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The relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia

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In the period from 2009 to 2013 when Hillary Clinton was US Secretary of State, Saudi Arabia contributed with at least 10 million US dollars to the Clinton Foundation.

Especially in the phases when, incidentally, Hillary Clinton permitted the sale of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia

As stated by Prince Regent Mohammed Bin Salman in an interview released in 2016 to the Jordanian news agency “Petra”, Saudi Arabia also paid over 20% of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

However, it also subsidized the other candidates to the US Presidency, although to a lesser extent.

In the political campaign for the US Presidency, no foreign investor puts all his/her eggs in the same basket – just to follow a typical US piece of advice.

Moreover, like Russia and other countries, also the Saudi Kingdom has always backed both US presidential candidates financially.

During the electoral campaign, Trump theorized the ban on entry into the USA of tourists and migrants from most Islamic States, including Saudi Arabia. He was also harshly criticized by Prince Muhammad Bin Salman and by the famous Saudi multimillionaire, Al Walid bin Talal, the owner of the Kingdon Holding Company of Riyadh, a huge world financial holding, with packages of personal shares in Coca Cola, AOL, Amazon, Apple until 2005, Pepsi Cola, Fininvest, as well as a 5% shareholding in Rupert Murdoch’s media companies, and many other investments that it is even useless to mention here.

After becoming US President, Trump apologized and made his first trip abroad to Saudi Arabia in May 20-22, 2017. It was there that he placed his hands on an illuminated globe that marked the birthof the Global Center for Combating Terrorism in Riyadh.

Once released from his prison in the Ritz Carlton of Riyadh on January 27, Al Walid bin Talal, the nephew of Saudi King Abdullah, paid a 6 billion dollar fine to the winning faction of the royal family, led by Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

After finally realizing to what extent the Wahabite Kingdom is important for the US economy, also Trump has relented and seen reason with the Al Saud’s dynasty.

In an interview with Fox News Night TV released on October 19 last, the US President said that he was interested in knowing the truth about the assassination of Saudi journalist Kashoggi – who, indeed, was also resident in the USA – recently occurred in his country’s Consulate in Istanbul.  Nevertheless, President Trump has refused to stop all the arms sales to Saudi Arabia for this reason.

At the end of May 2017, during his first trip abroad, precisely to Saudi Arabia, Donald J. Trump also signed a contract for the sale of arms and for other economic transactions with Riyadh – an agreement worth as many as 110 billion US dollars immediately and additional 350 billion dollars over the next ten years, with the political aim of countering Daesh-Isis, in particular.

The purchases include 18 billion dollars for C4 systems (Command, Control, Communications and Computers);  13.5 billion dollars for seven THAAD units (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), anti-missile defense systems;  6.65 billion dollars for the old Patriot-class anti-missile systems; 25 billion dollars for the recapitalization of the Saudi purchase of the F-35 fighters; 5.8 billion dollars for three KC130J and 20 C130J transport aircraft;  6 billion dollars for 4 coastal battleships and additional 11.5 billion dollars for ships already ordered by Saudi Arabia in 2015 and blocked by former President Obama, although with the interested pressure of his Secretary of State.

Other Saudi investments are aimed at spy planes, fine electronics, troop movement and ground attack vehicles, as well as the purchase of Apache helicopters and M1A2 tanks, and finally for many human and computer-interactive military training programs for all the Saudi Armed Forces.

Clearly Saudi Arabia has turned a blind eye to the technological upgrading of the weapon systems ordered – far more advanced than the level of current purchases – but in view of a strong future bond with the United States.

Saudi official sources also state that until May 2017 the Kingdom suffered over 60 terrorist attacks by Isis-Daesh and Al Qaeda, with over 25 of them over the last two years.

According to the documents of the Saudi Center for Combating Terrorism, over 200 Saudi citizens, including policemen and civilians, have been killed by Islamist terrorism.

It is strange that a deeply Islamic State defines the “sword jihad” as “terrorism”, as if it did not know what the jihad rules and techniques are.

Some terminologies are used only by Western States, which have not yet well understood what is happening in the Islamic religious and political universe.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia claims to have organized at least 341 air raids against the positions of the self-proclaimed Caliphate in Syria, thus resulting the second counterterrorist power operating in the region after the United States.

Nothing to do, however, with the air raids of the Russian Federation, which the US intelligence services have already counted to thousands.

