence of a restrained domain with few aggressive attacks that seek a dramatic, decisive impact. Attacks do not beget attacks, nor do they deter them. But if few operations are effective in compelling the enemy and fewer still lead to responses in the domain, why would a policy of offensive operations to deter rival states be useful in cyberspace? We demonstrate that, while cyber operations to date have not been escalatory or particularly effective in achieving decisive outcomes, recent policy changes and strategy pronouncements by the Trump administration increase the risk of escalation while doing nothing to make cyber operations more effective.

Read more at:


Friends Like These: Pompeo recasts ties in Cairo

By Jon B. Alterman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

January 18, 2019

For the last century, a duality has lain at the foundation of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. government maintained robust relations with other governments, but it was helped by a not-so-secret weapon. The image of the United States as a cultural icon, an economic model, and a political beacon stood alongside the government as a force-multiplier of U.S. influence around the world, reaching deeply into public perceptions. The U.S. government did its part with traditional diplomacy and institutional support, but the government’s effectiveness was due in part to the fact the United States as a nation has long been a force on the world stage independent of the government. The U.S. government has capitalized on this uniquely powerful duality by maintaining ties with governments while always keeping an eye on foreign publics as well. It was the U.S. government working with governments and the people that facilitated the peaceful end of the Cold War in Europe. It was working with governments and the people that helped spread prosperity and democracy in East Asia. From the days of decolonization after World War II to the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government has been conscious of the power that the idea of the United States has around the world.

Read more at:


Israel’s Dangerous Dalliance With China

By Ilan I. Berman

American foreign Policy Council

January 14, 2019

National security adviser John Bolton traveled to Israel this month to reassure jittery officials in Jerusalem that the Trump administration isn’t planning a precipitous exit from Syria, notwithstanding the president’s surprise December announcement to the contrary. But Mr. Bolton’s most important message might have had nothing to do with America’s commitment to fighting Islamic State or its efforts to roll back Iran’s strategic influence in Syria and Iraq. The Trump administration, Mr. Bolton told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is concerned about the commercial relationship between Israel and China—and the strategic vulnerabilities those ties have created. The most immediate worry is China’s impending access to Israel’s strategic northern port of Haifa. In 2015 China’s Shanghai International Port Group signed a multibillion-dollar deal with the Israeli Transportation Ministry for the future rights to operate the Haifa port. Under the terms of the agreement, the Chinese company will take control of day-to-day operations at the port for 25 years beginning in 2021.

Read more at:


Is Democracy the Problem?


Carnegie Endowment

JANUARY 16, 2019

Certainly, these are all serious issues in the United States. Successive U.S. Administrations have proven woefully unable to focus sustained attention on a raft of major long-term challenges—whether it is infrastructure decay, the role of entitlement spending in the U.S. budget, or climate change—and unwilling to craft reforms that inflict short-term pain for the sake of long-term gain. The disproportionate influence of wealthy individuals and corporations in the U.S. legislative process is a well-known reality. With respect to political competition producing divisions and conflict, the U.S. political system is indeed beset by a high degree of polarization and a correspondingly low sense of common purpose. And looking at the state of U.S. political leadership today, it would be hard not to see voter ignorance and irrationality as major concerns. But should we blame democracy itself, or should we blame ourselves for the pathologies of our own politics? In other words, are these problems in fact endemic to democracies? And are authoritarian governments largely able to avoid them, as some enthusiasts of authoritarianism claim?

Read more at:


Iran’s Space Launch: ICBM or Space Program

By David Schmerler

Foreign Policy Research Institute

January 22, 2019

On January 3, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Iran was preparing to launch multiple Space Launch Vehicles (SLV), which he claimed had “virtually (the) same technology as ICBMs,” before issuing a threat, “We won’t stand by while the regime threatens international security.” Almost a week prior to that announcement, our team at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies was alerted to the same event by open-source researcher Fabian Hinz, who was seeing an uptick in prelaunch indicators leading up to the January 14 launch. Starting in late December, we began monitoring the site with the help of San Francisco-based satellite imaging company Planet Labs. With daily images of the Imam Khomeini Space Launch Center (IKSLC), we were able to identify a variety of prelaunch signatures and activity at the launch vehicle checkout building, and at both launch pads prior to the launch of the Payam satellite aboard its Simorgh launcher. While the launch ultimately failed to insert the Payam satellite into orbit, questions as to the nature of this launch, the connection to Iran’s alleged secret desire to build an intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking targets in the United States, and a country’s ambition to utilize space for advancing domestic scientific capabilities needs to be discussed as to prevent this most recent launch from being misconstrued and used to support false assertions about the linkage between a space launcher and an ICBM, which could then influence policymaking.

Read more at:


Week of January 18th, 2019

Does Trump Want to Leave NATO?

Once again, the issue of Trump and America’s alliance with NATO has come into question. 

The New York Times reported President Trump has privately told senior administration officials that he wants to withdraw from NATO altogether.  They wrote, “Senior administration officials told The New York Times that several times over the course of 2018, Mr. Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Current and former officials who support the alliance said they feared Mr. Trump could return to his threat as allied military spending continued to lag behind the goals the president had set.”

Most of the remarks came surrounding last summer’s contentious NATO summit in Brussels, according to the Times. The 2-day meeting which concluded on July 12 was replete with Trump’s demanding that European countries pull their own weight on defense spending in the 29-nation trans-Atlantic alliance, including what was described at the time as a “vague threat” by the president that the US could exit the alliance if the imbalance continues. He told reporters at the time that NATO countries must radically increase defense spending or the US “will do our own thing.”

At the time Trump noted the Cold War era military alliance was a “drain on the United States” and that he “didn’t see the point” according to the Times report, citing current and former administration officials.

According to the Times, “In the days around a tumultuous NATO summit meeting last summer, they said, Mr. Trump told his top national security officials that he did not see the point of the military alliance, which he presented as a drain on the United States.

The Times report, which is notoriously anti-Trump, likens any potential US withdrawal “a move tantamount to destroying NATO” and perhaps to be expected, hypes NATO statements saying, “Even discussing the idea of leaving NATO — let alone actually doing so — would be the gift of the century for Putin.” But the report expresses alarm that “Mr. Trump’s skepticism of NATO appears to be a core belief.”

Notably, the NYT report opens by suggesting that even mere discussion of a NATO pullout plays into Moscow’s hands, and further in the report cites an anonymous US official to make the assertion that it would “accomplish all that Mr. Putin has been trying to put into motion.”

The accusation that Trump was playing into Putin’s hands was a bit farfetched as Russia’s recent behavior like military aircraft intrusions into NATO airspace seem to prove the need for NATO by heightening tensions.

Some supporters of Trump position claims that if Putin was really interested in destroying NATO, he would stop the assertive behavior and let NATO die a quiet death.

Trump has ignored conventional foreign policy wisdom by heavily criticizing NATO allies and publicly questioning their commitment to the collective defense.  He repeatedly told advisers that he didn’t understand the point of the alliance in the days leading up to the most recent NATO summit in July.

Several senior advisers, including John Bolton and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, were successful in convincing Trump of the negative geo-political implications associated with a NATO withdrawal. While Trump heeded his advisers’ warnings with respect to withdrawal, the president continues to be concerned that the U.S. is being forced to pay more than its fair share.

Secretary of Defense Mattis’s recent retirement has also unsettled his fellow national security officials and America’s NATO allies alike, as the general was viewed as a calming influence in the White House who could communicate the importance of the NATO alliance when necessary.

Where Will NATO Go?

Trump is not the first U.S. president who brought defense spending up to the European allies.  However, he has highlighted in a more dramatic and verbal way.

However, the truth is that Europe has let its military commitments lag and has grown to rely upon the US for its defense.  Its air forces are largely incapable of operating in advanced anti-access/area-denial environments, which means that in wartime it will be up to the Americans to attack advanced missile sites. European allies have failed to make significant investments in air and missile defense, giving Russia a free pass in these critical technology areas.

Europe has also failed to keep its navies able to wage an anti-submarine campaign in the Atlantic, which means that in wartime Americans will have to clear the Atlantic sea lanes before they can even land heavy equipment on European soil. So far as highly mobile armored units go, most European armies’ tanks are either too few or too antiquated to fight in a modern land war.

Although the conventional wisdom is that NATO is necessary, many are questioning its purpose.  It was created during the Cold War, when the threat was a major Soviet armored attack across West Germany from East Germany and Czechoslovakia. At that time, West Germany and France were “frontline” nations in any ground war and generals were worried that Soviet tanks could reach the English Channel within days of the beginning of the war.

Today no one worries about the threat of Russian tanks rolling through the streets of Paris or Berlin.  The Russian/NATO front line is hundreds of miles to the east and the front-line NATO nations of today are Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland.  Rather than large standing armies we saw in the front-line nations in the Cold War, NATO only has small armored battalions stationed forward today.  At best, these units are only “tripwires” if Russia tries to invade these nations.

Without the Soviet threat, NATO has evolved into a multi-national force for military adventures in non-NATO areas like the Balkans and Middle East – which has led to charges of neocolonialism.

Trump also has a justification for leaving as the European Union is forming its own army.

In 2015, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for creating an army for the troubled European Union. Noting accurately that the EU isn’t “taken entirely seriously,” Juncker suggested standing up its own army “would convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union.”

In 2017, Berlin integrating brigades from smaller countries into the Bundeswehr.  Germany and two of its European allies, the Czech Republic and Romania, quietly took a radical step down a path toward something that looks like an EU army while avoiding the messy politics associated with it.  They announced the integration of their armed forces.

Each country will integrate one brigade into the German armed forces: Romania’s 81st Mechanized Brigade will join the Bundeswehr’s Rapid Response Forces Division, while the Czech 4th Rapid Deployment Brigade, which has served in Afghanistan and Kosovo and is considered the Czech Army’s spearhead force, will become part of the Germans’ 10th Armored Division.

In doing so, they’ll follow in the footsteps of two Dutch brigades, one of which has already joined the Bundeswehr’s Rapid Response Forces Division and another that has been integrated into the Bundeswehr’s 1st Armored Division.

For Romania and the Czech Republic, it means bringing their troops up to the same level of training as the German military; for the Netherlands, it has meant regaining tank capabilities. (The Dutch had sold the last of their tanks in 2011, but the 43rd Mechanized Brigade’s troops, who are partially based with the 1st Armored Division in the western German city of Oldenburg, now drive the Germans’ tanks and could use them if deployed with the rest of the Dutch army).

This concept has worked to its advantage; few people in Europe have objected to the integration of Dutch, Czech, or Romanian units into German divisions,

The European Union has also created a joint military headquarters — but it’s only in charge of training missions in Somalia, Mali, and the Central African Republic and has a meager staff of 30.

There are even reports that the EU army has already been deployed.  In the recent “Yellow Jacket” riots in France, there have been armored cars displaying EU flags instead of French flags.

Obviously, if the EU is developing an army – one that may have a role in subduing internal dissent, Trump and the US will want to avoid such development and will be reluctant to use or committing forces for domestic internal disputes in EU.

So, we come back to the issue of Trump seriously asking if the US should pull out of NATO since many of the member nations aren’t fulfilling their commitments.

Clearly, the original mission of NATO (fighting the Soviets) is gone, even though the NATO military structure is still geared up for a massive tank invasion across Germany instead of an invasion of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

True, Russia is still a threat, but less than it was 30 years ago.  Trump’s supplemental military budget boost for 2018 of $54 billion is almost as large as Russia’s entire 2018 military budget.  As for Trump’s claim that Europe is not paying its fair share of NATO expenses, remember that Britain and France combined spend more on their military forces than Russia.

There is also the issue of European Union Army.  Clearly, NATO units will be eventually moved into the EU force, which will only weaken any NATO response.  And, most NATO nations still refuse to spend the pledged 2% for defense. To Trump the issue is simple…. Why should the US risk its military and blood for European nations not committed to their own defense?

