Friday News Roundup — March 1, 2019: POTUS Walks Away from Hanoi Talks; India & Pakistan at the Brink; Netanyahu Indicted; Space Force Details; NC Judge Lambastes Gerrymandering; plus Stories You May Have Missed
Greetings from Washington, D.C., where meteorological winter may have ended, but nobody seems to have told the weather. There are slow news weeks, but this definitely was not one of them, so we have all hands on deck from the CSPC Policy Team. Earlier this week, two of our Trustees, Nicholas Burns and Thomas Pickering, were among the 58 bipartisan former senior officials who signed an open letter arguing that there is no credible national emergency at the southern border. In addition, many of our readers may have watched President Trump’s former personal lawyer and recently convicted liar Michael Cohen either spill the beans or try to cover his rear end—depending on your respective political outlook—in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, but stepping back from the political circus reveals an increasingly tense world.
This week, Dan analyzes President Trump’s decision that no deal with Kim Jong-un is better than a bad deal; CSPC Director of the Presidential Fellows Program and External Affairs Erica Ngoenha looks at two nuclear-armed states who have spent the last few days shooting at each other; Michael wonders what a pending indictment means for Binyamin Netanyahu’s future; Joshua covers the latest details on Space Force; Chris connects a recent court ruling in North Carolina to our ongoing national debate about partisan gerrymandering; and, as always, we wrap with some stories you may have missed.
US-DPRK Nuclear Talks Break Down
When President Trump walked away from negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, it reflected a fundamental realization that no deal is better than a bad deal. While the lead-up to the summit featured much fanfare, there remained the fundamental disconnect between Washington and Pyongyang’s visions for a nuclear deal. For the North Korean regime, the concept of total denuclearization is an alien one. Far too much of the regime’s identity and its own vision of regime survival is intertwined in its nuclear arsenal and the ability to target South Korea, Japan, and even the U.S. homeland. At the same time, while President Trump is willing to dial back exercises with the South Koreans — ostensibly due to perceptions of cost rather than an understanding of military readiness — the relaxation of international sanctions on North Korea in exchange for the dismantling of one nuclear facility is a non-starter.
Given the President Trump’s rhetoric about Chairman Kim and his skepticism of forward-deployment of U.S. forces, there was plenty of concern heading into the summit that the negotiations could trigger something that greatly reduced or eliminated the U.S. military presence in South Korea, which would have sent shockwaves through Seoul, Tokyo, and as far afield as the NATO capitals. Despite what the President said before the talks, he and his team deserve credit where credit is due. They were willing to walk away from the talks — no matter how much a potential deal had been hyped up — in order to avoid disproportionate concessions to the North Korean regime.
Where we go from here depends on whether talks between lower-level officials continue, and, if they do, there will need to be reflection on whether any future negotiations between U.S. and North Korean officials reach a point warranting a resumption of direct dialogue between President Trump and Chairman Kim. Right now, both sides are blaming each other, and with Chairman Kim having staked a position that any North Korean official may find career- and life-threatening to contradict, there will likely be little in the way of further concessions from the North Koreans.
While the risk of conflict has waned, and “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war,” there is little in concrete results from the U.S. perspective, while the North Korean regime has enjoyed seeing its brutal dictator enjoying the same stage in the global eye as the President of the United States. On the ground, the ramification is that the North Korean nuclear and missile programs will remain in place, while the United States has sacrificed its conventional preparedness on the Korean Peninsula. Economic pressure will remain in place, but it remains to be seen how long the Chinese, Russians, and even the South Korean administration of President Moon will continue to hold this line.
If talks are to resume, they will have to resume among lower-level officials. What they can achieve remains to be seen. In the North Korean regime, Chairman Kim has the final say on any major policy concession, while in the Trump administration, there will continue to be a firm belief in the President’s deal-making skills. Quoted in The Atlantic, Victor Cha points out that the leader-to-leader approach has now been proven to face the same obstacles as talks with lower-level officials. Simply getting the U.S. president and the reigning member of the Kim “dynasty” in the room together is insufficient for a resolution. Furthermore, at this point, with negotiations having already taken place at the Trump-Kim level, why would the North Koreans put any effort into meaningful negotiation at a “demoted” level.
With miles to go between the U.S. and North Korean negotiating positions, further talks might lay the framework for something that President Trump and Chairman Kim to agree upon in the future, but the fundamental interests of each side remain in direct contradiction. If there is to be any solution, patience and persistence, rather than pomp and pageantry, is required.
