At the Tuesday, February 21 event at the Center for American Progress, the assembled panelists discussed the opportunities for re-setting US-Egypt relations under the Trump administration. Discussing the recently released report with findings on how Egyptians feel about the future of their country, Nancy A. Youssef, Senior National Security Correspondent at Buzzfeed, moderated the conversation between Daniel Benaim, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Mokhtar Awad, Research Fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, and Eric Trager, Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Benaim discussed the main takeaways from the report, which engaged a variety of Egyptians in discussing the new moment for US-Egypt relations with Trump and Sisi at their respective helms. Sisi remains preoccupied with security threats and desires a strategic relationship with the United States to better address these issues. Because of his overwhelming concern to maintain stability after 2013, Egypt lacks a long-term plan or sense of direction. Although it will by and large escape the fate of its Arab neighbors and is tired of unrest, Egypt has become brittle from repression and faces major gaps in governance.
Benaim fears that a closer relationship between Trump and Sisi could enable Sisi’s repressive instincts rather than direct attention towards Egypt’s political and economic shortcomings. Trager likewise found contemporary Egyptian politics bleak as Egyptians see no alternative to the Sisi government, which has decreased in popularity due to economic decline and the sense of drift pervasive throughout the country.
However, closer ties between the two countries also present a chance to benefit citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. Benaim said that with deeper cooperation Trump has the opportunity to address human rights and governance inside Egypt and increase transparency within the military and Sisi’s government. Trager was also interested in seeing how Sisi will manage domestic problems in 2017 in preparation for the 2018 elections.
Awad shifted focus to the security landscape within Egypt and the policy implications of the existing threats. Although not as dire as in other Middle East countries, terrorist attacks have been escalating gradually over the last three years. The major threat theaters are the northeastern Sinai, the Nile Valley, and the Western Desert. In Sinai, the Egyptian military has become more successful at prosecuting insurgents, but still lacks a centralized agency that focuses on counterinsurgency strategy, making it difficult to address the consistent attacks in the area. Unrest in Libya impacts the Western Desert demanding increased border security and changes in Egypt’s policy towards its neighbors. In the Nile valley area, violence has escalated and become increasingly sophisticated since 2013, largely stemming from radicalization within prisons and radicalized groups aligned to factions within the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Sisi is good at keeping the Brotherhood is check, it is unclear whether there is a plan to leverage the government’s control over the organization to reach a final settlement with reconcilables within the Brotherhood to abandon violence and repent. Trager added to this discussion by cautioning against navigating the Brotherhood as a singular organization but rather a global movement, some of whose affiliates practice or endorse terrorism.
While the US-Egypt relationship under Trump could position Sisi as an effective counterterrorism partner, both panelists advocated discretion in applying a terrorist designation to the Brotherhood. They focused instead on identifying radical elements of the organization to better combat violence, rather than condemning the Brotherhood overall, which could lead to greater alienation and the inability to reach a final settlement.
The Carnegie Endowment hosted a discussion this week with Jonathan Winer, former Special Envoy for Libya at the Department of State, on the future of Libya. Frederic Wehrey, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, moderated the conversation.
In late 2013, when Winer arrived in Libya, he saw a disconnect between politics and government. The system had been purposely designed to serve Qaddafi exclusively and strip state actors of any decision-making abilities or legitimacy. “The Qaddafi in their heads” meant no one else could make decisions or enforce them effectively. This made it difficult for the US to engage with Libyans and resulted in a deeply divisive political system nearing anarchy.
Winer then discussed his experience trying to cobble together a functional government by bridging the gaps between political actors. Working with the Libyan leadership was frustrating given the low-intensity civil war through 2014. Winer rejected the idea of an international trusteeship, citing this as post-colonial behavior. He favors Libyan ownership in creating a single functional government.
Three precepts have helped the US work with other countries and can be applied to Libya:
- There should be a single negotiating process for everyone, with the United Nations at the core bringing all actors to the table.
- We should work with other countries that are patrons of Libyan clients to influence their actions and support reconciliation of different factions.
- Benefits should be distributed to everyone throughout the country.
The upcoming 2018 elections are an opportunity to agree on a government and move away from the political legacy of Qaddafi. According to Winer, the fundamental problem is that people in leadership positions do not have the expertise required. They lack a roadmap, face constant threats from actors such as ISIS, and need to respond to demands for fast and complete solutions. It is no surprise the government is not functioning.
