Judging from the headlines, the Republican party is sharply split between its establishment led by Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and its insurgents led by Steve Bannon or maybe Donald Trump. Currently dividing them are the accusations of sexual harassment against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the US Senate in a special (out of cycle) election December 12. Trump, himself a self-confessed sexual harasser, is silent, but Bannon is supporting Moore and claiming the accusations are false. McConnell says he believes “the women” and wants Moore to drop his candidacy.
But nationally Republicans are more unified than the headlines would suggest. In the House, they have approved a dramatic decrease in taxes on business and the rich. The Senate version of the bill differs, but only by degrees. The overall impact would be in the same direction. Republicans in both houses as well as the White House are desperate to pass something. Only defection of a few senators might stop them. If the tax bill passes, Moore’s vow to remove McConnell as Senate Majority Leader is unlikely to succeed, at least not until the new Congress is sworn in January 2019. If the tax bill fails, McConnell will be in trouble whether or not Moore is in the Senate.
The Alabama contest is thus a side-show, but still important from the Democratic perspective. It could help decide the Senate majority. Alabama is a solidly Republican state these days, because of white votes. Blacks vote heavily for Democrats and represent 25% of the population, which is not enough at normal turnouts to defeat a racist would-be evangelical like Roy Moore. Moore can no longer be replaced on the ballot for next month’s election, so if it comes off as scheduled McConnell’s only hope is a write-in candidacy, likely of the more conventional candidate Moore defeated in the Republican primary. That would put two Republican candidates in the race, splitting the white vote between them and enhancing the Democrats’ odds.
McConnell’s other option is to convince the governor to postpone the election, giving the Republicans time to dump Moore and come up with another candidate. I think that still likely, but the governor is reluctant to do it, not least because the election has already been postponed once. Moore and his supporters, who are strong among Alabama whites, will want it to go ahead as scheduled. Postponement won’t improve his chances.
The Democratic candidate is Doug Jones. His biggest claim to fame is the successful prosecutions in 2001 and 2002 of Ku Klux Klan members for the murder of four black girls in Birmingham in 1963. His campaign for the Senate has focused on jobs, health, and education, pretty much ignoring the sexual harassment accusations against his opponent. Jones is running better than a Democrat would normally in Alabama these days, but polling there is sketchy.
Roy Moore could win, tarnishing the Republican brand nationally, bringing a die-hard and controversial Republican opponent of McConnell into the Senate, and thereby easing the Democrats’ path to a Senate majority next year. Or he could lose, also easing the Democrats’ path to a Senate majority. No wonder the national democratic leadership is trying to stand aside and let this sideshow play out. They would gain nothing from getting more involved.
Alabama’s black voters can help decide this contest, provided they turn out in record numbers for a candidate who has been a vigorous advocate of civil rights, not to mention his other issues and his opponent’s sexual misbehavior. Some whites may be tempted to sit this one out: do you really want to vote for a guy who was barred from a shopping mall in his thirties because he was harassing teenage girls? If the election goes ahead as scheduled, black voters have a chance to send an important message in the deep South: we count.
A colleague yesterday told me not to worry about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) overreaching in his effort to push back against Iran. The Saudis, he said, will talk a good line but not really do anything. They are too lazy.
That is little comfort and not accurate. MbS has launched a now more than two-year war in Yemen against the Iranian-supported Houthis, a diplomatic offensive against Qatar that aims (among other things) to break its good rapport with Iran, and the purported resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, whom the Saudis think too tolerant of Iran’s Hizbollah proxies. The United States appears to have greenlighted all these moves, the first under President Obama and the second and third under President Trump.
The net effect so far is not good. Iran, through Hizbollah, will own Lebanon, whether Hariri returns there or not. Qatar is weathering the Saudi blockade with the aid of the Turks and Iranians. Doha is arguably closer to Tehran now than it was before the Saudi initiative, though it continues to host a major US air base. The stalemated Yemen war has precipitated a massive humanitarian crisis throughout the country. MbS’s Washington-encouraged pushback against Iran is not working well.
Oddly, the one place neither the Washington nor Riyadh has pushed backed against Tehran is Syria. The US has assiduously tried to avoid conflict there with Syrian government forces, the Russians, and Iranian proxies, firing on them only when they appear to be getting ready to attack US or US-supported forces. Riyadh has organized, and is getting ready to re-organize, the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee, but the Kingdom’s military support to the opposition is fading, along with that of the Americans. Even Russian promises to keep Hizbollah far from the border with Israel appear to be evaporating.