Reverting to the Saudi Kingdom, the Wahhabi regime has also started to control private donations to the self-proclaimed Caliphate.

A special and semi-secret Counter ISIL Finance Group between Saudi Arabia, the United States and Italy was created in 2015, with a view to countering the financial networks of the Caliphate.

Saudi Arabia alone has also established a Financial Intelligence Unit, which is also member of the Egmont Group, a network of 159 Financial Intelligence Units between EU, “dangerous” countries and Middle East networks.

Moreover, regardless of their being registered in the Kingdom, the Saudi charities can operate only through the Riyadh center of the Saudi Red Crescent and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid. Any autonomous fundraising through mosques and even through the mere charity public centers is forbidden.

Money transfers without a license (accounting for 60% of the total transfers) are also banned, but there are also sanctions against Hezbollah.

Two birds with one stone, of course.

Until September 30, 2017 -that is the end of the last fiscal year available -the United States sold as many as 55.6 billion US dollars of arms worldwide, that is over 33% more than the previous year.

As President Trump has declared openly, he does not want “to stop a 110 billion dollar investment in the United States” – a sum that, however, also includes the 23 billion dollars of Saudi arms purchases, those already granted by the former Obama administration.

At least since 2012, one fifth of all US foreign arms sales has gone to Saudi Arabia.

One third of all arms sales in the world originates from the United States.

Half of US arms sales, however, goes to the whole Middle East and Africa.

With specific reference to the weapon systems, the largest share of US exports is in the aeronautics sector, followed by the missile sector and finally by the ground weapon systems and transport vehicles.

The countries buying more weapons from the USA are Saudi Arabia, Poland, Japan, Romania, Bahrain, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Greece and Singapore.

Reverting to Saudi Arabia, a royal decree of April 22, 2017 appointed Khalid bin Salman Al Saud -the son of the current King and former pilot of fighter aircraft, who demonstrated excellence in dangerous missions against the self-proclaimed Syrian-Iraqi Caliphate – as the new Saudi Ambassador to the United States.

On October 2, 2018, with his usual frankness, President Trump stated that the Saudi Kingdom would collapse in two weeks without the US protection.

It is true and the current Prince and leader of Saudi Arabia knows it all too well. It is not yet certain that the Kingdom will last only two weeks without the United States, but it knows it is at risk.

Hence Prince Muhammad bin Salman is newly recreating the traditional relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, in spite of the unfortunate incident of the journalist Khashoggi, by underlining two important factors such as the relevance of the Wahabi Kingdom’s investments for the United States, which are now essential for this country, and the bilateral and strategic relationship with the United States that the Al Saud’s dynasty hopes will become even more stable.

Without America, Saudi Arabia is lost. Without Saudi Arabia the United States would definitely become poorer, and no President can accept this.

This holds true also for Yemen, where, since 2015, the United States has been training, arming and sharing intelligence with the Saudis against the Houthi, the Shiite guerrillas of the seventh Imam, obviously organized by Iran. What if the Saudis were afraid of one thing only, i.e. the uprising of the Shiites who are many in the area of their main oil wells?

It was exactly in 2015, the year when King Salman came to the throne and immediately delegated power to his son Mohammed.

Hence a military exchange on an equal footing between the United States and Saudi Arabia? Let us analyze the oil situation between the two countries more closely. Ultimately this is what really matters. However, we will talk about it at a later stage.

Meanwhile, however, let us see how Saudi Arabia presses the US companies and the economy, not only with the most well-known shareholdings.

At the time of the assassination of journalist Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the Emirates’ Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nayhan, immediately expressed his full support for Saudi Arabia.

Even Oman, which had certainly not been a supporter of the Saudi-led anti-Iranian coalition, supported the Kingdom in that harsh situation.

Also the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Abdullatif Al Zayani, supported Saudi Arabia.

Even the Secretary-General of the Arab League, however, has recently expressed his support for Saudi Arabia.

At strategic and economic levels, harshly punishing the Saudi Kingdom for the assassination of journalist Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate of Istanbul – an assassination which has currently turned out to be premeditated and particularly brutal – leaves no other chance for Prince Muhammad bin Salman than resorting to the usual countermoves.

