By George Friedman
Stratfor Global Intelligence
We do not normally comment on domestic political affairs unless they affect international affairs. However, it is necessary to consider American political affairs because they are likely to have a particular effect on international relations. We have now entered the final phase of Barack Obama’s presidency, and like those of several other presidents since World War II, it is ending in what we call a state of failure. This is not a judgment on his presidency so much as on the political configuration within it and surrounding it.
The midterm elections are over, and Congress and the president are in gridlock. This in itself is not significant; presidents as popular as Dwight Eisenhower found themselves in this condition. The problem occurs when there is not only an institutional split but also a shift in underlying public opinion against the president. There are many more sophisticated analyses of public opinion on politics, but I have found it useful to use this predictive model.
Analyzing a President’s Strength
I assume that underneath all of the churning, about 40 percent of the electorate is committed to each party. Twenty percent is uncommitted, with half of those being indifferent to the outcome of politics and the other half being genuinely interested and undecided. In most normal conditions, the real battle between the parties — and by presidents — is to hold their own bases and take as much of the center as possible.
So long as a president is fighting for the center, his ability to govern remains intact. Thus, it is normal for a president to have a popularity rating that is less than 60 percent but more than 40 percent. When a president’s popularity rating falls substantially below 40 percent and remains there for an extended period of time, the dynamics of politics shift. The president is no longer battling for the center but is fighting to hold on to his own supporters — and he is failing to do so.
When the president’s support has fragmented to the point that he is fighting to recover his base, I considered that a failed presidency — particularly when Congress is in the hands of the opposition. His energy cannot be directed toward new initiatives. It is directed toward recovering his base. And presidents who have fallen into this condition near the end of their presidencies have not been likely to recover and regain the center.
Historically, when the president’s popularity rating has dipped to about 37 percent, his position has been unrecoverable. This is what happened to George W. Bush in 2006. It happened to Richard Nixon in 1974 when the Watergate crisis resulted in his resignation, and to Lyndon Johnson in 1967 during the Vietnam War. It also happened to Harry Truman in 1951, primarily because of the Korean War, and to Herbert Hoover before World War II because of the Great Depression.
However, this is not the final historical note on a presidency. Truman, enormously unpopular and unable to run for another term, is now widely regarded as one of the finest presidents the United States has had. Nixon, on the other hand, has never recovered. This is not therefore a judgment on Obama’s place in history, but simply on his current political condition. Nor does it take failure to lose the presidency; Jimmy Carter was defeated even though his popularity remained well in the 40s.
Of the five failed presidencies I’ve cited, one failed over scandal, one over the economy and three over wars — Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Obama’s case is less clear than any. The 40 percent who gravitated to the opposition opposed him for a host of reasons. He lost the center for complex reasons as well. However, looking at the timing of his decline, the only intruding event that might have had that impact was the rise of the Islamic State and a sense, even in his own party, that he did not have an effective response to it. Historically, extended wars that the president did not appear to have a strategy for fighting have been devastating to the presidency. Woodrow Wilson’s war (World War I) was short and successful. Franklin Roosevelt’s war (World War II) was longer, and although it began in failure it became clear that a successful end was conceivable. The Korean, Vietnam and two Iraq wars suffered not from the length, but from the sense that the presidency did not have a war-ending strategy. Obama appears to me to have fallen into the political abyss because after eight years he owned the war and appeared to have no grip on it.
Failure extends to domestic policy as well. The Republican-controlled legislature can pass whatever legislation it likes, but the president retains veto power, and two-thirds of both houses must vote to override. The problem is that given the president’s lack of popularity — and the fact that the presidency, all of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate will be up for re-election in two years — the president’s allies in Congress are not as willing to be held responsible for upholding his vetoes. Just as few Democrats wanted Obama campaigning for them, so too do few want to join the president in vetoing majority legislation. What broke Truman, Johnson and Nixon was the moment it became clear that their party’s leaders in Congress wanted them gone.
