Friday News Roundup — November 13, 2020
National Security Personnel Changes; the Tenure of Secretary Esper; Ceasefire in the Caucasus
Happy Friday from Washington, DC. This is our first Roundup since Joe Biden was determined to be the president-elect. We congratulate President-elect Biden, Vice President-elect Harris and their team on their successful campaign. This cycle revealed a nation divided — at least at the top of the ticket — and the continued drift towards most elections being fought over national rather than local issues. At the margins, however, candidates were able to outperform their fundamentals through their own political skills. In Down-East Maine, Susan Collins was able to run ahead of both President Trump and the Republican nominee for the House of Representatives, so she is going back to Washington and they are not.
Not every politician with a local brand was able to defy political gravity: in Montana, Governor Steve Bullock ran 5 percentage points ahead of President-elect Biden in his race against Senator Steve Daines, but that was not enough to make that seat really competitive. Control of Congress and the White House are won at the margins, however, and we saw this year that the small number of ticket-splitters in this country still make a huge difference.
The sheer numbers and effort involved in this year’s election are also inspiring. Thanks to the hard work of election workers and officials, during heightened political tensions and a pandemic, in the words of former President George W. Bush, “The American People can have confidence that the election was fundamentally fair, its integrity will be upheld, and its outcome is clear.”
Based on votes already counted, a higher share of eligible voters turned out in 2020 than in any election since 1960 and it remains possible — since several large states like New York are taking their sweet time with the counting — that this will be the biggest voter turnout since 1900, when the “eligible voter” pool did not include women and many states more-or-less explicitly excluded Blacks from the franchise. It is hard to say what “mandate” the voters gave their representatives this year, but it is clear that apathy was a big loser at the ballot box.
Now the page turns to one of the most inside-baseball, Beltway-elite forms of politics in the United States: the presidential transition. A shadow campaign is being waged within President-Elect Biden’s inner circle to shape who gets what senior appointment. It might not be the flashiest form of governing, but personnel choices are incredibly important to the functioning of the Executive Branch and we will be watching these choices as they are revealed over the next few weeks.
If you’ll pardon our extra long introduction after the events of the past fortnight, we’ve been busy here at CSPC as well. Our Geotech program hosted Acting Under Secretary of Industry & Security Cordell Hull for the first part of a symposium on securing advanced technologies. Available to view on our YouTube page, the symposium also featured a roundtable discussion on securing the strategic semiconductor industry and understanding the dynamics of global supply chains.
In opinion pieces in The Hill Glenn & Maria raised the strategic importance of the Arctic following CSPC discussions on security and economic interests in the region. Also in The Hill, Dan looked at the 2020 election and how it marked a further inflection towards identity-focused, personality-driven politics. Joshua reviewed the work of former Mossad Director Shabtai Shavit and found an interesting, yet frustrating, look at intelligence gathering and regional politics.
In this week’s roundup, Dan raises concerns about the national security moves in the transition, while Ethan takes a deep dive on the departure of Defense Secretary Esper and Pentagon leadership. Michael looks at the resolution to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and what that means for the region. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.
Personnel Changes, Transition Delays Raise National Security Risks
Since Monday’s firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper — which Ethan covers in detail below — the Trump White House has undertaken a flurry of personnel moves in the national security arena with more to come. At the same time, as the Trump campaign has continued to contest the results in multiple states, they have held up the formal process for beginning the transition, also delaying access to the Presidential Daily Brief. These maneuvers have resulted in a sort of “Kremlinology on the Potomac” over the past few days, but beneath the fits of political pique, there are concerns — near term and long — about the impact on national security.
The shakeup has focused on some very key positions. Beyond the firing of the Secretary of Defense, there are the new appointments to the Pentagon. The range of firings and reassignments have been well-covered in the media, with the impact falling on mostly on the Pentagon. However, there was also a shakeup at the National Security Agency — where the general counsel was replaced despite objections by NSA Director GEN Paul Nakasone.
Speculation about the next shakeup to come is now focused on CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray. In The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, one of the best connected national security journalists, wrote of a “furious behind the scenes battle” over the declassification of information related to Russia’s efforts at electoral interference four years ago. Intelligence officials, including Haspel, according to Ignatius’s reporting, are struggling to protect intelligence sources and methods, while the White House is seeking to release information that feeds into its grievances about 2016 Russian interference and the impeachment.
