Friday News Roundup — March 5, 2021

Earmarks “Return”; National Security Strategy Update; Strike on Syria and AUMFs; Iraq’s Needs & the Papal Visit

Happy Friday from Washington, DC. The weather has warmed up enough to allow for comfortable outdoor dining (for lunch at least) and it is starting to look like the supply bottlenecks for the Covid vaccines are starting to ease. March is always the end of meteorological winter, but there is some hope that it might be the end of our winter of discontent as well.

In the nation’s capital this week, all eyes were on the movement towards passage of the $1.9 trillion Covid-relief package. The House of Representatives passed the bill on Saturday and the Senate is moving towards passage this weekend after Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tiebreaking vote on a motion to proceed yesterday. Before the vote, however, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) has successfully moved for a reading of the entire bill, all 600 pages of it, so someone in the Senate clerk’s office had better be resting his/her windpipes.

This week, we hosted Margaret Coker, former New York Times Baghdad bureau chief for a conversation about her new book The Spymaster of Baghdad: A True Story of Bravery, Family, and Patriotism in the Battle Against ISIS. Next week, we will have a conversation with Eliot Higgins, founder of the open source intelligence network Bellingcat, to talk about his new book We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of the News on Wednesday, March 10. You can sign up for the Zoom for that event here. If you want to learn more about the book, you can also read Joshua’s review of the book in Diplomatic Courier.

Also this week, CSPC David M. Abshire Chair Mike Rogers published an op-ed in The Hill about the unique threat posed by the way China has worked for decades to infiltrate American institutions. Joshua also published a piece in The Hill offering some guidance for the Biden administration as it develops its approach to Russia.

Along with our partners at Issue One and the Fix the System Coalition, CSPC also published an open letter last Friday calling on Congress to establish an nonpartisan, independent commission to investigate the events of January 6 and produce recommendations to address the growing tide of resentment and extremism in the country.

This week in the Roundup, Dan explores how the return of earmarks member-directed spending will help Congress regain institutional power and increase transparency — despite what you may have heard. Michael analyzes the new Interim National Security Strategic Guidance to understand how the Biden administration wants to engage with the world. Ethan calls on Congress to reassert its war powers authorities. We have a special guest this week, CSPC Presidential Fellows alumna Mariam Hassoun offers a look at how Pope Francis can use his visit to Iraq to promote the good governance the country sorely needs. As always, we end with some news you might have missed.

The “Return” of Earmarking

Dan Mahaffee

House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) at a hearing on March 4, 2020 (Photo Credit: Tom Williams, CQ Roll Call)

Last Friday, the long-rumored “return” of earmarks became official, with House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) announcing “Community Project Funding” and the rules for such funding requests. Certainly, for those who have looked at Congressional spending and the institutional prerogatives of the Legislative Branch, this is a welcome development. “Member directed spending” never truly went away, hence the “return” of earmarks, but this is an opportunity for Congress to further restore its spending authorities, increase transparency, and potentially bring back a tool for sorely needed legislative deal-making.

It is worth addressing some of the misconceptions about earmarks, especially as they became associated with some of the more egregious scandals in recent Congressional history. Cases involving personal enrichment, kickbacks, and other scandals — particularly those with former Speaker Dennis Hastert and freshly pardoned former Rep. Duke Cunningham — were used by critics to paint a Congress run amok. At the same time, fiscal hawks sought to tackle “pork barrel spending.” However, when CSPC analyzed the Citizens Against Government Waste “Pig Books” for FYs 2000–2011, the spending they identified as “pork earmarks” never amounted to more than 1.1% of the Federal budget for the fiscal year. Claiming fiscal rectitude by banning these earmarks was like the town drunk boasting they are no longer drinking the beer foam.

Also, once earmarks were banned, the good folks at Citizens Against Government Waste still found billions in dollars in wasteful “earmarks” in subsequent years — thus proving that wasteful spending continued with less public attention, and, in the eyes of critics, earmarking never went away.