Acting Within Constraints
This does not mean that the president can’t act. It simply means that it is enormously more difficult to act than before. Gerald Ford, replacing Nixon but weakened by the pardoning of his predecessor, could not stop Congress from cutting off aid to South Vietnam during the final Communist assault. George W. Bush was able to launch the surge, but the surge was limited in size, not only because of strategic conditions but also because he had lost the ability to force Congress to fund alternative expansions of the war. In each of the failed presidencies, the president retained the ability to act but was constrained by the twin threats of an opposition-controlled Congress and his own party’s unwillingness to align with him.
At the same time, certain foreign diplomatic initiatives can continue. Nixon initiated negotiations between Egypt and Israel that culminated, under Carter’s administration, in the Camp David Accords. Truman tried to open negotiations with China, and the initiative’s failure had little to do with opposition to a negotiated settlement in Korea.
The president has few domestic options. Whatever Obama does with his power domestically, Congress can vote to cut funding, and if the act is vetoed, the president puts Congressional Democrats in mortal danger. The place where he can act — and this is likely the place Obama is least comfortable acting — is in foreign policy. There, the limited deployment of troops and diplomatic initiatives are possible.
Obama’s general strategy is to withdraw from existing conflicts in the Middle East and contain and limit Russian actions in Ukraine. The president has the ability to bring military and other pressure to bear. But the United States’ opponent is aware that the sitting president is no longer in control of Washington, that he has a specific date of termination and that the more unpopular things he does, the more likely his successor is to repudiate them. Therefore, in the China-North Korea model, the assumption is that that continuing the conflict and negotiating with the successor president is rational. In the same sense, Iran chose to wait for the election of Ronald Reagan rather than deal with Jimmy Carter (who was not a failed president).
This model depends on the opponent’s having the resources and the political will to continue the conflict in order to bargain with the president’s successor, and assumes that the successor will be more malleable. This is frequently the result, since the successor can make concessions more readily than his predecessor. In fact, he can make those concessions and gain points by blaming the need to concede on his predecessor. Ironically, Obama used this strategy after replacing George W. Bush. The failed president frequently tries to entice negotiation by increasing the military pressure on the enemy. Truman, Johnson and George W. Bush all took this path while seeking to end their wars. In no case did it work, but they had little to lose politically by trying.
Therefore, if we follow historical patterns, Obama will now proceed slowly and ineffectively to increase military operations in Syria and Iraq, while raising non-military pressure on Russia, or potentially initiating some low-level military activities in Ukraine. The actions will be designed to achieve a rapid negotiating process that will not happen. The presidency will shift to the other party, as it did with Truman, Johnson and George W. Bush. Thus, if patterns hold true, the Republicans will retake the presidency. This is not a pattern unknown to Congress, which means that the Democrats in the legislature will focus on running their own campaigns as far away from Obama and the next Democratic presidential candidate as possible.
The period of a failed presidency is therefore not a quiet time. The president is actively trying to save his legacy in the face of enormous domestic weakness. Other countries, particularly adversaries, see little reason to make concessions to failed presidents, preferring to deal with the next president instead. These adversaries then use military and political oppositions abroad to help shape the next U.S. presidential campaign in directions that are in their interests.
It is against this backdrop that all domestic activities take place. The president retains the veto, and if the president is careful he will be able to sustain it. Obama will engage in limited domestic politics, under heavy pressure from Congressional Democrats, confining himself to one or two things. His major activity will be coping with Syria, Iraq and Russia, both because of crises and the desire for a legacy. The last two years of a failed presidency are mostly about foreign policy and are not very pleasant to watch.
Originally published: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2014 – 03:00
By Reva Bhalla
Stratfor Global Intelligence
In June 1919, aboard an Allied warship en route to Paris, sat Damat Ferid Pasha, the Grand Vizier of a crumbling Ottoman Empire. The elderly statesman, donning an iconic red fez and boasting an impeccably groomed mustache, held in his hands a memorandum that he was to present to the Allied powers at the Quai d’Orsay. The negotiations on postwar reparations started five months earlier, but the Ottoman delegation was prepared to make the most of its tardy invitation to the talks. As he journeyed across the Mediterranean that summer toward the French shore, Damat Ferid mentally rehearsed the list of demands he would make to the Allied powers during his last-ditch effort to hold the empire together.