Some Saudi leaders have openly mentioned the “oil weapon”, which would be used as a hefty club against European oil consumers, and not as it happened after the Kippur war of October 6-25, 1973 – when someone, namely ENI, escaped the grip of the Saudi-led OPEC.

If the oil price increased, also the US economy would suffer inflationary pressures and pressure on interest rates. This would greatly slow the US economic growth down – and the EU one even more.

Europeans should not believe they can use the Russian oil and gas to counteract the rise in Saudi and Sunni OPEC prices.

Russia fully agrees with OPEC and will not give up a general increase in the oil barrel and natural gas prices.

Certainly the increase in the oil barrel price, which is supposed to reach approximately 90 US dollars by next year, would favor the sale of shale oil and natural gas – a production which has doubled in the United States, but with a shorter price cycle: higher prices generate greater supply, which inevitably leads to a subsequent lowering of the oil barrel price.

The less Iranian oil on the market, the greater tension for the price increase – not to mention the reduction of the Russian and OPEC supply and the almost cessation of extraction in Venezuela for the well-known internal political reasons.

All this happens while the demand for oil and gas is increasing rapidly all over the world.

Combining the restriction to the Saudi and Sunni OPEC production with the growth of US production, it is certain that the growth of the North American supply has significantly reduced the Saudi power to exert pressure. In fact, Saudi Arabia can raise prices only in a way not stimulating a further growth of the extractive production in the United States.

Hence the “oil war” that Prince Mohammed bin Salman has in mind – if it were to start – would lead to a great energy crisis, stronger in Europe than in the United States.

Naturally the weak and now demented European Union has said nothing serious in this phase.

If Europe thinks President Trump can pull its chestnuts out of the fire, it is completely wrong.

The US President does not like Europe at all. He will soon put an end to the German trade surplus and he can scarcely bear NATO. Even Israel, however, has no regard for this EU and not even Russia takes it too seriously.

In this framework of isolation, Europe does not even pursue its most immediate interests.

Every day it only deals with pseudo-economic matters and quarrels with its South that some German economists would already like to leave to the fate of a “Southern” Euro to be separated from the “Northern” Euro.

We will see how the monetary competition between the two “Euros” will be structured – a competition which could be fatal for the Northern and Southern versions of the unsuccessful European monetary union.

A currency that would like to be global, but without the characteristics of a lender of last resort it makes us laugh. Nevertheless, the EU leaders still believe in it.

The economy is made up of geopolitics and global strategy, not the other way round.

The old neoclassical handbooks which are read in Strasbourg and Brussels are now antiques.

If the United States or other countries were to apply sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – who is in a hurry to relinquish the too oil-led economy which, however, made the huge fortunes of his country – would have very good cards to play.

Certainly, since 2015 Saudi Arabia has had public budgets in the red. For the first time in its financial history it has issued public debt securities. Probably it has also problems of slow depletion of some wells, in addition to the insecurity generated by the essential fact that their maximum extraction area has a very strong Shiite minority, on which Iran is constantly operating – from Bahrain and from Oman, which turns a blind eye.

The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF)is a sovereign fund which largely operates in the United States, in Europe and in Asia.

The aforementioned Sovereign Fund of Riyadh has a 5% shareholding of Tesla, as well as other stakes in Tesla’s direct competitor, namely Lucid Motors. It has invested 3.5 billion dollars in Uber, the global leader of unlicensed taxis, as well as 20 billion dollars in a US infrastructure fund managed by Blackstone. PIF has built three new cities on the Red Sea coast and invested 45 billion dollars in the Soft Bank. Furthermore, the Prince Regent –  who directly leads PIF – said he wanted to invest additional 170 billion dollars over the next three to four years.

However, Saudi Arabia has also other geoeconomic weapons in its hands: in the United States, PIF owns 70% of Sabic, a large plastics-producing company. There are also the Saudi Telecom Company and the Saudi Electricity, with significant shareholdings in the sector in North America. There is also the aforementioned Blackstone Fund for Infrastructure, as well as a 45% shareholding of the National Commercial Bank, the Saudi Arabian Mining Company, the Entertainment Investment Company and the Fund of Funds.

PIF has also Saudi investments in Europe: the main ones are in Krups, Siemens, Arcelor Mittal and in many other sectors and small and medium-size enterprises.

PIF has also operations in place, of a size comparable to those in the USA, China, Pakistan, Russia, Ukraine and  the Philippines.