Congressional Republicans have circled the proverbial wagons around Haspel, with a prominent meeting between the CIA Director and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday. What followed is one of the more unusual moments in intelligence policy and oversight, with Donald Trump Jr. taking to Twitter to call out GOP Senators for trusting “a trained liar’s word” — presumably referring to Director Haspel’s training and extensive career serving the United States at the CIA.
While it appears there is yet to be any action towards Directors Haspel or Wray, on Thursday evening, reports about a shakeup in cybersecurity roles at the Department of Homeland Security began to come out. The most concerning of these reports have been suggestions that the administration plans to axe Chris Krebs, the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) at the Department of Homeland Security.
The potential ouster of Director Krebs comes on the heels of CISA’s efforts to debunk election fraud and counter misinformation efforts. According to other reports about Krebs’s looming firing, the administration’s ire is focused on CISA’s rebuttal of rumors of software allowing for massive changes in vote totals. This comes as President Trump makes even more outlandish claims on his Twitter account about the election.
Speculation about the motive for these moves has grown. At face value, many appear to be about simple revenge for past slights, as well as a decent amount of churn and some opportunistic resumé-padding that takes place at the end of any administration. However, combined with the backdrop of President Trump continuing to challenge election results, of course there has been the more wild notion that these are all maneuvers to plan some kind of cover up of past activities, or even more sinisterly, an autogolpe. While there is plenty of concern there, the best analysis comes from Bush administration national security official Kori Schake in The Atlantic, who notes, “the personnel changes are remarkable for the small-mindedness and garden-variety spite they demonstrate.”
Part of this “garden-variety spite” has also been the continued delay for the formal transition process that has traditionally begun long before the formal certification of state election results. While delays in the 2000 transition process due to Bush v. Gore were one of the factors cited by the investigation of the 9/11 commission, the General Service Agency — responsible for determining the start of the transition process — has so far refused to do so. Despite this delay, a growing chorus of Republican Senators are pushing for Biden to receive the necessary national security and intelligence briefings.
These senators have continued to voice measured support for President Trump’s quixotic legal challenges, but their comments recognize the importance of ensuring that the incoming president is fully-prepared for the responsibilities he will assume. The actions of the Trump administration have raised a range of concerns — but in the long-run it also marks a rapid intensification of the politicization of key national security roles and responsibilities. No matter who holds these positions, and for how long, their responsibility is for the safety and security of the United States and its people — not the feelings of the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Executive and the Exodus
On Monday, the most recent and notable of cabinet departures from President Trump’s retinue featured Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Or rather, he was fired, on twitter, vice simply ‘resigning’. The news comes just a few days after it was reported that Esper had planned on resigning from the position sooner than later anyway. It isn’t unusual for cabinet members to draft such letters and hold in reserve (without a date) during times of administration transitions, but Secy. Esper’s departure is the final somber note in a long symphony of dissonance.
Simply, there are two lenses through which to view these developments- one is the beleaguered tenure of a man following in the footsteps of a legend, who’s quiet opposition to executive overreach speaks of a principled officer in a bad gig. The other is the high-drama of reality TV where the host clamors for control of the narrative in a predictable, haggard reprisal of the same plot twists that viewers saw in the early seasons, ode to Rex Tillerson, Kirstjen Nielsen, Jim Mattis, John Bolton).
So let’s unpack the first side of the story. In the wake of Jim Mattis’ departure, and then the removal of Patrick Shanahan as acting SECDEF (don’t fret, you’re forgiven for forgetting that brief tenure), Mark Esper was elevated to the position of Pentagon chief from his post as Secretary of the Army. Enough ink has been spilt about the 45th POTUS surrounding himself with impressive-looking military men during his administration, so that is left well enough alone. Esper has had a lengthy and storied career in and around the defense and policy communities, beginning as a U.S. Army infantry officer (serving in Desert Storm), and holding post’s in the Senate Foreign Relations committee, the House Armed Services Committee, the Heritage Foundation, Raytheon, and the Aerospace Industry Association.
