The Morning Dispatch: Civil Unrest in the Middle East

Plus: “Peace talks” with the Taliban, and the fight for Georgia's Senate seat gets spicy.

Happy Monday! We hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend, and were able to rest up for what could be the most important month of the year—it’s Christmas season!

Oh, and the House will likely draft articles of impeachment, vote on those articles, and send them to Senate in the next 30 days. Plus, both parties will need to come together on another funding deal to avert a shutdown, the United Kingdom is holding a general election on December 12, and growinng unrest in Iran, Syria, and Hong Kong is threatening geopolitical stability throughout the world. But also Christmas!

Quick Hits: What You Need To Know

  • Two people were killed and three injured in an apparent terrorist incident near the London Bridge on Friday. The suspect was killed at the scene, and ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.

  • White House Counsel Pat Cipollone announced in a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler on Sunday that the Trump administration would not be participating in Wednesday’s impeachment hearing.

  • The Democratic primary has winnowed down to just 16 candidates. Former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral, quit over the weekend. Sestak had not qualified for any debates since announcing his candidacy in June, and had next to no support in public polling. Then, just before we hit send on this newsletter this morning, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock joined him on the sidelines. Bullock, a moderate who had qualified for just one debate, had not gained any traction with his pledge to fight corruption and “dark money” in politics.”

Another Arab Spring?

Two weeks ago, we read you in on the nationwide protests then convulsing the nation of Iran—and the brutal measures Tehran was taking against its own citizens. Now it’s becoming clear that the regime’s tactics were even more sweeping and violent than they seemed then: Between 180 and 450 people were killed, 2,000 wounded, and 7,000 detained in four days of disorder, according to a new report in the New York Times

The clampdown, which included wide deployment of state security forces and a nationwide Internet blackout, has seemingly succeeded in ending mass protests—for now. 

Meanwhile, the wider region continues to be gripped by civil unrest. Across the border in Iraq, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned this weekend, the latest development after months of protests—against political corruption, a stagnant economy, and Iranian influence on their government—that have left about 400 dead. In nearby Lebanon, another economic crisis has provoked ongoing and widespread protests against the Hezbollah-backed government—and intense friction between Christian and Shiite Muslim factions. 

Often, these events have had a specific local trigger. In Iran, it was an overnight hike in gas prices as the cash-strapped regime dialed back its fuel subsidies. In Iraq, it was the firing of a general who became a popular hero in the fight against ISIS. 

But experts say a shared climate of dissatisfaction has caused each of these arguably minor events to spiral into nationwide crises—an accumulation of dry timber needing only a spark to burst into flame. 

“These are not discrete events, though the protests in the three countries have their own ingredients and players,” Reuel Gerecht, a former CIA officer in Iran now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Dispatch. “Broadly put, we are seeing a certain political distemper arise among Shiite Arabs and Iranians who are demanding more responsible, representative, and nationalist government.”

The sheer scale of the protests calls to mind the Arab Spring movement of the early 2010s—and its mixed bag of tantalizing promise for just and representative government for the region and decidedly less cheerful results.

“This is going to continue. And the established orders will push back hard,” Gerecht said. “And as we know from Western history, revolts against authoritarianism can last for decades, and they don’t necessarily win. It will most likely get uglier.”

Taliban Peace Talks: Fool Me Three Times…

The Thanksgiving holiday brought a diplomatic shakeup on the other side of Iran, as well. During a visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, President Trump suggested his administration was negotiating a ceasefire with the Taliban there—just months after he abruptly canceled peace talks scheduled for Camp David the week of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, amid much Republican grumbling.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal,” Trump said during a press conference with Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani. “And we’re meeting with them, and we’re saying it has to be a ceasefire. They didn’t want to do a ceasefire, but now they want to do a ceasefire, I believe. And it will probably work out that way. And we’ll see what happens. But we’ve made tremendous progress.” 

This was news to U.S. negotiators, who had largely given up on the possibility of inking a total ceasefire even before Trump ended negotiations in September. The Taliban had refused to agree to any total ceasefire until the U.S. had begun the process of withdrawing its own troops from the country.

During his speech, Trump also seemed to make a distinction between the motives of the Taliban and other terror groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. 

“The thing I’m most proud of—because you could look at Taliban and say they’re fighting for their land, you could look at, you know, others and say they’re fighting for other things,” Trump said. “But we know what ISIS is fighting for and we know what al-Qaeda is fighting for. And we have them down to a very small number of people.”

We also know what the Taliban is fighting for — and it’s not just “land.” Taliban leaders are committed jihadists, ideological warriors determined to reimpose strict Islamic rule over all of Afghanistan and willing to kill indiscriminately to do it. Those leaders, including the former Guantanamo detainees released in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, have stoked violence directed at Americans and our interests since before those attacks of September 2011.

U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, spanning administrations both Democrat and Republican, have often involved such self-delusion. Both Barack Obama and Trump concluded early that they wanted to “end” the war in Afghanistan and they both made dubious, ahistorical arguments in service of those policy goals.