To address some of the concerns about scandals and transparency, the guidelines released by Chairwoman DeLauro lay out rules banning earmarks where the recipient is a for-profit entity or where the Member of Congress could financially benefit. At the same time, online posting requirements and cap on 10 requests per member address concerns about offices becoming “earmark mills.” Ideally, these measures, plus Congressional ethics measures, will address corruption concerns — and the voters will still have their say.

Beyond the logistics of the earmarks themselves and the scandal and spending perceptions, it is worth noting that Congress is restoring one prerogative that it had ceded to the executive. Even when earmarks disappeared from Congressional negotiations, the spending decisions in turn moved to federal agencies. Back in 2010, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) called out his fellow Republicans for ceding Congressional powers to the Obama administration. Restoring Congress’s power of the purse is a major step to restoring both Congressional prerogative and proximity to the spending of taxpayer funds.

Finally, while no measure is a panacea for the tribal divisions of our current politics, we should remember how earmarks have served as tools for Congressional leadership to maintain caucus discipline and for legislative horse trading amongst members. The Modernization of Congress Committee noted this, and some of the constitutional factors, when they first outlined a return to member directed community spending. While it remains to be seen how the spending requests may become favors to be traded amongst legislators, the proposed process appears to address concerns from the old system, where senior leaders would jealously guard earmarked requests.

By moving towards this process for Community Project Funding, Congress is restoring its authority and hopefully moving towards a model that can help it function better while also helping steer resources to American communities.

White House Releases First Draft of National Security Strategy

Michael Stecher

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary of State Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, February 10, 2021 (Photo Credit: Adam Schultz, Official White House Photo)

Every new presidential administration comes to office looking to change the world and makes bold, sweeping statements about how they will bend the forces of history to their will. It rarely works out exactly that way, but the process of creating the documentary framework forces a new administration to rank-order its priorities and those priorities filter down into the bureaucracies to tell appointees and staffers what areas they should focus on and allocate additional resources to.

This framework begins with a whole-of-government statement called the “National Security Strategy of the United States” (NSS), which in turn informs the “National Defense Strategy of the United States” and “National Military Strategy of the United States”. The NSS was mandated as an annual report to Congress by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, but, beginning in the George W. Bush administration, White Houses have generally declined to comply and turned it into a higher-level statement that is only published once per term.

On Wednesday, the White House released what they are calling the “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.” This is not the NSS, which usually takes many months to socialize within the Executive Branch, but it serves the same function. The Biden administration was able to produce this document so quickly because the president’s top foreign policy advisors came to office as a remarkably cohesive group with a unified vision for a new grand strategy, which President Biden apparently shares. This vision includes a new ordering of the threats facing the United States, new organizing principles of the country’s policy, and an eye towards new and emerging opportunities.

The Interim Guidance clearly shows the influence of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. In a speech in January, Sullivan made it clear that the Biden administration understands that “foreign policy is domestic policy and domestic policy is foreign policy,” which echoes through a national security document that talks about racial justice, voting rights, and fighting income inequality. Sullivan was Biden’s National Security Advisor during the Obama administration and, in the intervening years became a central node of a group of foreign policy thinkers who collaborated in think tanks, books, and journals to develop the ideas that are in this strategy.

That group includes Kurt Campbell, the Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs at the National Security Council, and with whom Sullivan wrote a long essay in Foreign Affairs. It also includes NSC China Director Rush Doshi and Technology Director Tarun Chhabra; Laura Rosenberger, an expert on technology and disinformation who is now a Senior Director on NSC; and Peter Harrell, the Senior Director for International Economics and Competitiveness. Along with other NSC staffers and experts in the State, Defense, and Treasury Departments, this group spent the last four years developing a coherent, intellectual framework to contrast with the Trump administration’s “America First” vision.

