Friday News Roundup — January 25, 2019: SOTU-Shutdown Showdown; Army’s Lessons on Iraq War; Reading the SCOTUS Tea Leaves; plus Stories You May Have Missed…
This Friday, as the government shutdown continues, Dan Mahaffee looks at the back-and-forth between President Trump and Speaker Pelosi about the State of the Union address and what we’re seeing in terms of potential pathways to reopen government. Michael Stecher covers how the U.S. Army has released its first official history of the Iraq War and what lessons their analysis holds. Christopher Condon looks at what Supreme Court watchers are seeing in the early decisions — and silence — on certain matters. As always we wrap up with important stories that you may have missed.
State of the Union Shutdown Showdown
As the partial government shutdown enters its 35th day and 800,000 Federal workers face the prospect of another skipped paycheck, much of the inside-the-Beltway drama was focused on the back-and-forth between President Trump and Speaker Pelosi over the upcoming State of the Union address.
The drama had started last week when Speaker Pelosi suggested that the State of the Union should be delayed — ostensibly due to security concerns with the Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security employees working unpaid. This was the first salvo from Speaker Pelosi to remind the President that the Speaker is in charge of the House floor. The White House responded with a last-minute cancellation of a Speaker-led CODEL traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan by pulling military resources and suggesting that she fly commercial to the war zones. With that announcement and the denial of military support, the White House effectively blew the operational security for the Speaker’s trip and violated the post-September 11th precedent that the Speaker of the House — third in line to the presidency — travel with security and military support necessary for continuity of government; plus violating the norm that Members of Congress, as part of their oversight responsibility, ought to have the ability to see the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and military operations without interference from the Executive Branch.
This week, the State of the Union controversy seemed to be building to a crescendo, as White House seemed to want to force the issue. Speaker Pelosi and House leaders responded that the resolution to invite the President onto the House floor for an address would not be passed until government had reopened. For a moment, there was the specter of the State of the Union being delivered from the smaller, GOP-controlled Senate chamber, in front of a Trump rally, on a Fox News program, or at the border in front of an audience of unpaid Border Patrol agents. Such would have seemed one of the bold, made-for-TV maneuvers that the President seems to enjoy, but the showdown ended with a whimper, when the President tweeted on Wednesday night that he would respect the Speaker’s prerogative and delay the address.
With this back-and-forth, nothing was accomplished in terms of moving to get the government reopened or secure the border. Attention did turn to the proposals by the Democrats to give the White House the $5.7 billion requested for border security — though not new wall construction — and then Thursday’s two votes in the Senate. The first vote was for the compromise plan announced by President Trump during Saturday’s address from the White House, which Democrats quickly rejected as trading a the temporary — a 3-year fix on DACA — for the permanent — a structure on the border. That vote failed, with only Joe Manchin crossing the aisle to support the President’s plan. The Democrats offered an alternative plan that would reopen government until February 8th to provide a window for border and immigration negotiations. Six Republicans crossed the aisle to support that measure, and, while unsuccessful, it may be seen as an opening gambit for negotiations now that Majority Leader McConnell is allowing Senate votes to take place.
Reporting has suggested that the White House is beginning to feel the pressure of the shutdown, as President Trump’s approval ratings reach new lows and OMB is forced to begin contingency planning for a even more prolonged shutdown. At the same time, more and more Republican Members of Congress are going to see just how their red states — and their small government ideologies — are tested by their constituents’ reliance on government services. As Congress has sought to spread the federal benefits across the country, they are now seeing how the pain of a prolonged shutdown is spread. Out of touch, let-them-eat-cake, comments by Cabinet officials do not help perceptions of the White House’s management of this self-inflicted crisis — especially as we see air traffic controllers and Coast Guard service members going to food banks, and IRS employees and TSA agents develop flu-like symptoms and stay home rather than work without pay.
(Update—January 25th, 10:09am: About half an hour after this piece was originally published, it was reported that the FAA had halted some arriving flights at New York’s LaGuardia Airport due to insufficient staffing.)