In South Africa, the Saudi government is negotiating with the Denel arms factory for cooperation with the Kingdom’s defense industries.

According to the Saudi press sources, the country would already have in mind at least 30 major operations to harshly respond to the possible US sanctions for the Khashoggi case.

They would not be oil sanctions, but rather financial, banking and industrial sanctions.

A “Samson” operation is also planned, with a fast and very significant reduction in oil production, capable of making the oil barrel price jump up to an incredible level of 400 US dollars.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman could also block the purchases of weapons already planned in the USA – and it is worth recalling that the Saudi Kingdom is the second largest importer of weapons in the world.

The Prince Regent has also invested significantly in the Silicon Valley industries, which he is integrating into the Saudi Giga Projects.

Finally, the Saudi investment line could head to countries such as China, Russia and India, instead of the USA and the EU.

Egypt, too, would soon participate in this game, with currently unpredictable consequences in the Maghreb region, and especially in Libya – where Egypt is the major supporter of General Khalifa Haftar – as well as in the United Arab Emirates.

A transition from the West to the East that would probably be the tombstone of Western economic and financial development.

It would also create a structural financial crisis in the United States, which could partly retaliate by unleashing a harsh trade war precisely with the European Union.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Biden’s victory: An Opportunity for Transatlantic Reconciliation after Trump and Brexit?

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Joe Biden’s victory Last November came at a critical point during the Brexit negotiations between The European Union and the United Kingdom. There has been a lot of speculation as to whether a change in the American presidency will substantially affect the talks between Europe and Britain. Realistically speaking, the effect the Democrats’ victory in the US will have, at least on Brexit talks before the end of this year, will be minimal.

On a positive note, now that Donald Trump has been defeated, this leaves very little room for the UK to use the threat of a quicker and better deal with the US to try to subdue the EU and make them accept a more pro British agenda. The UK has no longer the US is an alternative to fall back onto if no deal is the result of the negotiations by December 31st.

Since the 2016 British referendum, the decision to leave the EU was enthusiastically greeted by Donald Trump. In very simplistic terms, Trump saw The British “Yes” vote as an act that vaguely resembled his campaign slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again.” The long standing, more loyal foreign policy ally of the US in Europe, was slowly showing signs to move away from the multilateralism Donald Trump greatly despised.

Ever since the outcome of the Brexit referendum became official, Donald Trump voiced his strong support for the UK to pursue a hard Brexit, and even enticed the British government with the prospect of a robust trade deal between the US and the UK, to convince the UK to drop out of the EU without a deal. In reality, none of those big American promises ever materialised. From 2016 to 2020, Donald Trump did absolutely nothing to support the UK. Biden’s victory last November, makes any past promises made by Trump impossible to fulfil.

Biden will, in principle, follow a diametrically opposed foreign policy to Trump’s. He sees the EU, and not the UK, ask the key actor that will help him advance American interests in the European continent. While there have been mutual expressions of willingness to strengthen the relationship between the Americans and the British, Joe Biden has always been skeptical of Brexit, and has made it clear from the start that one of his priorities in foreign policy will be to rebuild the relationship with the EU rather than pursuing a trade deal with the UK.

Ideally, should the UK try to have some sort of leverage to negotiate with the incoming American administration, they need to aim to strike a workable deal between with the EU before the end of this year. That, however, seems unlikely to happen. From an American perspective, it is highly probable that the Biden’s administration will not prioritise any UK-US trade deal in the foreseeable future. There is a strong possibility that Joe Biden will focus on domestic and close neighbours (Canada and Mexico) Issues during his first year in the presidency.

While this is understandable, considering the legacy of the Trump, Biden also has to be careful enough to avoid the temptation to play hardball with the UK because of Brexit. If he does, this could prove to be a fatal mistake with long lasting consequences, specially in a moment when the West is struggling with its own internal weaknesses and the rise of external threats to its unity.

One aspect that both Europe and the US have to acknowledge is that the importance of the UK goes beyond striking a trade deal with the EU. Looking at the rise of more geographically widespread authoritarian and antidemocratic pressures from central, Eastern Europe, China and Russia, the UK is still plays an important role on the continent’s security. Talks on further cooperation on how the EU and the UK will cooperate on foreign and security policy once the transition period ends on 31st of December 2020 have not yet been held. The UK, unfortunately, is likely to remain a crucial partner on such topics especially due to its role as a prominent and active member of NATO, and therefore, talks on this issues should not be left unaddressed.

