Friday News Roundup — April 5, 2019: Happy Birthday NATO!; Security Theater of the Absurd; Religious Freedom and the Machinery of Death; Anti-Semitism and Hypocrisy; Plus News You May Have Missed


Greetings from Washington, where we’ve been enjoying the cherry blossoms as they reach peak bloom this week. The news cycle, rather than admiring the wonders of spring, has been laser focused on the Mueller Report, especially since the summary authored by Attorney General William Barr was released. The policy team here at the CSPC, however, is keeping a level head as usual, with our eyes peeled for events that are often ignored by the political mainstream. This week, Michael gives three cheers to our good friend NATO, Dan laments the Trump administration’s carelessness regarding national secrets, and Chris tackles the death penalty and religious liberty debates before the Supreme Court. In addition, this week CSPC intern Alec Mancini contributes with his take on the hypocritical accusations of anti-Semitism from the religious right and, as always, we cover some stories you might have missed.

This week, CSPC also published two exciting pieces outside of the news roundup recently. CSPC President & CEO Glenn Nye teamed up with our very own Chris Condon to take on partisan gerrymandering in The Hill, which you can read here. Our National Security Space Program also released its first report this week under the leadership of Rep. Nye and CSPC Abshire Chair Rep. Mike Rogers. That report, entitled “Securing the Highest Ground,” is available on our website here.

A Toast to a Friendship on the Occasion of Its Seventieth Birthday

Michael Stecher

When I Get Older, Losing My Hair / Many Years from Now / Will You Still Be Sending Me a Valentine / Birthday Greetings, Bottle of Wine?

Yesterday, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated its 70th birthday with a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of its member states here in Washington, DC. I write about NATO kind of a lot. I had an op-ed that ran last summer about reinvigorating the alliance’s democratic legitimacy. When I was in government, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to write a speech for my boss about the critical role that NATO plays in American defense thinking (I even appear awkwardly in the front row in this video of the event). In graduate school, I worked on a capstone project on countering the Russian hybrid warfare threat — we made t-shirts that read “Because There’s No ‘I’ in NATO.”

NATO was founded to coordinate defense in the event of a Soviet invasion and demonstrate American resolve to continue to protect its European allies who were still recovering from the depredations of the Second World War. That it survived the fall of Communism, a doubling of its membership (once the newly-renamed Republic of North Macedonia is admitted), and the transition from resisting Russian coercion in the 1980s to resisting Russian coercion in the 2010s speaks to a fundamental truth about the organization. Despite frequent assertions that it has become obsolete, NATO is vibrant and essential. It is a critical force multiplier for the United States and enshrines a set of values in the global ideological competition. At an age when most political arrangements are given gold watches and shuffled off to Boca Raton, we should all hope — and have reasons to be optimistic — that NATO will remain a preeminent force for good in the world for the foreseeable future.

NATO’s first Secretary General Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay once said that the role of NATO was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” In this vision, he clearly reflects the crises of his time: Europe had experienced three cataclysms in a century over the question of what Germany ought to be and how it ought to relate to the rest of the Continent. “Poor old Germany,” Henry Kissinger quipped, “too big for Europe, too small for the world.” By kludging together Germany, its historical rivals, and the European periphery under American hegemony, NATO solved this problem. Today, a majority of European countries would “highly welcome” an increase in German defense spending and military capability. Even Poland, who for reasons of history and geography has little reason to trust Germany or Russia, is thrilled by its NATO membership because it ensures an American counterweight to its neighbors. When the Berlin Wall fell, many of the leading lights of American political thinking prognosticated a return to competition and crisis in Europe. The durability and adaptability of NATO — with some help from economic integration fostered by the EU — is what prevented that.