Esper was initially thought to be a level-headed, clear minded thinker, yet whose role was tenuous from the onset based on his lack of a close relationship with the President that marked the early Mattis tenure. Notably, Esper spoke openly against a variety of President Trump’s policies, including the use of active duty military personnel for curbing protests in downtown DC, the fracturing of NATO alliances and troop reductions in Europe, supporting Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman during the impeachment last year, as well as opposing the increasing politicization of the military during this election. Esper is also noted for his support of legislation to rebrand U.S. Army bases of Civil War confederate generals namesakes.
As is true with any high-level executive under scrutiny, Mr. Esper’s time as the Pentagon chief is not without some controversy. In 2019, Esper relieved Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, following the highly publicized ordeal of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, whom Spencer had tried to shield from being stripped of his special warfare designation following a war crimes military tribunal. Esper was not informed of Spencer’s intent to allow Gallagher to retire with his Naval Special Warfare designation, and the backlash resulted in a messy dismissal. In January of this year, Esper contradicted the President’s dire assertion that U.S. embassies were under threat of attack, immediately following the extrajudicial airstrike that killed Iranian Qods commander Qassem Soleimani. The messy handling of U.S. Navy Commander Brett Crozier, the relieved captain of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt stricken by a COVID-19 outbreak, further paints a controversial part the Esper played in his defense leader role. Further, the faux pas reference to the streets of American cities as “battlespaces” amidst the protest crackdowns will forever blemish Espers tenure. There was also that painfully uncomfortable moment between Esper and General Mark Milley, at a press conference, talking about Marines and haircuts (note: the SECDEF sets those kinds of policies, not the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs).
It’s a Federal Government, not a for-profit corporation
And now the other side of the story- and further proof that the bureaucracy which is the U.S. government cannot be run like a corporate business. The “yuh fired” speech is now a hollow, tragically familiar refrain for the Trump administration. Cliff Simms and John Bolton’s exposes on the factions within the White House are indicative of why things went sour for Esper, resulting in an unprecedented relief of his responsibilities with only a few months left. Not even the Washington Football Team resorts to that kind of lame-duck staff management.
The chatter around the policy analysis world offers that the outgoing President is ‘settling scores’ while he still has the power to do so, taking parting shots at staffers who weren’t loyal enough. As if to underscore that point, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, notably a Trump-loyalist, appears safe from the fired-by-the-bird-app treatment, based on his remarks about the “smooth transition to a second Trump administration”. Strangely, those very qualities that seem to keep Mike Pompeo and William Barr safe from twitter-doom, are the same traits that the President and other senior officials have publicly derided the former SECDEF for, calling him “Yesper”, inferring that he has been a yes-man from the start. Esper has since denounced such claims of his conduct.
Federal governance is not a purely transactional endeavor, and certainly not a quid pro quo (I’m not above injecting some referential humor in these analyses). So when the past four years of defense policy emanating from the executive office have been rooted firmly in the art of the deal, there are going to be problems. Maybe, just maybe, one person shouldn’t be the end-all for establishing policies, democracy and all that.
International relations are based on, wait for it, relationships. Trust, cooperation and collaboration are important too. Sure, NATO partners have benefitted from the U.S. making the lion’s share of defense spending contributions to the alliance, but it turns out…North Atlantic defense is a priority of ours as well. Thus, when the President used executive influence to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany this year, on the basis of financial alliance delinquency, Secy. Esper spoke out in protest. When the President wanted to fully retract from Afghanistan (because it hadn’t served him a foreign policy victory his campaign desperately needed), Esper inferred just how complex such an endeavor was, and the risks inherent. That act may well have been the tipping point that ultimately led to his ouster. His replacement, Chris Miller (former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center), has made no bones about accelerating a hasty and total withdrawal.
And so, pending this whole election lawsuit thing, the Trump administration’s National Defense architecture will end in a puff of smoke, unlike the roar which it rode in on. Many of us in and around the defense world had incredibly high hopes in 2017, not so much because of the executive (who certainly holds far too much power as it stands), but because of some of the ‘adults’ who surrounded him. Mark Esper, seemingly adult, certainly made his mistakes, as the position comes with its fair share of no-good-options scenarios. But despite the controversies of a chaotic administration, one can argue that he did not make it exponentially worse. And unlike the horde of actual yes-men in their assorted factions throughout the administration, Esper was unafraid to publicly break from the company line, in the genuine pursuit of remaining apolitical.
