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Deciphering the Middle East and Trump's National Security Stategy, with Asha Castleberry

January 9, 2018

Vice Pres. Pence, Pres. Trump, National Security Adviser McMaster with U.S. military members, July 2017. CREDIT: White House/Shealah Craighead

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders podcast. I'm Alex Woodson.

Today I'm joined again by Asha Castleberry. Asha is a professor in Fordham University's Political Science Department, a defense member of the Truman National Security Project, and a U.S. Army veteran.

Thanks again for coming, Asha.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Thank you.

ALEX WOODSON: We will talk about some of the developments in the Middle East a little later on, but first I wanted to talk about the National Security Strategy (NSS) released last month, December 2017.

Just to start really broadly, what jumped out at you when you read this? How is this different from an NSS from Obama, or even George W. Bush?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I pretty much developed a mixed reaction to the new NSS. First and foremost, when I read through the entire document, which is about 70 pages, I saw a lot of continuity from previous administrations, where the United States wants to maintain U.S. primacy, which is American dominance in the international community, and do that by maintaining a strong military, the strongest economy, maintain our alliance system. So that was one of the things I saw that was pretty surprising, that we are going forward in terms of maintaining certain continuity from previous administrations.

But I also saw some nuances, some new things, especially coming out of the Trump presidential campaign. We saw that Trump wants to pursue the wall with regard to addressing immigration policy, he underscored the issue with regard to trade deficits, he has also spoken a lot with regard to the 2 percent shared-burden issue with regard to NATO, so there was some of that rhetoric in the Strategy as well.

If I want to characterize the NSS, it pursued different types of grand strategies, definitely liberal internationalism where they somewhat loosely embrace the international world order. It did not necessarily explicitly say, "Hey, the United States is the leader of the free world," but did acknowledge that they are committed to the norms that were produced from the post-Cold War [era].

And then you saw some offshore balancing, where the United States was really encouraging its allies to have that shared responsibility, make sure eventually you learn how to maintain your own institutions without U.S. assistance, which was in my own opinion a little bit bizarre. But you saw that offshore-balancing rhetoric there, and then you also saw that grand strategy of U.S. primacy.

ALEX WOODSON: Why do you think that particular aspect was bizarre?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Because with some of our allies that we work with it takes time, but we are talking about money here. So going along with the Trump leadership, of course he is very transactional when it comes to, "Okay, whatever I get into it I'm going to get back at it." But with some of our allies it takes time as far as developing into an established institution, like a security institution where they can work on their own. We have allies that take years and years to develop that sense of independence.

ALEX WOODSON: The last time we talked—I think it was over the summer/late spring 2017—you mentioned that you could see in Trump's foreign policy the influence of General Mattis and General McMaster, the defense secretary and national security advisor respectively. Does this come across in the NSS? Do you see McMaster's and Mattis's fingerprints on this, or is this more Trump's America First strategy?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Absolutely. As a U.S. Army veteran, I can definitely see where there were a lot of key points that are coming from general officers. They had a lot of information with regard to readiness for the U.S. Armed Forces, and the reason why they were underscoring that point is to be ready to be involved in a lot of these operational campaigns that we are planning now throughout the world, and they are already ongoing right now.

I saw also a lot where they have underscored all three foreign policy tools, which are development, diplomacy, and defense. Defense is number one: "This is what we need in order to become the most powerful country in the world, and this is what helps set the conditions for diplomacy and aid." So I definitely saw a lot with that, coming from a defense perspective in the NSS.

ALEX WOODSON: So you think this NSS was a little bit more military focused than Obama's?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Somewhat, yes.

And then, you know, you also have the idea in the back of your mind where you are saying, "Okay, you did see some rhetoric where it is very important that we have a strong diplomatic corps, a strong State Department." But then you see the execution piece to it, where the State Department is eroding right now; it is depleting. That is the concerning part versus to making sure we continue to strengthen our military. You are seeing where more money is being poured into defense as far as making sure that happens, but not really in the State Department.

ALEX WOODSON: What do you make of all the mentions of China in the report? One line reads, "China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of a state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor." The strategy also frames the China threat through weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), economic and cyber attacks.