With Mattis out of the way, will Trump unilaterally try to leave NATO?  Probably not.  The New York Times article was about questions asked last summer, not today.  When it comes down it, it appears that the story is designed to criticize Trump (something that the New York Times tries to do daily) rather than focus on the real issue of NATO’s value or suggestions about modernizing the Cold War alliance.

However, many critics of US military expanding role and budget seems to suggest: questioning what NATO does and why the US should remain in it, is a wise move, even if it is controversial.

Week of January 11th, 2019


Think Tanks Activity Summary

(For further details, scroll down to the PUBLICATIONS section)



Most of the think commentary in this issue of the Monitor is about the US decision to withdraw from Syria.
The analysis this week looks at the vacillation seen in America’s Syria policy in the past month and the Bolton and Pompeo trips to the Middle East.


The Cato Institute looks at how Trump’s advisors try to change his foreign policy goals like Syria.  They conclude, “If Trump sought out qualified advocates of a foreign policy based on realism and restraint, the consequences flowing from his own intellectual limitations would not necessarily be all that negative. But he has been surrounded by utterly conventional thinkers (Mattis, McMaster, Pence) or ultra-hawks (Bolton, Haley, Pompeo). In such an environment, his worthwhile instincts often wither and his worst inclinations become more pronounced. The abrupt Syria and Afghanistan troop withdrawal decisions may be simply another volatile episode. Ideally, they are manifestations of badly needed, overdue policy changes. However, given the undesirable reversals that have occurred on other foreign policy issues during Trump’s presidency, we should not bank on the United States extricating itself from those two quagmires until the last troops arrive back on American soil.”

The CSIS looks at the debate on American Syria policy and note that there are more important issues in the Middle East.  They conclude, “But once again, how much attention have the Administration’s critics given to these issues? How much does focusing on Khashoggi alone, and not the broader need to reduce repression as a cause of terrorisms and extremism, accomplish? What does focusing almost solely on the campaign against the Houthis, and immediate humanitarian needs in Yemen, accomplish in bringing long-term stability and security for its population? What meaningful strategic advice does this criticism offer to the President or to Secretary Pompeo on his coming visit to the region? Former Secretary of Defense Mattis has been quoted as describing Washington as a “strategy free zone.” There seems to be a matching – and all too bipartisan and expert effort – to turn the Middle East and the Gulf into a strategy free region.”

The American Foreign Policy Council looks at the quiet counterrevolution in Iran.  They conclude, “The Trump administration has made renewed pressure on Iran a centerpiece of its regional policy in the Middle East, built around an understanding that the Islamic Republic – emboldened by the dividends of its 2015 nuclear deal with the West – now poses a grave and growing threat to American interests and allies in the region.  Accordingly, over the past half-year, the White House has sought to turn up the heat on Iran’s leadership through the “snapback” of American sanctions, and by cajoling European and Asian nations to reduce their trade with Tehran.  America’s greatest ally in this effort, however, might just turn out to be the Iranian regime itself. To date, Iran’s leaders have managed to successfully contain the challenge to its rule represented by the ongoing protests. It has done so in large part through widespread arrests, pervasive censorship and extensive repression…Yet the longer the Islamic Republic continues its descent into economic crisis, the more compelling these calls for counterrevolution are bound to become – and the more profound the ideological challenge to the integrity of the Iranian regime will be. And that, in turn, makes the current protests the most potent force working toward creating meaningful change within the Islamic Republic.

The Washington Institute looks at Israel’s perspective on the American withdrawal from Syria.  They note, “Israeli decisionmaking circles tend to contextualize Trump’s decision as part of a perceived American trajectory of retreat from the Middle East, with Washington apparently resolved to reduce its military footprint due to various factors: fatigue following years of costly wars in the region, decreased dependency on Middle Eastern energy resources, and a desire to turn inward while shifting its focus toward the Far East. President Obama seemed to draw on this deep sentiment as well, albeit in different ways. Consequently, Israelis are concerned about the potential weakening of an important complement to their strategic deterrence and an anchor of regional stability. For the most part, Israel looks at the U.S. decision through the prism of the biggest threats to its national security—namely, Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, and its army of proxies building up their capabilities in Israel’s immediate neighborhood. Viewed through this prism, the bottom line is negative.”

The Carnegie Endowment asks if there is a way congress can stop the “Forever War” the US finds itself in.  They note, “Few matters are as complex or as consequential. And Congress should not be shy. The Constitution grants competing powers in the realm of foreign affairs to Congress and the president, with the expectation—even the demand—of aggressive oversight. Having served at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, I understand that many in the White House will see this congressional role as a nuisance. But they would be well advised to welcome it, because a full partnership with Congress on national security matters will improve both the policies and their execution, while also beginning to restore the American people’s trust in Washington.”


The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at the wisdom of those arguing that withdrawing from Syria is a mistake.  In addressing the issue that the US military must stay in Syria to have “skin in the game” for post civil war negotiations, they say, “If “skin in the game” means an ante that gets the U.S. government a seat at the table in some future negotiation over post-Assad Syria, then 2,000 soldiers parked out in the middle of the desert east of the Euphrates is not a remotely serious number. Worse, the assumption that there eventually has to be a negotiation of that sort is simply wrong. The Syrian regime, with its Russian and Iranian allies, means to win the war, not discuss it with its adversaries. Its notion of a negotiation is a diktat following a surrender. Anyone who doesn’t get that by now really ought to be opening on less Hobbesian matters, like Brexit and other such ennui-inducing subjects.”

The Washington Institute looks at Secretary of State Pompeo’s trip to the Middle East and the reason behind it.  They note, “What’s up with Secretary Pompeo’s extended tour of the Middle East? The short answer is that he is trying to sell/explain President Trump’s “we are leaving Syria” policy to America’s friends. None of these countries’ primary concern is Syria, as such. They are all much more interested in Iran’s influence and military activities there. The main elements of the trip were clearly being planned in advance of President Trump’s decision. There is a speech planned for Cairo, an annual bilateral strategic dialogue with Qatar, and another with Kuwait. But the fact that there now are eight stops in eight days probably reflects the amount of explaining that needs to be done.”


America’s Vacillating and confused Syria Policy

What is America’s current Syria strategy?  It depends on who you talked to – President Trump, National Security Advisor Bolton or Secretary of State Pompeo.  It’s further complicated by statements from Trump’s opponents on both sides of the aisle.  Even Trump’s ally Republican Senator Lindsey Graham announced last week that Trump is now slowing the withdrawal “in a smart way” after he met with the president.

These differences were highlighted this week as both Bolton and Pompeo visited the Middle East, with their own definition of Syrian and Middle Eastern policy.

It is a fact that Trump policy towards the Middle East has vacillated and confused allies and foes alike.  The current consternation over US Mideast policy began with a surprise tweet from Trump Dec. 19, in which he said the 2,200 US troops fighting ISIS in Syria would be coming home in short order. The apparent policy reversal sent former Defense Secretary James Mattis packing. A few days later, the president announced that Iran could “do what it wants” in Syria – contradicting Mr. Bolton, who recently had appeared to expand the purpose of the US role in Syria to staying put as long as Iran had its own forces and proxies there.

“The Middle East is still trying to figure out how to understand the Trump administration and trying to understand what is transient and what is likely to prove enduring – and it’s not obvious,” says Jon Alterman, senior vice president in global security and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Despite the confusion, Trump’s policy is clear-cut and reflects the views of the American voter – rapid withdrawal.  Recent polls show that voters aren’t concerned about Syria’s internal politics and wants the US to withdraw as quickly as possible.

The only question is how quick should the withdrawal should be.

A majority of Americans support President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops fighting in Syria and Afghanistan, according to a Tuesday Politico poll. Twenty-five percent of Americans strongly support the decision to bring home troops from Afghanistan and Syria, and 31 percent somewhat support the decision, according to the poll. Only 11 percent strongly oppose the decision to bring home U.S. troops, and 16 percent somewhat oppose the decision. Just under 20 percent aren’t sure what Trump should do.

That’s why Trump’s decision a few weeks ago to quickly withdraw from Syria was more popular with the American voter than with the Washington establishment.  It’s also the reason why the Washington establishment has toned down its criticism of Trump since then.

But, that doesn’t mean that the Washington establishment is going to support a quick withdrawal from Syria.  There is too much support for American involvement in Syria within the foreign policy establishment and the neo-conservative branch of the GOP.  This was seen when National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Turkey this week.  Apparently, Bolton tried to undercut Trump’s Syrian withdrawal by imposing preconditions with Turkey.

Daily Sabah, a newspaper closely allied with Turkish president Erdogan said, “If U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton thought yesterday’s visit was going to be a walk in the park, he must have had a rude awakening thanks to the lukewarm reception in the Turkish capital Ankara. In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea for Bolton to go rogue and try to impose conditions on the United States withdrawal from Syria. Keeping in mind that Turkey was already getting ready to send its troops to northern Syria before U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement last month, it is time for Washington to accept that it isn’t negotiating with Turkey from a position of power.”

The preconditions dealt with the Kurds and the paper went on to say, “The Turkish government had unveiled its plan to target PKK/YPG targets in northern Syria long before Trump decided to withdraw from Syria. If senior U.S. officials keep making up new rules as they go, the Turks will run out of patience.”

But, these preconditions weren’t part of the Trump plan.  On Monday President Trump slammed a New York Times piece that heavily quoted Bolton, suggesting new preconditions on the announced Syria draw down, and that Bolton had effectively “rolled back” Trump’s decision to “rapidly withdraw from Syria.”

Trump blasted the Times via Twitter, saying the newspaper published “a very inaccurate story on my intentions for Syria,” and that the policy that remains is “No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!”

This was a clear embarrassment for Bolton, who is a major advisor to Trump on national security issues.  It will be interesting to see if this failure causes Bolton to lose influence within the Trump national security team.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Pompeo was visiting American allies in the Mid East.  Unlike Bolton, his focus was more long term and focused on limiting Iranian expansionism.  His trip was also intended to clarify the US position on withdrawing from Syria.  The trip encompasses Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf nations.

Pompeo also made an unannounced visit to Iraq, which remains a cornerstone to America’s ISIS strategy.  The secretary of state met with Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, president Barham Salih, foreign minister Mohamed Alhakim and parliament speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi on Wednesday.

When asked earlier about the possibility of a visit by Mr Pompeo, Mr Abdul Mahdi said any meeting would involve a discussion of how to deepen Iraq’s relationship with the US-led coalition fighting ISIS.

With the US withdrawal from Syria, Iraq’s role in defeating ISIS becomes more important.

Another major focus of the tour will be sustaining a regional coalition to counter Iran, the main enemy of US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“This is a coalition that understands that the largest threats — terrorism and the Islamic Republic of Iran — are things that we ought to work on jointly and we will be marshaling all of the resources, theirs and ours, to achieve them,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo repeatedly has called Iran “the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” pointing to its targeting of domestic rivals in Europe and support of Shiite movements in the region.

Additionally, Pompeo’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also key stops as opposition in Washington is growing about the United States’ involvement in their coalition in Yemen.  The visit will reassure both nations that Trump is solidly behind them.

Although the Pompeo and Bolton trips seem to by conflicting, each has complementary goals.

The Bolton trip is designed to allow a rapid US withdrawal without any major risk to its key allies, the Kurds.  Pompeo, in an interview before his departure, said that Erdogan has given assurances to Trump not to attack US-allied Kurdish forces who fought IS in Syria.

“President Erdogan made a commitment to President Trump as the two of them were discussing what this ought to look like — that the Turks would continue the counter-ISIS campaign after our departure and that the Turks would ensure that the folks that we’d fought with, that had assisted us in the counter-ISIS campaign, would be protected,” Pompeo told CNBC television.

In order to keep Erdogan from attacking the Kurds, Bolton has made it clear that the US will not abandon the Kurds.  That’s one reason why he added preconditions to the Trump withdrawal – although it appears that his comments went beyond what Trump meant to imply.