This vision is unsurprisingly an evolution of the doctrine espoused by the Obama administration, which frequently talked about the importance of preserving the “liberal international order”. There is an implicit criticism of this construction in the Interim Guidance. Preserving the liberal international order meant focusing on a set of institutions like the United Nations or International Monetary Fund that were built in the aftermath of the Second World War. “We cannot pretend,” the interim guidance says in contrast, “the world can be restored to the way it was 75, 30, or even four years ago.”

In place of this construction is a focus on a “stable and open” international system. In this vision, the United States is not just another global power, but is actually committed to a series of positive-sum outcomes for all nations. The United States wants to address climate change, encourage global trade, promote a series of rules that bind powerful nations to protect weak ones, and support democratic liberalism — though the word “liberal” does not appear in the text — around the world. The United States has a series of allies around the world who share that view, and so U.S. strategy will be to marshall the combined might of that network to expand the open order and protect it from authoritarian, mercantilist, and mercantilist threats.

The major innovation introduced by the Trump administration’s 2017 NSS was identifying that “great power competition” had returned. While it was always clear in Trump administration conduct that they understood them differently, the 2017 NSS conflated the threats posed by Russia and China, since both are interested in undermining the U.S.-led order. The Interim Guidance has dropped the term “great power competition”, but it is informed by the idea. The major difference is that it distinguishes the threat posed by China, which has the capabilities and intent to build an alternative world order, from Russia, which is trying to build its influence and “play a disruptive role” in global affairs.

The Interim Guidance talks about the role of advanced and emerging technology. This is not new; the Trump NSS did as well. The key difference is that the Interim Guidance slots advanced technology into the open world framework. According to this, the Biden administration will conduct an industrial policy domestically and work with allies and partners to set standards for things like 5G and norms for cyberspace in line with democratic and liberal values. This is clearly in-line with the statement by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during his confirmation hearing that one of the major fault lines in the world is between “techno-democracies” and “techno-autocracies”. As we lay out in our Geotech work, this is an extremely important task for the U.S. government in the years ahead, since either the fracturing of the global technology space into U.S.-led and Chinese-led spaces or, worse, a largely unfree economic and technological world would be a bad outcome for humanity.

In the coming days and weeks, policy wonks will flip through these pages and compare them to the Trump NSS looking for their area of focus. Building a closer relationship with India receives special mention, for example, in nearly identical language to the previous. In light of the focus on democracy in the Interim Guidance, Thailand and the Philippines are not mentioned, despite being U.S. treaty allies and specific call-outs in 2017, nor are Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Much less surprisingly, climate change and LGTBQI rights appear in the Interim Guidance, but not in the 2017 NSS. There are a thousand tea leaves to read and more will come when the final National Security Strategy and supporting documents are published over the next 12–18 months, but the real hard choices are still to come in the conduct of foreign policy, rather than merely the statements about what the new administration would like to see.

The AUMF and Presidential War Powers

Ethan Brown

Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, June 18, 2020 (Photo Credit: Caroline Brehman-Pool, Getty Images)

President Biden became the seventh consecutive American leader to order offensive strikes in the Middle East last week, when he approved airstrikes in eastern Syria against reported Iranian-back Shia militias Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. Those strikes destroyed facilities at a border checkpoint “in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq, and ongoing threats to those personnel’’, per John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson.

This incident has (rightfully) sparked some congressional backlash against the President, notably from Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) among others in hardline opposition to the standing Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001 (AUMF). This document, crafted in the tumultuous days following the September 11th attacks, is a law that grants the president broad, sweeping powers “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided terrorist attacks that occured on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons; in order to prevent any future attacks of international terrorism against the United States”. In 2002, the Congress passed a separate AUMF, to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq. In 2016, the office of the President issued a brief expanding the provisions of the AUMF to include authorized use of force against the Islamic State, while the Trump Administration doubled-down on interpretive

The function of the AUMF was designed to specifically tie the warfighting capabilities of the United States to the pursuit of violent extremist forces responsible for those attacks nearly two decades ago. It was specifically crafted to avoid a congressional declaration of a broad and unlimited “war on terror”, although that label has certainly cemented itself into the history books. Where these recent Biden authorizations fail the acid test echo the same scrutinization when former President Trump authorized the airstrikes a year ago that dispatched General Qasim Souleimani to the beyond: what legal authority grants the president powers to engage in lethal activities targeting Iran in the absence of direct attacks by the same?