What do you make of this? Is this going a little bit too far? Is this seeing the threat from China clearly?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: When I read about China, I thought about what they mentioned, that in order to counter China's economic aggression we are going to be a competitive engager or use competitive engagement in the international community. But looking at the role of China in the international system and U.S. reaction based on this NSS, I feel that Chinese economic aggression is a threat to them and also concerning. If you look at places like Africa, Chinese economic aggression is a grave concern for the United States because they are everywhere, and as a result of that they are able to secure stronger relationships with some of our African allies than us.

Right now, looking at our strategy in Africa, the one item that we are working on the most is actually our counterterrorism strategy. The other stuff that the African nations need we are not really working on as much as the Chinese are, and that is why the Chinese are able to shift more of their relationship-building or their cooperation in their favor, because of the economic aggression that they are doing in Africa.

ALEX WOODSON: Could that affect the national security of the United States?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes, somewhat, in terms of building military alliances, as far as intelligence-sharing, building an operational environment with them, because if they are expanding themselves militarily with the Chinese, then when it comes to working with them, it is going to be very difficult as far as them sharing stuff with us versus the Chinese, and it just gets really complicated.

It almost reminds me of the situation in Iraq. As the Iraqis started to work more with the Russians, it became more complicated as we were working with them because of the intel and the capabilities that we share with them.

ALEX WOODSON: You mentioned Russia. Russia also is featured prominently in the NSS, much like China, as being a threat to national security through economics, through military, through cyber attacks, which we saw in the election. McMaster, who I assume had a pretty strong role in writing this report, obviously sees the Russian threat clearly, but it is not coming through from the president, from Trump. I don't think he has said a negative word about Putin yet.

How does that work, when you have the Defense Department and State Department seeing what Russia is trying to do to the United States, and you have it all through the NSS, that they are trying to "weaken European institutions," "they steal and exploit our intellectual property and personal data," they "interfere in our political processes." These are lines directly from the NSS. What does that mean when the president does not say these things himself?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: That is a really good question. After reading this document, I said, "Well, in order for this to be published, the president has to pretty much look at it and approve it."

I am pretty sure that, hopefully, he did read it and said, "Okay, we're going to move forward with that," because it looks like to me like General McMaster was able to convince the president that this is what we are going with in terms of Russia as a revisionist power. I am pretty sure, hopefully, that the president read this and moved forward with it.

This is where we are moving forward in terms of dealing with the Russians, because if you look in areas like Iraq and Syria, they are becoming more of a concern; they are tilting more the balance of power in their favor. We are dealing with the Turks, dealing with Bashar al-Assad, and the rest of the battlefield areas.

I think with regard to looking at this the military is being very realistic as far as dealing with Russia. Especially there were some points about cybersecurity issues, how the Russians are right now trying to build a high-tech hybrid military, and we have to make sure we keep up with that in case of future cybersecurity attacks.

I think looking into this, especially dealing with the Defense Department, they are very realistic as far as dealing with Russia, but evidently there is a gap with how the president is conducting himself dealing with Russia.

ALEX WOODSON: This plays out most prominently in the Mueller investigation into Russian interference. President Trump has called it a "hoax," he has called it a "witch hunt," but Senator McCain back last year called [the Russian cyber attacks] an "act of war."

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes.

ALEX WOODSON: I am just curious about specifically—you know, there is this Washington Post article about how national security officials cannot even talk to Trump about this. How big of a threat is that if you have—you said the Defense Department understands the threat, but you have one major office of the government that is not acknowledging this. What could be the consequences of that?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: This is a very unconventional, unprecedented moment in terms of executing foreign policy. To me it is very uncomfortable because it is not unified with the Executive Office, especially with the president.

But I think what you are seeing is a sense of resistance from key officials within the Defense Department and Congress that, "Hey, this is real, and we're moving forward with what we're seeing as far as a threat to our national security, and we're not going to be really going with being a lot softer with the Russians."