While the Bolton trip was to impact US withdrawals over the next few months, Pompeo’s trip was designed to create a long term alliance of US allies in the region.  While the alliance would focus on Iran, there is definitely a Syria policy included.  It appears that the US envisions Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE supporting the Kurds, while the US covertly provides Special Forces assistance.  This will contain the Iranian expansionism that they all fear.

Nor did the Bolton and Pompeo missions contradict each other.  Although they had differing goals, they reinforced each other’s message.  The U.S. is also continuing to push for countries to cut off Iran and limit the country’s influence in the Middle East. Bolton emphasized the Trump administration’s continued pressure on Iran during his visit to Israel.

“We’ve got the continuing threat of Iran’s quest for deliverable nuclear weapons and despite getting out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, despite the sanctions we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons,” stated Bolton.

The national security advisor has also explained the U.S. is not withdrawing from Syria quickly, but instead slowly and carefully.

In the meantime, Pompeo’s key policy speech in Egypt attempted to assure leaders in the region on the United States’ commitment to peace, prosperity, stability and security in the Middle East.

Pompeo is calling for a united Gulf Country Coalition against Iran. Though, that’s complicated as other states have a blockade against Qatar, which has been in place since June 2017. Pompeo will be visiting all countries involved in the ongoing dispute.


Trump’s Policy Goals

Trump and most American voters feel that the US footprint in the Middle East is too large and unsustainable – a position that many in Washington disagree with.

What we are seeing is Trump’s attempt to reshape US Middle Eastern policy by relying more on regional allies and focusing on the key issue, Iranian expansionism.  This means withdrawing from America’s longest conflict, the Afghan War.  It also means not letting other issues like Syria or Yemen dilute American policy towards the region.

Although some may disagree with this policy, it remains in tune with the American voters.  While Americans are concerned with Iran and weapons of mass destruction, they care less about Yemen and Syria.  That may not make the Washington establishment happy, but it does help Trump retain his support in middle America.


Why Trump’s Advisors Keep Quashing His Realist Whims
By Ted Galen Carpenter
Cato Institute
January 2, 2019

Over a period of mere days in late December, the Trump administration made two troop withdrawal decisions that startled Washington. The first was announced in a tweet by Trump stating that the United States had accomplished its mission in Syria of defeating ISIS and that he was ordering the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country. Just days later, leaks from both the White House and the Pentagon indicated that a substantial draw-down of forces from Afghanistan was imminent. Some reports suggested that 7,000—roughly half of the current deployed U.S. force—would be removed. The reactions were predictable. Advocates of a restrained American foreign policy praised the moves as a key step in jettisoning two frustrating and counterproductive missions. A larger faction, consisting of neoconservative hawks along with liberal proponents of humanitarian military crusades, condemned Trump’s actions. They often did so in emotional and vitriolic terms about undermining crucial American interests in both countries.

Read more at:


Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Turkey, and the Future: The Meaningless Debate over the Trump Strategy in Syria
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 7, 2019

There is nothing new about the U.S. redoubling its efforts in the Middle East after it has lost sight of its objectives. There is even less new about the U.S. going on with the same effort year-after-year without having any effective strategy. The U.S. has claimed to be fighting a “war” against terrorism since 2001, and has been fighting real wars in the Gulf region since 2003. It has also been blundering in Syria since 2011. This is why the current debate over President Trump’s uncertain statement that he would suddenly withdraw from Syria needs to be put in a strategic perspective. It is no more silly or meaningless than the past focus of far too many debates over US policy towards Syria. It also is no more lacking in relevance than virtually all of the previous U.S. debates over strategy in the Middle East and the Gulf since 2001. It is a debate over levels of effort in one country that have no clear strategic purpose, and that fails to come to grips with any of the many issues that should shape U.S. strategy in the region.

Read more at:


A Year Into Iran’s Quiet Counterrevolution
By Ilan I. Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
December 19, 2018

Last December, grassroots protests erupted throughout Iran. Ordinary Iranians, discontented with worsening domestic conditions and their government’s misplaced political priorities, held rallies and demonstrations that transformed over time into a profound challenge to the legitimacy of the country’s clerical regime. A year on, the Iranian “street” is still in ferment – although you don’t hear much about it in the news. Protests by Iranian workers, activists and students continue to take place throughout the country, despite the very real threat of a draconian regime response (from incarceration to death at the hands of government security forces). The reasons are not hard to discern. On virtually every economic metric, the Islamic Republic is continuing to inch up the misery index. Inflation is spiking. Iran’s annual rate of inflation has surged in recent months, and now stands at nearly 40 percent, according to independent economic observers. All told, the rate of inflation in Iran has risen by more than 50 percent over the past two years, Iran’s Central Bank has admitted. The causes are manifold, from renewed U.S. economic pressure to gross mismanagement by Iran’s regime. But the real state of affairs in the country is almost certainly worse than authorities care to admit.

Read more at:


Can Congress Stop the Forever War?
Carnegie Endowment
December 17, 2018

When the 116th Congress—including a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives – is sworn into office in a few weeks, there will be no shortage of pressing issues demanding the attention of legislators. These include perhaps the most solemn question facing any government: when and how to deploy the awesome power of the United States armed forces.  Few matters are as complex or as consequential. And Congress should not be shy. The Constitution grants competing powers in the realm of foreign affairs to Congress and the president, with the expectation—even the demand—of aggressive oversight. Having served at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, I understand that many in the White House will see this congressional role as a nuisance. But they would be well advised to welcome it, because a full partnership with Congress on national security matters will improve both the policies and their execution, while also beginning to restore the American people’s trust in Washington.

Read more at:


Leaving Syria
By Adam Garfinkle
Foreign Policy Research Institute
December 21, 2018

“History is irony in motion,” wrote E.M. Cioran in his 1949 book A History of Decay. So could the seemingly unanimous verdict of the chatterati and the professional staffs of both the Departments of State and Defense that President Trump’s abrupt decision to pull U.S. military forces from Syria is a mistake be itself a mistake? It it possible, in other words, that President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria will turn out to be a good idea, even if for reasons the President doesn’t understand and can’t possibly be responsible for anticipating?

Read more at:


Eight Days in Middle East Puts Pompeo’s Diplomacy to the Test
By Simon Henderson
Washington Institute
January 7, 2019

What’s up with Secretary Pompeo’s extended tour of the Middle East? The short answer is that he is trying to sell/explain President Trump’s “we are leaving Syria” policy to America’s friends. None of these countries’ primary concern is Syria, as such. They are all much more interested in Iran’s influence and military activities there. The main elements of the trip were clearly being planned in advance of President Trump’s decision. There is a speech planned for Cairo, an annual bilateral strategic dialogue with Qatar, and another with Kuwait. But the fact that there now are eight stops in eight days probably reflects the amount of explaining that needs to be done…

Read more at:


Trump Departs Syria: An Israeli Perspective
By Michael Herzog
Washington Institute
January 8, 2019

Israeli officials have been careful not to publicly criticize President Trump’s recent announcement that all U.S. military forces will be pulled out of Syria. Below the surface, however, they have exuded dissatisfaction, concern, and a desire to make the best out of the situation. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s initial public response was lukewarm, stating that Israel will continue to take care of its security and “will not abide Iranian entrenchment in Syria.” He followed those remarks with hectic bilateral discussions on the matter, holding a phone call with President Trump, meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of a gathering in Brazil, and hosting National Security Advisor John Bolton in Jerusalem. These discussions elicited U.S. public assurances about Israel’s security and, so it appears, opened opportunities to affect the manner in which Trump’s decision is implemented.  Some current and former Israeli officials have played down Trump’s announcement, emphasizing that the U.S. contingent in Syria is small and passive in the face of Iran’s military thrusts, that Israel alone has shouldered the burden of pushing back against these thrusts, and that Washington will support Israel even if U.S. forces are in fact withdrawn. Correct as they are, these statements do not tell the whole story.

Read more at:


Week of December 21, 2018

Trump Moves to Quickly Exit Syria

Those who thought that the US was doomed to stay in Syria indefinitely (as was mentioned by the Pentagon last week) were surprised when the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article saying that the US military had been ordered to leave Syria as soon as possible.

The WSJ revealed Wednesday morning the Pentagon is preparing to withdraw all forces from northeastern Syria “immediately.”

The WSJ reported, “In an abrupt reversal, the U.S. military is preparing to withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria, people familiar with the matter said Wednesday, a move that throws the American strategy in the Middle East into turmoil.”

“U.S. officials began informing partners in northeastern Syria of their plans to begin immediately pulling American forces out of the region where they have been trying to wrap up the campaign against Islamic State, the people said.”

The Washington Post added, “The [defense] official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a decision that has not yet been announced, said the decision would include the entire force of more than 2,000 U.S. service members. It was made on Tuesday, the official said.”

“President Trump has long promised to conclude the campaign against the Islamic State and has questioned the value of costly and dangerous military missions overseas.”

The political reaction in Washington was swift. Republican Senator Graham called it, “A stain on the honor of the United States.” Other responses ran from complaints that ISIS was still in existence to the fact that the US was leaving its Kurdish allies in the lurch.

The reaction by American voters was much different. A poll released by Gallup a day earlier showed that only 1% of voters thought the situation in Syria was serious, while concerns about immigration and government were considerably more important.

Although the announcement was sudden, Israel has been aware of the American desire to withdraw from Syria for a year according to Haaretz. PM Netanyahu said that the US has “other ways to wield their influence in that arena.”

There is also the question of how American generals and Secretary of Defense Mattis reacted to the decision. They may disagree with the pace of withdrawal, but the Pentagon has other long-term concerns too.

One problem the generals have highlighted is the fact that US forces have been worn down by constant deployments in the Middle East. The result is that much of the defense budget must go to funding these operations and paying for maintenance – not implementing the modernization the Pentagon desires and needs to compete with Russia and China.

Why now? While much of the media said that Trump reacted to a threat by Turkey’s Erdogan and the Turkish military posed to invade Syria, there is a much more complex reason that goes beyond the Middle Eastern borders.

The Syrian situation has been a complex one for Trump. While he wanted to leave Syria, many Neo-con Republicans pushed for Trump to increase the number of American soldiers in Syria in order to overthrow president Assad. Although those voices are still heard, they don’t have the influence they once had. The chief critic of withdrawal from Syria, Senator McCain, is now dead and the neo-cons have lost their most effective voice in the government. Second, a major neo-con publication that has pushed for an active Syrian role for the US, the Weekly Standard, is now out of business and is no longer able to attack Trump.

According to some supporters of Trump are claiming this withdrawal isn’t necessarily a defeat for Trump and America. They promote the idea that Syrian President Assad’s most important allies, Russia and Iran, are an odd couple who have widely different ideas for Syria’s future.

By withdrawing, the US is no longer a common foe of these two nations and Russia and Iran will seek to follow their own policies in Syria, which will damage their currently friendly relationship.

But what has really driven the rapid move out of Syria and created a degree of American rapprochement with Turkey is the growing Russian threat in the Black Sea and the Ukraine.

Turkey and Russia have been enemies for hundreds of years and have fought each other to expand their spheres of influence in numerous wars. The recent warming relations between the two nations were due to the conflicting US and Turkish policy in Syria and Erdogan’s desire to play the two major powers off against each other.

That changed a few weeks ago. Russian military forces opened fire on three Ukrainian ships off the coast of Crimea, rammed one of them, and seized all three.

Russia claims the boats had illegally entered its sovereign waters.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned of a “full-scale war,” a day after he claimed to “have serious grounds to believe Russia is ready to follow with a ground attack.” The Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had “begun testing the readiness of formations and military units of the Southern Military District,” a region that includes the disputed Crimea and borders parts of Ukraine. Russian military vehicles have been massing in the vicinity of the border.

