Friday News Analysis — October 26, 2018: Suspected Letter Bomber Arrested; An Alternative to INF Treaty Withdrawal; Space Force Update; The Bavarian Election, Merkel’s Future, & Transatlantic Leadership; and Stories You May Have Missed
With a week with a lot of news to unpack, we have a “super sized” Friday news analysis this week. In this edition, we look at the latest news about the suspected letter bomber who targeted critics of the Trump Administration and the news media. Following that we look at an alternative model for addressing the INF treaty withdrawal, update you with the latest on Space Force, unpack the Bavarian election results, and conclude with the stories that you might have missed.
Pipe Bombs Paint an Unhappy Picture of American Politics
The biggest political story of the week was the discovery of 12 suspicious packages that contained crude pipe bombs addressed to prominent critics and opponents of President Trump. The packages were sent to George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, former Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan, Representative Maxine Waters, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Joe Biden, Robert De Niro, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. All of the targets have been the subject of conspiracy theories about the Democratic Party, “globalism,” and the shadowy “deep state.”
This afternoon, federal law enforcement officers arrested a suspect, Cesar Sayoc Jr. of Aventura, FL, in connection with the crimes. News reports suggest that Mr. Sayoc has a history of criminal offenses, is a strong supporter of President Trump, and has made various conspiratorial comments about several people who were targeted with the pipe bombs.
This is the kind of fast-moving story that we tend to shy away from in the Friday News Analysis. To paraphrase the famous Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “many breaking news reports are contradictory, even more are false, and most are uncertain.” In the coming hours and days, we may reflect further on these events and reconsider their context, and new details may emerge that reframe the content.
We feel it is important to comment today, however, because it touches on an issue that we care deeply about. At CSPC, we are dedicated to fostering civility in government and our political sphere. The discourse around civility comes up in the context of protestors harassing Trump administration officials in public spaces — which is also a bad thing — but it underplays the problem. Treating politics as a dualistic struggle between good and evil represented by the two parties presents the very real danger: people who consider themselves to be in a millenarian struggle against the forces of darkness can justify any action in support of justice.
It was this sense of conspiratorial doom that convinced Edgar Welch to drive to Washington and menace people at a pizza restaurant in an attempt to free children from an alleged sex slavery ring run by Hillary Clinton and senior Democratic Party officials. A similar worldview inspired Matthew Wright to block a bridge near the Hoover Dam with an armored vehicle and brandish an assault rifle to force people to confront the “truth” of an elaborate and outlandish conspiracy known as “QAnon.” A belief that President Trump had destroyed the country motivated James Hodgkinson to open fire at Congressional Republicans who were practicing for the Congressional baseball game, critically wounding Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and injuring several others.
The baseball shooting represented what many of us hoped was a circuit break. After that attack, the consensus in the political sphere was that this transcended partisanship. This incident, however, was viewed, especially by the president, through an explicitly partisan lens. This morning, President Trump suggested that the “‘Bomb’ [sic] stuff” was unfortunate because it would hurt Republicans in the midterms and argued that the anger that drove these attacks was caused by “purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News.” Many other prominent conservatives speculated that the entire episode was perpetrated by leftists to discredit Republicans and win an electoral victory.
Rationalizing violence against partisan enemies and imagining them as capable of elaborate deceptions to hurt you is a desperately negative indicator for the health of our democratic republic. If not for the lessons learned during the 2001 anthrax attacks that also used the mail system to spread terror and death and the effective work of local and federal law enforcement, several of the people targeted by these bombs could have been injured or killed. We should remember that this attack is the broadest assassination attempt on American political leaders since John Wilkes Booth killed President Lincoln and his co-conspirators planned to murder Vice President Johnson and members of the president’s cabinet.
Civility is a public virtue precisely because it militates against this kind of thinking, and, today, we are reminded again that we must strive for it, because the consequences of letting it fall away can be very dangerous.
An Alternative Approach for the INF Treaty
This week, the Trump Administration announced that the United States would be pulling out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) Treaty. This treaty, in effect since 1987, prohibits the United States and the Soviet Union, now-Russia, from developing and deploying land-based nuclear and conventional ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. It did not prevent the development of air- or sea-based systems, which has guided the US’s investment in standoff munitions in the decades since.