So it is different. I have never seen this before. On a perfect day, it should be unified, but I think you are seeing a resistance to what the president is actually saying. Based on that resistance, I do not think President Trump is really reacting or pushing them to say, "No, follow me." It is like he is kind of letting them do what they want in a way.

ALEX WOODSON: One other area where there is a pretty big disconnect between what the president and what the Executive Office thinks and what the military is doing is around climate change.

There is a section entitled "Embrace Energy Dominance" in the NSS. It seems to refer mostly to fossil fuels. Wind and solar power are never mentioned specifically in this report. Of course, that is a big contradiction with Western Europe, and even China, who are pursuing those technologies.

I know that under President Obama the U.S. military saw climate change as a real threat. They have used renewable energy in lots of different facets of their programs. Is this still continuing despite what President Trump might believe or might be saying in his NSS? Is the U.S. military still seeing climate change as a threat and enacting policies around that?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes. Actually, it reminds me of the transgender soldier issue, where we saw where the president of the United States (POTUS) was against the fact that transgender soldiers could join, but then within the military that was not necessarily the case. They were still trying to retain them and looking into trying to recruit them. So again, you see that disconnect between POTUS and the rest of the military.

It is the same thing with climate change, where a lot of military installations are still pursuing their climate change policies despite that it is not necessarily a high priority or explicitly indicated in the National Security Strategy.

ALEX WOODSON: Is this similar to how Trump is letting generals do things on the battlefield? He does not have as much oversight as President Obama did. Does that extend to things like renewable energy as well?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Absolutely. He has delegated a lot of powers or authority to them. He is not even paying attention to those disconnects. He probably knows there is a disconnect, but he does not know how much it has penetrated all the way down to lower units. So, yes, the disconnect continues.

ALEX WOODSON: Very interesting. A little frightening, too.

A general question before we get to some Middle Eastern topics: Is there usually this much about the economy in the NSS? I have to be very honest, I have not read too many of these documents very closely. In this one, there is a whole section on economic statecraft and China and Russia manipulating the system. Is that usually as emphasized in the NSS, or is this Trump calling on his business background and returning to a lot of the campaign rhetoric?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Well, you did see a lot about economic security within the NSS under the Obama administration because he inherited the global recession. So you did see that.

Going into the Trump administration, because of the rise of populism and the economic anxiety that is spreading throughout the United States, that is why economic security was mentioned again or underscored as one of their top pillars. So yes, under the Obama administration you did see that, and then moving forward into the Trump administration I am not surprised they mentioned it again.

But what is very fascinating or just interesting about it is that they talked about the trade deficit as being a national security threat, as something that needs to be addressed. They tried to do that in Japan with President Abe, but I do not think it necessarily worked.

Then they also talked about taxation against the middle class, which was very interesting, because here they pass this tax reform bill, but then they are saying high taxation toward the American people is a threat to our economic security. So the execution piece again is questionable because of what is in the NSS versus what is actually happening.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to move on to the Middle East, we will start with the NSS. What stood out for you in Middle East policy with this NSS? Are there changes from the Obama administration? I know you mentioned you have seen a lot of continuity as well.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I did not see too many changes with regard to the Middle East policy piece. It still is underscoring the fact that we have to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and we have to maintain strong military alliances with our allies in the region. I think it was pretty similar.

I am not surprised with that because comparing Obama administration strategy in the Middle East versus the Donald Trump administration strategy, it is very similar, but some of the outcries we are seeing as a concern is the situation in Jerusalem where they are going to be moving the embassy to the capital. Other than that, it seems there are a lot of similarities there.

I must say the only concern I would have in terms of dealing with the Trump administration is their commitment to Saudi Arabia. I think some of the stuff that Saudi Arabia has pretty much—our support right now as far as implementing their Vision 2030, I think the United States is a little bit too much in supporting every move they make. Some of it is conflicting with our values or the decisions we make here. Other than that, that is the only concern I have.

ALEX WOODSON: That is a good way to segue into talking about the recent developments in the Middle East. As you mentioned, Saudi Arabia is one of the big stories, I think, of late 2017, with the crown prince just doing all types of things.