Russian tough measures have been repeated along the whole NATO border and Russia even sent nuclear capable bombers to visit Venezuela last week.

This renewed Russian aggressiveness in the Black Sea, which Turkey controls access to, has worried Turkey. Playing Russia off against the US is a nice diplomatic ploy, but Turkey is now viewing Russia as a threat – especially in regard to sailing rights in the Black Sea.

Suddenly, the NATO treaty that Erdogan seemed willing to discard has real importance. Since it states that an attack on one member is the same as an attack on all NATO members, strengthening Turkey’s ties with NATO also protects Turkish ships and aircraft from Russian attacks like the Ukraine experienced.

Another concern for Turkey was the announcement that Russia had completed replacing Crimea’s air defense with the S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Russia had begun deployment of the missile batteries just days after the confrontation with the Ukraine ships.

The S-400 has an operation range of 400 km, which puts the airspace of NATO countries under threat. And, in a more pointed threat, the Russian foreign minister political director Olexly Makeyev noted, “We know these missiles can be used also for ground targets.”

This is the reason for the rapid rapprochement between Turkey and the US in the last few weeks. Russian projected power is more of a threat to both the US and Turkey than Syria.

So, what can we expect to see in the next few weeks?

The US military is very mobile, and we can see several units leaving Syria rapidly. In fact, it appears that the withdrawal is already happening.

White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders has issued a formal statement on troop withdrawal from Syria: “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”

Moments after President Trump confirmed reports of US pullout via Twitter saying “We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” Pentagon officials said the president “ordered full US troop withdrawal from Syria,” and that this will be “rapid” — apparently already beginning, per a Reuters breaking report: “All U.S. State Department personnel are being evacuated from Syria within 24 hours – official.”

However, if it seems that the US is withdrawing too fast, remember that the US can insert troops as quickly as it withdraws them. And, there are already US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also remember that a lot depends on what the Pentagon means when it says it is withdrawing all forces. The figure of 2,000 troops is mentioned when talking about withdrawal, but many sources say there are about 4,000 US forces in Syria. That may very well mean that 2,000 troops will remain to carry out low profile operations.

Chances are great that several US Special Forces teams will remain in Syria to train Syrian forces allied with the US. And, there are US Special Forces across the border in Kurdish Iraq. This will make it difficult for either Turkey or Syria to defeat the Kurdish forces.

The warming relations between Turkey and the US may also mean the “low profile” stationing of US personnel in Turkey. These include US reconnaissance aircraft, signals intelligence personnel, and US Special Forces.

Also expect the deployment of more NATO ships to the Black Sea.

The US withdrawal from Syria is a mixed blessing for Russia. It does mean that some Russian forces can be redeployed. However, they are expected to continue manning the Syrian air defense systems.

While Russia can cut back on its military presence, it now must keep its promises of foreign aid to help rebuild Syria.



As one recent intelligence study put it: “The prospect of US being militarily involved in Syria, caught in middle of one of most complex conflicts in recent memory, with shifting objectives & ambiguous endgame, has been met with congressional indifference and public apathy.”

The current withdrawal allows Trump to keep a campaign promise by getting out of one Middle Eastern quagmire, block Iranian influence on the shore of the Mediterranean, and prevent Russian expansionism. There is the added benefit of strengthening NATO’s southern flank.

What happens in the long term is a little more uncertain. Although Turkey and Russia are hereditary enemies, Erdogan is fickle and may move back to Russia’s side if it benefits him. However, he currently has a two-front situation with Russia – on his northern border and south in Syria. And, since Russia has invested a lot in Syria, it won’t want the sort of Turkish interference that Erdogan might envisage.

Much will depend on president Assad and his ability to bring stability to Syria and resolve the competing policies of Russia and Iran.

Much also depends on Putin. NATO has informally agreed to Russia’s dominant role in Syria. However, they aren’t willing to grant the same to him in the Ukraine. If Putin tries to expand his influence in the Ukraine, NATO might try to” trim his wings in Syria”.

In other words, while the US has taken its pieces off the Syrian “chessboard,” it has added some pieces to the Russian “Chessboard.”

So, what is the verdict on the Syrian withdrawal? The politicians may not like it. The generals may not like it. However, the American voter must like it – which is one reason they voted for Trump.

Week of December 14, 2018

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



The number of reports coming out of the Washington think tanks is slowing as the US heads into its holiday season.

The Monitor analysis looks at the state of politics in Washington – including the latest charges from the special prosecutor that implicate Trump, the new Democratic leadership in Congress, and how Trump is responding. We see all these issues as either impacting the push to gain power in Washington or the 2020 presidential election.


 The Heritage Foundation writes that sanctioning Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi murder is dangerous. They note, “Senators must remember that Saudi Arabia is not the only belligerent in Yemen. A cutoff of U.S. support would also hurt the elected and internationally recognized government of Yemen, which was ousted by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in 2015 in a bloody coup that violated a U.N.-brokered ceasefire. Withdrawing U.S. support would also harm the interests of other U.S. allies fighting in Yemen, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The war in Yemen is complex. Those who rush to blame Saudi Arabia entirely for the suffering of the Yemeni people ignore the war crimes and heavy-handed treatment meted out by the Houthis to their opponents and the ruthless role that Iran plays in supporting the Houthi Ansar Allah (“Supporters of Allah”) movement, a Shia Islamist extremist group. The Saudis are rightly criticized for not doing more to prevent civilian casualties as they target Ansar Allah positions. But the Houthis should not be given a free pass for deliberately targeting civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with increasingly sophisticated Iranian ballistic missiles.”


The CSIS looks at Erdogan, Trump, and the Khashoggi murder. They maintain that Turkey and Erdogan used the incident for their own purposes. They note, “Erdogan wished to use interaction on this issue with Washington to improve his relationship with Trump, which had been shaken by the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey and the associated U.S. sanctions to bring about his release as well as by the continued absence of progress on issues, which have long divided the two countries, such as Fethullah Gulen’s stalled extradition, Pentagon’s engagement with the Syrian Kurdish YPG, and the Halkbank case. Finally, Erdogan expected to leverage Turkey’s vigorous advocacy for justice in the horrible crime against a journalist on Turkish soil to try to reverse the negative stream of news relating to Turkey’s record on press freedom.”


The CSIS looks at the military balance between the Arab Gulf States and Iran. They note, “While Iran is sometimes perceived as the military “hegemon” of the Gulf, the spending and modernization data show that many of Iran’s conventional military forces are equipped with aging, battle-worn, and mediocre weapons that make it something of a military museum. Iran has not had good access to modern weapons since the fall of the Shah, and the Arab Gulf forces are generally equipped with the most modern and effective weapons available from the U.S. and Europe and would be supported by the U.S., Britain, and France in any serious warfighting contingency. At the same time, Iran has made major advances in fielding a large mix of ballistic and cruise missiles, and asymmetric forces that can threaten shipping throughout the Gulf and in the Gulf of Oman and Red Sea. It also is expanding its military influence and presence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran has also skillfully exploited a combination of asymmetric warfare, arms transfers, and support of pro-Iranian regimes and non-state actors. It has taken advantage of the self-destructive divisions within an Arab world that failed to create an effective structure of alliances, wasted much of the money it has spent on military forces and arms transfers, and is now divided by the Saudi-UAE led boycott of Qatar.


The Heritage Foundation says the Syrian group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is more dangerous than ISIS. They note, “Recent estimates have placed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s size somewhere near 10,000 fighters in the Idlib region, making it the largest armed group in the province, which contains an estimated 70,000 fighters in total. These include many foreign fighters, including Arabs, Turks, Chechens, Uzbeks, and Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province. Some of these groups, like the Turkistan Islamic Party, are allied to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham… Internal strife inside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has given rise to assassinations of senior leaders in the group. Turkey and ISIS also are rumored to have committed several of these targeted killings. Despite the discord within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Islamist extremist network still poses one of the greatest long-term challenges for the U.S. and other countries trying to stabilize Syria. Amid the confusion of Syria’s kaleidoscopic and multi-sided conflict, one thing remains certain: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham must be isolated, marginalized, and defeated before a stable peace can emerge in Syria.”


The Washington Institute looks at Iran moving missile technology to Lebanon. This new Policy report examines Tehran’s objectives, Russia’s regional goals, and the way these translate to long-term threats and short-term risks for Israel. If Hezbollah continues working on precision missiles inside Lebanon, Israel may feel compelled to respond one way or another. To avoid a disastrous escalation, the international community will need to plan and take concerted action on several fronts: UNIFIL’s shortcomings, increased sanctions on Iran’s commercial airlines, U.S. aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, ministries headed by Hezbollah officials, and State Department transparency regarding its intelligence on Iran’s activities in Lebanon.



American Politics Roiled as it Heads into Christmas Season

Politics and politicians usually take a break as America heads into the holiday season. Congress goes into recess and the president usually heads off to his favorite holiday retreat.

This year is different. American politics is facing instability just as its two long-time allies, Britain and France, are experiencing. All three nations are asking themselves, “Who is really in charge here?” The only difference is that Trump seems more secure than either British PM May or French President Macron.

But, at the core, the three are facing the same problem. Who exercises power in Washington, London, and Paris? And, who will come out of the current problems as the winners.

As the US faces a divided government, the question is, “Who can push their agenda successfully for the next two years?” Will it be the Republicans who control the White House and Senate or will the Democrats, who control the House, wrest control from the GOP.

There is also the question of the next presidential election in two years. Can Trump win reelection? Can the Democrats injure him to the point that he either doesn’t run for reelection or loses the general election?

And, finally, can the Democrats find a winning presidential candidate in the next year?

So, let’s break this down.

Who is in Charge Here?

Traditionally, when Washington faces a divided government, the president calls for the leaders of the other party to come to the White House for talks. In the public parts of the meeting, both sides pledge themselves to working in a bipartisan manner as befits a great democracy.

Not this time.

On Tuesday, President Trump clearly shocked House speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer with his televising of the Oval Office sit-down over his demand for $5 billion in funding for border security, including funding of critical parts for his border wall.  Knowing well that Pelosi had already vowed publicly that “transparency and openness” would characterize the Democrat-run House starting next month, her plaintive request to speak in private scored points for Trump and revealed her agenda before any substance at all was considered.

Trump’s second strategy is his bold declaration close the government if he doesn’t get the wall money – something Pelosi and Schumer don’t see from the voter’s eyes.  Since federal workers are now a major and solid constituency for Democrats, this skews their perception of the public’s concern.  However, aside from closing national monuments and national parks, the fact is that life goes on well for nearly all Americans during the shutdown.  The problem for the Democrats is that this allows the voters to learn that there are a lot of non-essential government workers. The result is that shutting down the government is quite popular with most Republicans and many independents.

The fact is, after multiple shutdowns, including the last one that bore the label “Schumer Shutdown” and was quickly conceded by the Democrats, the public is no longer afraid of non-essential services (roughly 25% of the government) being suspended.

What Trump made clear to Pelosi and Schumer is that the Republican control of the levers of power is still in place. Trump can still take executive action as Obama did and GOP control of the Senate makes any legislation passed by the Democratic House of Representatives “dead on arrival.”

What this means is that the Democratic legislation agenda is nothing more than political window dressing.

On the other hand, the Republicans and Trump will discover that executive action is limited. Trump can do many things, but there is no guarantee that these initiatives will last beyond his administration, especially if a Democratic president resides in the White House.

Which brings up the next issue – most of the politics taking place in Washington is geared to setting the stage for 2020, the presidential elections, and forcing Trump out of the White House.

Gearing up for 2020

It’s not just the Special Council and parts of the government that want Trump forced from office. New York Attorney Gen.-elect Letitia James says she plans to launch sweeping investigations into President Donald Trump, his family and “anyone” in his circle who may have violated the law once she settles into her new job next month.

“We will use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family as well…We want to investigate anyone in his orbit who has, in fact, violated the law,” said James.

