The National Interest Foundation Newsletter, Issue 219

The National Interest Foundation Newsletter

Issue 219, January 12, 2024

Welcome to our NIF Newsletter. This week, we delve into the circumstances surrounding U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to the Middle East and how it has highlighted the importance of a permanent cessation of Israeli hostilities in Gaza, examine the economic impact of the Red Sea crisis and the latest developments there, and provide analysis regarding the upcoming 2024 Iowa Republican presidential caucuses.

Blinken’s Visit to the Middle East Amid War in Gaza

U.S. Secretary of State Blinken has made several visits to the region since Israel’s War on Gaza began, with this latest week-long trip including stops in Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, and Egypt. (Photo from Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State Blinken’s Latest Diplomatic Visit to the Middle East Highlights the Importance of a Permanent Cessation of Israeli Hostilities in Gaza

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has embarked on yet another trip to the Middle East amid Israel’s ongoing War on Gaza, his fourth since the outbreak of the conflict back in October. While Blinken’s expressed aim with this latest visit to the region is to try to contain the war and curb Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, one of the consistent themes that has been relayed to him by government officials across the Middle East is that the United States must pressure Israel to stop the war – not merely seek temporary pauses for potential hostage release deals, but instead a complete cessation of hostilities which can then pave the way for diplomatic negotiations. In their discussions with Blinken, Turkish officials, for example, were particularly concerned with the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza. They emphasized that Israel’s escalating aggression posed a threat to peace and stability in the region, and therefore stressed the need for an end to their military actions in Gaza which among other things would allow for the critical delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid. Officials in Qatar and Saudi Arabia also echoed the calls for a permanent ceasefire, pointing out that the constant images of death and destruction in Gaza are troublingly desensitizing people to the horrors of what is taking place.

During his meetings with regional leaders on the diplomatic tour, several expressed to U.S. Secretary of State Blinken that the alarming civilian death toll in Gaza and disturbing accounts of the devastation caused are justifiably fueling global outrage over Israel’s actions. For months, human rights activists, United Nations officials, and others have been demanding a permanent cessation of hostilities, highlighting that the devastating bombardment of the Palestinian enclave must end first and foremost in the face of mass civilian killing and displacement before serious discussions can begin regarding Gaza’s post-war future. There has also been increased criticism and questioning towards U.S. military aid to Israel, with prominent elected officials such as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders urging Congress to hold back billions in military funding for Israel due to the nature of its brutal and immoral assault on Gaza. Sanders and others have warned that the ongoing Israeli military campaign will be remembered among some of the darkest chapters of modern history, given the appalling number of Palestinian civilians, journalists, and humanitarian workers that have been killed in the preceding months.

It has been estimated that more than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip, a distressing number of which have been children. Additionally, journalists and aid workers have been targeted, with the latter lamenting the detrimental impact that Israel’s assault on Gaza has had on the health infrastructure there, and accusing Israel of denying access to more of the region for humanitarian relief trucks. The indiscriminate bombardment has also forced much of the hospital staff and patients to flee to shelters in other areas of the Gaza Strip, which have still been subjected to devastating assaults. Israeli airstrikes and ground operations have decimated entire neighborhoods, public buildings, and landmarks, and displaced at least 85% of residents in Gaza. According to the United Nations, approximately 60% of the Palestinian enclave’s infrastructure has been destroyed as a result of the Israeli offensive. On top of this and the horrendous death toll, the Gaza Strip has faced a devastating humanitarian crisis, with severely limited access to food, clean drinking water, and medical supplies.

In addition to attempting to address humanitarian concerns, one of the other main stated goals of Blinken’s meetings in Israel during the week-long trip is to make progress towards the return of Palestinians to their homes and ensure that they are not forcibly displaced outside of Gaza. Blinken and other Biden administration officials were reportedly irked over recent statements by bigoted Israeli ministers including Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir which called for the forcible resettlement of Palestinians to areas outside of Gaza. Smotrich has advocated for finding countries that would take Palestinians in and has said that civilians in the Gaza Strip were not innocent. He also suggested that Palestinians in Gaza make way for Israelis who could “make the desert bloom.” Meanwhile, Ben-Gvir has claimed that the forced displacement of Gazans would be “the right and humane solution” to the ongoing war in Gaza.

The remarks were condemned publicly by U.S. officials as “inflammatory and irresponsible,” but did not come as a surprise to human rights and social justice activists who drew parallels to the Israeli government policies of mass land dispossession and forcible displacement of Palestinians which has been taking place ever since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Furthermore, a paper by an Israeli government ministry proposing that Palestinians in Gaza could be transferred to Egypt’s Sinai Desert sparked an outcry as well regarding the potential of forced displacement. Following his meetings with Israeli officials, Blinken did comment that “extremist settler violence carried out with impunity, settlement expansion, demolitions, evictions, all make it harder, not easier, for Israel to achieve lasting peace and security,” a sentiment which activists have been attempting to draw attention to for decades.