The UK is aware of its importance militarily, and this explains the £24.1 billion investment announced by the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, this year. This is the largest investment since the end of the Cold War and it aims to modernise the armed forces, as well as to expand the Royal Navy to turn it into the largest fleet in Europe.

This move will enhance the UK’s status as Europe’s leading military power. The UK has also been among the first respondents to recent security crisis in Ukraine and Belarus. Not engaging with the UK altogether in security and foreign policy issues may prove to be detrimental in the long run for the security in the EU, especially considering the rising tensions and instability in the Ring of Fire, from Belarus to Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) allow for intergovernmental cooperation, this means that  states can pursue their own policies and coordinate them only when they align with the EU’s. The CSDP also allows EU member states to intervene when NATO as an alliance chooses not to. To date, there are 17 of such interventions, in all of these, the UK has been the biggest contributor.

Security is an area of opportunity for Europe and the US, Biden could potentially push for the Europeans to grant the UK an observer role in the Political and Security Committee, or the Foreign Policy Council to advance a common security and foreign policy for the region that wouldn’t only benefit Europe, but also the US interests in the wider European area.

Recently, the UK has been an advocate of what is called a “Global Britain” that echoes the times of the great British Empire’s prominence as a global player. How this will be achieved is still unclear. This grand strategy may fare impossible under current economic and political conditions in the UK and in the world, as well as with the uncertainty surrounding the future relationship of the UK with its neighbours after Brexit.

Anything can happen, the UK could pursue a close, special relationship with Europe where cooperation is prioritised, or there could be a more profound break between the two, where the UK sets its own agenda against the EU’s. For decades, the terms Europe and the EU have been used interchangeably. Now that one of the major European players is out of the organisation, both sides have not yet worked out how the future relationship will be. If it continues to be antagonistic this could send the whole continent into a spiral of chaos, reduced capabilities an increased volatility.

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Exit the Clowns: Post-Trump America

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Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

As America emerges from the election in grindingly slow fashion, with the soon-to-be-ex-President constantly tweeting frivolous accusations of voter fraud and threats about legal action, it is worthwhile to take stock currently as to just where America sits and what it faces over the next two months before the official Biden inauguration (and yes, there will indeed be a Biden inauguration, have no doubt about that). The following is simply a list of points that should continue to be considered and analyzed as the United States moves away from this four-year experiment with political nihilism:

Perhaps the only thing even remotely positive to emerge from the global pandemic known as COVID-19 is the fact that it clearly allowed the United States to get over some of its traditional political institutional inertia when it comes to encouraging and motivating voter participation. While America has always had mechanisms to allow absentee voting for those overseas and regulations permitting early voting in every single state, these tools have always been extremely minor when compared to the overall voter turnout. America has by and large always been a “turn out on election day” people. This year was clearly different, where the Biden-Harris team literally emphasized early voting for two main reasons: first, to get people to stay motivated even in the face of increasingly disturbing pandemic numbers and cases of new infections all across the country; second, to countermand the varied strategies local Republican officials in the modern day have come to constantly use to depress voter turnout amongst registered Democrats on election day (like voter ID initiatives that are confusing and/or outright illegal). This strategy, in the end, will be seen as crucially important to the Biden-Harris victory as it was the counting of early voting in the wee hours of election day that turned the tide in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia while solidifying crucial leads in places like Arizona and Nevada. Eventually, this pandemic must end. So, it will be fascinating to see if the United States treats all the ways it gave voters the chance to vote in 2020 as a one-off never to be repeated or as a new approach to democratic participation that becomes a cherished new political tradition.