The reason that NATO survived this transformation (much to John Mearsheimer’s surprise) is that the international system is more complex than the state-centric models we are taught as undergraduates. As Charles Tilly wrote after witnessing this upheaval, “Coherent, durable, self-propelling social units — monads — occupy a great deal of political theory but none of political reality…. That would be a convenient world for theorists, but it does not exist.” The world is actually made up of overlapping and interrelated networks that cross the boundaries drawn on maps. Institutions survive when they foster, maintain, and draw upon these networks; they are “repertories of practice.” That is the best way to understand NATO: junior officers and young wonks train and work with their counterparts from other member states; when they become senior leaders, they have networks to call upon from both sides of the Atlantic and trust that the help and advice they get will be of the highest quality. That is how, in so short a time, France and Britain have gone from thinking about their security in terms of protection from Germany to thinking of it as inextricable from Germany.

That transformation has been durable, but it is not immutable. When the Trump administration publicly moots the idea of charging allies for the “privilege” of hosting American troops, it introduces friction into the state-level relationship and creates the conditions necessary for the network-level relationship to degrade. NATO tensions are hardly new, and there is good reason to believe that the transatlantic relationship will survive Trump, Brexit, and the rise of neo-nationalism, but it is not certain that it will. Recognition of the positive role that NATO plays is essential to combat this complacency. Countries in Europe, and indeed as far afield as Georgia and Kazakhstan, see NATO as protection from invasion, but also know that a commitment to liberty, transparency, and win-win cooperation is the price of admission to the Euro-Atlantic community. America has long lived with “the eyes of all people upon us” in our “city upon a hill,” but it is not our birthright to lead the free world: we earn it in every generation through our commitment to those ideals. By, with, and through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, those ideas are propagated out into the world to make it more whole, more free, and more peaceful. May it carry on for another 70 years.

Making Security Great Again

Dan Mahaffee


Of the many scandals in a scandal-fatigued town, the one regarding White House security clearances hits close to home for many who have served in government and undergone such security clearance processes. It has long been acknowledged that there are two tracks for granting security clearances, and that with the transition between administrations it is often necessary to rapidly grant senior White House staff security clearances. On the other hand, though, this story just adds to the belief that the current administration is willing to buck the rules regarding some of the most sensitive security matters.

For someone not close to the White House, the security clearance process can last months if not longer, as investigators look over one’s family, friends, travel history, financial records, employment history, and a range of other matters that might suggest whether or not a person is vulnerable to foreign influence or blackmail. It has been described as a drawn out root canal or compared to another unpleasant medical examination that we won’t discuss in a family-friendly news roundup.

On one hand, the entire security clearance system is ready for reform, along with the overclassification of much of the material the government handles. For starters, the system is laborious and requires the submittal of duplicate forms. In an era when foreign travel, global business, and an international network is common for the best and brightest in the private sector, this experience is treated with suspicion by government investigators. Still, the flaws in the system require a thoughtful reform, not an end-around the processes.

This scandal adds to a series of incidents that raise questions about how the White House handles security vulnerabilities. From sharing intelligence directly with Russian leaders to security deliberations at Mar-a-Lago in plain view of guests, there are plenty of concerns to be had about how this information is handled. While President Trump finds Camp David to be far beneath the luxury of Mar-a-Lago, there is a reason that the security posture at the former is designed to keep a Chinese national with multiple passports, cellphone, laptops, and malware drives from getting close to presidential accommodations. Even the presidential phone raises vulnerabilities — the executive outlet to Twitter and calls bypassing the White House switchboard — as President Trump has resisted efforts by security experts to inspect his phone and regularly swap it out with a new model to ensure security.

These actions suggest a lackadaisical-at-best approach to security fom a president whose electoral victory owed at least some credit to a widely held belief that his opponent was careless with classified information. At worst, it suggests that there are some in the administration who might be vulnerable to foreign influence or could serve as a conduit, even unwittingly, for foreign espionage efforts. At a time when the United States is trying to improve intelligence sharing relationships with allies and the importance of security measures in their intelligence services and telecommunications hardware, these actions are hardly leading by example. The White House could be moving away from its scandals and seeking to push ahead with its agenda, but this is another example of a self-inflicted crisis that could have been avoided.

