Friday News Roundup — October 4, 2019
Happy Anniversary, Comrade!; To Impeach or Not to Impeach; Evaluating Our Assistance to the Saudis; Plus News You May Have Missed
Happy Friday from Washington, where we’re excited both for the end of the week and the arrival of fall weather. Even with a chill in the air, the rhetoric surrounding impeachment is heating up. Still, if there’s one hot topic that might bring Washingtonians together, it’s the amazing comeback wild card win by the Nationals. Having dealt with combined political and baseball drama in 2016, Dan’s advice to our Nat fan readers is simply to celebrate responsibly.
Even with our politics seemingly at its worst, our system can be fixed. This week, our President & CEO Glenn Nye offered up some of his proposed solutions in The Hill.
In this week’s news roundup, Dan looks at China’s 70th anniversary celebrations and Xi Jinping’s economic and military policies. Chris covers the dynamics of impeachment for centrists in the House. Joshua looks at how even with the best western military equipment, the Saudis continue to struggle against the Houthis. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.
Let’s Party Like It’s 1949
On Tuesday, the world watched as Chinese President Xi Jinping stood atop Tiananmen gate to preside over the festivities for the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China. Beijing was on lockdown, with nearby factories closed, to ensure both tight security and “blue” skies for the parade.
As President Xi reviewed the military hardware — ironically parading down the “Avenue of Perpetual Peace” — the latest PLA hardware was displayed to the world. From hypersonic missiles to stealth drones, the goal of this parade was to demonstrate that China has closed the gap, if not surpassed, the United States in some areas of military technology. On the English-language broadcast, I couldn’t help but notice the commentator’s narration:
You can see the influence of the new round of the technological and industrial revolution in the military sector…this includes cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum information, big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things.
So, at least, we know that one government appears to be reading the CSPC Geotech report.
At the same time, President Xi also spoke of the Communist Party’s role in the founding of the “New China” and the legacy of Mao Zedong. Notably, Xi did not mention Deng Xiaoping — whose reforms made the modern Chinese economy a reality through his “reform and opening up” campaign. Earlier in the week, I discussed this on the Farrcast podcast, hosted by Michael Farr of Farr, Miller, Washington investment counsel, and Bill Reinsch, Scholl Chair in International Business at CSIS. It’s worth a listen, because Mr. Reinsch correctly points out that Xi’s Maoist policies — political repression, central economic control, etc. — will harm the Chinese economy in the long run.
The military might displayed by China is a reflection of its economic power. Without China’s economic success, these technological and military advances would have been impossible. Yet, how worried should we be about this new hardware?
China’s leaders have long understood that the U.S. government is good at dealing with crises, but not long-term challenges. To use a healthcare metaphor: we’re great at dealing with heart attacks, but not high blood pressure. Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Chinese have studied the American way of war, and determined that the United States prevailed in high-tech “informationalized warfare.” Instead of direct confrontation with the United States, China would seek to use asymmetric means to turn our technological advantages into vulnerabilities — e.g. cyber capabilities and counter space assets — while working to close the technological gap — e.g. stealth, precision fires, artificial intelligence.
All the while, China would also invest in one of the most robust missile programs to put U.S. and allied bases and fleets in the crosshairs of a massive barrage of warheads in the outbreak of any conflict. While not yet looking to project power abroad, China would seek to deny the U.S. access to East Asia by making any potential conflict too costly to consider. While not seeking to match the U.S. in terms of the size of its nuclear deterrent, China would focus on capabilities robust enough to defeat U.S. missile defenses and capable of reaching the entire United States. Consider it the ultimate implementation of the comment once made by Chinese military leaders to U.S. diplomats, “you should worry more about Los Angeles than Taipei.”