This means the Trump Administration will be fighting a legal battle on several fronts in the next two years.  Although there appears to be little tangible concerning Trump/Russian collusion, the investigation goes on with questionable indictments and an FBI that both sides admit is less concerned about rights than getting something on the people it investigates.

This was highlighted in a lengthy court filing Tuesday, when attorneys for former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn alleged that then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe pushed Flynn not to have an attorney present during the questioning that ultimately led to his guilty plea on a single charge of lying to federal authorities.

The document outlines, with striking new details, the rapid sequence of events that led to Flynn’s sudden fall from the Trump administration. The filing also seemingly demonstrates that the FBI took a significantly more aggressive tack in handling the Flynn interview than it did during other similar matters, including the agency’s sit-downs with Hillary Clinton.

While Flynn is among several Trump associates to have been charged with making false statements as part of the Russia probe, no one interviewed during the FBI’s Clinton email investigation was hit with false statement charges – though investigators believed some witnesses were untruthful.

Although Democrats were anxious to see what Mueller had last week, what was revealed was not something that would be considered “High crimes and misdemeanors,” as demanded by the Constitution for impeachment.

Federal lawyers prosecuting Michael Cohen in the Southern District of New York dropped a bombshell in a memorandum they filed with the court this past Friday — accusing President Trump of campaign finance crimes.

Cohen was Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. During Trump’s campaign, Cohen paid off two women to remain quiet about stories of Donald Trump. The purpose of the hush-buys, according to prosecutors referencing Cohen’s statements, was “to prevent the story from influencing the election.” The money for these hush-buys came from Trump’s corporation. Federal prosecutors titled this activity “Illegal Campaign Contributions.”

Was this activity, in fact, illegal? Were these hush-buys a type of campaign contribution?

Expert campaign finance law attorney Dan Backer, who beat the federal government in a landmark Supreme Court case, disagrees.

Cohen says that the purpose of the expenditure was “to prevent the story from influencing the election.” But Donald Trump has done this for years, having paid off individuals to stay quiet about potentially damaging stories throughout his career. “Trump” is a brand, after all. To protect the reputation of the brand, Trump participated in hush-buys before the election and likely will continue to do so after he completes his term. He’s not the only brand to do so. Small businesses like restaurants will provide complete refunds to dissatisfied customers, for example, to prevent bad reviews.

Is such activity a campaign contribution? No, Backer answers, “brand protection is not a campaign contribution.” The hush-buys were done to protect Trump as a corporate brand, not to protect him as a candidate. No evidence was presented by the federal prosecutors explaining how a lawful business deal was converted into an illegal campaign finance contribution. “The notion that every penny a candidate personally or professionally spends is somehow reportable to the FEC is utter nonsense.” Backer further explains that a campaign finance crime is “not a question of speculation, it’s a matter of proof, and there isn’t any [in this case].”

Almost everything Mueller has, the perjury cases, are crimes he created through the process of investigating. Mueller created most of his booked charges by asking questions he already knew the answers to, hoping his witness would lie and commit new crimes literally in front of him. Nobody should be proud of lying, but the DoJ and FBI tactics seem to be inconsistent with the legal right promised to Americans.

Mueller’s report will most likely claim that a lot of unsavory things went on. But it seems increasingly unlikely that he’ll have any evidence Trump worked with Russia to win the election, let alone that Trump is now under Putin’s control. If Mueller had a smoking gun, we’d be watching impeachment hearings by now

As the New York Times said in a rare moment of candor, “From the day the Mueller investigation began, opponents of the president have hungered for that report, or an indictment waiting just around the corner, as the source text for an incantation to whisk Mr. Trump out of office and set everything back to normal again.”

Consequently, a solid impeachment case based on the Mueller report is out of the question.

Getting Rid of Trump

The Democrats have several options to get rid of Trump – none of them foolproof. The one that seems the most straightforward is impeachment. Although the Democratic House can draw up articles of impeachment, hold hearings and then pass them, what has been released (and what will probably be released) isn’t will probably be weak and not enough to get a conviction in the Republican controlled Senate.

The articles of impeachment may not even get out of the House as several Democratic congressmen represent districts that voted for Trump and are aware voters may punish them at the ballot box if the charges aren’t solid.

There’s also the question of massive civil unrest if a legally elected president is impeached for minor issues.

President Donald Trump dismissed the notion that Democrats would try to impeach him, asserting that his supporters would revolt. “I’m not concerned, no. I think that the people would revolt if that happened,” he said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday when asked about the possibility of impeachment. Trump did not appear worried, despite the ongoing Russia investigation and criminal charges against his private lawyer Michael Cohen. Trump: People Would ‘Revolt’ If I’m Impeached “It’s hard to impeach somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong and who’s created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump said.

An alternative to impeachment is to hold congressional hearings on Trump, his allies, and actions until he is so unpopular that he resigns or his political base stops supporting him. However, the recent past shows that Democratic opposition to Trump only solidifies his support.

Congress can also pass legislation that embarrasses Trump. One currently under consideration is legislation to sanction Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, who Trump supports. A modest bill put forward by outgoing Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee is the most likely to pass.

Mr. Corker’s bill would formally declare Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “responsible” for the October murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

A more radical bill would cut off US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen – which would be an embarrassment for Trump and his relations with MbS.

The Democrats may also look at other possible legal ways to get rid of Trump. With a Democratic Speaker of the House, the line of succession now is Trump, Vice President Pence, and then a Democratic Speaker of the House. If Trump and Pence can be pushed out, the White House belongs to the Democrats.

If VP Pence was forced to resign, it could be argued that the Speaker of the House, as next in line for the presidency, might be able to use the 25th Amendment and declare Trump unable to discharge the duties of president.

This is not an unlikely scenario. It’s much like that which occurred in the Nixon years when VP Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to corruption charges. Before Ford was picked to fill the office of vice President, it is quite likely that the Democratic Speaker of the House could have declared (along with most Cabinet members) that Nixon was unable to discharge the duties of President.

That being the case, don’t be surprised to see investigations into Pence’s background and possible illegal activity.

Since impeachment or the use 25th Amendment are unlikely alternatives, the goal of the Democratic Congress will be to injure Trump politically so he either doesn’t run for reelection or losses the election.

But defeating Trump and the Republicans also requires a viable Democratic candidate for president – something which the Democrats don’t have yet.

The current crop of Democratic candidates consists of old, familiar candidates like Biden, Sanders, and Clinton. But, none of these engender the enthusiasm that the Democrats want in a candidate. Some like Beto of Texas are young and exciting but have thin resumes. There are others who project fresh faces or women without Hillary’s baggage, but still deliberating internally.

Of course, Trump also had a thin political resume.

Defeating Trump requires damaging his image AND finding an attractive alternative. Since the first presidential primaries and caucuses are only a year away, the pressure is on them to find and sell a reasonable alternative.

In other words, real Democratic control must wait until they find and elect a viable Democrat to the White House.




Ending U.S. Military Support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen Would Trigger Dangerous Consequences

By Madyson Hutchinson Posey and James Phillips

Heritage Foundation

December 6, 2018


In a new resolution, a bipartisan group of senators is calling for the United States to end its involvement—specifically its support of Saudi Arabia—in the Yemen conflict.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 63-37 to pass a procedural measure that will clear the way for a floor debate on the issue next week. The push comes largely in response to the recent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Trump administration has banned 21 Saudi suspects in that murder from entering the U.S., imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials, and expressed its willingness to take further action if warranted by ongoing investigations. Many senators seek to do more to punish the Saudis, even if it means sacrificing the interests of the Yemeni government and making a negotiated settlement of the conflict more difficult.

Read more at:




This Little-Known Terror Group Poses a Greater Threat Than ISIS in Syria

By James Phillips and Austin Avery

Heritage Foundation

December 3, 2018


The war in Syria is heating up again this week after recently subsiding from the front pages of newspapers. On Sunday, Russia claimed that rebels in northwestern Syria had fired shells filled with chlorine gas near the city of Aleppo. Although the rebels have not demonstrated such a chemical capability in the past, Syria’s Assad regime has repeatedly used illegal chemical weapons to demoralize insurgents and stampede their civilian supporters away from the front. Moscow could use this alleged incident as a pretext to resume the postponed offensive against Idlib province, the last major stronghold of Syria’s fractious rebel coalition. Already, Russia has resumed airstrikes in Idlib for the first time since the Sept. 17 Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey produced a tenuous cease-fire. Syria’s Assad regime, which is committed to retaking “every inch” of Syria, also escalated artillery attacks on rebel-held towns in southern Idlib.

Read more at:




Erdogan, Trump, and the Khashoggi Murder

By Bulent Aliriza

Center for Strategic and International Studies

December 12, 2018


Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was posthumously named Time’s “Person of the Year,” along with four other journalists, for “taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths” on December 11. The terrible fate of Khashoggi, who paid the ultimate price in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 at the hands of 15 agents who had arrived from Riyadh the previous day, not only triggered a global storm of indignation but also set in motion a major diplomatic gambit by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the pursuit of a number of related objectives involving President Donald Trump and impacting U.S.-Turkish relations. Erdogan’s primary aim was to effectively and irrevocably tie Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder to Saudi Arabia and, without ever naming him directly, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, who had elevated himself into an obstacle to Turkish regional calculations through his public identification of Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership as ‘a major threat in the region along with Iran’ as well as his ongoing blockade of Qatar. His next goal was to try to force the Trump administration, which had been backing MBS without any apparent reservation prior to the murder as a key partner in its Middle East plans, to review its relationship with him. Lacking significant direct leverage over Riyadh, Erdogan hoped to induce pressure by Trump—inconceivable before Khashoggi’s murder—to either force MBS out or to weaken him into ineffectiveness.

Read more at:




The Arab Gulf States and Iran: Military Spending, Modernization, and the Shifting Military Balance

By Anthony H. Cordesman and Nicholas Harrington

Center for Strategic and international Studies

December 12, 2018


The military balance between Iran, its Arab neighbors, and the United States has been a critical military issue in the Middle East since at least the rise of Nasser in the 1950s. The risks this arms race presents in terms of a future conflict have not diminished with time, and many elements of the regional arms race have accelerated sharply in recent years. Clashes with Iran in the Gulf struggles for influence in Iraq and Syria, and the war in Yemen all act as warnings that new rounds of conflict are possible. The Iranian reactions to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement, the growing tensions between the Arab Gulf states, the boycott of Qatar, and the unstable outcome of the fight against ISIS, and the Syrian civil war all contribute to an increasingly fragile and dangerous security environment.

Read more at:




Iran’s Precision Missile Project Moves to Lebanon

By Katherine Bauer, Hanin Ghaddar, and Assaf Orion

Washington Institute

December 2018


Upon securing most of its war goals in Syria, Iran appeared to shift its objectives toward establishing a military presence in that country while upgrading Hezbollah’s fire precision and effectiveness in Lebanon. But once its Syrian facilities came under increased Israeli fire, Tehran began moving some of these activities into Lebanon, knowing that Israeli strikes would be more complicated there due to the escalation potential. Yet the prospect of Hezbollah acquiring or producing advanced “precision” weapons is Israel’s main redline and could put the parties on a collision course that leads to conflict in Lebanon.

Read more at:




Week of December 07, 2018

The Changing Face of
American Conservatism

This week was a milestone in the history of American conservatism. President George H. W. Bush died. He was the one who promised a “kinder gentler” conservatism when he became president. Yet, he led the first Gulf War and established the principle of interfering in Middle Eastern Politics – a foundation stone of the Neoconservative movement (neocons).

It was also announced this week that the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard is scheduled to close soon. The Weekly Standard was a strong voice of the neocon movement and was anti-Trump, even though they claimed to be conservative.

After months of searching for a buyer, the Weekly Standard’s owner MediaDC has decided to expand its other conservative publication, the Washington Examiner – a pro-Trump publication.