The sad fact is that Saudi Arabia is a weak reed for the US to lean on. The Kingdom has purchased an astounding quantity of US and other weapons but has little capability to use them effectively. Financially strapped due to lowered oil prices, MbS is rushing to conduct long-overdue domestic reforms under the rubric Vision 2030, as well as an anti-corruption campaign that has the added virtue of eliminating some of his rivals. Even if thoroughly and assiduously implemented, the main positive effects of these domestic initiatives are a decade or more in the future.
Besides, reform plans in Saudi Arabia have a long history of getting stuck in the desert sand. Trying to do too many things at once will guarantee that some of them suffer that fate. And attacking Iran in peripheral places like Qatar, Lebanon, and Yemen may cause suffering to their populations but is unlikely to cause the Islamic Republic much heartburn. Tehran could suffer setbacks in all three without minding all that much. It is Syria that really matters to Iran, which is why it has sent its best there: the Quds Force and Hizbollah. Confronting them in Syria would be a lot more meaningful than the sum of all the Saudi initiatives elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Iranians are also escalating. Despite Tehran’s denial, Bahrain claims Iran was behind a gas pipeline bombing last week, the Iranians backed Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s successful offensive against Kurdistan, and they are pushing their proxies to establish the much-coveted “land bridge” from the Iranian border through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. If the Trump Administration has a regional strategy to push back against Iran, it is not working. MbS has overreached, to no good effect.
A few questions have come up about my report for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on preventing The Unraveling of the Balkans Peace Agreements. I’ll try to answer some of them here.
Q: Was the report requested by the Congress or the Administration?
A: No, though it has been briefed to both.
The report originated in a call to me last spring from CFR prevention director Paul Stares, a former colleague at the United States Institute of Peace. I had done two previous reports for Paul, both on Libya, but he was of course aware of my interest in the Balkans and had noticed the increasing alarm about the Balkans in the US and European media.
Q: Why did you write about changing borders in the Balkans? Doesn’t doing so give that idea legitimacy/credibility?
A: CFR rightly requires that its authors treat a full range of options to deal with the potential contingency in question. Changing borders has been widely discussed in the Balkans, Europe, and the US. I felt I had to deal with the idea.
I did so by looking at it from the perspective of US interests and values. It failed on both counts. It would require both heavy diplomatic and military commitments from the US, EU and Russia that are not available. It would also boost President Putin’s misbehavior in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, not to mention undermine the US position on Kurdistan’s independence referendum. It would also vitiate liberal democratic values, which are based on equal rights regardless of ethnicity, not trying to herd people on to the “right” side of a border.
Q: The report suggests a special envoy for the Balkans in order to reassert US leadership on some key issues. Secretary of State Tillerson is not keen on special envoys. Isn’t there another way?
A: Yes. I mention in the report that the current institutional setup could be used, a deputy assistant secretary, provided she or he has good connectivity with upper levels of the US government. Another option, one I wish I had included, would be delegation of authority for the Balkans to Vice President Pence, who has already begun to take the lead there. A formal delegation with key objectives outlined would likely be a better solution than a special envoy, but I’m told it is also unlikely.
Q: What has been the reaction to the report?
A: Positive from those who agree with me. Others don’t communicate as much, but instead use my mention of border changes to suggest falsely that is my preferred option. Let me say again: I see no way to change borders that is feasible with the resources available and oppose the idea in principle as well as in practice. Democracy and rule of law are the answer, not ethnic tribalism.
- Lebanon in Crisis? The Impact of the Hariri Resignation and the Saudi-Iranian Cold War | Monday, November 13 | 11:00 – 12:00 pm | Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (event held by phone) | Register Here | The resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri is threatening again to plunge Lebanon into political and economic crisis or worse. A number of developments, including longstanding but growing tensions between Iran and Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia may well presage a deteriorating regional situation that could draw Lebanon as well as Israel into the fray. Join us BY PHONE as three veteran observers of Lebanese and regional politics analyze these developments and others as we enter yet another period of potential turbulence in Middle Eastern politics. Jane Harman of the Wilson Center will deliver opening remarks, after which Aaron David Miller will moderate a conversation featuring Hanin Ghaddar of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, and Bassel F. Salloukh of the Lebanese American University.