Could you speak a little bit more specifically? You said the Vision 2030. What exactly is that, and why should the United States maybe not be so aligned with some of those moves?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: The Vision 2030 is something that is good as far as seeking for economic social reform in Saudi Arabia, which the prince has supported due to the fact that he feels that there is a generational issue in the Kingdom where they want to be more progressive and more moderate. And then, he also sees that with regard to the issues with the oil revenues and all that. He wants to see how he can generate more revenue pouring into Saudi Arabia. So he feels that he has to shift some of the changes that were going on under King Abdullah.

But some of those decisions are a little aggressive, I must say. You saw where I think over 200 officials were arrested, supposedly for corruption, but others say that he did that to consolidate more power under his belt. So there are some concerns there, too.

You saw the issue with the Lebanese [prime minister], where he was meeting with him and then came out of the meeting saying, "I'm stepping down."

So there are some concerns there as far as how they are approaching some of these changes.

The prince has made a lot of speeches in the Kingdom saying that he wants to pursue more reform, make Saudi Arabia more moderate, because that will help modernize the Kingdom. It sounds like a great idea. It's just the 'how' is the concern.

ALEX WOODSON: What have you seen from the Trump administration as far as pushing back on some of these policies, or do you think that they are going along with them?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: The Qatar crisis to me was a big concern. Part of their Vision 2030 is to push back on Iran. So when the Kingdom looked into the situation with Qatar, that was one of the main reasons why they pushed them back and the Qatar crisis happened.

With regard to the response from the Trump administration, more of President Trump, he supported what the Kingdom was doing, knowing that we have U.S. military troops in Doha, and that is important in supporting our Operation Inherent Resolve, our air campaign in Iraq and Syria. To me, that is something that you should have just allowed Saudi Arabia and Qatar to handle and not step in. If you want to try to address the issue, seek for peace, seek for peace talks between the two, not say, "Hey, yes, Qatar, you're wrong." That is where I see that becomes a little more problematic with our decision-making and supporting Saudi Arabia.

Then you also have the concern with regard to Yemen, where the Trump administration has been very supportive in providing massive arms to Saudi Arabia, where it is contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. I agreed with Congress during that time when they said: "Wait. We may have to look at this again on whether we want to continue to authorize these massive arms deals to Saudi Arabia because look at our results. It's contributing to a humanitarian crisis here."

But the Executive Office said: "Hey, we still want to give them massive arms to support their conflict."

I think we are just a little bit too overcommitted with the Kingdom at times, and it is somewhat not in place or does not go along with our values.

ALEX WOODSON: You also mentioned the situation with Jerusalem. The Trump administration has said that they will recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. That set off protests in the Middle East and a lot of outcry from allies. Palestine is not happy about that, obviously.

What are you seeing right now, a few weeks or a month after this announcement was made? What are you seeing right now in the Middle East in regard to this decision?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I see where they are very concerned with U.S. leadership because as a result of making that decision President Trump disregarded a global consensus saying "Please don't do this." He had several of our Sunni Arab allies call him up and say, "Please don't do this," he even had some of our European allies call up and say, "Do not do this," but he disregarded a global consensus.

Then it played out again at the United Nations, where you had about 142 countries who tried to balance against the United States, saying, "We do not condone the decision you made with regard to Jerusalem."

The disregard of the global consensus, knowing that it is in their neighborhood because they know if this happens, the type of security threats that may happen after a decision like this, I think to them is like, "Okay, the United States has changed here." You are starting to see where some of these countries are now tilting toward dealing with Russia or China for some sort of direction in the global community.

ALEX WOODSON: You think that this has increased security threats for the United States in the Middle East?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes, to a certain extent. Before he made that decision, he actually received a report from the State Department saying: "This is a warning here. If you make this decision, there are going to be some sort of massive security threats at U.S. embassies in the region, so please be mindful of that."

I also have a friend who just came back from Mali, and she said that there are ongoing protests going on around the embassy in Mali. So it is creating some sort of security threats toward Americans, especially in U.S. embassies.

ALEX WOODSON: I think we might be in a case where there is so much news that maybe this one has been forgotten about a little for the past few weeks.