The Weekly Standard was founded in 1995 by Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes. During the presidency of George W. Bush, it was widely considered to be aligned with the administration and larger forces of neoconservatism.

Under Hayes’ leadership, The Weekly Standard has remained steadfast in its criticism of Trump. Supporters of Trump have lashed out at The Weekly Standard and its influence in Republican circles has dwindled, along with its subscription base.

The demise of the Weekly Standard is proof that the once popular neoconservatism of the past few decades has died, and President Trump’s definition of conservatism has triumphed for the moment.

But conservatism has gone through several changes since World War Two. In the 1950s, there was the intellectual conservatism of William F. Buckley and the National Review. That was supplanted by Reagan conservatism of the 1980s – to be followed by the neo-conservatism of the 1990s and 2000s.

Today, those have all been defeated by Trump Conservatism.

Of course, some say Trump isn’t a conservative. Earlier this year, in a speech to the National Press Club, Sen. Jeff Flake made a charge that has become common among disillusioned “never Trump” Republicans: Donald Trump is corrupting “true conservatism” with his authoritarian style, neo-isolationist foreign policy, lack of fiscal discipline, and opposition to free trade.

What Sen. Flake and other “Never-Trumpers” fail to realize is that Trumpism is only the latest mutation in a long history of conservative evolution that goes back to the early 20th century.

The Father of modern American conservatism was William F. Buckley (November 24, 1925 – February 27, 2008). He was a conservative intellectual, author, and commentator. In 1955, Buckley founded National Review, a magazine that became the flagship of the conservative movement in the late-20th century United States. Buckley hosted 1,429 episodes of the public affairs television show Firing Line (1966–1999).

George H. Nash, a historian of the modern American conservative movement, said Buckley was “arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century. For an entire generation, he was the preeminent voice of American conservatism and its first great ecumenical figure.” Buckley’s primary contribution to politics was a fusion of traditionalist conservatism, and classical liberalism; that fusion laid the groundwork for a rightward shift in the Republican Party, as exemplified by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. As a Catholic, he also started to inject religion into the Conservative mainstream.

Buckley and National Review defined the boundaries of conservatism and excluded people, ideas or groups they considered unworthy of the conservative title. For example, Buckley denounced libertarian writer Ayn Rand, the John Birch Society, George Wallace, racists, white supremacists, and anti-Semites.

At the same time, American conservatism was taking another turn – one that Buckley started. The late 1960s saw conservatives begin to champion religious causes, such as Bible reading and prayer in public schools. This caused great consternation among old-guard conservatives and their reaction to this “religious turn” in conservatism mirrors the current response of many George W. Bush neoconservatives to Trump’s “isolationist policy.”

Many have mistakenly assumed that the 1980 election of the avowedly conservative President Ronald Reagan meant that America had shifted “to the Right” after Goldwater’s loss. It was conservatism itself that had shifted toward America. By changing from a narrow-limited government economic ideology to a broader anti-Communist and religious one, conservatism had become attractive to demographics that had previously identified with the liberal side. Reagan’s election did not indicate that America had become more conservative, but that conservatism had changed to become more mainstream.

As much as they disliked some of Buckley’s ideas, establishment Republicans did admit that Buckley had changed American politics. In 1991, Buckley received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George H. W. Bush.

But Buckley differed dramatically with the changing standards of conservatism – especially neoconservatism. Regarding the War in Iraq, Buckley stated, “The reality of the situation is that missions abroad to effect regime change in countries without a bill of rights or democratic tradition are terribly arduous.”

In a February 2006 column published at National Review Online, Buckley stated unequivocally that, “One cannot doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed.” Buckley has also stated that ” … it’s important that we acknowledge in the inner councils of state that it (the war) has failed, so that we should look for opportunities to cope with that failure.”

About neoconservatives, he said in 2004: “I think those I know, which is most of them, are bright, informed and idealistic, but that they simply overrate the reach of U.S. power and influence.”

And, although he never knew Trump as a politician, in 2000 he described him as a “demagogue” and a “narcissist.

If there was a president that did fulfill the promise of modern conservatism, it was Ronald Reagan, who was a reader of National Review and Buckley’s books. And, it was Reagan, who turned modern conservatism into the mainstream thought of the Republican Party after the defeat of the moderate candidate George H. W. Bush in the 2000 Republican presidential primary.

Although Buckley was a Reagan supporter and a personal friend, he informed the President-elect that he would decline any official position offered to him. Reagan jokingly replied that was too bad, because he had wanted to make Buckley ambassador to (then Soviet-occupied) Afghanistan. Buckley replied that he was willing to take the job but only if he were to be supplied with “10 divisions of bodyguards.”

The era of Buckley/Reagan conservatism was only 8 years. George H. W. Bush changed course as president and favored a more moderate, pro-government Republican philosophy – a political change that alienated Republican voters, who stayed away from the polling booths in 1992 and allowed for the election of William Clinton.

Although President Bush had been defeated, his one major change to American policy was neoconservatism. With Bush’s win in Kuwait, a breed of conservatives sprung up who advocated exporting American ideals overseas – especially the Middle East. The result is the American entanglements like Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Conservatism continued to evolve. By the time of the Iraq War in 2003, foreign policy hawkishness had moved to the center of conservatism and limited government had been pushed to the margins. George W. Bush, who expanded the size of the federal government more than any president since FDR, was considered “conservative” while Bill Clinton, who oversaw a slight shrinkage of government, was considered “center-Left.” (Both worked with a putatively conservative Republican Congress.) In 1940, it would have been unthinkable for a president to expand the federal government to the degree Bush did and still be considered “conservative,” but such are the evolutions of conservatism.

While neoconservatism was popular with many conservatives, William Buckley saw the danger in forcing American values on others and favored a withdrawal, even if it might be seen as a defeat. Ironically, in 2008, before he died, Buckley supported the candidacy of the arch neoconservative Senator John McCain.

Trump’s candidacy has changed American conservatism again. It eschews American involvement overseas – a major belief of the neoconservatives. Since there remain many neoconservatives in the party who want to advance neoconservative ideas like defeating Syrian President Assad, US policy has become a mish mash of policy initiatives like officially opposing Assad, but not making that the major goal of US military intervention in Syria.

If there is one principle that runs throughout most conservative thought since WWII, it is the idea that big government is a problem. Buckley broke with Nixon over the growth of American welfare legislation. Reagan said government was the problem, not the solution. And Trump calls government the “swamp.”

If anything, Trump is bringing conservatism back to its roots of limited government.

However, it is a mistake to see Trump as the ideal conservative. Although he has been strongly endorsed by the National Rifle Association and says he supports the Second Amendment, he is preparing regulation to outlaw the possession of “bump stocks” on rifles.

So, what is conservatism? And how has Trump impacted it?

Today’s conservatism has gone back to its roots in terms of being for limited government – unlike the policies of George W. Bush. It’s also less interested in foreign involvement, even though the remaining neoconservatives are fighting Trump on this policy.

Trump’s view of limited government is more aggressive like Reagan’s. Trump – like Reagan – is more likely to take drastic steps like Reagan did when he fired the air traffic controllers.

The fact is that conservatism has evolved thanks to Trump and his defeat of Clinton. Yet, in many ways, it has the same roots that energized William F. Buckley 60 years ago. But it will continue to evolve and will look different in the future.

Week of November 30, 2018

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


The Heritage Foundation looks at the reasons Russia attacked the Ukraine ships this week. They note, “there is another reason that has likely contributed to the outburst in the Kerch Strait: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating. Ever since Russia passed unwelcome pension reforms earlier this year, Putin’s approval rating has been at an all-time low. To boost his rating and distract Russian citizens from the poor socioeconomic situation at home, Putin likely called for aggressive military actions in the Kerch Strait. That worked four years ago. In 2013, Putin’s approval rating stood at 54 percent. Then, when Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, his rating skyrocketed to 83 percent. Later this week in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Group of 20 will be holding a summit at which President Donald Trump and Putin are supposed to meet. However, Trump should not give him the privilege. In refusing to meet, it would make clear to Putin that Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine are unlawful. More than half of the Azov Sea’s coastline lawfully belongs to Ukraine, and Russia must provide access to Ukraine’s ships.”


The Heritage Foundation looks at limiting arms sales to Bahrain over the war in Yemen. The arguments are the same for not cutting off Saudi Arabia arms shipments. They note, “Advocates of the arms cutoff apparently believe that they can somehow “end” the war through a one-sided strategy of depriving America’s allies of U.S.-provided weapons. But this is not a one-sided war. Iran and its Yemeni allies have a vote, and clearly intend to keep fighting against Yemen’s government. It is delusional to think that the Yemenis, who have been fighting for years, will end the bloodletting because Bahrain, a minor member of the Saudi-led coalition, has been singled out for a humiliating arms cutoff. The war will go on, with or without U.S. weapons. But depriving Bahrain of arms that it requires for its own defense will undermine U.S. national interests by weakening ties to a major non-NATO ally, giving a psychological boost to Iran, and encouraging the Houthis to continue to drag their feet on peace talks.”


The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at the Khashoggi murder and what it says about the American media and policy making in Washington. They conclude, “Foreign and national security policymaking has always been an elite, professionalized affair for the most part, and except perhaps in wartime it didn’t matter much whether typical citizens understood how it was done. Now that this once-cloistered domain has entered the age of Trump, the chasm of comprehension between those responsible for this business as their day job and nearly everybody else has widened beyond hope of measurement. And the mainstream media, which once felt responsible for narrowing that chasm to the extent possible, has switched sides. It has all but abandoned the burden of making calm distinctions and has instead mostly resigned itself to decorating the blur. That, ultimately, is what the Khashoggi affair means.”

looks at the jihadist threat. The report notes, “These findings suggest that there is still a large pool of Salafi-jihadist and allied fighters willing and able to use violence to achieve their goals. Every U.S. president since 9/11 has tried to move away from counterterrorism in some capacity, and it is no different today. Balancing national secu­rity priorities in today’s world needs to happen grad­ually. For the United States, the challenge is not that U.S. officials are devoting attention and resources to dealing with state adversaries like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. These countries present legitimate threats to the United States at home and abroad. Rath­er, the mistake would be declaring victory over ter­rorism too quickly and, as a result, shifting too many resources and too much attention away from terrorist groups when the threat remains significant.”

The Carnegie Endowment
looks at how the new Democratic Congress can defend democracy abroad. They note, “But given how Trump has ratcheted up his anti-democratic messaging during his second year in office, the new Congress will need to do more than hold the line. It will need to innovate to keep U.S. democracy policy alive. Lawmakers can rise to the challenge in three ways: 1) Enact creative legislation to punish autocrats. Given how Trump has cheered on the authoritarian behavior of leaders from the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, would-be autocrats increasingly assume that they have been given carte blanche. Congress can show them otherwise…2) Support pro-democracy diplomacy. Legislators should push for the restoration of government positions and capacities essential to democracy work. They should confirm the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor and push the administration to fill key supporting roles, including democracy-focused positions on the National Security Council…3) Bolster public diplomacy for democracy by giving greater priority and visibility to meeting with democratic leaders, activists, and allies from abroad. In doing so, Congress can take on the traditional role that the White House has given up of showing U.S. support for democratic principles by publicly embracing foreign pro-democratic figures.”



Russian – Ukrainian Incident Increases International Tension

The success of this week’s G-20 meeting is threatened by the increasing tensions between the Ukraine and Russia.

Russian military forces opened fire on three Ukrainian ships off the coast of Crimea, rammed one of them, and seized all three. The ships were manned by 23 crew members. Ukrainian authorities say between three and six have been injured.

Russia claims the boats had illegally entered its sovereign waters. However, what we do know is that the Ukrainian vessels – two gunboats and a tugboat – were sailing from Odessa around the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea, headed toward the Kerch Strait and Mariupol on the north bank of the Sea of Azov. A 2003 treaty between Ukraine and Russia guarantees both nations the right to use the Kerch Strait and Azov Sea for commercial purposes. The same treaty allows either nation to use the waters to transport military vessels so long as the transporting nation notifies the other. A Russian oil tanker nonetheless blocked the ships from passing through the strait, fighter jets passed overhead as if the ships were an invading force, and Russian troops boarded and took control of the ships.

