Friday News Roundup — December 13, 2019

Good Friday morning from Washington, D.C., where its been a jam-packed week as we pick up the pace into the holidays. We’ve seen the impeachment hearings continue into the more procedural mark-up, with plenty of soliloquies, while deals were reached on USMCA, née NAFTA, the 2020 Defense Authorization, and what appears to be the initial sketches of a deal to keep the government open. We’re also looking at the early details of what might the “Phase One” trade deal with China which will avoid pending tariff hikes, resume some trade, and leave plenty of questions about what remains for “Phase Two.”

Also, across the pond, we’re digesting the outcome of the UK General Election, where it appears that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has received a sizeable majority, endorsing his Brexit policy, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is facing questions about his leadership and the hard-left tilt of his once-center-left party. While there are some comparisons to consider, any direct application to U.S. politics should be taken with a Brexit-sized grain of salt.

In this week’s roundup, Chris provides an analysis of where impeachment stands, while also looking at what the Framers’ intent for impeachment means at this point. Dan covers the growing digital divergence between U.S.- and Chinese-led technology markets. Joshua takes a deep dive into the revelations of “The Afghanistan Papers.” As always, we wrap with news that you may have missed.

The Question of Impeachment

Chris Condon

Impeachment Hearings Continued Long into Thursday Night — C-SPAN Screenshot

Aside from declaring war, impeaching and removing the President of the United States is Congress’ most solemn responsibility. It is also one of its most consequential duties, as a decision to impeach the president — even without removing them — fundamentally alters the dynamics of our institutions. With this in mind, let us turn to the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

The House’s recently released articles of impeachment against the president cite this “abuse of power” as the first impeachable offense they seek to charge President Trump with. Rather than choosing a more specific charge such as bribery, House leadership chose a broader offense not listed in the criminal code to avoid diving down the rabbit hole of the code itself and of judicial precedent on such a crime. The second is “obstruction of Congress,” which likewise carries no legal definition. Essentially, the House argues that President Trump ordering his aides not to testify in congressional proceedings relating to impeachment constitutes an impeachable offense in itself. Oversight of the executive branch is an essential responsibility of Congress; whether this impeachment is part of that responsibility and interruption of this process by the president constitutes an impeachable offense is for each member of the House to decide.

Democrats have been quick to argue that impeachment is an entirely political process. They often point to Federalist 65 as evidence, in which Alexander Hamilton states that:

The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.

What is often lost in this conversation is that Hamilton referred specifically to the offenses with which officials could be charged, not the impeachment process overall. While the same legal standards that apply in a court of law do not apply to impeachment proceedings, it is unlikely that the founders intended the process to be entirely political in nature.

In fact, Hamilton expresses just such opposition in Federalist 65. In reference to charges of impeachment, he writes:

The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.

Aspects of this prediction are what we have seen in this modern impeachment inquiry. Both parties are riling up their bases over the question of impeachment, focused not on the facts of the case but what effect the matter will have on their next election. The founders forbade penalties for impeachment and conviction from moving beyond removal from office for just this reason: loss of life, liberty or property is subject to due process, not the political calculations of elected officials (Article I, Section 3). There are no such protections against the loss of public office.

Republicans in Congress remain unconvinced that President Trump’s actions constituted an offense in the first place, let alone an impeachable one. 90% of Republican voters agree with that assessment. While roughly 85% of Democratic voters wish to see President Trump impeached, independent voters are perhaps the most telling group regarding the 2020 election. Only 43% of those unaffiliated voters support the impeachment or impeachment and removal of the president. At this point, roughly half of voters polled on this question are generally supportive of impeachment overall.

To reiterate, this support comes largely from the Democratic Party, with about ninety percent of Republicans and over half of independents remaining unconvinced. If impeachment is purely political as the Democrats suggest, they are losing the battle to convince the public. If it has legal elements as the Republicans suggest, Democrats have thus far failed to prove that President Trump is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors to the satisfaction of the people. It is a groundswell of support from the people that would move the needle toward removal in the Senate, but that body has no incentive to vote for removal in the absence of political pressure.

It is also worth mentioning the peculiarity of the political strategy at play. The parties spent two years slinging mud over the Mueller investigation, with the Democratic Party alleging both that President Trump is a Russian stooge and that he obstructed probes into Russian interference in the 2016 election to a criminal extent. While the Mueller report indicated that Trump was not guilty of the former, it made no judgement of the latter. Congressional Democrats argued that he was indeed guilty of obstruction of justice at the time, but the Mueller investigation plays no part whatsoever in the articles of impeachment. It is also all but unthinkable that the Senate will remove the President once he is impeached by the House, which may allow Republicans to spin the entire inquiry as an exoneration of the president from any wrongdoing. If they do not vote to impeach him at this point in the process, their base (who they have convinced that impeachment is the right move) would become disillusioned heading into 2020.