Religious Liberty on Trial

Chris Condon

The Supreme Court’s 2018 term has been littered with death penalty cases that have drawn the public’s attention. This week was no exception, as the Court issued orders relating to two executions. One in particular is critical in evaluating the High Court’s demeanor on capital punishment in the constitutional scheme, the Texas case of Murphy v. Collier. Specifically, this case is useful in its juxtaposition with Dunn v. Ray, the case of a Muslim death row inmate in Alabama that drew national attention last month. These two cases are arguably almost identical, and yet the Court ruled in opposite ways on each case; this disparity has drawn ire from Court watchers, and few have offered a clear explanation of the decisions. One thing is for certain: the indecisiveness of the Court has major implications for religious liberty.

It may seem that capital punishment and religious liberty have little in common when discussing Supreme Court jurisprudence, both of the aforementioned cases provide the perfect conditions for the marriage of these issues. Dunn v. Ray was decided in February, and raised eyebrows immediately upon its publication. An Alabama inmate, Domineque Ray, was sentenced to death by the State of Alabama for the rape and murder of a minor. After discovering that his imam would not be allowed to accompany him into the execution chamber to provide guidance in his final moments, Ray applied for a stay of execution until the situation could be ameliorated. He argued that since the prison allows a state-employed Christian chaplain to be present in the chamber to administer last rites, it is discriminatory that a Muslim spiritual advisor is not allowed to accompany inmates in their final moments. The requested stay was granted by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court one day later to allow Ray’s execution to proceed as scheduled. The Court did not provide the reasoning behind their decision to vacate.

Although many lamented the decision as an affront to American religious liberty, it fell out of the news cycle in the weeks following its release. This week, however, tensions flared up again in the wake of Murphy v. Collier. This time, a Buddhist inmate (Patrick Murphy) was sentenced to death as an accomplice in the fatal shooting of a police officer. Although Texas allows a Christian or Muslim clergy member into the execution chamber, Murphy was told that his Buddhist spiritual advisor would be barred from his side during his final moments. Like Ray, Murphy found this practice to be discriminatory on its face, and challenged the State of Texas in court. Although all lower state and federal court’s rejected his appeal, the Supreme Court decided that the prison’s practice violated Murphy’s religious liberty. This means that in the cases of both Mr. Ray and Mr. Murphy, the Court felt strongly enough to overturn lower court decisions in each. What is confusing is that they treated Murphy’s case so differently.

Complicating the matter further is the absence of written reasoning from the majority in each. Two opinions, one dissenting and one concurring, provide a small window into the mind of each side. First, Justice Kagan’s dissent in Dunn v. Ray outlines clearly the thought process of the Court’s more liberal wing. Kagan issues a fiery defense of religious liberty, stating that discriminating against one religious denomination in favor of another violates the “clearest commandment of the First Amendment.” She also questions the majority’s urgency to overturn the decision of the 11th Circuit, pointing out that the Court rarely does so on issues of substantial lower court discretion. Although this reasoning obviously does not explain the mindset of the majority, it does delineate the clearest argument against their decision.

Justice Kavanaugh’s concurrence in Murphy v. Collier, although interesting, does not the same clarifying effect as Justice Kagan’s dissent. This is because he provides roughly the same reasoning as Kagan to applaud the stay of Mr. Murphy’s execution, while he joined with the majority to send Mr. Ray to the proverbial gallows. What’s more, Justices Roberts and Alito also joined with the majority in Murphy, making it a 7–2 decision to stay as opposed to a 5–4 decision for execution. Although some attribute this to the mysterious reasoning behind many Supreme Court decisions, others are less willing to give the justices the benefit of the doubt. Since the only difference between the two cases is seemingly the religion of the inmate in question, some have leveled charges of veiled Islamophobia against the Court’s conservatives. While this is an extreme and premature accusation against justices of the Supreme Court, it conceals a deeper issue that runs through this question. Why will the Court protect the religious liberty of some but not others?