In my adult lifetime, most people in America celebrated breaking the 50% barrier when it came to voter turnout. This is a depressingly low number when it represents the oldest and most stable democracy in the world. 2020 saw eligible voter turnout at about the 65% level. To be sure, this is still not earth-shattering. But it is without doubt a significant increase for a population that tends to always find reasons to not participate, rather than finding inspiration to get out and vote. The physical numbers overall – over 80 million for Biden-Harris and roughly 75 million for Trump-Pence – reveal a true divide in American society that is likely to remain long after Trump’s departure from the White House. Which is entirely appropriate when you consider the fact that there is no such thing as Trumpism. The wave of voter dissatisfaction with Washington DC, that portion of the population that is largely white and non-affluent and feeling disenfranchised by elites, this phenomenon began long before Trump ever made a decision to run for President back in 2014. What Trump did, brilliantly it must be said, was position himself to become the figurehead of this dissatisfaction, tapping into the anger and frustration and elevating his own persona as its leader. The fact that some astute political experts are now even using the term “Trumpism” is a perfect analogy to how Trump has spent most of his business career: catching the tail-end of trends and using deft PR and brand management expertise to usurp the trend entirely. This is why people on the Left of the political spectrum in America need to be vigilant about what the 2020 election truly means. It is a worthy achievement to have won the Presidency, but most current analyses show something of a slight regression in the House of Representatives (so that Democrats’ control has slightly dwindled) and the Senate is going to remain in control of Republicans. This means the classic adage of cutting the head off the snake is irrelevant: this hydra has many heads and getting rid of the symbolic alpha head is not going to reduce the passion of the other side. In fact, given the advanced age of Biden making it unlikely that he can pursue a legitimate second term in 2024, it is far more likely America will see a resurgence of radically right conservatism by  the next electoral cycle to make sure there is no President Harris taking over after one term of Biden.

There are definitely voter trends that emerged new from 2020 that will be analyzed for years to come in terms of their long-term impact on future elections. First, it is clear the Republican cliché that only the extreme coasts of America are liberal and all the rest is conservative is dead. Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia all going blue prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Efforts made in the major urban cities of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Georgia show that ethnic minority turnout is not just becoming increasingly important, but it literally decides the fate of these given states for future elections. Not every data point, however, spelled positivity for liberals in 2020. The delivery of Florida for Trump but Arizona for Biden shows there is a sharpening divide between the political leanings of Cuban Latinx in FLA and Mexican Latinx in AZ. Also, while it was once considered a crucial part of Democrats’ presidential strategies and then became a critical “purple” state that could go either way, it seems clear that Ohio is now de facto a part of the Deep South politically, leaning solidly red with no real strategy to unhook it from Republican devotion. Finally, it will be interesting to see if the relatively unimportant states of Maine and Nebraska lead the way to a new proportional approach to electoral college votes. Both of these states actually saw a single vote out of their overall low electoral college vote counts split off and go against the overall will of the state. One EC vote in Nebraska went to Biden while the rest went to Trump. In Maine, the reverse happened: one went to Trump while the rest went to Biden. After the uproar in 2016, where Clinton defeated Trump in the popular vote by a secure margin but actually lost the electoral college handily, it would be interesting to see if Maine and Nebraska represent a new way to adapt the electoral college without actually getting rid of it.

Good-bye to the Nihilist CEO as President trend. One of the things I was most interested in seeing in the 2020 election was a reversal of the “Nihilist CEO” trend. I call it this because it basically came to be the overriding zeitgeist of the Trump presidency. Initially, Trump was interested in simply governing as a conservative President, but with a real agenda and goals. As mentioned before with the term “Trumpism,” this more traditional approach did not sit well with the radical conservatives that felt responsible for putting him in office. For them, ‘draining the swamp’ was not a process of replacing liberals with conservatives: it meant literally and figuratively razing the Washington DC establishment to the ground and salting over the earth so that nothing could ever politically grow again. This is why so many Trump appointments to the Cabinet and to major agencies were given to people who had literally spent their professional careers working against those very agencies. So, we had anti-environmentalists in charge of the EPA; an Education secretary who wanted to dismantle public education; energy appointments wedded to fossil fuels and wholly disinterested in new energy resources. The list goes on and on. In each case, what became obvious, was that those who were the most fervent for Trump were de facto anarchists about Washington, so deep-rooted was their hatred for DC. With Biden’s clear victory and his own long career in politics, it is obvious this approach will get jettisoned to the wayside. It is a return to expertise. A return to experience and traditionalism. The Trump clowns are exiting. Time will tell if they are simply replaced by Biden clowns or by true experts looking to work hard for the nation.