Pulling India & Pakistan Back from the Brink
As President Trump tried to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi this week, a separate crisis with nuclear implications was developing on the Indian subcontinent. Following an attack on February 14 by the Pakistani-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) that killed 40 members of India’s security forces in the contested state of Kashmir, tensions between India and Pakistan ratcheted up to levels not seen in decades. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised retribution for “every tear shed” and the Indian Air Force bombed alleged JEM training sites in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. This was the first breach of the Line of Control (the dividing line separating Indian and Pakistani controlled areas of Kashmir) by the Indian Air Force in nearly 50 years. Pakistan then shot down at least 1 Indian aircraft and captured the pilot. These events mark the most serious escalation of tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries since Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control in 1999.
Although both countries are nuclear powers, India has a massive advantage in conventional military capabilities. The Pakistani has long sought to use asymmetric warfare to make up for this deficiency. It sponsors terrorist groups like JEM that carry out small-scale attacks to upset the status quo. By using these groups, Pakistan can maintain some deniability and hold Indian forces in Kashmir at risk, while counting on the international community to prevent escalation to a general war that could go nuclear. It is highly unlikely that JEM carried out an attack of this scale without the knowledge or explicit approval of the Pakistani military, the most powerful institution in the country. Within Pakistan’s nominally democratic governing system, experts generally acknowledge that Prime Minister Imran Khan — a former cricket star turned politician — is beholden to the security establishment.
Across the border, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces complicating factors of his own. India is weeks away from a general election. Despite winning the last general election in 2014 by historic margins, Modi’s star power has diminished and his BJP party lost important state elections at the end of last year. As a leader who rose to power on a nationalist platform, Modi cannot afford to look weak as the country heads to the ballot box. Some observers fear that Modi will use the attacks to strengthen his position in a rally around the flag effect. India has typically been measured in its responses to Pakistan’s antagonism, but the elections complicate the situation.
Given these conditions, intervention by a third-party is required to prevent further escalation. The United States has often played the role of mediator in past disputes on the subcontinent. Though it has a complex and volatile history with Pakistan, the United States has succeeded in using various carrot and stick strategies to pressure the Pakistanis to de-escalate.
But, in the ebb and flow of U.S.-Pakistan relations, the two countries find themselves at a historic low point. Much like their predecessors, the Trump administration became quickly frustrated with Pakistan’s support of terrorist groups. Beyond serving as an irritant on the Kashmir front, many of the terrorist groups supported by Pakistan operate against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. For years, the U.S. has provided billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan in exchange for support in the war in Afghanistan only to find that Pakistan is directly supporting the Taliban. The convoluted situation has frustrated successive generations of U.S. policymakers who have all tried to cajole or threaten Pakistan into abandoning its support of extremist groups with limited success.
President Trump has been especially critical of Pakistan’s duplicitous behavior, and in 2018 his administration suspended $300 million of military aid, an important element of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. In light of Pakistan’s actions, these steps make sense, but they also weaken U.S. leverage in this crisis. As a result, some observers are looking to China to play a bigger role. As a major economic benefactor of Pakistan, China may have the kind of leverage that the U.S. currently does not, particularly as Pakistan faces an ongoing economic crisis. However, tensions between China and India make it unlikely that the Chinese can play the role of honest broker.
For now, the U.S. remains the best available external player to mediate an end to the crisis. A bigger question is whether the administration has developed the informal or back-channel relationships that have been instrumental in easing tensions in the past. Given President Trump’s unique operating style, it is imperative that U.S. envoys clearly have the support of the president when liaising with their counterparts. Secretary Pompeo would be the natural fit, but his experience in the region is limited, despite a recent visit to Pakistan. After a dustup with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and disagreements with the administration’s official North Korea strategy, National Security Advisor John Bolton does not seem well placed for shuttle diplomacy either. With the U.N. Ambassador role vacant and an Acting Secretary at the Defense Department there are limited options within the executive branch.
The administration should look outside its ranks for support. Senator Lindsey Graham is perhaps the best placed official in Washington to help mediate this crisis. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and chair of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, has been actively engaged on U.S. strategy in the war in Afghanistan and has thus been a frequent presence in the region. He traveled to Pakistan just a few weeks ago and upon meeting with Prime Minister Khan urged President Trump to do the same. Graham has long sought the role of senator turned statesmen meeting with some of America’s most problematic foes and allies alike, an effort that has taken on elevated meaning since the passing of his friend and colleague Senator John McCain.
Most importantly, Graham appears to have the ear of President Trump. Despite a rocky start in which the two regularly traded insults throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Graham has since successfully ingratiated himself with Trump recently boasting, “I have never been called this much by a president in my life. It’s weird, and it’s flattering, and it creates some opportunity…” In fact, Graham recently traveled to Turkey to meet with President Erdogan on U.S. policy in Syria following the Bolton controversy. The administration would be smart to deploy Graham here as well.