Justice Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion demonstrates a clear dedication to the principle of religious liberty. It also shows his belief that government exercising preferential treatment toward certain religious sects violates the First Amendment to its core. Since this reasoning is so close to that of Justice Kagan, it is a distinct possibility that her reasoning influenced the “center-right” of the bench (Roberts, Alito, and Kavanaugh) and made them realize their error in Dunn v. Ray. It is also peculiar that Justice Neil Gorsuch fell on the side of the government in both cases. Known as a strident defender of religious liberty throughout his judicial career, Gorsuch said in 2018 “in this country, the place of secular officials isn’t to sit in judgment of religious beliefs, but only to protect their free exercise.” With this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine a situation where the Court sides 8–1 or 9–0 with someone such as Domineque Ray.

Regardless of the Court’s past or future decisions on these matters, it is unlikely that states determined to deny inmates of comfort in their final moments will err on the side of mercy. In Texas, for example, the state has now banned all spiritual advisors from the execution chamber in light of Murphy. Even in instances where the Court endeavors to protect the essential liberty of the people, there are always those who would rather see the state prevail than submit to the Court’s prescriptions.

Where There’s Smoke There’s Fundamentalists: What The Firestorm Over Ilhan Omar Ignores About The Christian Right

Alec Mancini

Whether regarding resolutions against anti-Semitism or presidential tweets pertaining to recognition of the Golan Heights, there has recently been much in the news about the relationship between the United States and Israel. An example of these developments has been the firestorm of controversy that was ignited when Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), wrote a tweet which appeared to insinuate that donations from Jewish Americans to pro-Israel groups were the primary reason for the US having a close relationship with Israel. After widespread criticism from Republicans and Democrats, Omar apologized. The problem with the controversy surrounding Omar’s comments is that it ignores a deeper reality: The primary driver of the US-Israel relationship is the influence of Christian fundamentalists in the United States.

The relationship between the United States and Israel can be thought of as the seat of a three-legged stool. These legs are security, Jewish Zionism, and fundamentalist elements of Christian ideology. In the US-Israel dynamic, the security pillar is often heavily focused on. In the Omar controversy, Jewish political interests were identified as the primary driver of the relationship between the two countries. Both of these explanations of the primary drivers in the US-Israel dynamic are inaccurate.

An example of the influence of evangelicals on the relationship between the United States and Israel can be seen in the case of Palestinian cleric Abdel Aziz-al Rantisi. In April 2004, Aziz-al Rantisi was assassinated when the Israeli Air Force fired missiles at his car. The Bush administration had condemned a previously unsuccessful attempt on Aziz al-Rantisi’s life. After receiving thousands of emails from evangelical voters threatening to not vote if such political pressure was not removed from Israel, the administration quickly changed how it spoke about the issue.

American evangelicals, many of whom believe that the second coming of Christ is reliant upon a unified Israel, comprise 17% of the US population. Since the Christian right makes up a sizable constituency of the Republican voter base, such beliefs have the ability to influence significant foreign policy decisions. Furthermore, given that evangelicals have the distinction of being the only religious group in America to indicate a plurality of support for President Trump, the president often takes actions that are viewed as transactional with them. A notable example of this is President Trump’s decision to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump’s decision to move the embassy is now viewed as one of the crowning political achievements of the Christian right.

It is critical that the issue at hand be identified correctly and the debate around it elevated. Furthermore, given that many American Jews tend to be liberal, aligned with the Democratic Party, and suspicious of the Christian right’s support for Israel, it is appropriate to question the motivations of strident support for Israel within the Republican Party. The irony implicit in the Christian right’s position towards Israel is glaring. Firstly, the theological beliefs of the Christian right hold that anyone who is unrepentant, which is coded language for non-evangelical, is not subject to the benefits of salvific grace. As a Roman Catholic who grew up in the American South, I can personally attest to the actuality of this position. While many conservatives and liberals alike scratch their heads at the seemingly bizarre alliance between the President and the Christian right, such confusion misses deeper socio-religious truths that help to explain the relationship, such as evangelical complaints about the feminization of society, as well as absurd theologically-based musings which contemplate the likelihood of the Trump presidency being ordained by god.