At the height of the Cold War in the early-1980s, the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles and the counter-deployment of U.S. Pershing II ballistic missiles and BGM-109 cruise missiles marked a period of intensified nuclear brinkmanship — as well as political controversy in the NATO allies in which these missiles were based. With short flight times of 5–10 minutes, these weapons raised concerns on both sides about the risk of a rapidly escalating nuclear conflict — especially as Soviet leaders were worried about a NATO “nuclear decapitation strike” against Soviet leadership. With pressure from disarmament movements and the rapprochement between President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev, the 1987 treaty was considered a major accomplishment in lowering Cold War tensions.
Fast forward to today, and it is clear that there are major cracks in the treaty’s structure. Russia has violated the treaty with the development, and possible deployment, of the 9M729 cruise missile. On the other side of the globe, China, which was never party to the 1987 agreement, has built a robust conventional and nuclear ballistic missile system. With much of the Indo-Pacific region in range of its missile arsenal, including all major US facilities in the area, China is also developing one model of ballistic missile, the DF-21D, that is designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers.
The Trump Administration justified withdrawal from the treaty based on the Russian violation and the lack of Chinese participation in the treaty. However, instead of immediately withdrawing from the treaty, the administration missed an opportunity to build a coalition of countries under threat from these systems — including the European allies, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and others. This would have put Russia, China, and other ballistic and cruise missile proliferators, such as Iran, under greater international pressure.
By unilaterally pulling out of the treaty, it plays into the false narratives and crocodile tears of those in Moscow and Beijing who decry the U.S. withdrawal as “destabilizing.” Had the administration called out the Kremlin, pushed for Chinese entry into the treaty, and built international support for this bolstered, globalized INF arms control regime, it could have put the pressure on Russian and Chinese leadership rather than being forced to defend and justify a unilateral withdrawal by the United States.
It is doubtful that Russia would cease its duplicitous behavior or that China would agree to curb its ballistic missile development. However, a good faith effort by the United States would reveal the Russian hypocrisy and lay bare the fact that China seeks hegemony over its neighbors by keeping them under a ballistic Sword of Damocles. Following this, the United States could withdraw from the INF treaty, after having tried to modernize it and expand it, and then work with allies to take the necessary countermeasures to mitigate and deter the Russian, Chinese, and other arsenals.
The Trump Administration’s national security strategy has correctly identified that the United States faces the geopolitical reality of a return to great power rivalries. Unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty may be seen by the administration as a testament to the hard-nosed reality of such geopolitics. Perhaps the dramatic withdrawal from the treaty is an early gambit by the Trump Administration to build a new treaty. It is a similar approach to how trade negotiations have taken place. The problem with that, however, is that the hard questions are coming White House’s way, when it should be the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai that are feeling the heat.
The Growing Inertia behind Space Force
On Tuesday, 23 October, the National Space Council (NSpC) met, endorsing a series of six recommendations to advance the process of establishing a sixth branch of the armed forces: the Space Force.
The meeting and its recommendations are the latest developments in the competing narratives and concepts surrounding the Space Force. The White House, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Air Force all have competing proposals for what the Space Force should look like. That in and of itself would suggest that the argument of whether or not it should be established is largely moot.
The NSpC endorsed six recommendations: the creation of a new unified command for space command; a legislative proposal that the Department of Defense will submit to the White House; a FY2020 budget request to fund the new service; a review of agencies’ authorities to ensure space commanders are empowered to take action; the establishment of a Space Development Agency (SDA) to oversee technology investments; and, a recommendation to strengthen the relationship between the intelligence community and the new service.
These recommendations will form the meat of the Space Policy Directive Four (SPD-4) and further the process of starting the new branch of the armed forces. Once President Trump signs SPD-4, the Pentagon would have 30 days to identify the resources necessary to establish the Space Force; and 45 days to develop an operating model and structure for the SDA. Work on developing the SDA is already underway.
The Department of Defense and the White House do enjoy significant latitude in how current entities are organized for space, but creating a wholly new force, not something done since 1947, requires legislative action. It is unclear how Congress will respond to the President’s proposal.
The forthcoming Congressional election is unlikely to significantly disrupt the make-up of the House Armed Services Committee, on which Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) — the most vocal advocate of the Space Force — sits and chairs the Strategic Forces Subcommittee. The ranking member, Jim Cooper (D-TN), is also unlikely to lose his seat. The two are in near lock-step on the Space Force and this is unlikely to change post-election. That said, it is far from certain that Congress will endorse the formation of a separate force or budget for the creation of the sixth branch.