With this latest diplomatic visit to the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken is also seeking to prevent Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza from devolving into a wider-scale regional conflict. This is especially relevant in the face of tensions between Israel and Hezbollah along the Israel-Lebanon border, increasing Israeli settler violence in the West Bank, and the crisis in the Red Sea. All of this has led Blinken to express that he is focused on trying to calm what he has called a “moment of profound tension” in the region. For many impartial experts and observers though, success in averting the outbreak of a wider-scale conflict hinges on putting an end to the destructive Israeli military campaign in Gaza and striving towards a legitimate and peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Economic Impact of the Red Sea Crisis

More than half of the biggest container shipping companies are either largely or completely avoiding the Red Sea because of the crisis. (Photo from AFP)

The Economic Impact of the Ongoing Red Sea Crisis

The ongoing Red Sea crisis in which Yemen’s Houthis have been attacking commercial shipping vessels traveling through the seawater inlet over the past several months has had a significant impact on trade, shipping, and the global economy. The Red Sea is one of the world’s most densely-packed shipping channels and sits south of the Suez Canal, a key trade route connecting Europe to Asia and East Africa. Approximately 12% of global trade passes through the Red Sea, including 30% of global container traffic. Due to the high volume of goods and supplies which utilize the inlet, any delays or interruptions can have a serious effect on gas prices and the availability of products on the worldwide market. The crisis has caused an array of major shipping companies to suspend traffic through the Red Sea, and has forced many ships to be diverted around the Cape of Good Hope, on the southern tip of Africa, increasing journey time by up to two weeks. Back in mid-December, oil giant BP even decided to pause its transits as well. Additionally, insurance risk premiums for sailing through these high-risk areas have also been on the rise. As a result of the crisis and its ramifications, global trade itself fell by 1.3% between November and December.

Economic experts have outlined some of the most noteworthy impacts stemming from the Red Sea crisis. Trade between Asia and Europe, for example, has faced a massive effect because of the Suez Canal serving as such a vital gateway between the two regions. In recent months, the rate for a 40-foot container from North Asia to Europe has skyrocketed more than 600%. Shipping costs between Asia and the United States are also spiking, with these rates ballooning by 137% and 131% respectively for the same size containers between North Asia and the East Coast and West Coast of the United States. According to analysts, the increases in global shipping costs could also exacerbate consumer price inflation in the coming months if they lead to higher final goods prices. Commentators have also been keen to point out that the degree of the overall economic impact of the Red Sea disruptions will ultimately depend on how long the threat carries on. Since consumer prices change relatively slowly, it might take months for them to react to the rising shipping and transportation costs.

The potential threat to energy prices is also considerable because the Red Sea, especially via the Suez Canal, is a huge connecting point between Europe, Asia, and Africa, and a location where much of Europe’s energy supply travels through during normal times. In the aftermath of BP’s decision to suspend shipments through the Red Sea, oil prices rose nearly 2%. Prior to this, oil prices had fallen for seven consecutive weeks – the longest stretch of unbroken declines since late 2018. If the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea began to be targeted towards oil tankers and bulk carriers, this would particularly have detrimental consequences on energy prices and the global economy at-large. A prospective spike in energy prices might in turn have substantial spillovers to other commodity prices as well. Higher container transport costs, which have been almost twice the level that they were back in early December, could also boost world inflation.

In response to the ongoing Red Sea crisis, the United States assembled a multilateral naval security task force to carry out patrols in an attempt to safeguard vessels against attacks named Operation Prosperity Guardian. The military operation has shot down Houthi drones and intercepted missiles launched at transiting ships. The Houthis have carried out dozens of attacks on commercial vessels since mid-November. Since the U.S.-led operation to protect against the attacks was launched, it has been estimated that around 1,500 merchant ships have safely transited the waters of the Red Sea. This week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that there will be consequences for the continued Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. This followed Tuesday’s reports of the U.S. Navy shooting down 21 Houthi missiles and drones launched from Yemen, in one of the largest Houthi attacks to take place in the Red Sea over recent months. On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council passed a U.S. and Japan-led resolution condemning the Houthi attacks on merchant and commercial vessels in the last two months. The resolution was adopted despite abstentions from Russia and China. Then yesterday, the U.S. and the U.K. launched strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen, hitting various strategic sites there in an effort to disrupt the Red Sea attacks. The Houthis have vowed retaliation, and while it remains to be seen what transpires in the coming days and weeks, the risk of further escalations in addition to the continued economic and diplomatic fallout, are certain to only increase the longer the crisis carries on.