The next steps in this crisis are important. The Pakistanis have agreed to release the captured pilot, and even though the gesture is a positive sign of de-escalation it may not automatically lead to relaxed tensions. A big unknown is whether India will continue to demonstrate the restraint it has in the past. While rightly holding Pakistan accountable for its support of terrorist groups, the United States must also work to ensure that Modi does not let domestic politics drive decision-making on this crisis. Given the gaps in staffing in the Executive Branch, there are very few people in Washington who can do the tricky work of negotiating a crisis like this. Senator Graham is one of them and the administration should jump at the chance to use him in this role.
Netanyahu’s Legal Troubles Cloud His Political Future
Love him or hate him, it is hard to argue against the proposition that Binyamin Netanyahu is the most successful Israeli politician of his generation. After a 3-year stint in the Prime Minister’s office in the 1990s, he emerged in 2009 as the leader of the Likud Party, the head of a strengthened political right, and has won three consecutive elections. The next election is scheduled for April 9 and many in the Israeli establishment are beginning to plan for a post-Netanyahu future, but that future may be arriving sooner than expected after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced on Thursday his intention to pursue charges against the prime minister for bribery and fraud.
Netanyahu faces charges stemming from three separate cases, called Case 1000, Case 2000, and Case 4000. In Case 1000, Mandelblit will pursue charges of fraud and breach of the public trust stemming from the prime minister’s acceptance of gifts — roughly $200,000 worth of cigars, champagne, and other luxury goods — from Israelis who stood to benefit from a tax law proposal that would lower taxes on money earned abroad. In Case 2000, Netanyahu is alleged to have offered to try to limit the free circulation of a newspaper (Israel Hayom) for the benefit of another newspaper’s (Yedioth Ahronoth) owner in exchange for less negative coverage. In Case 4000, the only one in which Netanyahu is charged with the more serious crime of bribery, he is accused of offering “regulatory favors” to a telecom company in exchange for positive coverage on its news site. In response to these allegations, Netanyahu has said that gifts from friends are not criminal; his recorded conversations with the owner of Yedioth Ahronoth were just two machers “toying with each other,” rather than conspiring; and that he did everything by the book in Case 4000 and never got friendlier coverage from the news site anyway.
These cases have already been in the public eye and under investigation for three years, so there is little in the factual record that has changed, except for the judgement of the attorney general — who was a long-time Netanyahu ally — that the charges presented by the police and public prosecutor appear to merit indictment. Netanyahu will have the opportunity to present his side of the case to Attorney General Mandelblit before a formal indictment is presented, but, considering the high political stakes and extremely detailed charging document, it seems unlikely that Mandelblit will be dissuaded. Even if the case proceeds, however, a final indictment that could trigger Netanyahu’s removal would still be months away, meaning that, in the interim, his troubles are primarily of a political nature.
Last fall, Israel’s political leaders began to jockey to succeed Netanyahu in expectation that these charges could eventually bring him down. This prompted Netanyahu to call for early elections in hopes that he could stabilize his coalition at the ballot box before any legal troubles caught up with him. That clearly did not happen, but it was not the only problem for Netanyahu’s reelection chances: another was the emergence of former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. (ret.) Benny Gantz as his most potent challenger. Gantz, who was already polling neck-in-neck with Netanyahu on perception of “suitability to be prime minister,” announced a merger of the party he was launching with Yesh Atid, a centrist party led by Yair Lapid that is currently holds 11 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
A poll released by The Times of Israel Thursday morning before the announcement asked respondents their voting intentions in the absence of an indictment and if the attorney general pursued charges. Without charges, Likud and their likely coalition partners were expected to get 61 seats, a one-vote majority, with Blue and White leading the opposition with 36 seats. With charges, Blue and White is projected to win 44 seats and a fairly easy path to a coalition. According to a poll in Ha’aretz, however, majorities of the right-wing parties’ supporters do not believe the charges against Netanyahu and think that they reflect an attempt by the media and the legal establishment to undermine him.
Last night, after the indictments were announced, most of Netanyahu’s coalition partners suggested that they still backed him and expected to serve in a coalition he leads after the next election. Netanyahu himself was stridently defiant, calling the investigation a “witch hunt” by bureaucrats and members of the political left who know they cannot defeat him electorally or match his accomplishments. He also referred to his successful relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and support from American legal commentator Alan Dershowitz. If you only read this paragraph, you might think I was talking about President Trump, but I’m not; Netanyahu said all of these things yesterday. Gantz struck a more conciliatory tone, thanking the prime minister for his service, but arguing that it would harm the country to have a prime minister under criminal indictment.