The NSpC’s roadmap is not the only one currently circulating. In September, at the opening of the annual Air Force Association (AFA) conference, Dr. Heather Wilson, the Secretary of the Air Force presented her roadmap for the creation of a space force. Under her plan, the Space Force would include: the Space Development Agency, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, and certain space elements of Army and Navy.
Most controversially, Dr. Wilson suggested that the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) be closely connected with the new Space Force, and suggested that elements of NASA, NOAA, and the Commerce Department also come under the Space Force’s aegis too. The Space Force would have about 13,000 personnel and the budget for the first year should be about $3.3 billion, and $13 billion over five years.
Beyond the whole mishmash of Title 10, 15, and 50 authorities in that combination, critics say that Dr. Wilson’s model is too expansive in its scope and too expensive in its cost, arguing that it will be done leaner than the budget proposal outlines. There are, however, no competing cost estimates publicly available at the time of writing.
The Space Force’s establishment seems to have taken on a life of its own, developing its own inertia. The debate appears to have moved on from, to quote Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park) “your [officers and legislators] were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” The White House is driving forward with the creation of the Space Force and the Department of Defense and Air Force are, unsurprisingly, following the guidance of the Commander in Chief.
Yet, in many circles there remains much debate as to whether or not the Space Force is the appropriate solution to the challenge — a challenge that has not yet been fully defined by the White House or Pentagon. Is national security space in need of reform? Absolutely. Does it need to be better integrated into the national campaign strategy? Certainly. Do the Air Force and Department of Defense writ large need to go faster in space? Yes, period. Are the threats from Russia and China serious? Most definitely — even in the unclassified realm, Moscow and Beijing are investing heavily in counterspace and space-based capabilities. Is the Space Force the solution? That question is much harder to answer and worth debate.
Suffice it to say, the next few months in national security space are going to be very exciting and fascinating to watch.
Merkel’s End is Coming—Who Will Speak for the Transatlantic Community When She’s Gone?
Just two years ago international observers were crowning German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the new “leader of the free world.” Today, however, her ouster from German politics may be at hand. After a dismal performance in regional elections in Bavaria two weeks ago, Merkel’s governing coalition faces a bleak outlook in this weekend’s contests in the state of Hesse. Hesse, home to Germany’s financial capital Frankfurt, does not normally garner international attention for its elections, but if Merkel’s coalition suffers another loss like Bavaria, the elections could mark the end for Merkel.
Chancellor Merkel leads the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), the center-right political party that has led Germany for most of the last 35 years and governs in a coalition with the Christian Social Union (CSU), which suffered its worst election performance in over 50 years in the Bavarian elections. CDU has a long-standing partnership with the CSU that gives the Bavarian-only CSU has representation at the federal level in close partnership with CDU, while the CDU agrees to abstain from entering Bavarian politics. The CSU has dominated Bavarian politics for decades, but it failed to secure an absolute majority in the state parliament as it has done in 12 of the last 13 elections. While the party still topped its competitors, its share of the vote dropped by 10 percentage points.
Observers suggest the poor performance reflects frustration over infighting at the federal level, especially over immigration. The CSU’s party leader Horst Seehofer, who is also Minster of the Interior, has openly sparred with Merkel over her immigration policies. Seehofer’s provocations were seen as an effort to tack to the right to prevent losses to the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party in the Bavarian elections. His efforts backfired. Although the AfD garnered 10% of the vote, they came in fourth place overall. The CSU lost more votes to the liberal Green Party — which saw its vote share increase by an impressive 10 points — than to the AFD.
The performance of Merkel’s other governing partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), poses the real threat to her position. The party’s vote share fell by 10 points, resulting in a 5th place finish. The SPD has traditionally been the second strongest party in Germany, but losses in Bavaria reflect a downward trend for the party’s electoral fate. They are being squeezed from the right and the left: working class voters — the SPD’s traditional base of support — see the AfD as a better vehicle for voicing their dissatisfaction, while progressive voters have turned to the Greens and the Left Party.
After a poor performance in last year’s federal elections, SPD leaders vowed to abstain from joining a grand coalition government that brings together the center-left SPD and the center-right CDU/CSU. It has been a winning formula for Merkel who has ruled over the coalition for 3 of her 4 terms, but it was draining the SPD of its support. Party leaders believed they needed to develop their own identity outside of the grand coalition in order to reconnect with voters. But Merkel struggled to form a government with other partners, plunging the country into a protracted crisis. Ultimately, the SPD felt compelled to once again join the CDU/CSU.