- Religion and Foreign Policy: Exploring the Legacy of “Mixed Blessings” | Monday, November 13 | 2:00 – 3:00 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | Please join the Human Rights Initiative (HRI) and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs for a discussion marking the 10th anniversary of CSIS’s groundbreaking report, “Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement with Religion in Conflict-Prone Settings“. This report analyzed how religion affects international affairs, including through the faith and religious beliefs of politicians and elites; the belief structures that underlie national and international views; and the impact of religious organizations. At this event, Shaun Casey, former director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, will interview Liora Danan, lead author of Mixed Blessings and former chief of staff for the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, to discuss the report’s goals and relevance in diplomacy today. Following their interview, Shannon N. Green, director and senior fellow of HRI, will moderate an expert panel to assess the impact of religion on foreign policy over the decade since the report’s release. Panelists include Rebecca Linder Blachly of Episcopal Church and Eric Patterson of Georgetown University.
- 2017 Transatlantic Economic Forum – Day 1 | Monday, November 13 | 8:30 am – 5:30 pm | Center for Transatlantic Relations (held at SAIS Kenney Auditorium) | Register Here | The 5th annual Transatlantic Economic Forum will bring together government and business community leaders from 20 countries of the larger Mediterranean, including the Gulf and the Middle East, and is organized in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The first day will consist of four panels and three keynote addresses. The first panel, titled “Doing Business in Maghreb,” will include Mahieddine Taleb of Sonatrach (Algeria), Adel Mohsen Chaabane of AmCham (Tunisia), Mustafa Sanalla of the National Oil Corporation (Libya), Omar Mohanna of the Suez Cement Group of Companies (Egypt), and Asmaa El Mkhentar of the Ministry of Industry, Trade, Investment and Digital Economy (Morocco). Greg Lebedev of CIPE and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will moderate. The second panel, “Doing Business in The Balkans,” will consist of a conversation between Mujo Selimovic of the CTR-SAIS Mediterranean Basin Initiative Corporate Advisory Board and moderator Michael Haltzel, a CTR – SAIS Senior Fellow. The panel “Security and Military Cooperation: Safeguarding the Mediterranean part 1” will feature Mitar Klikovac of the Embassy of Montenegro to the United States, Dragan Galić of the Embassy of Serbia to the United States, and Khaled Shawky and Ayman Aldesouky Youssef of the Embassy of Egypt to the United States. Hans Binnendijk of CTR – SAIS will moderate. The final panel of the day, “Security and Military Cooperation: Safeguarding the Mediterranean part 2” will include Michael Barbero of the United States Army, Fahrudin Radoncic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ambassador of Croatia in the United States Pjer Simunovic, Michael MacQueen of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and moderator Don Jensen of CTR – SAIS.
- Sectarianism and Conflict in the Middle East | Tuesday, November 14 | 9:00 am – 12:15 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | What’s driving the spread of Sunni-Shia identity politics in today’s Middle East? How is sectarianism contributing to the region’s instability and conflicts? The authors of a new edited volume, Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East, will discuss how geopolitics, governance, media, and other factors are fueling sectarianism. This event will consist of two panels. The first, titled, “Regional Cases and Geopolitical Sources of Sectarianism: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Syria” will feature Cole Bunzel of Princeton University, Fanar Hadad of the National University of Singapore, Afshon Ostovar, of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Heiko Wimmen of the International Crisis Group. The second panel, moderated by Marc Lynch of Carnegie’s Middle East Program and titled “Domestic and Institutional Sources of Sectarianism: Governance, Political Economy, Clerics, and Social Media” will include Joseph Bahout of Carnegie’s Middle East Program, Justin Gengler of Qatar University, Alexander Henley of the University of Oxford, and Alexandra Siegel of New York University.
- Afghanistan 2017: A Survey of Public Perceptions | Tuesday, November 14 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | The recent escalation of attacks in Kabul underscores the crucial questions of security, economic stability and reconciliation that still confront President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, despite the significant progress Afghanistan has made. Those questions and other pressing issues facing the country are the subject of the Asia Foundation’s 2017 Survey of the Afghan People. Join the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday, November 14, for the foundation’s presentation of the findings and a discussion of the trends in citizens’ views over time. Speakers will include Dr. Tabasum Akseer of the Asia Foundation, Ambassador Daniel F. Feldman of Akin Gump, Dr. Zach Warren of The Asia Foundation, and Mr. Scott Worden of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
- 2017 Transatlantic Economic Forum – Day 2 | Tuesday, November 14 | 8:30 am – 6:45 pm | Center for Transatlantic Relations (held at SAIS Kenney Auditorium) | Register Here | The second day of the Transatlantic Economic Forum will consist of five panels. The first, “Working Through Reforms: What’s Next?” will feature Marinko Cavara, President of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bruce Berton, OSCE Ambassador in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Dejan Vanjek, Foreign Policy advisor to Dragan Covic, Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Daniel Serwer of CTR – SAIS will moderate. “Diversifying Economies: The Private Sector As The Key To Building Prosperity” will include panelists Dalibor Milos of Aluminij d.d. (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Ali Haddad of ETRHB Haddad Group (Algeria), Hisham Fahmy of AmCham Egypt, Inc., and moderator Andras Simonyi of CTR – SAIS. Participating in the panel “Macedonia: Turning New Page” will be Kocho Angjushev, Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Lilica Kitanovska of Voice of America, and Edward Joseph of CTR – SAIS. The fourth panel, titled “The Gulf Countries: Strengthening Transatlantic Cooperation,” will include participants Omar A. Bahlaiwa of the Committee for International Trade (Saudi Arabia), Bilal Sabouni of the American Business Council in Dubai (UAE), and moderator Khush Choksy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Mehdi Bendimerad of the Algerian Business Association, Jasmin Mahmuzic of the Banking Agency of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and moderator Steve Lutes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will participate in the final panel, “Regional and Transatlantic Cooperation: A Key To Growth and Prosperity.”