Armenia-Azerbaijan War Ends, Great Game Goes On
Last month in these pages, I told you that a war had broken out in the South Caucasus between majority Orthodox Christian Armenia and majority Turkic-speaking Muslim Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a frozen conflict left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union. On Tuesday, Armenia agreed to a Russian-sponsored ceasefire that will be guaranteed by the presence of Russian peacekeepers. On the battlefield, the war went very badly for Armenia, who were unprepared for the advanced combined arms tactics utilized by Azerbaijan. The ceasefire will preserve Armenian control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and Russian influence in the region. The outcome, however, also enshrines a diminished role for Russia that will certainly be noticed by other powers in Eurasia and underscores why this was such a missed opportunity for the Trump administration and the transatlantic community.
Over the last 10 years, Azerbaijan has invested heavily in its military to get to a place where it could upset the status quo of Armenian control in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it seems that they succeeded. The Azerbaijani military used advanced drones supplied by Turkey and Israel to suppress Armenian tanks and artillery, and its own artillery and infantry — including Syrian mercenaries hired by Turkey — to take and hold territory. Last week, the Armenian position became extremely precarious as Azerbaijani forces were in position to cut off the lines of communications and resupply to the capital city of Stepanakert and place it under siege. This could have caused all Armenian defenses in the area to collapse, and immense human suffering and displacement if the fighting reached into the city.
In order to prevent this, Armenia agreed to a ceasefire that cements Azerbaijan’s gains, and satisfies another long-term Azerbaijani priority — an internationally guaranteed overland route to Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave on the border with Turkey, separated from the rest of the country by Armenian territory. This will allow these allies to more closely integrate economically and deepen Turkey’s access to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.
Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, allegedly Russia’s Eurasian answer to NATO. In the past, Russia has tried to signal that it considers Armenia-proper to be covered by this defense guarantee, but Russia stayed on the sidelines, even as Turkey became more directly involved in combat and Azerbaijan struck targets within the de jure borders of Armenia. The Armenian public appears to have been taken completely by surprise by this surrender and Russia’s failure to protect their interests.
But Russia was in the region to protect its own interests, not Armenia’s, and the primary Russian interest was preventing a total collapse of its influence in the South Caucasus. Turkey had already demonstrated that can compete with Russia on roughly equal footing, and an end to the conflict that did not include Russian peacekeepers — or included both Russian and Turkish forces — would have demonstrated just how much the balance of power had shifted against them. As Russia expert Mark Galeotti put it in the Moscow Times this week, “When you have to escalate your commitment to retain your position, that does not seem a sign of progress so much as laboring to hold back decline.”
We have heard a great deal since the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 the extent to which Moscow is focused on protecting its influence in its “near abroad.” That influence is clearly slipping. Ukraine has resumed combat operations to reduce the Russian-backed separatist regions in the eastern part of the country. The protests against the fraudulent reelection of Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko continue and the European Union is becoming more vocal in support of the dissidents. A series of interlocking political and economic crises are wracking Kyrgyzstan. In Moldova, a pro-EU presidential candidate has advanced to a run-off against the Russian-backed incumbent. Across the region, Chinese investment and security integration continues.
All of these will likely require additional resources from Russia in the coming months, but the country is also under budgetary pressure from oil prices that have remained low because of the pandemic. Anti-Kremlin protests also roiled the Russian far east for months earlier this year, and, despite efforts to disrupt allied solidarity, both the United States and European Union have maintained their sanctions regime.
The real shame, however, is that the United States and the European Union did not make a concerted effort to get involved in making peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Russian-sponsored ceasefire is merely that: an end to the current bout of fighting, guaranteed by a small number of Russian forces. Azerbaijanis displaced in earlier rounds of fighting will presumably be able to return home, but displaced Armenians probably will not. The two communities will still live tensely across a militarized border. No real attempt to address the underlying causes of the dispute appear to have been made. Instead, the major powers, Russia and Turkey, merely pressed pause on a battle for regional influence that looks no more resolved in 2020 than it was in 2019, 1994, or even 1920, while thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis paid the price.