It is critical to clarify some details about offensive versus defensive engagements in war and counter-insurgency operations. The Law of Armed Conflict — the highest interpretation of warfighting conduct to which the Department of Defense must adhere — states that every individual goes into combat with the inherent right to self defense; while offensive engagements are subject to exactly criteria and review, while authorities for such engagements are withheld at the highest reasonable levels for approval (and only delegated by clear, published and well-understood guidance). Both types of engagements are subject to the four key principles of Distinction [respect for and protection of civilian population], Proportionality [loss of life and damage to property incidental attacks must not be excessive in relation to the military advantage gained], Military Necessity [injury done to the enemy is excusable only so far as it is absolutely necessary, everything beyond is criminal], and preventing Unnecessary Suffering [weapons designed to cause superfluous injury or suffering is expressly forbidden].

Back in my day, when I was a cool-guy special operations JTAC conducting combat operations against declared hostile forces, if my ground force commander wanted me to control an airstrike on target, we had to meet very specific criteria for such an engagement. Of course, if our team/partner forces were being directly engaged, we had authority as the on-scene commanders to use the proportional amount of lethal force to defeat the threat and protect friendly forces and civilians. Yet if we wanted to engage in an offensive strike, we had to meet conditions of certainty based on positive identification, multiple sources of intelligence, timeliness, imminence, and tactical benefit, while weighing the potential secondary effects of the environment with unwavering concern for the civilian impact. Further, the authority was never ours, it had to be requested from much higher echelons of command. And our ducks had to be in a row from the jump to even be considered by higher headquarters.

Military Necessity is the question on the engagements in eastern Syria. Again, these recent strikes beg the same questions of the Soleimani strike: while the nature of the individuals targeted is subject to classified information not available for public consumption, if those targets were affiliated with Iran, what authority can the President call upon to employ lethal force when the conditions for immediate self-defense are not met? President Trump attempted to establish connections between the al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran, to say nothing of his administration’s efforts to classify the Qods Republican Guard as a terror organization (who is not yet designated in any AUMF), but formal declarations with congressional commission are nowhere to be found for public, constituent consumption and review.

Critically, as lawmakers like Senators Kaine (who sits on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees) and Murphy (Foreign Relations Committee) are most interested in, is why was congress not notified prior to the actions taken by the President’s team? As Senator Kaine stated, “offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances…congress must be briefed expeditiously”; while Senator Murphy appropriately summarized “retaliatory strikes, not necessary to prevent an imminent threat, must fall within existing congressional authorization for military force”. The fact that the strikes took place in Syria, where the United States lacks any authorization for current military action, further confounds the legitimacy of these attacks.

Our work here at the Center is decidedly fixed on the new arenas of national security interests: great powers, the space domain, disinformation and geotech, to name a few. Those paradigms compound in complexity on a daily basis, hourly even, while this vague war on terror goes on largely unchecked by congressional authorization and regular review. Modifications, and even repeal, have been bandied about in congress since the 2001 AUMF inception, but the few times that a change proposal reached the senate floor, the sixty necessary votes couldn’t be found.

There needs to be an accounting of these presidential war powers that have gone unchecked for two decades now, and if not because of those new threats to U.S. national security interest, than for the simple necessity of honoring the procedure of congressional process that distinguishes our democracy from a military state.

The White House released its interim National Security Strategy earlier this week, wherein the expressions of “de-escalation”, “diplomacy”, and “deter Iranian aggression” are ascribed to the issue of Middle East security and U.S. interests. So these past two weeks offer a strange and stirring dichotomy for the early Biden presidency: does this interim guidance serve as the primer for policies that will perpetuate the forever wars of vague and stretched authorities, or will it set the table for a genuine review and revision to the powers of warmaking and offensive engagement authority?