He began with a message, not of reproach, but of inculpability: “Gentlemen, I should not be bold enough to come before this High Assembly if I thought that the Ottoman people had incurred any responsibility in the war that has ravaged Europe and Asia with fire and sword.” His speech was followed by an even more defiant memorandum, denouncing any attempt to redistribute Ottoman land to the Kurds, Greeks and Armenians, asserting: “In Asia, the Turkish lands are bounded on the south by the provinces of Mosul and Diyarbakir, as well as a part of Aleppo as far as the Mediterranean.” When Damat Ferid’s demands were presented in Paris, the Allies were in awe of the gall displayed by the Ottoman delegation. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George regarded the presentation as a “good joke,” while U.S. President Woodrow Wilson said he had never seen anything more “stupid.” They flatly rejected Damat Ferid’s apparently misguided appeal — declaring that the Turks were unfit to rule over other races, regardless of their common Muslim identity — and told him and his delegation to leave. The Western powers then proceeded, through their own bickering, to divide the post-Ottoman spoils.
The Turkish Fight for Mosul
The Turks, in no shape to bargain with London and mired in a deep internal debate over whether Turkey should forego these lands and focus instead on the benefits of a downsized republic, lost the argument and were forced to renounce their claims to the Mosul territory in 1925. As far as the Brits and the French were concerned, the largely Kurdish territory would serve as a vital buffer space to prevent the Turks from eventually extending their reach from Asia Minor to territories in Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia. But the fear of Turkish expansion was not the only factor informing the European strategy to keep northern Iraq out of Turkish hands.
The Oil Factor
Since the days of Herodotus and Nebuchadnezzar, there have been stories of eternal flames arising from the earth of Baba Gurgur near the town of Kirkuk. German explorer and cartographer Carsten Niebuhr wrote in the 18th century: “A place called Baba Gurgur is above all remarkable because the earth is so hot that eggs and meat can be boiled here.” The flames were in fact produced by the natural gas and naphtha seeping through cracks in the rocks, betraying the vast quantities of crude oil lying beneath the surface. London wasted little time in calling on geologists from Venezuela, Mexico, Romania and Indochina to study the land and recommend sites for drilling. On Oct. 14, 1927, the fate of Kirkuk was sealed: A gusher rising 43 meters (around 140 feet) erupted from the earth, dousing the surrounding land with some 95,000 barrels of crude oil for 10 days before the well could be capped. With oil now part of the equation, the political situation in Kirkuk became all the more flammable.
The British mostly imported Sunni Arab tribesmen to work the oil fields, gradually reducing the Kurdish majority and weakening the influence of the Turkmen minority in the area. The Arabization project was given new energy when the Arab Baath Socialist Party came to power through a military coup in 1968. Arabic names were given to businesses, neighborhoods, schools and streets, while laws were adjusted to pressure Kurds to leave Kirkuk and transfer ownership of their homes and lands to Arabs. Eviction tactics turned ghastly in 1988 under Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign, during which chemical weapons were employed against the Kurdish population. The Iraqi government continued with heavy-handed tactics to Arabize the territory until the collapse of the Baathist regime in 2003. Naturally, revenge was a primary goal as Kurdish factions worked quickly to repopulate the region with Kurds and drive the Arabs out.
Even as Kirkuk, its oil-rich fields and a belt of disputed territories stretching between Diyala and Nineveh provinces have remained officially under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, the Kurdish leadership has sought to redraw the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. After the Iraqi Kurdish region gained de facto autonomy with the creation of a no-fly zone in 1991 and then formally coalesced into the Kurdistan Regional Government after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdish influence gradually expanded in the disputed areas. Kurdish representation increased through multi-ethnic political councils, facilitated by the security protection these communities received from the Kurdish peshmerga and by the promise of energy revenues, while Baghdad remained mired in its own problems. Formally annexing Kirkuk and parts of Nineveh and Diyala, part of the larger Kurdish strategy, would come in due time. Indeed, the expectation that legalities of the annexation process would soon be completed convinced a handful of foreign energy firms to sign contracts with the Kurdish authorities — as opposed to Baghdad — enabling the disputed territories to finally begin realizing the region’s energy potential.