Ironic justice: the Electoral College Vote Count. Finally, it is deeply ironic that, in the end, the electoral college vote for Biden vs. Trump in 2020 will almost be a perfect inverse mirror of Trump vs. Clinton in 2016. Trump may have lost the popular vote in 2016, but he was always adamant that his electoral college win (304 to 227) was so “lopsided” that it meant he was sent to the White House with a decided mandate. Well, when all the votes are finally counted and verified in 2020, the electoral count will most likely be Biden 303 to Trump 228. This is why his claims of election fraud or malfeasance are so empty and ridiculous. Not only did Trump once again lose the popular vote (by a wider margin this time), he lost the electoral college vote by the same margin he claimed brought him so much political legitimacy in 2016. Ironic justice, indeed.

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A Dangerous Interregnum

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Authors: Zlatko Hadžidedić and Adnan Idrizbegović*

Less than two months are left for the transition of government in the United States of America. Not a long period, but sufficient to trigger processes that the next American administration would not be able to reverse. There are no reasons to doubt that President Trump, who still refuses to concede the election defeat, will try to make the future of the Biden Administration as difficult as possible. In this context, let us remember that President Trump hails the abandonment of the nuclear treaty with Iran as his highest achievement, so it would be reasonable to assume that he would do almost anything in his power to make this very step irreversible. The question of whether that includes the option of a military attack on Iran, therefore, hangs in the air.    

We are witnessing a current concentration of American air power in Iran’s neighbourhood. This particularly refers to strategic B52 bombers and F16s from American bases in Europe. Further arrival of F35s in the region would increase the likelihood of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. This likelihood might also be increased with the announced arrival of the aircraft carrier Nimitz into the Gulf waters. As news agencies reported, the military option of that type had already been seriously considered by President Trump and his advisors, although it did not enjoy a high degree of support among the highest US military officers. In the forthcoming period, as long as Trump sits in the White House, it is realistic to expect that this dispute between the military and the Administration will gain in intensity, given the fact that President Trump’s team is well-known for its stubborn sticking to its original agenda.

In this context, it must be noted that the nuclear treaty with Iran was declared as one of President Obama’s greatest foreign policy successes. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a detailed agreement with five annexes reached by Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany). The nuclear deal was endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and Iran’s compliance with the nuclear-related provisions of the JCPOA was verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It was a groundbreaking agreement that satisfied security concerns of Americans, Iranians, Arabs, Europeans, as well as others, opening the gates for Iran’s readmission onto the global scene. By adopting this treaty, Iran left its position of a pariah state. By betraying the treaty, President Trump has transformed the favourite role of the US as a leader of the free world into that of a pariah state. Does that imply his willingness to go even further in his rejection of all norms of international law, by launching a military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, as a logical continuation of his unlawful withdrawal from the ratified international treaty? 

From President Trump’s perspective, such an action should prevent a quick and easy return of the US to the treaty in the post-Trump period. A war in the Gulf should lead to an instant rise of oil prices; consequently, it should also lead to the strengthening of the US dollar, linked to the prices of oil. In the times of the failing global economy, additionally burdened by the crippling effects of the pandemic, this would be the most favourable impetus to the withering economy of the US. The rise of oil prices would also have a negative effect on the manufacturing-oriented economies of American competitors in China and Europe. This rise would also strengthen the military industrial interests in the US, commonly backing the Republican Party, potentially at the expense of the financial ones, which traditionally stand behind the Democratic Party. 

A thorough, or even only partial, destruction of the Iranian nuclear programme would certainly be the most favourable outcome for hardliners on both sides, and President Trump probably sees it as a chance to either remain in power despite the election results, or to undermine the position of the future Administration. No doubt, that would trigger a robust return of Iranian hardliners to power in the forthcoming elections, which would probably close the door to negotiations with Iran for the President-elect. Most likely, it would give a strong push to the Tehran radicals to renew the nuclear programme, this time exclusively for military purposes. Since an attack itself would probably be launched from the US military bases in the region, it would also trigger an Iranian retaliatory attack on these countries. Such a development would probably strengthen homogeneity among the cornered Arab NATO countries, such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar, pushing them further into Israeli arms. This would also bring the Sunni-Shiite rift beyond the point of repair. Needless to say, most hardliners, not only in the West, would be absolutely delighted with that result. 