Ukraine insists that it notified Russia of the tiny fleet, and there is no reason to doubt its statement. Russia claims that the ships “crossed the Russian state border and illegally entered the temporarily closed waters of the Russian territorial sea.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned Tuesday of a “full-scale war,” a day after he claimed to “have serious grounds to believe Russia is ready to follow with a ground attack.” Also, on Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had “begun testing the readiness of formations and military units of the Southern Military District,” a region that includes the disputed Crimea and borders parts of Ukraine. Military trucks were spotted transporting the 3K60 Bal coastal defense missile system toward Crimea.

Given the G-20 meeting this weekend, this is likely a test. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to know how far the United States is willing to go to check Russian projecting power. Reuters notes, “The episode risks derailing a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 in Argentina later this week. Trump said on Tuesday that he might cancel the meeting due to the incident, but the Kremlin said on Wednesday it thought it was still on.”

(But later aboard Air Force One, on route to the summit, Trump announced the cancelation of the meeting.)

Trump says ‘‘based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin. I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!’’

On March 2014, Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula under the pretense of protecting a pro-Russian minority. Russia now considers Crimea part of Russia, although Ukraine and others holds it to be an illegal annexation. More than 10,000 have died in the conflict. The fighting goes on despite the Minsk II ceasefire signed in February 2015.

Ukraine has responded to this quiet invasion by increasing its military preparedness. The eastern European nation has doubled the size of its military in just four years: It now has around 250,000 active-duty soldiers and roughly 80,000 reservists. They are also better equipped. In 2017 the Trump administration began the sale of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine.

This means that at any moment Crimea and eastern Ukraine could explode into a large-scale hot war between proxies of the United States and Russia. Vladimir Putin wants to consolidate his gains in Ukraine and has every reason to precipitate a low-level crisis in order to find out how far America is ready to go.

How did the United States respond to Black Sea incident? U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley issued a robust criticism of Russia’s aggression. But she’s leaving the administration.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s condemnation included forceful language but lacked any specific promise of consequences.

Trump’s own comments were mild: “We do not like what’s happening either way,” Trump said while leaving the White House. “And hopefully it will get straightened out.”

Russian dissident Garry Kasparov condemned the weak response and said how the US reacts will be critical, “Putin will scan this looking for ‘unless Russia…’ or ‘if Russia doesn’t comply…’ and, seeing nothing like that, he will continue as planned…Translate this U.S. statement on Russia’s latest act of war against Ukraine into dictator-speak, Putin’s language: ‘We aren’t going to do anything about it.’ That’s how he will read it.”

However, Putin isn’t taking chances. Russia has announced plans to deploy more of its advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to Crimea.

“A division size of Russia’s S-400 Triumph air defense system has undergone tests and will soon be put on combat duty in Crimea,” the Southern Military District’s press service said on Wednesday.

The personnel of the air defense missile unit of the 4th army of the Air Force and the Southern Military District deployed to Crimea has started preparing the equipment to be transported by rail to a permanent base. “In the near future, the new system will enter combat duty to defend Russia’s airspace, replacing the previous air defense system,” the spokesman explained.

Adding to tensions, Reuters has further reported that a Russian warship has been dispatched to the Sea of Azov.

But this skirmish impacts NATO because Russia has made a habit of initiating challenging actions against NATO nations. In May of this year several Russian Navy (and probably Air Force) jets, including Su-30SM Flanker derivative and Su-24 Fencer jets flew in the vicinity of British HMS Duncan, which was 30 nautical miles from the Crimea.

In 2017, Su-24s attack jets flew close to the Royal Netherlands Navy Frigate HNLMS Evertsen, operating in the Baltic Sea,

In Apr. 2016, some Su-24s performed as many as 20 overflights, (as low as 100 feet and 11 “very low simulated attack”) within 1,000 yards of the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea. Two years earlier, in April 2014, a Russian Su-24MR, flew within 1,000 yards of the very same US Navy destroyer that was operating in the Black Sea following the crisis in Ukraine. At that time, a show of force was considered “provocative and inconsistent with international agreements.”

On Thursday last week, the Belgian Navy command ship Godetia was participating in a minesweeping mission, when it was surprised by the low-level flyover of two Russian Su-24s in the Baltic Sea. A Belgian frigate (F931 Louise-Marie) operating in the same area had to temporarily suspend an Air Defense exercise and keep an eye on the Su-24 “threat” to the other Belgian vessel.

At the same time, NATO nations are supporting the Ukraine. Earlier this year, the Defense Department approved a $200 million military aid package to Ukrainian forces, bringing the total amount of American weapons and equipment sent to support Kiev’s fight against Russian-backed separatists in the country to $1 billion.

The military support package will include new “capabilities to enhance Ukraine’s command and control, situational awareness systems, secure communications, military mobility, night vision, and military medical treatment,” according to a Pentagon statement.

Pentagon officials have also agreed to provide “cooperation funds for additional training, equipment and advisory efforts to build the defensive capacity of Ukraine’s forces,” as part of the effort, the statement says.

The Trump administration also told Congress that it plans to sell Ukraine 210 anti-tank missiles to help it defend its territory from Russia.

Just two months ago on Sept. 27, the U.S. Coast Guard signed off on providing two patrol boats to Ukraine within the next year.

And on Nov. 21, Britain announced it would provide Ukraine even more troops than promised back in September.

That’s not all. Russia’s Izvestia newspaper reported that Kiev had been trying to persuade Washington – so far unsuccessfully – to open a military base in Ukraine.” However, Reuters, noted it could not be independently confirmed.

The reality is that the Ukraine needs NATO assistance in any confrontation with Russia. The Ukrainian armed forces, which were placed on high alert Monday, were composed of about 250,000 personnel, including about 204,000 troops, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, a figure dwarfed by 1.9 million Russian military personnel, a 2018 estimate that includes some 1,013,628 servicemen. Russian military expenditures also topped off in 2017 at $66.3 billion as compared to Ukraine’s $3.6 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Russia also commands the world’s largest tank army with some 20,000 armored vehicles and the Ukrainian government claimed last year that the number of Russian tanks covertly operating in support of rebels in Ukraine alone numbered some 680, a figure that would outrank the tank forces of the United Kingdom and Germany combined.

As for the Ukrainian navy, much of its ships were lost when Russia gained control of Crimea and three more have been seized in Sunday’s incident. Though Russia lost its sole aircraft carrier in a floating drydock incident late last month, the Black Sea Fleet has dozens of warships and the navy was set to receive 26 more vessels by the end of this year. Commentator Michael Bociurkiw argued Wednesday in a CNN op-ed that Ukraine was “woefully unprepared to wage a fight with Russia at sea” and that a Russian amphibious assault on the Azov coastline “would face little opposition.”

Dozens of Ukrainian aircraft were also taken in the annexation of Crimea. Even in Ukrainian hands, however, many of these planes were deemed unable to fly. David Axe of the War Is Boring blog writing in April 2014 that “16 Su-27s, 24 MiG-29s, 35 Su-24s and 24 Su-25s were flight worthy at the time of the Russian annexation” a month earlier and that “just 15 percent of the air force’s planes were combat-ready,” citing a local survey.

A more recent assessment authored by Mykola Bielieskov last month found that—following a deadly Su-27UB1M crash involving a Ukrainian pilot and a U.S. pilot—”the Ukrainian Air Force is left with seventeen Su-27s, in addition to twenty-one MiG-29 Fulcrums, a tactical fighter comparable to the F-16.” He added: “It also can muster thirteen Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack jets, a dozen Su-24 supersonic bombers, and forty-six L-39 jet trainers which can serve in the light attack role.” It also has several heavy transport planes, reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters.

The Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2017 Russia Military Power report detailed the country’s air power as comprising of a vast array of equipment including 141 bombers, 420 fighters, 345 fighter ground-attack aircraft, 215 attack jets, 32 electronic intelligence aircraft, 22 airborne warning and control aircraft, 6 command and control aircraft, 15 tankers, 122 heavy transport planes and 198 trainers. More modernized aircraft have begun entering service as of this year.

Although the Ukraine is friendly with most NATO nations, without NATO membership, the Western military alliance has no obligation to intervene on Ukraine’s behalf, potentially leaving the nation to face Russia on its own.

However, NATO support of the Ukraine doesn’t mean Russia will lose any military engagement with the West. NATO forces in Eastern Europe are just a fraction of what Russia can field. Not only will they outnumbered, it will be difficult to reinforce them should hostilities break out against Russia and NATO.

This is where the G-20 meeting in Argentina and the possibility of a meeting between Trump and Putin becomes important.

Putin is paying close attention to how Trump and the US reacts. If Trump meets Putin and acts like nothing is happening, expect Putin to push the Ukraine harder.

The deployment of a destroyer or frigate to the Black Sea may make Putin more circumspect in his action. However, a couple of American Navy ships in the Black Sea can do little in a military confrontation, because they would be seriously outnumbered.

A more important move would be to deploy US Army units to Ukraine for “training” and maneuvers. Although these can’t stop Russia, they will act as a “trip wire” that Russia may not want to cross. NATO can also move ground units to Eastern NATO nations that could be moved to the Ukraine in a crisis.

Don’t expect sanctions to stop Russia. Speaking before the VTB Capital forum in Moscow on Wednesday, Putin wryly explained that by implementing sanctions on Russia and other countries, Washington is effectively “shooting itself not in the foot but a bit higher.”

He clearly made the case that aggressive US punitive measures against its rivals is undermining confidence in the dollar.

Putin explained, “We are not setting the target of moving away from the dollar – the dollar is moving away from us, and those who take respective [sanctions] decisions are shooting themselves not just in the foot, but slightly higher, as such instability in calculations in dollars creates a desire of many global economies to find alternative reserve currencies and create settlement systems independent of the dollar.”

Putin also reminded Trump that Europe might not be willing to push Russia over the Crimea by noting that sanctions against Russia would lead to the loss of 400,000 jobs in Europe. Any NATO action might threaten natural gas supplies as Europe heads into winter.

In the end, it is more likely that the current situation will calm down. However, it’s not guaranteed that calmer heads will prevail. We have only to look at World War One a century ago to realize that it’s quite possible for rational politicians to march the world into a major war.




Senate Move to Block Arms Sales to Bahrain Would Undermine U.S. Interests
By James Phillips
Heritage Foundation
November 16, 2018

The Senate is set to vote Thursday on a resolution of disapproval that would block the sale of what advocates describe as “offensive weapons” to Bahrain, an important U.S. ally that faces deadly threats from Iran. Advocates of the ban argue that this denial would somehow ease the humanitarian suffering in Yemen. In reality, it will have no such impact and would produce a host of unintended consequences. Yemen has been engulfed in a slow-motion civil war for more than a decade. That war has accelerated in recent years due to Iranian military support for the Houthi rebels, which provoked a 2015 military intervention by a Saudi-led Arab coalition. The Houthi militia, a radical Shia group that increasingly has fallen under Iran’s baleful influence, has inflicted humanitarian suffering on its Yemeni opponents and continues to launch Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles at civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Read more at:



Why Russia’s Latest Aggression Against Ukraine Could Be Aimed at Boosting Putin
By Alexis Mrachek
Heritage Foundation
November 27, 2018

Russian Federal Security Service border patrol boats opened fire Nov. 25 on three Ukrainian maritime vessels—two navy artillery ships and a tugboat—in a standoff in the Kerch Strait, a narrow body of water connecting the Black Sea and Azov Sea. Russia struck two of the vessels and wounded six crew members in the process. The Russians then boarded and seized the three Ukrainian naval ships. The incident followed an earlier clash that morning between the Russian Federal Security Service border patrol boats and the same three Ukrainian vessels. According to Kyiv, a Federal Security Service boat purposely rammed the Ukrainian navy tugboat, which was attempting to reach the Kerch Strait and enter the Azov Sea, causing damage to the tugboat’s “engine, outer hull, and guardrail.”