Leveraging economic power into military power is one thing, but putting it into practice is another. Joshua’s analysis below of the Saudi military’s recent performance against the Houthis shows that fancy military hardware is nothing without well-trained personnel. While the United States has had plenty of real-combat experience since September 11, 2001, much of that has been low-intensity counterinsurgency, rather than the naval, air, and ground combat that would be part of a shooting war with China. While the U.S. has significantly greater experience with logistics and force projection, it is worth remembering that China wouldn’t really need to project force that far in a conflict in East Asia.
Furthermore, in the information that is publicly available, the United States has started, and ended, several programs designed to develop high tech weapons that China appears to be fielding, such as stealth drones, naval railguns, and hypersonic missiles. Chinese espionage efforts have helped to close the gap, but much of the blame lies closer to home. Sequestered military budgets, stop-start CRs, bureaucratic inertia, and overly risk-averse acquisition policies have slowed our momentum towards the cutting edge, while China races ahead. Thus, we face the prospect of many of the advanced weapons of the future bearing the same label as our iPhones, “Designed in California, Assembled in China.”
As President Xi asserts greater and greater control over the Chinese economy — while also engineering brutal repression of Muslims, Hong Kongers, and any other avenues of dissent — he risks destroying the economic dynamism that has fueled China’s military rise. Still, China has demonstrated that if it is not amongst the top tier of techno-military powers, it soon will be. We can’t control what path Beijing ultimately takes, but our policymakers need to change ours.
The Pressure to Impeach
Impeaching the President of the United States is one of the most solemn responsibilities of the House of Representatives. The Constitution sketches out this process, outlining the responsibilities of each house of Congress (the House in impeaching and the Senate in removing). I have given an overview of the history and a rough outline of the process in our News Roundup before, so it would be redundant to use this whole piece to do so again. As the House moves closer to potentially impeaching President Trump, this situation provides a unique opportunity to examine the politics surrounding this situation in particular.
First, a brief recap of what impeachment is and where it comes from. Article I of the Constitution is dedicated to delineating the responsibilities and powers of Congress — when describing the duties of each house, impeachment and removal come last on the list. The document is predictably vague about what reasons are appropriate for the impeachment process to take place. The reasons it does list are not defined in any meaningful, but the fist two (“treason and bribery”) are fairly straightforward. The other, “high crimes and misdemeanors” is extremely vague and leaves room for much interpretation on the part of the reader, which is a common theme for the founders. In essence, it is up to Congress to decide what is an impeachable offense; the framers trusted Members to make a sound and solemn judgement on this matter.
This brings us to today, when the House of Representatives is poised to open an impeachment inquiry into the president. Last week, our own illustrious Dan Mahaffee analyzed the situation that President Trump faces. In essence, Members of the House take issue with the apparent solicitation of a political favor from the President of Ukraine; after discussing the sale of arms to the Eastern European nation, President Trump turned to the topic of former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump essentially asked the Ukranian leader to investigate what he perceives as shady business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter — which allegedly took place on Ukranian soil.
Democrats in the House charge that this is an impeachable offense. They assert that by itself, the president asking a foreign leader to prosecute an American citizen is improper. However, the fact that the American citizen in question is the son of Trump’s biggest political rival in his bid for reelection has added to the furor. The narrative created in this process is that the president abused his power for personal political gain, which has caught the interest of the American people. This characterization has met approval from 225 Democrats and 1 independent in the House, which constitutes a large enough majority to launch (and perhaps eventually approve) the impeachment process. However, 10 Democratic members still withhold their support from the impeachment inquiry, and no Republicans have yet announced their support for it.
First, let us look into the Democratic representatives that are currently withholding their support. Representatives McBath (D-GA), Brindisi (D-NY), Cunningham (D-SC), Golden (D-ME), Horn (D-OK), Kind (D-WI), McAdams (D-UT), Peterson (D-MN), Small (D-NM), and Van Drew (D-NJ) are the holdouts. Although they come from very different places and very different groups, they all have one thing in common: President Trump won their congressional district in 2016. In the political calculus of 2019, these representatives may be questioning the viability of supporting the impeachment of the president surrounded by his supporters. Although they were carried by the blue wave in 2018, they may see it as an uphill battle to attack the president so directly. Nevertheless, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s support of the measure has put members in a difficult position. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), formerly opponents of the impeachment inquiry, have switched their allegiance in recent days likely due to this pressure.