A presidential emergency declaration or, god forbid, a major crisis, could be still be the path out of a shutdown. It was reported that the White House was drafting such a declaration on Thursday night. The President’s freewheeling remarks to the press on Thursday night also seemed to suggest that the White House might seek some type of compromise measure — though his comments gave little in the way of details about a potential deal. That said, it seems that the slow grind and the accumulating political, operational, and economic impacts of the shutdown are now being felt. Like the State of the Union drama, the longest government shutdown in American history looks increasingly likely to end, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
U.S. Army Releases Detailed History of the Iraq War
Late last week, the United States Army War College released The U.S. Army in the Iraq War. It is a massive undertaking that seeks to analyze the conduct of the conflict with Iraq from the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 through the withdrawal of American combat forces in 2011, locate Army leadership in the strategic-level decision-making that guided the war effort, and identify lessons that should be incorporated into how the Army should prepare for potential future uses of the military instrument of national power. Divided into two volumes and weighing in at nearly 1,500 pages, it is not an easy read — both because it is incredibly detailed in its description of the decisions of theater-level Army leaders, and because it embeds strong views about how and why the conflict metastasized into a multilevel, multifront contest that became an albatross for the U.S. political and military leadership.
This project was the brainchild of former Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno, who recalled how the Army had selectively dropped parts of the Vietnam War into the memory hole. In the aftermath of the fall of South Vietnam, the Army cultivated an idea that the defeat was due to political leaders who placed arbitrary constraints on the military and tried to force it to fight shadowy guerilla organizations, instead of taking the fight directly to the enemy, inflicting damage until the adversary cried, “Uncle!” This party line informed U.S. strategic thinking for a generation. Army leadership did not want to do counterinsurgency, stabilization, or peacekeeping operations and so did not organize, train, or equip soldiers to carry out those missions. Lessons learned in blood in Vietnam were suppressed and it took 3 years and thousands of casualties to relearn them in Iraq.
Gen. Odierno commissioned this report to enshrine the lessons of Iraq for the next generation of young officers, but, unfortunately yet inevitably, the Army remains a political creature. Both volumes were finished in 2016, but it was stuck in bureaucratic purgatory for over 2 years. According the the Wall Street Journal, the shift of focus at the Pentagon to great power competition empowered leaders who wanted to return to the days before counterinsurgency was in vogue. Beyond that, the report’s identification of individual heroes and goats rankled powerful stakeholders in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The current Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley tried to chart a middle ground, pushing the report to publication with a forward that enthusiastically praises its authors, while stressing that it is unofficial and unauthoritative.
No short summary can do justice to the breadth of ideas covered in these two volumes, but some key waypoints stand out. First, as expected, the authors place the report firmly in the philosophy of counterinsurgency made famous by Generals Odierno and David Petraeus that informed the 2007 surge. The authors point to three major problems that the army faced at the outset of the conflict: the U.S. political leadership had a broader understanding of what the Army could do than the Army had; the Army was uninterested in and unprepared for population security operations against an irregular adversary; and from the White House, through the Pentagon, and down to the military planners in Central Command, no one had a firm idea of what the key social and political terrain would be in Iraq once the war started.
None of this will come as a terrible surprise to those who remember the early phases of the conflict. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is remembered for saying that, “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have a later time,” but this underestimates the extent to which he and his staff forced the Army to start the war with fewer soldiers and less preparation. He may have been right that the 2003 joint force possessed new tools that would make it even more effective at destroying the Iraqi Army than the 1991 joint force had been, but his vision ignored what would happen after the Iraqi Army was defeated. At the same time, the Army ignored the lessons of Somalia, the Balkans, and Haiti, choosing to train and promote officers with an eye to fighting tank battles on the Central European plain. The authors rightly faults both of these views for contributing to a lack of preparation for the war the U.S. chose to fight.