There is still a month left before Israelis go to the polls to elect a new government. If this story fades from the news, Netanyahu could find renewed strength and continue to govern and using the bully pulpit to advance his criminal defense. If more polling shows that he is becoming an albatross for Likud and the political right, he might resign — possibly as part of an agreement with prosecutors. If he stays in office through July, Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion as the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history. This is surely an impressive achievement even if it is becoming clear that the next generation of Israeli political leaders is chomping at the bit to move him out. We will see over the next six weeks when and how that transition might take place.
Reading the Space Force Tea Leaves
The development of the Space Force took another step forward this week with the Air Force’s submission of the legislative proposal to Congress. While the full details of the proposal are — as of this writing — unknown, some information has leaked out: be warned, it’s not a lot.
First the cost: Defense One is reporting the Air Force’s proposal puts the price tag for the Space Force in 2020 at $72 million, but the new service is expected to cost $2 billion over five years. On personnel, their reporting also indicates the Space Force will get two four-star generals, one of who will serve as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the other who will serve as a vice chief.
What the full Space Force looks like, what personnel it absorbs from the other services, how its command structure looks, how it interacts with the missile defense establishment, what its full budget looks like and more have yet to be either answered or publicly released.
Defense One also reported that at the direction of Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Heather Wilson established a “U.S. Space Force Planning Task Force” a little over a week ago. It appears, based on the reporting, that this Task Force will be responsible for delivering a work plan for the establishment through full operational capability. The Task Force is also tasked with delivering a plan for the “initial Space Force Staff” by the 1st of October.
What about the Space Development Agency (SDA)? In Florida this week, the Secretary of the Air Force made her concerns abundantly clear: “I have some concerns about what is the mission of this entity (the Space Development Agency). Why do we think it would be better than what we currently do, and what exactly would it be focused on?” At this stage it is very unclear what the SDA will do and how it will interact with existing organizations such as the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and the National Reconnaissance Officer (NRO), the two principal space acquisition entities.
Nominally the organization will live under Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin and be headed by Dr. Fred Kennedy, the current head of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO). Dr. Kennedy is responsible for the Blackjack satellite program as well as the Launch Challenge, both of which aim to “go faster” in space acquisition. A plan for standing up the SDA is due in March, but a lot is at least publicly unclear.
It is too early to read the tea leaves on how Congress will respond to the Space Force proposal, especially as the full proposal is not yet publicly available. Much will depend on the forthcoming defense budget and how the nuts and bolts of implementation actually appear. This applies equally to SDA.
Gerrymandering Draws Judicial Indignation
The issue of excessively political redistricting has moved to the forefront of national discourse in recent years, where “gerrymandering” is often lamented as a crisis of American democracy. This week was no exception, as North Carolina’s state legislative districts were targeted by the state’s judiciary for their notoriously unfair nature. Although courts in the past have ruled legislative maps unconstitutional, such as Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in 2018, they usually directly challenge the map, ordering that a fairer map be drawn by the legislature (or draw one themselves, in Pennsylvania’s case). In North Carolina, however, a state judge took a different approach in his criticism of the state legislature’s practices, essentially declaring it illegitimate.
In 2018, North Carolina amended its state constitution to include two new provisions, having to do with voter ID requirements and an income tax cap. These measures were first passed by the state legislature and then were assented to by the state’s populace through direct referendum. On February 27th, Wake County Superior Court Judge G. Bryan Collins ruled both amendments void because they were enacted unconstitutionally. Essentially, Judge Collins argues that a legislature elected using an illegally gerrymandered map (as North Carolina’s 2018 legislature was) has no mandate and may not modify the state’s constitution. Even critics of the Republican-dominated legislature were shocked by Collins’ ruling, and Republicans across the state have denounced the ruling as a usurpation of legislative power by a runaway judiciary.
In a larger sense, the situation in North Carolina is further evidence that gerrymandering is an increasingly critical issue across the nation. In 2018 alone, four cases regarding partisan redistricting came before the U.S. Supreme Court, from Maryland, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and even North Carolina. All four cases resulted in no substantive ruling from the Court, which concluded that the plaintiffs had not adequately shown that they were injured by the gerrymandering. This term, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear yet another case charging that North Carolina’s legislative maps have been the subject of political gerrymandering, with petitioners hoping for a decisive ruling to pose a challenge to gerrymandered districts nationwide.