One major concern is the role of spoilers, including General Haftar, Islamist parties, and violent non-state actors. Winer is hopeful that Haftar has pulled back from his coup intentions and will be willing to work within a government framework. He was also careful to define the Libyan arm of the Muslim Brotherhood party along the same lines as its other regional parties and cautioned against excluding groups before knowing the consequences of that action. Winer noted that Libya’s neighbors suffer greatly from terrorist organizations in Libya and that the US has attacked terrorist training bases with the consent of the Libyan government.
Winer said that every country wants Libya to work, but ultimately Libyans do not like others telling them what to do. It would be “suicidal” to attempt a takeover of Libya: “imperial overstretch.” The result would be polarizing and dangerous, as extremists line up with extremists and Libya devolves into full-scale civil war. Thus, it is paramount to the country’s stability to focus on politics, as security and the economy will follow. Looking into the future for US policy, Winer said that he could not blame the new administration for wanting to change course, but feared change that could risk civil war, polarization, or a humanitarian disaster.
Donald Trump continues to score goals against his own and America’s interests. Just a few examples from the last couple of days:
- He announced the building of the border wall shortly before the planned visit of Mexican President Peña Nieto. This has put the visit in doubt and makes it nigh on impossible for Peña Nieto to cooperate with the effort in any way, least of all by paying a dime for the unnecessary and expensive project. Trump continues to claim the Mexicans will pay, but he doesn’t say how and admits it may be complicated. More likely done with smoke and mirrors, not a clear and verifiable transfer of resources.
- Trump continues to say that the US should have “taken” Iraq’s oil, has returned to claiming that torture works, and is considering an executive order reviving the “black sites” abroad in which much of it was done. Torture of course does work in the sense that it gets most people to talk, but the information they provide is mostly useless. The draft executive order on “black sites” reportedly denies access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is required by the Geneva Conventions. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda will welcome all three of these points, as they help with extremist recruitment and put Americans serving abroad (military and civilian) at heightened risk.
- He has revived the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian oil to the US. This will benefit Canada but put excessive amounts of crude into an already oversupplied US market. My bet is that it won’t be built, even if the permits are forthcoming, both because of environmental opposition in Canada and because the economics just don’t work at current oil prices in the mid-$50 range.
- He intends to block Syrian refugees from entering the US indefinitely as well as refugees from several other countries temporarily. Blocking carefully vetted Syrians when Europe is taking in many more will strain relations with the European Union, especially as he paired this announcement with repeat of his pledge to create a safe zone in Syria for which there are currently no clear plans. The other countries to be blocked temporarily from sending refugees (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) have produced few terrorists operating in the US, so this will be seen in those countries as arbitrary discrimination. Countries that have produced more terrorists, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia, are unaffected, presumably because their governments are friendly to the US.
- The Administration is preparing to cut UN funding dramatically. Press reports . say the overall cut will be 40%, which would save at most $2.8 billion, or much less than 1% of the defense budget. Such a cut will reduce US influence in the world organization and its specialized agencies, which are a relatively efficient way of dealing with issues the US does not want to handle on its own. The UN currently has over 117,000 troops in 16 peacekeeping operations, for which the US pays 22% of the total costs.
- Trump has pledged an investigation of fraudulent voting in the US. He is citing as evidence for his claim that millions voted illegally a story he says was told him by a non-citizen [sic] who stood in line to vote with people he doubted were citizens. He has also emphasized his concern with people who are registered to vote in two states. Both Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon and his daughter Tiffany are reported to fall in this category. Trump has failed to object to laws and practices intended to suppress voting, mostly by people unlikely to vote for him.
Anyone expecting Trump to moderate once in power should by now be admitting that this is a radical administration that intends to pursue all the bad ideas it campaigned on. There will be no maturation until he is blocked, and even then he is less likely to mature than simply retreat in order to fight another day. He is governing to please his supporters, whose adulation he craves. The rest of us are consigned to opposition. The next big anti-Trump demonstrations will be April 15. I think this time I’ll plan to be in the US.
- Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia | Tuesday, January 24 | 3:00pm – 4:30pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Click HERE to Register Join the Wilson Center’s Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy and Asia Program as Georgetown University professor and CSIS Korea Chair Dr. Victor Cha discusses his newest book, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. Dr. Cha investigates the origin of American alliances in Asia, how the system has changed over time, and what must be done to navigate a complex new era of international security. Looking from the time of Truman and Eisenhower, through the Cold War, and into today, he offers a compelling perspective on U.S.-China relations that pays heed to historical and contemporary contexts alike, and argues that the U.S. must maximize stability and economic progress amid Asia’s increasingly complex political landscape. Joining the conversation are Ambassador Stapleton Roy, Founding Director Emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, and Dr. Andrew Yeo, Associate Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America.