It is that choice to fight, however, that is the most striking in the opening chapters of the report. No one appears to have truly understood how Saddam Hussein’s regime changed after the defeat in 1991. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how Hussein’s regime developed links with local Salafists to shore up his legitimacy; devolved power to local tribal organizations and paramilitary groups; and failed to suppress Shi’a militant organizations with links to Iran. These groups, along with the Kurdish forces in the north, were the primary combatants in the Iraqi civil war that brought the country to its darkest days in 2004–2006, but no one in the U.S. leadership was prepared to engage with them politically or militarily.
The second volume of the report covers the 2007 surge of U.S. forces that turned the page on this phase of the conflict, allowing a semblance of order to take hold. At the political level, however, the government of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki receives strong disapprobation for putting sect over country, squandering the permissive security environment and creating the conditions that allowed ISIS to form out of the routed salafists in the Sunni population. President Barack Obama also underestimated the extent to which U.S. influence in the country would decline as U.S. forces withdrew, prompting local actors to seek new allies, including the men with the black flags who put the new Iraqi Army to flight on their way towards capturing Mosul in 2014.
At the strategic level, little of this is new or forces us to update our understanding of the conflict, and few casual readers will want to dive into this level of detail. As an institution, however, it is essential that the Army come to terms with how things went wrong and how they were able to learn from mistakes to salvage a challenging situation. The lessons themselves may not apply to a future conflict, especially if we are, in fact, re-entering an era of great power competition, but the process of learning lessons and challenging assumptions is how organizations prepare themselves for future challenges. In particular, I hope that Army leaders recognize a warning from another former Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George Casey, who is quoted in this report that “the [Army] was quick to cry ‘micromanagement’ instead of considering how to refine their processes.”
The Supreme Court’s Decisions…and Selective Silence
The Supreme Court of the United States is a complex and sometimes enigmatic body, which necessitates an oblique understanding of its decisions prior to the onset of rabid outrage. Over the past few days, even during this season of oral arguments with few major decisions issued, the Court made headlines on multiple fronts.
The first issue the Court considered this week was the lawsuit of Joseph Kennedy, a school teacher and football coach in Washington who was fired for praying during football games with willing members of his team. The justices decided not to take the case, effectively affirming a lower court’s ruling that supported the school district. The lower court ruled that that Kennedy had acted in an improperly religious manner in his role as a public official, breaching the impregnable “wall of separation” between church and state. Cases of “religious liberty” often arouse a furor among the public, most notably in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. This may have played a role in the Supreme Court’s decision to leave this case alone. Even so, the four more conservative justices wrote separately to clarify their potential future willingness to consider cases of this type, including in part, “The suggestion that even while off duty, a teacher or coach cannot engage in any outward manifestation of religious faith is remarkable.”
The Court’s silence on President Trump’s initiative to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was also deafening. Since federal district and appellate courts have issued injunctions to delay the end of DACA, the Trump administration has sought relief from the Supreme Court. The justices decided this week that they would not interfere with the injunctions rendered by lower courts, but would instead wait until litigation on the matter is complete and (likely) until political tensions have cooled. This means that the case will not come before the Supreme Court until October 2019 at the earliest (if at all), and a decision will likely not be handed down until 2020. In Trump v. Hawaii, which was decided in 2018 before Kennedy’s retirement, the Court affirmed the broad authority bestowed upon the president over immigration policy by Congress; whether this logic will be applied to removing protections given to certain undocumented immigrants remains to be seen.
Perhaps the most unexpected action taken by the Court in recent days is the decision to grant a hearing to the New York Rifle & Pistol Association in their challenge to New York City’s extensive gun restrictions. The law under challenges prevents residents of New York City from transporting a gun unless they are traveling to a shooting range within city limits, except with a special permit that is difficult to obtain. This means that gun owners cannot transport their weapons outside of the city, even to second homes or shooting competitions outside of city limits. The NYRPA asserts that this law is far too restrictive to be consistent with the Court’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held that individuals possess a Second Amendment right to self-defense. Since the bench now has a majority of conservative justices after the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh by President Trump, gun rights advocates hope for a favorable ruling in the first Second Amendment case in over a decade.