Whatever the Democrats choose to do in the coming weeks, it seems that they will not gain politically from this political impeachment process. When the Senate trial commences, Mitch McConnell will be able to focus attention on Joe and Hunter Biden rather than the president or those around him. Barring any new consequential evidence coming to light, it is likely that President Trump will stand for reelection in 2020 without the threat of impeachment looming over his head any longer.

Digital Decoupling

Dan Mahaffee

Wikimedia Commons Image

While trade and political tensions between the United States and China are hardly news, it was interesting to note this week’s announcement that Beijing would mandate the removal, within three years, of all foreign IT hardware and software from government offices and other public institutions. While this was consistent with past announcements to reduce reliance on foreign technology — a previous effort to reduce Chinese reliance on Microsoft Windows and Google Android operating systems proved unsuccessful — it comes at a time when there is increasing concern about the digital and technological divide between Washington, Beijing, and those nations facing pressure to line up on one side or another. While the initial announcement appeared to apply only to government offices, questions remain about how this pronouncement might apply to China’s state-owned enterprises or others closely affiliated with the government.

As U.S.-China tensions have grown, one of the consistent concerns cited has been that U.S. policies would force a decoupling of the U.S.-China economic relationship and lead to the creation of a divided global economy — or what former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson referred to as an “economic iron curtain.

Throughout the course of our Geotech program at CSPC, we have been cautious when it comes to the Cold War parallels with our relationship with China. Yes, we believe that the changing nature of the U.S.-China relationship and the future of the competition is as important a strategic transition as that from the aftermath of World War II to the early years of the Cold War. Still, given the levels of interdependence in a globalized economy, decoupling or sorting into blocs aligned with Washington or Beijing is not as straightforward as the Cold War divergence.

In the digital world, however, one can argue that such a decoupling has already begun and that it is driven by Chinese policies more than the Trump administration’s approach. China has long sought to build its own version of the internet, where speech and content are highly regulated and monitored. U.S. companies like Google and Facebook have unsuccessfully sought to enter the Chinese marketplace, while homegrown champions such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent have cornered the domestic marketplace.

In a vast domestic marketplace, these companies have built a wide base of users — and their data. From a sheltered position, these companies are able to compete abroad, with the support of the Chinese government. In case you had any doubts, it’s worth noting that this week, the Chinese Ambassador to Denmark, Feng Tie, threatened to scupper trade agreements with the Faroe Islands, a self-governing Danish territory, if that territory chose not to use Huawei network equipment.

Leaders in the west, in both government and the private sector, should look to China’s policies to understand that the digital decoupling is happening and that it is time to prepare accordingly. No longer will the Chinese marketplace be the profit engine that many U.S. boardrooms once thought it was. The marketplace is maturing, the populace is aging, the economy is slowing, and anyone doing business in China risks exposing all of their corporate data — and reputation — to the whims of the Chinese Communist Party. Therefore, the digital and economic competition between the United States and China is less about what access we receive to the Chinese domestic marketplace, and more about how we position ourselves to compete with China in the global marketplace — both in developed and developing markets.

It also will require a sanguine and strategic approach to how we address our own technological innovation path. Certainly skepticism over Chinese access to our personal data is well-warranted. The Congressional inquiries into the app TikTok and the CFIUS order for Chinese firms to divest from the LGBTQ dating app Grindr are examples of this.

We must also consider what strategies we have for these technologies as well. As is often discussed in these pages, 5G technology is of vital importance, and the United States finds itself lagging behind as China seeks first-mover advantage in this technology. A promising sign is the attention that Congress is paying to this issue, as we now have the introduction of the bipartisan “Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2019” in both the House and Senate.

This legislation is focused on the need for a national 5G strategy and an understanding of its security impacts and the threat posed by certain foreign suppliers. While it is mainly focused on encouraging a strategic examination, it is a significant step in the right direction when it comes to positioning ourselves for this competition.

Reading “The Afghanistan Papers”

Joshua Huminski

U.S. Army Patrol in Chabar, Afghanistan, 2009 — Department of Defense Photo

On Monday, The Washington Post released what it is calling the “Afghanistan Papers” — a multi-year effort launched by the federal government to understand the failings of the war in that country. The Post obtained more than 2,000 pages of previously unreleased documents, including extensive interviews with senior leaders, the identities of whom were previously redacted until a successful Freedom of Information Act request.