Iraq Needs Basic Services, not Just Thoughts and Prayers

Mariam Hassoun

Iraqis Prepare for Pope Francis’s Visit (Photo Credit: Ahmad al-Rubaye, AFP)

Pope Francis will travel to Iraq this week to show support for Iraqi Christians and establish dialogue with Ayatollah al-Sistani, an influential Shia cleric. The Pope’s visit is being framed as an opportunity for healing for a country ravaged by civil war, but it is important for us to consider what national healing would actually entail. There is a great deal of positive energy surrounding the first-ever Papal visit to Iraq and in order to fully take advantage of the historic moment, policymakers in the Vatican, Baghdad, and Washington need to think beyond symbolic importance.

Although many present the narrative that ethno-sectarian divides in Iraq are reflective of centuries-old conflicts between Sunnis and Shias, and Arabs and Kurds, it is important to understand that violence in its current form, especially anti-Christian violence, is a recent historical development and a result of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority’s (CPA) post-invasion reconstruction policies.

The US-led invasion in 2003 was the impetus for increased religious extremism that eroded Iraqi unity. Prior to the 2003 invasion, there were no reported suicide attacks in Iraq. Since the U.S. invasion, increased violence targeting minority groups, the Christian population, predominantly members of the Assyrian Christian community that has been in the region since the time of the Persian empire, has decreased by 83%. Violence in the region, worsened by the presence of powerful militia groups funded by foreign actors such as Iran, has led to more violence. Traditional settlement patterns in Baghdad indicate that Sunni and Shia Iraqis lived peacefully in mixed communities before 2006, when the watershed terrorist attack in Samarra catalyzed widespread forced migration at the hands of militia groups.

A better understanding of the conflict’s roots allows us to propose more effective solutions for religious violence in the country. These solutions do not lie in Western-constructed power sharing mechanisms that cement sectarian divides and exclude minority groups, but rather in better governance and social services for all Iraqis. Notions of an inherently divided Iraq are deep-rooted in our narratives: President Joe Biden published an opinion piece in the New York Times in 2006 advocating for the division of Iraq in three autonomous regions: Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish, which would have created a system that would have completely overlooked Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, and other minority groups.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the United States disbanded the Iraqi army and carried out a policy called de-Baathification, in which anyone with ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath party was excluded from political participation. Many of the architects of ISIS’s assault on Iraq were Sunni former Baathists that were marginalized in the post-2003 political order. Political frustration surrounding the stagnant post-conflict situation in ISIS-occupied parts of the country remains a concern. The lack of progress on reconstruction in areas destroyed by ISIS points to a troubling return to the conditions that allowed their rise to power and led to the recent genocide of Yazidis and Christians in Iraq.

The current, youth-led, cross-sectarian protest movement sheds light on a potential future unshackled from the sectarian forces otherwise destined to tear the country apart. People under 25 represent 60% of the Iraqi population and youth unemployment is at 36%, double the national rate. The youth protesters demand basic services such as water and electricity, political reform, and anti-corruption measures, and criticize foreign influence — whether Western, Iranian, or other — in Iraq. The Iraqi government has routinely and brutally suppressed the protest movement, which began in October 2019, killing over 600 demonstrators. The Pope plans to travel to the Plain of Ur in Nasiriyah, where just last week Iraqi security forces killed 5 protesters. I hope that Pope Francis uses his platform to call attention to the advocacy of Iraqi youth of all faiths and, in doing so, sends a strong message to the Iraqi government regarding the need for good governance.