News You May Have Missed
Addressing The Federalist Society virtually due to the pandemic, Justice Alito delivered a range of remarks on religious liberty, COVID lockdowns, free speech, and the Second Amendment. While not surprising to those who read the Justice’s dissents or heard previous, unrecorded speeches, Justice Alito delivered stinging rebukes to recent rulings in favor of LGBTQ rights and access to contraceptives. Of note, in surveying the culture war, Justice Alito compared cultural conservatives to defeated Germans and Japanese after World War II; went on to wonder what harm there was in such discrimination cases, as he noted in the infamous case of a cake shop that refused a cake for a gay couple, “celebrity chefs have jumped to the couple’s defense;” and complained repeatedly that such views are now seen by Americans as bigotry.
On Tuesday, the Peruvian legislature ousted President Martín Vizcarra, citing bribery accusations and mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic as evidence that he was morally unfit for office. Within hours, lawmakers appointed Manuel Merino, the former head of Congress, sparking protests that featured signs saying, “Merino isn’t my president.” Public resentment is probably appropriate, as analysts conclude that the removal of Vizcarra was a last-ditch effort among a few influential Congressmen to protect themselves from the very corruption investigations that doomed the president. As a result of the widespread unrest, Peru’s currency depreciated to its lowest rate in almost 20 years, and shares listed on the Lima Stock Exchange fell dramatically. The appointment of Merino to the highest office will facilitate the passage of many of the Congress’s previously unattainable policy objectives, including a law that would allow workers to withdraw funds from the private and public pension systems, a policy that would almost undoubtedly harm public finances and the larger Peruvian financial system in the long term.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility Thursday for the bombing of a World War I commemoration ceremony in Saudi Arabia’s port city, Jeddah. Reports indicate that three were injured, including Greek and UK nationals and a Saudi security officer. Many Western diplomats — including from France, Greece, Italy, the United States, and the United Kingdom — were in attendance, but the attack seemed to target French officials in particular, as conflict between France and radical Islamic groups has escalated following the murder of middle school teacher Samuel Paty. This bombing, the first attack in years that targeted foreigners in Saudi Arabia, illustrates how the tensions about religion in France have become internationalized. Accordingly, the French government ordered its citizens in the kingdom to be “on maximum alert” and to “stay away from all gatherings.”
At the conclusion of the 39th Association of South East Asian Nations Summit on Sunday, fifteen nations, including China, are expected to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an Asia-Pacific free trade agreement that is set to be the world’s largest in terms of combined GDP. The agreement has largely been seen as a China-backed alternative to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that the Trump administration withdrew the United States from in 2017. It is probably too simplistic to view this agreement strictly through the lens of the competition for influence between China and the United States — and several countries will be members of both trade deals — but it is clearly relevant that the countries in the Indo-Pacific region have signed two major international trade deals in the last four years and neither one includes the United States or India.
On Sunday, a passenger flight carrying Israeli tourists to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) landed for the first time in the city-state of Dubai. The low-cost airline FlyDubai operated Flight FZ8194 from Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel to Dubai International Airport. This historic moment shows the ongoing efforts to normalize relations between both nations. The flight took place less than two months after the UAE and Israel signed a diplomatic agreement alongside Bahrain at a White House ceremony. Among the passengers there were both Jewish and Arab Israelis, including first-time visitors to the Emirates and others who had been to the country before. Israel and the UAE, whose economy largely depends on tourism and has suffered the effects from the pandemic, will have a regular commercial flight route between Dubai and Tel Aviv in the coming weeks.
We try not to give travel advice in the Roundup, but, before booking your next trip to Koh Chang, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, consider the circumstances of American tourist Wesley Barnes. Mr. Barnes had a billing dispute with the Sea View Resort and, as many travelers do, wrote a negative review based on the experience on the website Tripadvisor. Sea View tried to get Mr. Barnes to take the review down; when he did not, they FILED CRIMINAL DEFAMATION CHARGES AGAINST HIM. HE WAS ARRESTED AND SPENT TWO DAYS IN JAIL. He was only released after he agreed to apologize to the hotel and convince Tripadvisor not to put a “red badge” warning on the hotel’s page. Instead, Tripadvisor posted a unique warning that reads, “This hotel or individuals associated with this hotel filed criminal charges against a Tripadvisor user in relation to the traveler writing and posting online reviews. The reviewer spent time in jail as a result.”
The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.