183 Republicans, for their part, have unequivocally rejected the call for an impeachment inquiry. This leaves 14 GOP members in the House that have not yet given an answer, although Mark Amodei (R-NV) has said that he supports an investigation as long as it does not constitute impeachment. Although Republican leadership is undoubtedly pressuring every member to get or stay in line in opposition to impeachment, there are Republican groups that have pressured select members to join independent Justin Amash (I-MI) in supporting the inquiry. Moderate members Fred Upton (R-MI), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Will Hurd (R-TX) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) have been targeted by conservative groups who favor impeachment, and more members in tough races will likely face mounting pressure.
Whatever the outcome of the impeachment inquiry, it is clear that this is a live political wire. With pressure mounting on both sides, it will be interesting to see how public opinion affects members and how party leadership can flex its muscles.
The Improving Tactical Prowess of the Houthi Rebels
At the end of September, the Houthi rebels of Yemen held a press conference reporting that they claimed to have killed over 500 Saudi soldiers in a single attack, taking another 2,000 prisoners, in the process capturing a number of Saudi vehicles.
The Houthi-aligned Al Masirah television channel broadcast footage of the reported attack with the rebels firing anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) against mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles and LAV-25 light armored vehicles. A breakdown of the footage by an independent arms researcher notes the staggering amount of small arms and light weapons (SALW) captured in the assault.
The Saudi Arabian government did not respond to the Houthis claims which could not be independently verified. In addition, neither the time nor the place where the reported attack took place were released by the Houthi spokesman, Yahya Saree. Al Jazeera reported, separately, that the attack occurred in August.
According to Saree, “More than 200 were killed in dozens of [missile and drone] strikes while trying to escape or surrender.” He added that the offensive resulted in the destruction of three “enemy military brigades” and the capture of “thousands” of troops. Many of those “prisoners” seen in the Houthi footage were not in uniform
The credibility of the Houthi claims should be questioned as this group also claimed responsibility for the complex drone and cruise missile strike against Saudi oil fields earlier this month. The Houthis have also doctored footage to bolster their claims in the past.
The presence of the LAV-25s suggests that the convoy was from the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which according to reports is the owner of the largest fleet of these light armored vehicles. The lack of uniforms and soldiers wandering around in flipflops may indicated that these captured “soldiers” are foreign mercenaries or Saudi-backed Yemeni militia.
The video footage is damning for the performance of the Saudi Arabian National Guard or their proxies. The video shows the convoy vehicles bunching up after initial contact allowing the Houthi rebels to strike with impunity. There is nearly no apparent coordinated response to the attacks. The convoy also appears to lack any helicopter or close air support. At least a dozen or more Toyota pick-up trucks are left behind with considerable SALW in their beds. The Houthi rebels filming the footage appear to do so without concern for a response or retaliation.
In a presentation by Major General Frank Muth, then-head of the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard, the Saudi deficiencies were noted. According to Major General Muth even basic soldiering skills were beyond the Saudis. In 2017, he said
They were having problems with people not getting off the point of injury and not surviving…We had to show them, it only takes like four basic things for you to learn and understand at the soldier level, be able to bring that — I’m not going to use an exact number, but let’s say its very high, 70 to 80 percent died of wounds, just an example, that may not be the case — down to a much lower number.
He reported that the American advisors were establishing a “Warrior Leaders Course” that would focus on basic skills, saying “We’re going to pull staff sergeants and sergeant first classes out of the LAV formations, put them through an intensive six-week training cycle, and we’re focusing on some basic stuff… I’m talking patrolling, weapons fire, communication, land nav [sic; navigation], P.T. [physical training] — let me say that again, P.T., a lot of P.T. — and just basic skill sets.”