- Understanding ISIS and its Followers | Tuesday, January 24 | 5:30pm – 6:30pm | AEI |
Click HERE to Register In March 2015, The Atlantic magazine ran a cover story titled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The author was Graeme Wood, journalist, correspondent for The Atlantic, and lecturer at Yale University. His reporting and research on ISIS has now become a book, “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State” (Random House, 2016), which examines the origins, plans, and followers of ISIS. In this Bradley Lecture, Mr. Wood will discuss his firsthand encounters with ISIS’s true believers, which will help clear away common misunderstandings about this distinctive variety of Islam. Please join us for Mr. Wood’s first public lecture on the book in Washington, DC. A reception and book signing will follow.
- Libya Beyond ISIS: Prospects for Unity and Stability | Wednesday, January 25 | 10:00am – 11:00am | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Click HERE to Register Despite a successful campaign this summer against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Sirte, a war-weary Libya is still wracked by mounting internal divisions, and its United Nations-backed unity government remains fragile. Jonathan Winer, who has served as the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for Libya, will reflect on his tenure in a tumultuous period, Libya’s prospects for the future, and what the next U.S. administration and the international community can do to help.
- The Iran Deal Under Trump | Wednesday, January 25 | 11:45am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Click HERE to Register During the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump promised significant changes to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, centered around a repeal of the Iran Deal. Will he deliver? How would a repeal impact such a highly unstable region? What would it mean for future nuclear nonproliferation efforts? The Hudson Institute will host a panel of experts to analyze the fate of the Iran Deal and examine potential changes to U.S. policy in the Middle East under the incoming administration. Moderated by Suzanne Kianpour of BBC News, the panel will feature Michael Pregent, Hudson Institute adjunct fellow and former U.S. intelligence officer, Trita Parsi, an award-winning author and president of the National Iranian American Council, and Gary Samore, executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. This event will be live streamed on Hudson’s homepage.
- Iranian Attitudes About US-Iranian Relations in the Trump Era | Wednesday, January 25 | 3:30pm – 5:00pm | Atlantic Council | Click HERE to Register The Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland invite you to a panel discussion on Iranian public opinion toward the United States following the election of Donald Trump. The event will present new public opinion data gathered since the election on Iranian attitudes toward domestic and international economic and political issues. In particular, the event will explore current Iranian attitudes toward the recent nuclear agreement, potential changes in US policy toward Iran, the upcoming Iranian president elections, and Iranian economic policy. The conversation includes Ms. Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Co-Founder and Executive Director at the International Civil Society Action Network, Dr. Ebrahim Mohseni, Research Scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Paul Pillar, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.
- Islamists movements in the MENA: Adaptation and divergence | Thursday, January 26 | 6:00pm – 7:30pm | The Elliott School of International Affairs | Click HERE to RegisterIn the post-Arab uprisings political landscape, Islamist movements across the Middle East and North Africa are adapting in unique ways to face challenges from the evolution of Salafi-jihadist movements to local insurgencies and repression. Some – like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood under President Sissi – have faced severe domestic and regional repression disrupting their organization, ideology and strategy. Others have found new opportunities, whether in formal politics or as members of military coalitions. These structural changes have produced an intriguingly diverse array of responses at the ideological, strategic and organization level.This panel, including Khalil al-Anani, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Monica Marks, University of Oxford, Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College CUNY, and Eva Wegner, University College Dublin, will seek to address timely questions such as: what explains the variation in the ways in which Islamists have adapted to these new challenges and opportunities? To what extent have Islamist parties, movements, members or intellectuals engaged in significant strategic adaptation, ideological rethinking, or internal reorganization? What are the appropriate historical or cross-national comparisons to make sense of the current political moment?
USIP’s discussion today of “Getting Ahead of the Curve: the evolving threat of violent extremism” was a study in contrasts. The first panel, of experts who contributed to The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda and Beyond was devoted to hard-nosed analysis. The second, which discussed both CSIS’ Turning Point and Communities First: A Blueprint for Organizing and Sustaining a Global Movement Against Violent Extremism, was devoted to right-minded but airier policy propositions, at least until I left about 45 minutes before it ended.