Read more at:



The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat
By Seth G. Jones and Danika Newlee
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 20, 2018

Despite nearly two decades of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations, there are nearly four times as many Sunni Islamic militants today as there were on September 11, 2001. Based on a CSIS data set of groups, fighters, and violence, the regions with the largest number of fighters are Syria (between 43,650 and 70,550 fighters), Afghanistan (between 27,000 and 64,060), Paki­stan (between 17,900 and 39,540), Iraq (between 10,000 and 15,000), Nigeria (between 3,450 and 6,900), and Somalia (between 3,095 and 7,240). Attack data indicates that there are still high lev­els of violence in Syria and Iraq from Salafi-jihad­ist groups, along with significant violence in such countries and regions as Yemen, the Sahel, Nigeria, Afghan­istan, and So­malia.

Read more at:



Three Ways the New Congress Can Defend Democracy Abroad
Carnegie Endowment
NOVEMBER 16, 2018

While the new U.S. Congress will face deep divides on many issues, it does have a chance to act on one issue upon which both sides broadly agree: supporting democracy abroad. Under President Donald Trump, U.S. government support for democracy around the world has reached its lowest ebb in forty years. Many American diplomats and aid providers diligently continue to defend democracy overseas. But their leader’s praise for dictators, disdain for U.S. liberal allies, and anti-democratic outbursts at home have undercut these efforts. Despite this, the 116th Congress can and should step up to reaffirm the United States’ decades-old commitment to supporting democracy around the world. By passing new and useful legislation, encouraging pro-democracy diplomacy, and showing its support for democratic leaders and activists, Congress can help mitigate the damage Trump has inflicted in this arena.

Read more at:


What the Khashoggi Affair Tells Us about American Journalism, Politics, and Policymaking in the Age of Trump
By: Adam Garfinkle
Foreign Policy Research Institute
November 28, 2018

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2 has tripped off one of the grandest cascades of news copy, electronic and print, in many recent weeks, and perhaps even many months. Why is that? Several reasons come to mind. First, the deed itself was both gruesome and spectacular, surprising and utterly beyond the pale of civilized diplomatic protocol. Mainstream media markets in the United States and, less so in the main in the West generally, love that sort of thing because it registers high on the all-critical shock meter. The fact that Khashoggi allegedly entered the Consulate in order to secure a document necessary to enable his marriage to a Turkish woman, knowingly putting himself at some risk as she tells the tale, just makes the plotline juicier for an audience that has become increasingly challenged by the task of untangling reality from fiction (of which more below). Then there ensued for several days an undulating uncertainty about what actually happened, revelations of the existence of surreptitious Turkish tapes promising to reveal the Truth, and the subsequent lateral entry of the CIA into the investigatory mix amid howls of righteous indignation from assorted congressmen and journalists. So the plot thickened, the decibel level rose, and the drama intensified. Think of it: murder and much blood courtesy of a bone saw; love and certainly sex implied; Oriental intrigue, jet-set hit squads, and high-tech eavesdropping in diplomatic inner sancta: This is market share manna from entertainment heaven for mainstream media. No wonder they played it to the hilt.

Read more at:

Week of November 23, 2018

American Politics and the Khashoggi Murder

The Khashoggi murder is taking center stage once again as some of the hard evidence of the journalist’s death inside the Saudi consulate comes to light.

The problem for those who want to highlight the murder (especially his occasional employer the Washington Post), is that the great majority of Americans really don’t care – in fact, their reaction is more likely to be, “Oh, that again.”  In other words, it gets attention in the halls of power in Washington but is a very minor story elsewhere – especially as many Americans are more worried about the currently eroding stock market.

The result is that the Khashoggi story is becoming a political ping pong ball.  While American voters don’t care, President Trump is standing alongside Saudi Arabia for both personal, political and economic reasons.  Meanwhile, Trump’s opponents in both the Democratic and Republican parties are trying to take political advantage of it.

However, despite the sound and fury, Saudi Arabia remains a major American client and functionary.

Trump has been playing the pragmatic businessman in this whole affair.  In a world of tyrants, who imprison and kill journalists on a regular basis, one murder of a journalist by an economically powerful dictatorial client or ally is of little importance.

Trump released a statement on Tuesday afternoon saying, “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

He added, “That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi… the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”

Here Saudi Arabia is also helping by playing its most powerful public relations tool – helping to lower oil prices – always an important issue with the American public.  Americans are more likely to own a car and since distances are so vast in America, oil prices have a dramatic impact on their ability to travel, especially during the current holiday season.

This week Trump warned a group of reporters that oil prices would go “through the roof” should there be a rupture between the US and the Kingdom.  Later, the president once again left little room for subtlety by thanking the kingdom for helping to facilitate this month’s record-setting slide in oil prices.

Hailing the drop-in oil prices from multi-year highs as a “big tax cut” for Americans, the president said that while Americans should be thrilled with the drop, he would like to see prices move even lower. “Oil prices getting lower. Great! Like a big Tax Cut for America and the World. Enjoy! $54, was just $82. Thank you to Saudi Arabia, but let’s go lower!”

Trump’s congratulations come after Saudi Arabia reportedly raised production for a second straight month in November.   Admittedly, if the Saudis had their choice, they’d prefer oil prices above $80 a barrel. But they know a 20 cent drop in the price per gallon of gasoline will keep Saudi Arabia popular in the United States and make Americans forget Khashoggi.

In the world of politics, that is what the former German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck called “realpolitik.”

Those who are opposing Trump on this issue are forgetting that Americans are pragmatic, especially when it comes to gas prices.

In many cases, the political opposition isn’t based on moral issues but pure politics.  One example was the recent denunciation of Trump’s comments by Republican Senator Corker of Tennessee.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said Tuesday that he was “really astounded” by the White House statement on Saudi Arabia and journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, likening it to “a press release for Saudi Arabia and not the United States.”

“It was unnecessarily provocative,” Corker said in an interview with ABC News Channel 9 in Chattanooga. “I don’t understand how that furthers the cause.”

Corker and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, respectively the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to President Trump demanding to decide as to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s murder. In the interview, Corker said lawmakers are still trying to “determine the appropriate way to respond.”

A determination that the Saudis are guilty would lead to more economic sanctions on the kingdom.

Although many made an issue of the fact that a fellow Republican was opposing Trump, the reality is quite different.

Corker is leaving the Senate at the end of the year because as a “liberal Republican”, he would have likely lost to the more conservative pro-Trump Republican Marsha Blackburn (who is now to fill Corker’s seat in January 2019) in the Republican primary.  Corker had also made it clear that he wouldn’t campaign against Democratic candidate Bredesen, who ran against Blackburn.

And, if that wasn’t political enough, Senator Corker admitted on Tuesday night that he has not ruled out primarying President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential primary in 2020.

When asked by reporters on Tuesday if he plans to run for president in 2020, Corker said, “I have not ruled it out.”

Obviously, there is a question if Corker is opposing Trump for moral reasons or is positioning himself for a presidential challenge against Trump.

The next issue is the American intelligence community’s knowledge of the event, its history with Trump, and if Trump can be expected to rely upon their assessment.

Despite leaks that the intelligence communities discover later after Khashouggi murder that he was in danger, there is concern that the US intelligence community knew of the planned attack on Khashoggi and didn’t warn him.  There is an internal government order in place requiring U.S. intelligence agencies to warn an intended victim if the agency acquires information that a threat of kidnapping, murder, or serious bodily injury is imminent.

But the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted communications that indicated a Saudi plan to capture Khashoggi may have been in the works:

“Before Khashoggi’s disappearance, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture him, according to a person familiar with the information. The Saudis wanted to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and lay hands on him there, this person said. It was not clear whether the Saudis intended to arrest and interrogate Khashoggi or to kill him, or if the United States warned Khashoggi that he was a target, this person said.”

Since there were no reports that Trump had been advised and had decided not to warn Khashoggi, the fault lies with the intelligence community and much of the post-murder publicity is aimed to take the pressure off the American intelligence failure to act.

This only accentuates Trump’s dislike for the American national security community.  The prime directive of any intelligence agency is to warn the national leadership of any event that could impact the nation.  Therefore, from Trump’s point of view, he has been left hanging by his intelligence community by failing to warn Khashoggi or to give him the critical intelligence beforehand.

There is also the question of the intelligence community’s hostility towards the Trump candidacy.  It appears that the US intelligence community received permission to intercept some Trump campaign communications in 2016 with the use of warrants based on flawed intelligence information.  That gives Trump another reason to distrust their opinions and analysis.

In addition, former intelligence directors John Brennan and Gen. Michael Hayden are among Trump’s harshest critics. Other former CIA leaders like Michael Morell and John McLaughlin are more circumspect. But as a group, they are far more outspoken about the current president than, say, former director George H.W. Bush was about President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. When Trump threatened to pull Brennan’s security clearance, more than 70 former intelligence officers signed an open letter calling Trump’s action a threat to free speech.

Former CIA head Brennan said a “constitutional crisis” is fast approaching because of the clash between a commander in chief and a politicized intelligence community.

“I think the blatant disregard for the threat of foreign influence in our election and the demonization of the Intelligence Community was a turning point for a lot of us,” former branch chief Cindy Otis told a Raw Story journalist in an email. “…Critics can call me ‘The Deep State,’ but I joined the CIA under George W. Bush and the vast majority of people at CIA lean conservative on foreign policy/natsec [national security] issues.”

Six former CIA officers spoke to Raw Story of the ideals of disinterested intelligence collection and analysis as the basis for their opposition to Trump.

But the intelligence community has had it failures – many based on political considerations – something Trump is aware of.  In the 1980s, former director Bush and a host of senior agency operatives joined the Iran-Contra conspiracy. They sought to subvert the Democratic majority in Congress that had banned covert intervention in Central America. The agency’s rank and file did not object. Indeed, many applauded when President Bush pardoned four CIA officials who had been indicted in the scandal.

The failure to see the collapse of the Soviet Union was predicated on the political consideration that the US government wanted to deal with only one country (The USSR) instead of several independent states.

After the 9/11 attacks, the consensus in Langley that torture was a permissible, effective and necessary counterterrorism technique no doubt struck many intelligence officers as apolitical common sense.

In addition, in a press conference Secretary of Defense Mattis, said neither the CIA nor the Saudi government have “fully established” who was behind the killing.  In fact, CNN has said the CIA assessment is based on “available intelligence,” not specific “smoking gun type of evidence.”

Given all of this, it is easy to see why Trump questions the intelligence community’s assessment on the Khashoggi murder.  He has no reason to believe that their analysis, which has proved to be political in the recent past, is any different.

But, that’s not all.

SecDef Mattis also noted that it still wouldn’t change the fact that it is in the US’s interest to work with the Saudis.

Mattis also said that presidents don’t always get to work with “unblemished” strategic partners.  Furthermore, it’s the president’s duty to balance competing interests.

In addition to the economic reasons for supporting Saudi Arabia, there is the need to support one of America’s most important allies in the region.  Saudi Arabia, under MbS has improved relations with Israel.

To Trump administration Saudi Arabia is also a bulwark against what is perceived Iranian expansionism in the region and loyal customer of American weapons. So, to Trump and his hard-line advisers, Military or economic actions against Iran can’t be effective without Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC.

In the end, what matters is pragmatism.  Saudi Arabia helps set oil prices, which is critical for the US economy and the car driving American population.  It is also an important ally in stopping Iranian expansionism and bringing Israel and the Arab States closer together.

Although America often casts itself as the “moral compass” of the world, the reality is far from that.   Dictators are okay if they are pro-American dictators.