Then the unexpected happened: In June, the collapse of the Iraqi army in the north under the duress of the Islamic State left the Kirkuk fields wide open, allowing the Kurdish peshmerga to finally and fully occupy them. Though the Kurds now sit nervously on the prize, Baghdad, Iran, local Arabs and Turkmen and the Islamic State are eyeing these fields with a predatory gaze. At the same time, a motley force of Iran-backed Shiite militias, Kurdish militants and Sunni tribesmen are trying to flush the Islamic State out of the region in order to return to settling the question of where to draw the line on Kurdish autonomy. The Sunnis will undoubtedly demand a stake in the oil fields that the Kurds now control as repayment for turning on the Islamic State, guaranteeing a Kurdish-Sunni confrontation that Baghdad will surely exploit.
The Turkish Dilemma
The modern Turkish government is looking at Iraq and Syria in a way similar to how Damat Ferid did almost a century ago when he sought in Paris to maintain Turkish sovereignty over the region. From Ankara’s point of view, the extension of a Turkish sphere of influence into neighboring Muslim lands is the antidote to weakening Iraqi and Syrian states. Even if Turkey no longer has direct control over these lands, it hopes to at least indirectly re-establish its will through select partners, whether a group of moderate Islamist forces in Syria or, in northern Iraq, a combination of Turkmen and Sunni factions, along with a Kurdish faction such as Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. The United States may currently be focused on the Islamic State, but Turkey is looking years ahead at the mess that will likely remain. This is why Turkey is placing conditions on its involvement in the battle against the Islamic State: It is trying to convince the United States and its Sunni Arab coalition partners that it will inevitably be the power administering this region. Therefore, according to Ankara, all players must conform to its priorities, beginning with replacing Syria’s Iran-backed Alawite government with a Sunni administration that will look first to Ankara for guidance.
However, the Turkish vision of the region simply does not fit the current reality and is earning Ankara more rebuke than respect from its neighbors and the West. The Kurds, in particular, will continue to form the Achilles’ heel of Turkish policymaking.
In Syria, where the Islamic State is closing in on the city of Kobani on Turkey’s border, Ankara is faced with the unsavory possibility that it will be drawn into a ground fight with a well-equipped insurgent force. Moreover, Turkey would be fighting on the same side as a variety of Kurdish separatists, including members of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Ankara has every interest in neutralizing.
Turkey faces the same dilemma in Iraq, where it may unwittingly back Kurdish separatists in its fight against the Islamic State. Just as critical, Turkey cannot be comfortable with the idea that Kirkuk is in the hands of the Iraqi Kurds unless Ankara is assured exclusive rights over that energy and the ability to extinguish any oil-fueled ambitions of Kurdish independence. But Turkey has competition. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is not willing to make itself beholden to Turkey, as did Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, while financial pressures continue to climb. Instead, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is staying close to Iran and showing a preference to work with Baghdad. Meanwhile, local Arab and Turkmen resistance to Kurdish rule is rising, a factor that Baghdad and Iran will surely exploit as they work to dilute Kurdish authority by courting local officials in Kirkuk and Nineveh with promises of energy rights and autonomy.
This is the crowded battleground that Turkey knows well. A long and elaborate game of “keep away” will be played to prevent the Kurds from consolidating control over oil-rich territory in the Kurdish-Arab borderland, while the competition between Turkey and Iran will emerge into full view. For Turkey to compete effectively in this space, it will need to come to terms with the reality that Ankara will not defy its history by resolving the Kurdish conundrum, nor will it be able to hide within its borders and avoid foreign entanglements.
Turkey, the Kurds and Iraq: The Prize and Peril of Kirkuk is republished with permission of Stratfor.