The analysis panel, ably chaired by Robin Wright of USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center, offered a gloomy picture: each generation of jihadis is larger than the last, mobilizes faster, draws on more diversified sources of foreign fighters, gets more extreme, and spreads to more locations and causes.
That said, Brookings’ Will McCants noted that ISIS has lost perhaps half its territory as well as 50,000 killed, Raqqa and Mosul are under attack, and its finances are under pressure. It won’t disappear but will return, as it did during the near-defeat in Iraq in 2008/10, to terrorist tactics and prison breaks. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies concurred that the ISIS star has fallen, because of its brutal tactics and readiness to make enemies of too many people. But Al Qaeda is reviving and spreading, especially in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Mali and Somalia. It is even controlling territory, it financing has become more open, and it is embedding Al Qaeda Central cadres, like the Khorasan Group, with its franchisees.
The franchises are increasingly important, Carnegie Endowment’s Fred Wehrey concurred. Al Qaeda has been more successful than ISIS in establishing durable franchises, partly because it focuses on “Dawa” (proselytizing), is relatively “moderate” in behavior towards the local population, and integrates more effectively with local forces. Egypt is particularly fertile ground, as is Yemen.
Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institue for Middle East Policy underlined that jihadism is not going away any time soon. Its narrative and appeal are increasingly entrenched. Al Qaeda and ISIS share the objective of creating a caliphate, but Al Qaeda is the more dangerous as it often works quietly and is more successful at “marbling” (interweaving) local and global strategies.
McCants views state failure as fuel for the protean diversified jihadist resurgence we are witnessing. The diversification and rapidly shifting organizational landscape are big problems, as they make prioritization difficult. Gartenstein-Ross believes the Middle East states will continue to weaken, as they face dramatic challenges like lack of water and parlous finances. Internet penetration in the region is still low, so jihadi mobilization is likely to become more effective and quicker as it expands. Social media are particularly adapted to boost secret identities across boundary lines. Hassan concurred, noting that ISIS in defeat will retreat into the desert, as it did in Iraq in 2008, leaving sleeper cells who will kill its enemies in newly liberated areas. Sunni disenfranchisement, alienation, and lack of leadership make ISIS a viable political option.
Wehrey concluded the first panel by underlining that terrorism is a political strategy and requires in part a political response. Jihadism is not really about religion but about the need for reform. Governance issues are central, vastly compounded by population displacement and Western intervention.
The second panel chaired by USIP’s Georgia Holmer focused, far less decisively, on non-military responses to jihadism.
The National Security Council’s Amy Pope underlined that countering violent extremism (CVE) is now established as an important part of the response to terrorism focused on its root causes in particular communities. She and State Department Under Secretary Sarah Sewall were confident that this community-focused approach, based on civil society and holistic investments, is the right one. We need to be able to tell this story across the security and human rights communities.
Shannon Green of CSIS cited the “measured security response” advocated in Turning Point, noting that anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment reinforces extremism. So too have some of America’s traditional partners in the Gulf, who have financed extremists. We need to be able to levy punitive sanctions in response, undertake a global educational partnership to ensure that extremism has no place in curricula, and review assistance to oppressive governments. She also thought an assistant to the president for CVE would help the cause.
The Prevention Project’s Eric Rosand emphasized community-level engagement that recognizes communities have many problems other than violent extremism and offers them incentives to engage locally in CVE. Law enforcement should have a limited, not a dominant, role.
Asked about what they would advise the incoming Trump Administration, Sewall emphasized the need to coordinate military and intelligence counter-terrorism with civilian CVE and the relative lack of resources for the latter (amounting to no more than .1% of the total). Pope also thought the balance out of whack. CVE needs to grow much bigger. There is lots of evidence that democracy and inclusion work and that alienation and exclusion don’t.
Asked to adduce some concrete examples of CVE that has worked, Pope cited a roundtable in The Hague, Sewall an ongoing project pilot project in East Africa and an AID project in Pakistan. Rosand noted that all too often autocrats readily take up the anti-messaging banner, as it enables them to crack down on dissident voices. That, he suggested, does not work.
My bottom line: Little in this discussion gave me any reason to believe that the incoming Trump Administration will take up the cause of CVE, which would require it to drop its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, agree to support reformist and more democratic states rather than autocratic ones, invest in aid that is difficult to distinguish from conventional development assistance, accept evidence-based indications of effectiveness, and increase funding for civilian rather than military efforts. #fatchance
In his valedictory address on counterterrorism yesterday at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, President Obama waxed poetic about diplomacy, development and the contributions civilians can make to US national security:
…alongside our outstanding military work, we have to draw upon the strength of our diplomacy. Terrorists would love to see us walk away from the type of work that builds international coalitions, and ends conflicts, and stops the spread of deadly weapons. It would make life easier for them; it would be a tragic mistake for us.