- 71st Annual Conference: Conflicts, Costs, and Policy Pathways | Wednesday, November 15 | 9:00 am – 5:00 pm | Middle East Institute (held at The Capital Hilton) | Register Here | The Middle East Institute’s (MEI) 71st Annual Conference will convene innovative leaders, foreign policy practitioners, and analysts from the Middle East and the United States to explain the challenges and opportunities facing the region and assess current policies. The conference will feature four expert discussions that will delve into U.S. Middle East priorities, paths for resolving the region’s civil wars, the humanitarian outlook in countries plagued by conflict, and the growing impact of women’s activism. Amb. (ret.) Wendy J. Chamberlin of MEI will deliver opening remarks. Participants will include Gen. (ret.) John Allen of The Brookings Institution, Fawziah Bakr al-Bakr of Al Jazeera, Wafa Ben Hassine of Access Now, Amb. (ret.) Gerald Feierstein of MEI, Amb. (ret.) Robert Ford of the Middle East Institute, Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations, Simon Henshaw of the U.S. Department of State, Mary Louise Kelly of NPR, Hind Aboud Kabawat of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, Michael Klosson of Save the Children, Nancy Lindborg of USIP, Clare Lockhart of the Institute for State Effectiveness, Rania A. Al‐Mashat of the International Monetary Fund, Hideki Matsunaga of the World Bank, Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, Randa Slim of MEI and Johns Hopkins SAIS, Nafeesa Syeed of Bloomberg News, Jonathan Winer of the Middle East Institute, and Juan Zarate of the Financial Integrity Network.
- Water Security in the Middle East – Source of Tension or Avenue for Peace? | Wednesday, November 15 | 9:00 – 11:00 am | Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars | Register Here | In the Middle East, water scarcity is a source of tension. But some innovative leaders in the region have approached better water management as a shared priority that transcends borders and politics—and that could even serve as a potential platform for peace. For more than 20 years, EcoPeace Middle East has worked across the Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli borders to promote practical solutions to transboundary water scarcity and pollution. Join us for a unique conversation with EcoPeace’s three co-directors—representing Jordan, Palestine, and Israel—who will share their experiences using water diplomacy to improve livelihoods, create healthy interdependencies, and enhance regional stability. The discussion will also identify opportunities for progress on water issues within the peace process and the important role of the United States in fostering regional water security and stability. Speakers include Sherri Goodman, Former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, Roger-Mark De Souza of the Wilson Center, Aaron Salzberg of the U.S. Department of State, and Gidon Bromberg, Nada Majdalani, and Yana Abu Taleb of EcoPeace Middle East.
- Deconflicting in Syria: Turkey’s Idlib Operation | Wednesday, November 15 | 2:30 – 4:00 pm | Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA) | Register Here | In early October, Turkey deployed its forces to establish a presence in Syria’s Idlib province. The deployment aims to establish a de-conflict zone in Idlib as part of a deal reached at negotiations in Astana between Turkey, Russia, and Iran. In addition to limiting conflict between the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army in Idlib and the Assad regime, Turkey has also characterized the operation as an effort to prevent further expansion by the PYD in northern Syria. The US has remained skeptical about the Astana process, particularly over Iran’s involvement as a guarantor. While the US said that it would not provide tangible support for Turkey’s operation in Idlib, the Department of Defense said that the US supports Turkey’s efforts to secure its borders against terror groups such as Al Qaeda. At the same time, the US continues to partner with the PYD in northern Syria, a long-standing point of contention in the US-Turkey relationship. Please join the SETA Foundation at Washington DC for a timely discussion on this crucial issue in the Syrian conflict and what Turkey’s operation in Idlib means for US-Turkey relations. Panelists include Luke Coffey of The Heritage Foundation, Kadir Ustun of The SETA Foundation, and Nidal Betare of People Demand Change. Kilic Kanat of the SETA Foundation will moderate.