Although legal challenges can often be a useful tool in challenging policies that are unfair on their face, courts are not a panacea. As evinced by the Supreme Court’s hesitancy to disavow gerrymandering outright, Judge Collins’ ruling in North Carolina is unlikely to survive the rigor of appeal. Political issues such as this are often third rails for the federal judiciary, and federal courts hesitate to become entangled in legislative prerogatives like redistricting.
With this in mind, we turn to the practice of gerrymandering itself. In the political climate of 2019, polarization has taken hold to the point of immobilizing government at all levels. Districts are drawn largely by majorities in state legislatures and assented to by partisan governors. This allows legislators to essentially choose their own voters, often drawing legislative districts to minimize the influence of their political opponents. Therefore, legislators become entrenched in districts that contain disproportionate numbers of members of the same party, where their only concern is a primary challenge from one of the political poles. Legislators are therefore incentivized to toe a more extremist line to stave off such challenges and appeal to the most politically active electorate in a one-sided district. Under this system, a vicious cycle of extremism produces an almost comically polarized slate of legislators.
Gerrymandering also raises the stakes of elections for political parties and their constituent officials, which creates problems in its own right. When each political party sees each election as a make or break moment for the foreseeable future, with the the possibility of legislative districts being drawn so unfairly that their party is shut out of the governing process, they may become desperate. Desperation in this vein pushes political parties, once in power, to violate norms of governance to shore up their grip on power. Examples of this are evident in both North Carolina and Wisconsin, where Republican-controlled legislatures sought to weaken the office of the governor in their respective states simple because a Democratic governor was set to take office. A similar move was proposed by Democrats in New Jersey but was opposed by good governance groups.
Solutions to such a complex issue are certainly not easily achievable. They are nonetheless extremely critical, and many voters across the nation are beginning to realize this condition as a matter of political necessity. While judicial action can be helpful in moving toward amelioration, it is ultimately in the purview of voters to demand change and protect political rights. Citizens in six states have implemented independent, nonpartisan redistricting commissions, eschewing the need for unreliable judicial intervention. This change is within reach for many in America, and working toward it is a method by which voters may take their political future into their own hands.
Stories You May Have Missed
Attempting to distinguish herself from an increasingly crowded Democratic field, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has announced that, while campaigning for the presidency she will neither engage in lengthy phone calls with wealthy donors nor host fundraising dinners in which prime seating can typically go for thousands of dollars. The progressive populist’s proposal signals a desire to lean in to the grassroots energy of small campaign donations that buoyed many campaigns during the 2016 midterms. Recently, however, Warren proposed a 2% “wealth tax” on household wealth in excess of $50 million, so it is not clear how many deep pockets were lining up for her fundraisers at this stage.
Second Russian Spy Arrested in Western Country in Two Weeks
On Tuesday evening, Swedish authorities arrested an unnamed individual in central Stockholm on the suspicion of being a Russian agent. The Swedish Security Service is conducting a criminal investigation into the matter and claim that the individual had been passing information to Russia since 2017, working in a high technology sector “on tasks known by [the Swedish Security Service] to be the type of intelligence sought after by foreign powers.” This development comes two weeks after a Belgian official, who was the head of division at the General Intelligence and Security Service, was accused of exchanging confidential information with a potential Russian agent. Alarmed by the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2017, Sweden has recently brought back military conscription and has staged joint military exercises with NATO, which it is not a member of but has recently flirted with joining.
Data published recently by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in conjunction with the Bank of England uses contemporary data to shine a light on a dark moment of the past. The data show a sharp increase in average weekly wages for British workers in 1348. Those familiar with English history will notice the significance of that date as the beginning of the Black Death. This validation of introductory level macroeconomics has long been posited but been difficult to prove. As we contemplate our own ages shocks to capital, labor, and land resulting from an aging population and warming planet, we should think hard about how all of these effects feed into one another and affect all of our well-being.
Parks are becoming more crowded and policing modalities have changed, but the bottom line is that New Yorkers called in many fewer complaints of lewd acts in public spaces. The New York Times wonders which has changed more, the police or the people, but concludes that it is “probably driven by fewer overall occurrences.”
In the January 11 CSPC roundup, we noted the story of Tony Foulds and the vigil that he has maintained over a memorial for ten American airmen who died in World War II when they crashed their damaged bomber instead of making an emergency landing on a field where a young Mr. Foulds, then age eight, and his friends were playing. When the story of these airmen and Mr. Foulds’s dedication to the memorial came to public attention, there was a push to fulfill his wish for a flypast to honor the memory of the those airmen’s sacrifice. On February 22nd, the 75th anniversary of the crash of the bomber, Mr. Foulds was present as aircraft from the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force flew over the Yorkshire park in honor of the airmen.