This is not surprising. Beccas Wasser of RAND noted “For the Saudi military, it’s been about having prestige items, having a glitter force, without having the skill of being an effective military force.”
While this does illustrate the poor performance of elements of the Saudi forces in Yemen, it equally shows an improvement in the capabilities of the Houthis themselves. Using (if proven true) combined improvised explosive device (IED)-ATGM and small arms ambushes against an armored and mobile force demonstrates considerable prowess and a qualitative improvement.
Undoubtedly some of this improvement comes from attrition on-the-ground and sheer experience, but equally it would suggest that Iranian-support, advisement, and training is having a marked effect on the Houthis. Indeed, some of the ATGMs appear to be Iranian-variants of the Russian-originated Kornet. Iran has denied its involvement in Yemen, but such denials are hardly credible.
Does the attack mark a significant shift in the situation on-the-ground? No. It is, at best, a tactical victory for the Houthis, but one that comes at the further expense of Saudi Arabian military credibility, which was already under strain after the attacks against its oil infrastructure.
News You May Have Missed
U.S. Will Impose Tariffs on European Goods
After the WTO ruled that the United States could impose hefty tariffs on the EU in retaliation for the bloc’s subsidies for airplane manufacturer Airbus, the U.S. now seeks to make good on this judgement. This week, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced that the government will impose a 10% tariff on jetliners coming from the European Union and a 25% levy on food, whiskies, and other goods. After the Trump administration slapped the EU with hefty tariffs on steel and aluminum last year, trade relations between transatlantic allies have been strained at best. EU officials asked the White House to hold off on the tariffs, given that the WTO was likely to rule against the United States for similar support to Boeing, but to no avail. With new tensions, they will likely become even more so.
WeWork Teeters with IPO Shelved, Founder Ousted
Once one of the high-flying “unicorns,” shared workspace provider WeWork is now hovering near insolvency according to reports. Concerned over the behavior of founder and former CEO Adam Neumann, as well as the creative corporate governance and financial arrangements such as the one where Neumann leased real estate he owned back to his company, WeWork has gone from a disruptive “success” story to a cautionary tale. With employees and investors now left to soldier on — along with an already disappointing market for IPOs — the broader economic impact must be considered, as WeWork is the biggest and second-biggest tenants in the New York and Chicago commercial real estate markets.
USMCA Agreement Possibly Within Reach
Even in the face of a titanic battle over impeachment, it seems as if President Trump’s USMCA trade deal may pass through Congress. Forged to replace NAFTA, one of President Trump’s favorite scapegoats, the deal has been languishing since it was first proposed. This week, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to indicate that compromise on the deal was on the horizon. Although impeachment would seemingly derail any other legislation on the dockett, Rep. Pelosi insisted that the two are unrelated and that she is ready to take the bill up. Some suggest that Speaker Pelosi is using the deal as evidence that the Democratic majority is not entirely focused on impeachment, and that they are still focused on the people’s business.
Trump to Issue Executive Order on Medicare
Posturing the GOP’s healthcare strategy, the president will sign an executive order on Medicare this week. Painting a contrast with “Medicare for All,” the order will aim to increase access to telehealth and other unorthodox health options. It will also seek to strengthen Medicare Part D, private supplemental plans that seniors often purchase in addition to the federal Medicare program. While most Democratic plans would eliminate private insurance in favor of a government-sponsored plan, President Trump’s plan seeks to preserve the private insurance market.
Four Killed in Paris Police HQ in Knife Attack
Three police officers and one administrative staffer were killed in the Paris police headquarters on the île de la Cité in a knife attack. The assailant was shot dead by police, while scenes of panic were reported in the area. French investigators believe the attack may have been motivated by a workplace dispute, but the investigation is ongoing. The attack comes as French police have striked over violence targeting police and concerns over a growing number of police suicides.
The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.