The solutions to Iraq’s problems do not lie in symbolic treaties of religious tolerance or a well-photographed prayer between influential men, but in addressing the grievances that allowed extremist groups like ISIS and militias to fill the power vacuum the United States created. It is undoubtedly true that religion is a powerful force for Iraqis with good and evil applications. The papal visit is an opportunity to embrace the peaceful elements of religion that advocate for love and inclusion through divinely granted human rights and delegitimize the ways that religious extremists exploit group vulnerabilities to establish regimes of fear. Taking tangible steps to respond to the demands of Iraqis to live with peace and dignity could halt the cycle of disenfranchisement that leads to violence and extremism.

Mariam Hassoun is the founder of Baraka English School in Baghdad and a Masters student at the University of Oxford researching displaced children’s access to education in Iraq. She graduated from Emory University in 2020 with degrees in political science and interdisciplinary studies. You can find her on Twitter @mariamhassoun_

News You May Have Missed

German Extremist Party Placed Under Government Surveillance

Sarah Naiman

This week, the German government put its primary opposition party, the extremist Alternative for Germany (AfD), under surveillance in response to an assessment finding that the party’s stances and policies violate critical components of the German Constitution. This decision marks the first time Germany has surveilled a main opposition party since WWII, but the move was not unjustified. AfD, “the first far-right party to make it into Germany’s federal parliament since World War II, has become the most serious test for Germany’s postwar institutions yet.” The party promotes nativist stances and has been criticized for encouraging violence against immigrants as well as for its ties to neo-Nazi groups. This significant move by the government was not without warning; last year, key AfD leaders were placed under surveillance for their radical rhetoric, which is now supported by nearly 50% of the party. Of course, in a country traumatized by Gestapo and Stasi surveillance, this decision was not uncontroversial; AfD leaders called the election-year move “purely political.” However, during a time when far-right parties and policies are becoming increasingly influential across the world — just over six months ago, in a disturbing foreshadowing of the U.S. Capitol insurrection, AfD members attempted to storm the Reichstag — it seems that this practical decision may be the only way to keep extremist forces at bay and protect liberal democratic principles.

Iran Used Commercial Satellite Images to Monitor American Forces Before Attack

Miles Esters

Before its missile attack on Ain al-Asad Air Base in Iraq on January 7, 2020, Iran used commercial satellite images to monitor U.S. forces at the base. According to CBS, U.S. Central Command was aware of this and prepared accordingly and Gen. Frank McKenzie “waited until Iran had purchased its last satellite image of the day before evacuating the base, ensuring that Iran was acting on out-of-date images.” If these measures were not taken, the general claimed that numerous aircraft would have been destroyed and U.S. service members would have been killed. It is unknown which provider the Iranian purchased imaging from. However, with the rapid commercialization of space companies like Maxar and Planet Labs have become central in the growing commercial satellite market for government clients, not just the Iranians. The Department of Defense and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency purchase commercial satellite imagery for a variety of reasons from intelligence purposes to real-time analytics. These companies provide low-cost alternatives to hundred-million dollar satellite projects, but can also provide clients a way to closely monitor the U.S. military forces without having any real presence in space.

Impending Arrival of Fresh Plague Evidence that 2020 Continues

2021 is the breeding year for the periodical cicada group known as “Brood X”. Brood X (like the Roman numeral, not like they are mutants or the reult of some terrifying government experiment) covers an area roughly parallelogram in shape with Washington, DC in the bottom-right corner; extending to around Hardy County, WV in the bottom-left; Altoona, PA in the top-left; and the Philadelphia suburbs in the top-right. At some point in May, billions of these large, loud, flying bugs will emerge from the ground, blot out the sun, eat, mate, lay eggs in trees, and die. If you are new to this area, it is hard to express how weird these things look, sound, and are. Unlike an actual plague of locusts, however, they do not pose much threat to crops, and are mostly just a nuisance. The Washington Post points out that they are edible, but that preparing them is easier shortly after they emerge, before their exoskeletons harden. On the other hand, Dan has plenty of warnings about canine overindulgence and stomach upset, as four-legged friends also enjoy feasting on the brood.

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



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