The papers cover the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations and offer candid assessments of the conflict which claimed the lives of 2,300 American servicemembers since 2001, nearly another 21,000 were wounded. Most of those interviewed assumed that their responses would be anonymous, providing uncharacteristically honest insights into the strategy, or absence thereof, in Afghanistan. Led as a side project by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) the $11 million effort sought to diagnose the failures in that country with a view to preventing similar mistakes in the future.

The Post’s report landed a time when Washington, and indeed the country, are both largely distracted. The impeachment proceedings against President Trump have consumed the vast majority of the oxygen in the national dialogue.

At the same time, unfortunately, the papers confirm a lot of what most of the public expected about the conflict — overly positive assessments of progress and the absence of a clear strategy that aligns ways and means toward a defined political end. Perhaps equally as concerning is the fact that many Americans don’t realize that there are servicemembers still in Afghanistan.

A Void of Strategy

Success in any campaign requires an understanding of the desired political outcome. This is Clausewitz 101, yet it appears that in Afghanistan, this was undefined. According to Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

The mission set in Afghanistan clearly grew from unseating the Taliban, disrupting al-Qa’ida, and ending the country as a sanctuary environment from which Osama bin Laden could carry out his terror campaign. Beyond that initial mission-set, arguably which was achieved by 2002, mission-creep took over.

An unidentified former Department of State official said,

Our policy was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government…The timeframe for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn’t have.

The mission creep seemed to become all encompassing. When everything is a strategic priority, nothing is a strategic priority. An unidentified official noted “With the AfPak strategy there was a present under the Christmas tree for everyone,” adding, “by the time you were finished you had so many priorities and aspirations it was like no strategy at all.”

Strategy is, and can be, challenging, yet the identification of who the enemy should be considerably easier. Here, it appeared that this was no better or no clearer. “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are,” Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, wrote in one of his infamous “snowflakes” in the fall of 2003.

This lack of understanding filtered down to the tactical level. A former adviser to an Army Special Forces team noted how the soldiers came expecting that “I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and the bad guys live.” But, “it took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information in my hands. At first they just kept asking: ‘But who are the bad guys, where are they.’”?

Shocked that there is Gambling

According to some estimates, the United States spent roughly $2 trillion in Afghanistan since 2002. The efficacy of this spending is debatable. One U.S. Agency for International Development interviewee speculated that 90% of what was spent was wasted saying “we lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it, and did it without reason.”

This staggering amount of money injected into any country would prove challenging, but even more so in a country shattered by decades of war with little functioning infrastructure, few if any institutions, or civil society to speak of. It was all but inevitable that corruption would follow. Col. Christopher Kolenda summed it up succinctly: “The kleptocracy got stronger over time, to the point that the priority of the Afghan government became not good governance, but sustaining this kleptocracy.”

Using an apt analogy Kolenda described Afghanistan’s corruption as a cancer:

Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher levels, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably okay. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.

Corruption in Afghanistan undoubtedly undermined any progress achieved. It erodes trust in institutions and turns people away from the government and towards alternative sources of authority — sources that may seem better, fairer, or more honest, alterative structures like the Taliban. Indeed, the Taliban provided a measure — a great violence and horror — of order for the Afghan people that in the early days was an attractive alternative to the lawlessness.

Success & Unintended Outcomes

Whatever the initial strategy for Afghanistan was or became, it is clear from the Afghanistan papers that there was a plethora of unintended outcomes, none of which were positive or beneficial towards Washington’s aims.

Here, presciently, Secretary Rumsfeld identifies the crux of the challenge. In 2002 he said, “We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave.”

Yet, it would appear we have been unable to achieve that stability or create something able to stand on its own. Ambassador Ryan Crocker noted, “Our single biggest project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption”. He added “Once it got to the level I saw…it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix.”

America started the war to unseat al-Qa’ida and found itself in the middle of a drug war at the same time as it was building a government and attempting to jumpstart an agrarian economy to the modern era. “We stated that our goal is to create a ‘flourishing market economy’… I thought we should have specified a flourishing drug trade — this is the only part of the market that’s working” said Lt. Gen. Lute.

Yet, without a clearly defined political objective, how could Washington even measure success? An unnamed National Security Council official said it clearly, “It was impossible to create good metrics,” said the official. “We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture.” The official added, “And this went on and on for two reasons: to make everyone involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.”

What does it all mean?