While the other cases were certainly noteworthy for Court-watchers, the order handed down regarding the administration’s restrictive policy on transgender servicemembers drew the most public attention. Without ruling on the merits of the case, the Court cleared the path for Trump’s policy to take effect while lower courts consider the legality of the plan, which may necessitate further review by the High Court in the future. Called a “transgender ban” by critics, the policy disallows a majority of transgender individuals from serving in the armed forces, with exceptions for people who have had gender reassignment surgery long before enlisting and those who do not require the procedure.
Especially leading up to the 2020 presidential election, decisions rendered by the High Court on hot-button issues will draw increasing levels of scrutiny and will make the institution’s future a matter of heated debate. This makes attention to detail extraordinarily more important in the age of clickbait and instant outrage, especially of the institution of the Supreme Court is to effectively continue its existence in perpetuity. None of the above were final rulings that will bind lower courts in the future, but what the Court chooses to say through what it chooses to talk about will set the stage for political and legal battles in the months ahead.
Stories You May Have Missed
With the United States joining international and regional allies in recognizing opposition leader and National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as the interim President of Venezuela, embattled strongman Nicolas Maduro ordered U.S. diplomats expelled within 72 hours. With the armed forces leadership pledging allegiance to Maduro—though the disposition of mid-level commander and the rank-and-file is unknown—there is the risk of an armed confrontation as the deadline for U.S. diplomats to leave approaches. Maduro allies have also threatened to cut power and water to the embassy. As the White House states that “all options are on the table” and the State Department begins to evacuate non-emergency staff and diplomats’ families, the situation raises most direct concerns about the security of a U.S. diplomatic post since the tragic events in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
Last fall, the war in Afghanistan turned 17 and the Afghan government, despite substantial assistance from the U.S. and NATO, controls less territory today than at any point since the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction began tracking the figure in 2015. However, signs from the ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar have recently showed glimmers of hope, most notably as the Taliban appears to have agreed to oppose salafi-jihadist groups and their attempts to use Afghan territory to stage attacks abroad. There are many issues that remain to be resolved, but ending the Taliban insurgency is essential to bringing peace and security to the country.
U.S. and Polish intelligence officials are investigating the extent to which a former Polish government and Chinese Huawei executive, both recently arrested for espionage, may have compromised Polish and NATO security. Some officials are also concerned that China shared the fruits of such intelligence gathering with Moscow, thus weakening NATO defense planning and the installation of missile defenses in Poland. At the same time, Polish officials are growing increasingly skeptical of Chinese investment, academic exchanges with China related to science and technology, and their reliance on Chinese telecom equipment — with Huawei having close to 50% of the market for telecommunications equipment in Poland.
A citizen of a European Union member state has the right to travel, live, and work in EU member countries, which can be a valuable proposition. Two EU members — Cyprus and Malta — have citizenship plans that allow foreign nationals to become citizens of their countries, with all the rights and privileges that apply, in exchange for hefty fees and direct investments in local businesses. 17 more members grant residency rights for “investors.” The EU is rightly concerned that these schemes are not just used by disaffected Democrats who are appalled by President Trump’s latest indignity, but that they are in fact used to facilitate tax evasion, money laundering, sanctions evasions, and other financial crimes. A new report published by the European Commission has asked member states to please stop this practice, or at least take affirmative steps to ensure that they are not allowing their countries to become sunny places for shady people.
Political leaders of the Central African Republic began talks with rebel groups about the future of the country this week. The conference, held at the behest and facilitation of the African Union, has the backing of the UN, which hopes that the talks will facilitate an end to violence in the CAR and will lead to a solution which preserves the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation. The Central African Republic is a notoriously war-torn state, and has been divided up by multiple local warlords into different sections at various times since 2004. The most recent civil war began in 2012 after the collapse of a peace agreement between the fragile government and rebel groups made in 2007. After multiple makeshift coups and rebel takeovers of the government, hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced and unknown numbers of civilians, rebels, and soldiers alike have been killed.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of CSPC.