There is so much that we could talk about in the Middle East, but one thing that is happening right now, or has happened in the past week, are the protests in Iran. Does that connect to Saudi Arabia, does that connect to Jerusalem, or is that something that is happening—I know Iran is very different than other Middle Eastern countries; they are a Shiite country, and they are a little removed from the region—but is this connected to all the chaos and conflict in the region, or is this just happening on its own, do you think?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I think it is more of a nationalism issue, where the economic issue in Iran has been more of a concern. They were promised as a result of the Iran deal that they would have more economic opportunities like job creation, the economy would do a lot better, so there were a lot of economic promises coming out of the Rouhani administration. But, unfortunately, they have not seen those promises, and that is why they protested.

But what makes it really wild here is that President Trump actually was tweeting about this and he talked about how he supported the people of Iran over the Tehran government, which is very concerning and convoluted because at the end of the day he did not want the Iran deal; he passed it off to Congress. At the same time, the people of Iran want the Iran deal. They just want to see the economic prosperity that comes along with it. So the actions that are coming from the United States do not match what they are trying to do, too.

I do support the fact that the U.S. government has actually said it is okay to support people who want to protest, but the Iran deal situation is what makes it very convoluted because this administration does not want the Iran deal. They passed it on to Congress, making it more of a political risk to secure it.

ALEX WOODSON: A final question: I have had you in here four or five times over the last two or three years and we have talked a lot about ISIS. I think we have reached a point where ISIS does not really have much territory to defend anymore in the Middle East. Maybe the threat has moved to Western Europe. We have seen some ISIS-inspired attacks in New York City over the last few months.

What is the status of the fight against ISIS right now in Syria and Iraq with regard to the U.S. military?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: In Iraq the Iraqis announced recently that they have defeated ISIS; that came from the prime minister. They are right now going through a reconstitution period of trying to piece back the country. And then, you also have in Syria where the Russians have actually said that they are redeploying their forces back to Moscow because they have also defeated ISIS too in Syria. So you are seeing both in Syria and Iraq they feel they have defeated ISIS.

But the concern here is that we have to make sure that ISIS does not reemerge. That is a grave concern. In Iraq the Iraqi security forces or the Baghdad government has to make sure that they are not hiding behind another banner, saying, "Okay, we're part of another organization and we're trying to again do the same thing that ISIS is doing." We have to really focus on whether they have the ability to prevent that from happening. That is the main focus there.

In Syria you are starting to see where Daesh or ISIS have been removed, al-Qaeda is trying to come right back in, especially in the Southern province of Syria, where you are seeing an emergence of al-Qaeda taking over some key areas.

That has been a really big concern for U.S. foreign policy because we have a deescalation zone in Southern Syria. If al-Qaeda is building momentum, pushing out ISIS—well, they are defeating ISIS and then they are also in a way trying to attack the opposition forces that the United States has been working with—that just kind of changes or transforms the battlefield in Southern Syria. So it is becoming more and more complicated.

There is a possibility it could turn into a safe haven for al-Qaeda, which is going to be a little bit similar to the Idlib province up in Northern Syria. So we have to keep a pulse on what to do there, and the United States may have to consider a new counterinsurgency tactic in Southern Syria in order to secure that deescalation zone.

ALEX WOODSON: When you say "al-Qaeda," is this the same al-Qaeda that we dealt with during 9/11 and the years after, or is this a totally new thing just under the banner of al-Qaeda?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes. The al-Qaeda Front, the al-Sham—it is the same one, and they are looking into just trying to take advantage of the battlefield as a result of ISIS being removed out of it. So they see that this is a tactic of opportunity or a vantage point for them to come in and resurface and take over key areas. So the battlefield continues to be more and more complicated.

ALEX WOODSON: I can't believe it has gotten more complicated after all this time, but I guess we have to keep an eye on it.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes.

ALEX WOODSON: That is all I have. We've covered a lot of ground today.

Asha Castleberry, from Fordham University and the Truman National Security Project, thank you so much for coming in. This was great.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Thank you.

ALEX WOODSON: Thanks for listening.

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