The national discussion and dialogue on the strategy in Afghanistan has been woefully lacking for years. Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump have all fundamentally failed in their duty of identifying the national ends and aligning all elements of national power towards those ends. The political leadership in Washington has been singularly unable to articulate a clear, achievable political end against which national ways and means can be aligned.

Much has been made about the disconnect between that which was said in public and that which was said in private. The news coverage of the Afghanistan Papers noted its eerie parallels to the Pentagon Papers released during the Vietnam War, and the similar disconnect between what the public understood and what the government believed. Indeed, John F. Sopko, the SIGAR director said it to the Post bluntly, “the American people have constantly been lied to”.

That assessment is, perhaps, too simple. One of the greatest strengths of the U.S. military is its can-do attitude and focus on mission success. Yet, that strength also leads to blind spots that often prevent critical assessment and reflection. These blind spots are most certainly exacerbated when that which you are trying to achieve has not been clearly articulated or defined. Motion and movement are not the same things, except perhaps in a strategic vacuum.

Indeed, since the start of the war, there has been a new commander nearly every year. In a conflict as complex and complicated as Afghanistan, this reinvention of the wheel is bound to create gaps, inefficiencies, and a predisposition towards positivity, especially when the next promotion is contingent of a measure of success in that campaign.

While it could have been forgivable in the early days of the conflict — post-9/11 the United States was thrust into a conflict for which it had not prepared against an enemy it did not understand — that forgiveness rapidly ebbs year after year. Indeed, it was once said that the United States has not waged an 18-year war, it has waged one year of war 18 times, meaning little was learned and the same mistakes were made over and over again.

Blame cannot and should not be lain at the feet of the soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, foreign service and intelligence officers all of whom fought and served valiantly, sacrificing much, in the pursuit of this unclear end state. They labored under unclear and often conflicting guidance, against an often-undetermined enemy, in many cases with one or both hands tied, to say nothing of the challenging regional strategic dynamics under which they labored. Pakistan is America’s ally, yet they harbor al-Qa’ida, funnel weapons to the Taliban, and generally undermine U.S. efforts.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, an impartial analysis is necessary. Was al-Qa’ida ever a strategic or existential threat to the United States? Arguably, no. It was only a such a threat if we allowed it to be or made it so ourselves. After 18 years of war in Afghanistan has the threat of terrorism subsided? On the whole, no. Al-Qa’ida is certainly disrupted, but in its place the Islamic State rose, its affiliates spread, and, put simply, terrorism is a tactic that will never be eliminated.

With America’s focus on Afghanistan and later Iraq, the United States’ global strategic position weakened allowing Russia, China, and Iran to fill the void, advance their interests unchecked, and enjoy the room created by American strategic distraction. As Jeffrey Effers, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who worked on Afghanistan/Pakistan issues on the National Security Council said, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.” Perhaps there is the lasting impact of the war in Afghanistan — an America tied down and strategically weakened, bin Laden’s plan come to fruition.

News You May Have Missed

Health Insurance Giant Cigna to Analyze Patient Behavior with AI

Having acquired the firm Express Scripts, the health insurance firm Cigna plans to utilize an AI-based system to follow the behavior of insured patients with chronic conditions and regular medications to check that patients are not skipping medications or other behaviors that would negatively affect care. The AI will take data from doctors’ offices and pharmacies, as well as connected healthcare devices such as smartwatches and connected glucometers.

Major League Baseball Adjusts Drug Policy

Following the death of Los Angeles Angels’ pitcher Tyler Skaggs while under the influence of alcohol and opioids, Major League Baseball has announced a drugs policy that will now mandate tests for opioid and cocaine use, removing cannabis from its “drugs of abuse” list. The policy will also emphasize treatment programs for most first-time offenders, a move applauded by the White House Office of Drug Control Policy. While some question the relisting of cannabis, others note that only five baseball teams play in jurisdictions where all use of cannabis is illegal.

Feud Inside HHS Distracts from Administration’s Healthcare Agenda

An ongoing spat between HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Seema Verma, Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has resulted in some additional inside-the-Beltway drama as the two vie in a bureaucratic battle. According to these reports, the two were summoned by Vice President Pence for a meeting to enforce that both must work together to execute the administration’s agenda.

At Least 71 Nigerien Soldiers Dead in Islamic State Attack on Military Outpost

In another instance of what analysts are calling a concerning escalation of terrorist violence in the Sahel, at least 71 Nigerien soldiers were killed by a group claiming to be an offshoot of the Islamic State. Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have grown more active in the region of West Africa, despite the presence of many U.S. and allied forces engaged in Special Forces operations and the training and support of local militaries.

The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.

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