Just think about what we’ve done these last eight years without firing a shot. We’ve rolled back Iran’s nuclear program. That’s not just my assessment, that’s the assessment of Israeli intelligence, even though they were opposed to the deal. We’ve secured nuclear materials around the globe, reducing the risk that they fall into the hands of terrorists. We’ve eliminated Syria’s declared chemical weapons program. All of these steps have helped keep us safe and helped keep our troops safe. Those are the result of diplomacy. And sustained diplomatic efforts, no matter how frustrating or difficult they sometimes appear, are going to be required to resolve the conflicts roiling the in Middle East, from Yemen, to Syria, to Israel and Palestine. And if we don’t have strong efforts there, the more you will be called upon to clean up after the failure of diplomacy.
Similarly, any long-term strategy to reduce the threat of terrorism depends on investments that strengthen some of these fragile societies. Our generals, our commanders understand this. This is not charity. It’s fundamental to our national security. A dollar spent on development is worth a lot more than a dollar spent fighting a war. (Applause.)
This is how we prevent conflicts from starting in the first place. This is how we can ensure that peace is lasting — after we’ve fought. It’s how we stop people from falling prey to extremism — because children are going to school and they can think for themselves, and families can feed themselves and aren’t desperate, and communities are not ravaged by diseases, and countries are not devastated by climate changes.
As Americans, we have to see the value of empowering civil societies so that there are outlets for people’s frustrations, and we have to support entrepreneurs who want to build businesses instead of destroying. We have to invest in young people because the areas that are generating terrorists are typically having a huge youth bulge, which makes them more dangerous. And there are times where we need to help refugees who have escaped the horrors of war in search of a better life. Our military recognizes that these issues of governance and human dignity and development are vital to our security. It’s central to our plans in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Let’s make sure that this wisdom is reflected in our budgets, as well.
So, how well has this eloquent, and eminently logical, president done in ensuring his wisdom is reflected in his budgets?
Okay, but not great, would be my answer.
The ratio of Defense to International Affairs outlays has declined only marginally since the George W. Bush era, when Defense outlays were generally between 14 and 16 times the level of International Affairs expenditures, inflated in large part by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Declines in this ratio have been pretty steady since FY 2009.
By FY 2015, it was down to 11.4 and projected in FY 2016 to decline to under 11. This has been achieved by a big bump up in International Affairs outlays in FY 2009, followed by years of declines in Defense outlays, largely due to sequestration. Here is the raw data, which I got here. I’m not vouching for the ratios, because I calculated them myself, but I think they are mostly correct.
The real increase (in 2009 dollars) of International Affairs outlays is thus modest: maybe 10/12% over the eight years of the Obama administration. More disturbing is this: I don’t know many people who would argue that American civilian capabilities to do the things the President cites are much greater than they were when he took office. A lot of the increase has been chewed up in increased security expenditures for State and USAID , whose officers find it difficult to leave our fortress embassies, often located in the middle of nowhere. Another slice has gone to increased staff, to the point that all Foreign Service officers I talk with complain about the excessive numbers of people they now need to clear every lousy bit of press guidance with.
President-elect Trump seems determined to make things worse, perhaps much worse. He has promised a big military buildup and a ferocious attack on the Islamic State while pooh-poohing what he terms nation building, refusing to receive most intelligence briefings, and neglecting to consult with the State Department on his initial diplomatic moves. Expect a real slash and burn attitude in Foggy Bottom and at the Reagan building when the time comes.
President Obama deserves credit for some signal diplomatic achievements: the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change agreement are the two most often cited, including by the President himself. Neither of those however really serves the counterterrorism objective that was the subject of this speech. It is building inclusive states more than anything else that helps counter terrorism. Obama has been allergic to that objective, not only in Syria and Libya but also in Yemen. Only in Iraq has he deigned to weigh in, when he supported the more ecumenical Haidar al Abadi to replace the hopelessly sectarian Nouri al Maliki as prime minister.
So Obama, who many hoped would be a transformational president when it comes to foreign policy, is more likely to represent not much more than a blip in an inexorable trend: putting America’s troops in the front line rather than its diplomats and aid workers. I’m disappointed.