Instead of focusing on factually inaccurate comments made by individual politicians, it would be more productive to direct such energy at the following deeply concerning reality: A two state solution has been continuously stymied due partly to the insistence by a fringe religious group that the mere questioning of Israeli demands is theologically illegitimate. Accusations of anti-Semitism could be leveled against members of the Christian right who absurdly claim to advocate the interests of American Jews, while simultaneously espousing the position that members of the Jewish faith will not experience the benefits of salvation. And frustration, particularly by liberal Democrats who rushed to condemn Omar, could be expressed at the reality that for the better part of two decades, highly consequential foreign policy decisions in this realm have been less influenced by experts and national security interests, and more influenced by a segment of the American electorate that ponders such seemingly existential questions as the sinfulness of rock music.

The business of American foreign policy should be influenced by more intellectually substantive dynamics than the charade of fundamentalist influence. Further alarming is that such a charade has been ignored by the controversy over Representative Omar’s comments.

Stories You May Have Missed

“Non-Discrimination Nation? Majorities in Every State Support Non-Discrimination Laws for LGBT citizens”

Alec Mancini

According to numbers recently published by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of citizens in every state in the US now express support for laws designed to protect LGBT citizens from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Such data is representative of the seismic societal shift that has occurred over the past 20 years on attitudes towards the treatment of LGBT citizens. What is perhaps most striking is that this statistical reality occurs in the midst of renewed concerns over the direction of public policy pertaining to LGBT rights. It is also worth remembering that while pluralities of the populace in 50 states express support for such anti-discrimination measures, only 21 states currently have laws on the books that ensure full legal protections for the LGBT community, alluding to the historic yet unfinished nature of this progress.

Turkish Voters Deliver Rebuke to Erdogan

Zachary Pendolino

This week, Turkey’s largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), won mayoral elections in the country’s three largest cities, Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara. Despite aggregating substantial power and remaining quite popular over his 16 years as prime minister and president, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrowly lost all three races. Many cite Turkey’s economic conditions, authoritarian rule and the length of Erdogan’s presidency as potential reasons for why voters chose CHP mayoral candidates in these cities. Voter turnout was near 85%, with over 48 million registered voters casting ballots. Some believe that this could be an indication of a shift in power for Turkey, but with the AKP contesting the results of the election for Istanbul and Ankara, only time will tell.

Ocasio-Cortez and Omar Join Paul on Syria

It is often said that politics makes strange bedfellows, and the idiom holds up in the latest action by Senator Rand Paul to curtail the war in Syria. While Paul has been a notable critic of U.S. involvement in the Syrian Civil War for years, he was joined this week by Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Specifically, both freshman Democratic firebrands signed a letter from Paul to President Trump, supporting the president’s push to withdraw troops and urging him to continue despite naysayers in the administration and Congress. In reference to the letter, Paul said that it is part of “the bipartisan movement in Congress to snatch back power” from the White House on warmaking.

DOJ Exposes Cruel and Unusual Conditions in Alabama Prisons

On April 3rd, the Department of Justice released a scathing report regarding conditions in Alabama’s various state prisons. The result of an investigation utilizing the resources of the Civil Rights Division and the officers of all three U.S. Attorneys in Alabama, the report laid out a horrific narrative of prisoner anguish and death across the state. It explains that sexual assault occurs often, at all times of day, and in all areas of the prisons. Prisoners often wield contraband weapons and stabbings are, with one prisoner notably bleeding to death in his cell while calling for help from prison guards. If Alabama does not improve the conditions revealed in the report within 49 days, the federal government will have the option to sue the state government for their negligence.

Saudi Arabia Gearing Up to Launch First Nuclear Plant

Satellite photos from Google Earth now show that Saudi Arabia is nearing completion of its first nuclear plant in the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh. This has induced worry from many international observers, who lament the lack of oversight on Saudi Arabia’s activities. In the face of this criticism, the government of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has assured the international community that it will abide by all international agreements on nuclear activities. They also point out that the facility is open to visitors, which would include international observers. The plant has also drawn the attention of arms control experts, who worry that the facility could be weaponized in the event of conflict with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of CSPC.



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