In response to a reporter’s question, the president also pledged again to pull a large portion of the U.S. military presence out of Afghanistan, saying that “because of new weaponry and technology, we’re able to do actually more with fewer troops.”

Georgia on My Mind

When Johnny Isakson, the 74-year-old senator from Georgia, announced in August that health complications would require him to step down from the office he’d held since 2005, aspiring successors scrambled to plead their case to Gov. Brian Kemp via an online portal. (We hope you enjoy the thought of prominent public officials polishing their résumés and applying to be a U.S. senator in the same manner a high school version of one of your Morning Dispatchers applied—unsuccessfully—to be a bagger at the local grocery store.)

After months of deliberation, Kemp is expected to announce his appointment of businesswoman Kelly Loeffler to the seat as soon as this week, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. CEO of the Bakkt bitcoin exchange, co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, and longtime Republican donor, Loeffler would be able to significantly bankroll a 2020 special election campaign and appeal to suburban women who have left the GOP in droves since 2016.

The only hitch? Trump had someone else in mind—and the president’s allies are letting Kemp know it.

Rep. Doug Collins hails from Georgia’s ninth district, serving in Congress since 2013 and serving Donald Trump since 2016. He has voted with the president 97.3 percent of the time, and emerged in recent weeks as one of Trump’s staunchest defenders on all things impeachment. As the inquiry moves to the Judiciary Committee where Collins is ranking member, the congressman’s profile should only continue to grow.

The AJC reports Trump has personally asked Kemp to appoint Collins at least three times, and Collins himself has said he is “strongly” considering running for the seat next year even if he isn’t tapped by Kemp. Politico notes President Trump, who served not a single day as a public servant before his election, is worried Loeffler isn’t “seasoned enough” for the position.

Loeffler has donated millions to Republican candidates and causes over the years, and she pledged in her senatorial application to support Trump’s agenda, writing to Gov. Kemp, “If chosen, I will stand with President Trump, Senator David Perdue, and you to Keep America Great. ... Together, we will grow jobs, strengthen the border, shutdown drug cartels and human traffickers, lower healthcare costs, and protect our national interests – at home and abroad.” Kemp himself tweeted the below:

But because many of those millions went to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and because she was not an “original backer” of Trump’s candidacy in 2016, White House allies have expressed concern over Loeffler’s allegiance to The Cause™, insisting she’s not MAGA enough to merit Isaakson’s seat. (Erick Erickson addresses those concerns here.) The aforementioned Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s most loyal footmen, even claimed her appointment would “screw over the President.”

Unfortunately for Gaetz, the Georgia constitution (and federalism, generally) grants the state’s governor—not the third-year member of Congress from Florida’s first district—power over Senate appointments. Even if that governor is “ignoring the president’s request” and “substituting his judgement [sic] for the president’s.” Funny how that works.

Worth Your Time

  • For the Detroit Free Press, John Carlisle took a look at dwindling participation in local community service organizations, once the bedrock of American civil society. "Almost every civic organization and service club has seen a dramatic decline in membership in recent years. Since 1990, membership in Rotary International is down 20 percent. Jaycees, down 64 percent. Masons, down 76 percent. Elks, down by half. Shriners, same amount. Optimist Clubs, down by half too." The Optimists are confident their best days are ahead. But others know they'll have to work to rebuild. In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, older members of the Ishpeming VFW are reviving their chapter with polka, bingo and, one of the greatest traditions of the upper Midwest, the fish fry.

  • In 1997, Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union, appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial. Only he didn’t say anything, simply eating pizza while Russian onlookers debate the merits of the former president’s tenure. Joseph Musgrave wrote about the advertisement—and what it means for Gorbachev’s legacy—in a piece for Foreign Policy. “For Gorbachev himself, the story of the ad is a tragedy: one man’s attempt to find—and to fund—a place in a country that wanted nothing more to do with him.”

  • Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign, once touted as among the most formidable in the field, is in shambles. In this New York Times story, Jonathan Martin, Astead Herndon, and Alex Burns detail just what went wrong for California’s junior senator, and why her staffers are at war with each other.

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

The Houston Texans beat the New England Patriots in prime time last night (which is Something Fun in its own right!), and the touchdown that iced the game was a thing of beauty.

But The Dispatch’s resident Chicagoan would just like to point out that the Bears first ran this trick play last season, and did so much more cleanly.

Toeing the Company Line

  • David’s Sunday French Press dissected Rick Perry and Nikki Haley’s recent comments: Was Donald Trump chosen by God to lead America?

  • We got a special, all-dog G-File on Friday delving into the story of Zoë: Where she came from, why she ended up a Goldberg, and how she’s adapted to city life. Give it a read here!

Let Us Know

Brian Kemp ally and campaign alum Ryan Mahoney reminded Matt Gaetz in a tweet last week, “We don’t know you and we don’t care what you think.” He also asked the representative whether he preferred “flat front jorts, pleated jorts, or cargo jorts.” 

So our question to you, dear reader, is this: Are jorts ever acceptable, and why not?

Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, and Steve Hayes.