According to President Trump’s orders, the ongoing withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, as well as Syria, must be completed 5 days before the transfer of power to the Biden Administration. The withdrawal itself (complete or partial) shall leave an enormous strategic gap, for which there is no alternative to fill the void. Such an exit strategy is without precedent in the American military history, especially given the monumental costs attached to the invading enterprise that took place in these three countries. President Trump’s orders, therefore, imply that another gigantic calculus may be at play this time, a calculus of lasting global significance. Let us remember that an absolute departure of all foreign troops from the region was, actually, Iran’s demand after the assassination of the commander of the Iranian Republican Guard, Kasseem Suleymani. Does that mean that President Trump has accepted Iranian rules, or even supremacy, in the Gulf? Does it mean that President Trump would abandon American allies in the Middle East, from Israel to Saudi Arabia? And what will happen with oil, hitherto controlled by American companies, which exploited it due to the American military presence? Of course, if President Trump is not abandoning literally all American positions, alliances and interests in the region, it is likely that he must have some other strategic rationale. Perhaps cutting the military expenditures sounds acceptable to the ears of the American public. However, it is not sufficient to justify the magnitude of the shift.

The hasty withdrawal of the US troops, however, serves one clear purpose: it deprives Iran of available American targets for its potential retaliation attempts, and inevitably redirects Iranian wrath at the American allies in the Gulf. Thus the withdrawal not only increases the probability of President Trump’s military adventure against Iran, but also leaves the Arab allies between Iran and Israel, to choose their strategic sponsor. The question is, whether the recent secretive meeting between the Saudi Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is to be interpreted in this context?

In any case, the heaviest weight of the American absence in the region will fall on Israel’s shoulders. The Israelis know that an attack on Iran would bean option that could provide Israel with a necessary timeframe to adjust to these new realities and acquire a projected control over their Arab neighbours. A strategic importance of the attack would, therefore, require participation of Israel’s military. As the Israelis know it too well, detrimental effects on the Iranian nuclear programme are essential for the very existence of the state of Israel, since the Islamic Republic Iran is finally in the position to capitalise its long-lasting struggle against American dominance in the Middle East and gain strategic control over the entire Levant and the Gulf, so as to be promoted into a global player. The level of communication between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu suggests that certain promises may have been made to the Israelis that an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is imminent. However, the assassination of the Iranian main nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, attributed to the Israeli intelligence agencies, might be interpreted as an attempt to undermine the Iranian nuclear programme without a full-scale attack, either because the Israelis do not believe in its feasibility, or because they are trying to avoid it, given its long-term consequences that eventually might prove unfavourable for Israel’s position.

There might be one more option at play, bearing in mind President Trump’s favourite „art of a deal“ strategy: a secret deal between the current US Administration and Iran, that the US leaves the Shiite world (Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, plus control over Afghanistan in potential partnership with Pakistan) to Iranian domination, in exchange for Iranian tacit permission to have the plutonium generator in Arak – suitable for development of a military nuclear programme – bombed and temporarily destroyed by the US. That option would buy several years to both the US and Israel, with a significant postponement of Iran’s eventual production of a nuclear weapon. To the other side, it would give Iran a chance to improve its geopolitical position as one of the two main powers in the region, in interim coexistence with Israel as a de facto leader of the Arab NATO alliance. Under these circumstances, a Shiite bloc led by Tehran, separating Sunni Arab countries from Turkey and Russian influence, might be a favourable development for the US. The questions are, of course, to what extent it would be acceptable to Israel, and to what extent it would draw Iran into overstretching, and effectively, into economic weakening.        

Whatever the calculus of the outgoing Trump Administration, the incoming Administration of the President-elect Biden has no interest in allowing that such dangerous developments take place. If President Trump orders an attack on Iran in the last 5 days of his mandate, right after the departure of the American troops from the region, all its negative consequences will be attributed to the Biden Administration, crippling their announced initiatives to stabilise the world affairs. For, Its geopolitical consequences could be numerous: a takeover of the Middle East by the strengthened Iranian radicals; a possible nuclearisation of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and maybe Egypt; a further rapprochement between Iran and Russia, this time in the sphere of strategic nuclear cooperation, which would eventually terminate the Western influence in Eurasia. 

By going in that direction, President Trump would promote the strategy of „poisoning the well“ to the future Democratic Administration, depriving it of prospects for relevant foreign policy results in its next 4 years. Eventually, that might lead to the second coming of Trump; and then, to a burial of American democracy and implementation of an authoritarian one-party regime, as desired by the Republican radicals ever since the mid-1970s. 

*Adnan Idrizbegović, Independent researcher, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

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