If their poor showing in Bavaria is repeated in Hesse this weekend, the SPD may have no choice but to abandon the coalition permanently. Current polls show the SPD 9 points behind its performance in Hesse’s last election in 2013. Should the coalition fall apart, it is hard to imagine how Merkel could continue as Chancellor. Observers are predicting her potential ouster as early as this December.
Merkel’s troubles stem from her decision in 2015 to admit over 1 million refugees from war-torn Syria and neighboring countries. A series of high profile incidents involving migrants and a general sense that Germany is being inundated by refugees drove criticism of Merkel from the right and fueled the rise of the AfD. Subsequently, the CDU/CSU suffered a disappointing performance in the 2017 federal elections weakening Merkel’s negotiating position and producing the ensuing coalition crisis.
Supporters of the liberal international order saw Merkel as their standard-bearer in opposition to Trump’s “America First” rhetoric. Since Barack Obama left office, Merkel has consistently polled as the most trusted leader in the world. Even if Merkel is able to weather the political storm and hold on to power, it seems clear that she will not serve another term as Chancellor. For Germany, this may be a needed change after her 13 years in power, but she is a steadfast supporter of the European project and the transatlantic relationship, and predictable leader in uncertain times. For many throughout the world, her loss will be felt deeply. To be sure, there is broad support and political consensus within Germany for integration and global engagement, despite AfD’s rise, so Merkel’s eventual successor will likely share those ideals. Whoever does succeed her, however, will have to shore up domestic support and navigating a changing political landscape in Germany. This inward focus will come at the expense of international leadership.
Many will look to France’s Emmanuel Macron to fill the gap, but Macron has domestic troubles of his own. Three high-profile cabinet resignations, negative reactions to his reform packages, and a scandal-plagued summer have ended Macron’s honeymoon phase. Macron is now more unpopular than his much-maligned predecessor Francois Hollande was at the same point in his presidency. With U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May embroiled in Brexit drama and Donald Trump showing no signs of backing away from his “America First” outlook, the international back bench of pro-globalization and Euro-Atlantic integration leaders appears rather empty.
Stories You May Have Missed
President Trump signed the Support for Patients and Communities Act on Wednesday to combat the nation’s growing opioid epidemic. This bipartisan legislation increases funding to states and federal agencies to grow access to addiction treatment by expanding recovery centers and take action to eliminate foreign traffickers by training law enforcement to intercept drug shipments. Other provisions include lifting treatment restrictions, expanding painkiller research, and making changes to Medicare and Medicaid regulations. According to data from the CDC, over 72,000 people in the US died of drug overdoses in 2017, and at least two-thirds of those where linked to opioids. The President called the package the “single largest bill to combat the drug crisis in the history of our country,” but critics say it does not do enough to quickly eradicate this issue.
In this piece at Real Clear Politics, contributor Mort Kondracke highlights how a range of citizens groups across the country are gaining momentum to reform redistricting, implement ethics laws, and push for open primaries. CSPC has been also tracking these groups’ efforts as part of the Commission on Civility & Effective Governance, which seeks to highlight reforms that address the incentives for partisan rancor in American politics.
Rarely does the White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) make waves, but this week’s 72-page report entitled “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism” was one of the more unusual reports issued by the CEA. In this report, the CEA goes after a range of policy proposals that are popular among the Democratic grassroots by comparing them to historical examples of socialism. Many quickly mocked comparing “Medicare for All” or proposed reforms for corporate oversight to Lenin’s attacks on the kulaks or the brutal mismanagement of the Venezuelan state, but a more sober analysis, unfortunately behind FT’s paywall, discusses how the elephant in the room is stagnant wage growth.
Though there was little traffic on the record-setting Hong Kong-Zuhai Bridge, it was opened to much fanfare. While private vehicles’ use of the bridge is strictly regimented, Chinese leaders heralded the bridge as a major part of an effort to tie together China’s southern cities. At at time when Hong Kong politics has been especially restive, the imagery of a physical connection between Hong Kong and the mainland can’t be understated.
With Brazilians going to the polls on Sunday, with controversial right-wing leader Jair Bolsonaro in the lead, the popular messaging service WhatsApp has become a controversial tool for spreading political messages in Brazil. Questions abound about privacy and data tracking as campaigns, political consultants, and activists have used group chats to spread propaganda and news of the real and fake varities.