Insight on the Upcoming 2024 Iowa Republican Presidential Caucuses

Republican candidates will take part in the 2024 Iowa Caucuses this coming Monday, January 15th – the first contest of the U.S. presidential primary season. (Photo from AP)

The Impending Iowa Republican Presidential Caucuses May Provide the First Indicator Regarding Voter Preferences

Following months of intense campaigning, Republican presidential candidates are slated to face off in next week’s Iowa caucuses. As has been the case since the 1970s, Iowa will hold the first presidential nominating contest in the nation, with what has long been the event to signal the official start of the presidential primary season. Iowa Republican voters will indicate their picks for the party’s presidential nominee, with the results determining how many of the state’s 40 convention delegates each Republican presidential candidate will receive. The Republican field vying for the party’s nomination is comprised of five main candidates: former President Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. The race in Iowa does not appear to be as open as it usually is in competitive cycles, with one candidate in particular – former President Donald Trump – holding a notable lead over his rivals in the polls. Recent Iowa polling shows Trump with a lead of about 30 percentage points in the state. Many election analysts are therefore anticipating that Trump will likely win, but are especially interested in observing the results of the upcoming Iowa caucuses to see if a clear top challenger to Trump emerges from the remaining pack of GOP candidates. Trump remains popular among much of the Republican electorate despite numerous scandals and legal woes. In fact, the two states of Colorado and Maine have attempted to disqualify Trump from appearing on their Republican primary ballots, in historic decisions that are currently on hold while the legal process plays out in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unlike primary elections that are held in most other states across the country in which voters cast their individual ballots at polling locations, the Iowa caucus process consists of a series of local meetings held throughout the state whereby participants discuss and vote on the candidates to indicate their preference for a presidential nominee to represent the political party on the November general election ballot. While the more often seen primaries provide those who partake with more flexibility in being able to cast their ballots on Election Day itself or via absentee and early voting, the Iowa caucuses are held in the evening and normally require voters to attend during that time in order to participate. Presidential candidates who do not perform as well as hoped in the Iowa caucuses certainly have ample opportunities in other states to make up ground in the race for their party’s nomination. Back in 2020 for example, President Joe Biden finished 4th and despite his underperformance in Iowa, went on to win the Democratic nomination and ultimately the presidency. As such, the Iowa caucuses are by no means a “be-all and end-all” for who will ultimately win their party’s nomination, but due to its first-in-the-nation status in the presidential campaign timeline, the results can sometimes provide a boost to the campaigns of certain candidates, deal a devastating blow to force extreme underperformers out of the race, and send a signal to voters in other states regarding those who might be in strong positions heading into future primary contests.

Biden’s eventual triumph in the 2020 U.S. presidential election is far from the only example of results in the Iowa caucuses not aligning with the ultimate outcome of the race. In 2008, Republican candidate Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses with 34% of the total vote, significantly ahead of later party nominee John McCain who finished in 4th with only 13%. Additionally, in both 2012 and 2016, the GOP winners in Iowa – Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz respectively – did not earn their political party’s presidential nomination in those years. Election experts have highlighted that one of the major reasons why the results in Iowa often times do not shed light on the future course of the presidential race is that what resonates with much of the electorate there is not necessarily the case in other states across the country. As one analyst put it, “those who win in Iowa often don’t become president because Iowa caucuses just don’t reflect the diverse policy preferences and demographic composition of the United States as a whole.” Winning in Iowa is one thing, but it pales in comparison to doing so in more eclectic battleground states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

As the presidential election season kicks off, the Republican caucuses in Iowa will undoubtedly be the contest which garners attention and focus to see which candidate takes the first step towards the political party’s nomination to run against expected Democratic nominee, incumbent President Joe Biden. The Democratic party’s caucuses on the other hand will merely be made up of long-shot challengers seeking to grab the nomination away from Biden. However, as has historically been the case, the Iowa caucuses of the sitting president’s political party is anticipated to result in a landslide victory for Biden. Incumbent presidents rarely face serious challenges from within their political party during their re-election campaigns, and no incumbent president has ever lost a nomination challenge in modern U.S. history. This presidential election cycle in 2024, the Iowa Democratic Party has expressed that it will, for the first time, conduct presidential candidate preferences via mail. Thus, Iowa Democrats will indicate their choice through a mail-in voting process between mid-January and early March, the official results of which should be known by the latter.

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