- 2017 Transatlantic Economic Forum – Day 3 | Wednesday, November 15 | 10:00 am – 6:45 pm | Center for Transatlantic Relations (held at SAIS Kenney Auditorium) | Register Here | The final day of the Transatlantic Economic Forum will consist of three panels and will end with the CTR SAIS 2017 Mediterranean Basin Award Ceremony. The first panel, “Turkey and Transatlantic Relations Book launch,” will include panelists Donald Jensen of CTR – SAIS, Kilic Bugra Kanat of the SETA Foundation, Jennifer Miel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Serdar Altay of ISPAT. Aylin Unver Noi of CTR – SAIS will moderate. The second panel, titled “Bosnia and Herzegovina: Towards It’s European Future,” will feature Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, Head of the EU Delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Goran Mirascic of The World Bank Group, Valentin Inzko of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mak Kamenica of USAID, and Michael Haltzel of CTR – SAIS. Panelists participating in the final event, “Algeria and Transatlantic Relations Book Launch,” include Ismael Chikhoune of the US – Algeria Business Council, Jeremy Berndt of the Department of State, Mehdi Bendimerad of System Panneaux Sandwichs, and moderator Samy Boukaila of CTR – SAIS.
- Education for Displaced Syrians: Innovative Solutions to a Complex Challenge | Thursday, November 16 | 12:00 – 2:00 pm | Marvin Center, George Washington University | Register Here | Join George Washington University’s No Lost Generation chapter for an engaging discussion on innovative approaches to education for displaced Syrian communities, from after school programs in Turkey to international networks that connect Syrian students with higher education opportunities.This event has been made possible with support from Turkish Heritage Organization. Speakers include Lina Sergie Attar of the Karam Foundation, Katherine Miller of the Institute for International Education, George Batah of Syrian Youth Empowerment, and Dr. Jessica Anderson of George Washington and Georgetown Universities.
He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times….Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that…And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.
Thirty-two year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has taken on a lot:
- Domestic political and economic reforms, including partial privatization of Aramco, allowing women to drive, and shifting the economy away from oil and gas;
- The war in Yemen against the Houthi takeover of part of the country, in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and with sometimes reluctant support from the US;
- A major diplomatic spat with Qatar over its alleged support of terrorists;
- Removal of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri to protest Iran’s influence there;
- Arrest of rival princes for corruption.
What could go wrong?
Each of these moves may have virtues. Certainly Saudi Arabia needs reforms to get it into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. The Houthis overreached and merit comeuppance. Qatar’s financial empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood has caused problems for Bahrain, Egypt and Syria. Iran-sponsored Hizbollah is an armed non-state actor within a state that merits opposition. Corruption is endemic in the Kingdom and needs countering.
But each also poses problems. The “Saudi Vision 2030” reforms that MbS has proposed are far-reaching, but implementation is likely to be problematic and lag. The war in Yemen is causing massive civilian suffering and political division. It will be difficult if not impossible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The blockade against Qatar has drive Doha in the direction of Ankara and Tehran, rather than bringing it back into the Gulf orbit. Hariri was a weak reed, but now there is none. Lebanese are united in wanting his return, which the State Department also supports. Countering corruption only among your political opponents is not a good way to clean up a system.
One other, less visible but important, initiative is the Saudi rapprochement with Israel, which shares the Kingdom’s hostility towards Iran. How far can this go? What are its implications for the geopolitics of the region?
But most of all: doing all these things at once, without ample consultation even within the royal family, is far from the Kingdom’s cautious tradition. A 32-year-old Crown Prince undertaking it amounts to an auto-coup: a takeover by someone already in power.
Some will argue that is the only way to get things done. The parallel to President Trump’s efforts to upset the apple cart in the US is obvious. It is no surprise that the White House (in the person of Jared Kushner) apparently encouraged the arrest of the royal opponents, and maybe even the resignation of Hariri, making the State Department statement against it moot. But how is Trump’s radical program working out in the US? The repudiation Trump suffered Tuesday in America’s equivalent of by elections was massive, even if concentrated in blue states (one-purple Virginia, New Jersey, and New York).
Of course there will be no voting in Saudi Arabia to test MbS’s initiatives. The consequences are likely to be less visible, at least initially, and possibly less peaceful, eventually. MbS has taken big risks for big gains. Pay day, if it happens, is still a long way off.