The Cable

Situation Report: U.S. diplomat makes waves; Syrian trainees trickle in; Pentagon talker coming; SecDef off to Europe; FP making a difference; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson Safe European home. Beloved in Washington, resented in Europe, Victoria Nuland has occupied an outsized presence in European diplomatic circles over the past several years, especially in the contentious debate over how best to help Ukraine fight off Russian-backed rebels holding swaths of territory in its eastern provinces. FP’s ...

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson

Safe European home. Beloved in Washington, resented in Europe, Victoria Nuland has occupied an outsized presence in European diplomatic circles over the past several years, especially in the contentious debate over how best to help Ukraine fight off Russian-backed rebels holding swaths of territory in its eastern provinces. FP’s John Hudson delivers an excellent profile of America’s senior diplomat for Europe, who has been described by her European colleagues as “brash,” “direct,” “forceful,” “blunt,” “crude,” and occasionally, “undiplomatic.”

But those exact qualities are precisely what makes her such a superstar at home, particularly among the hawks on Capitol Hill who gleefully revel in her outspoken support of delivering weapons to the Ukrainians. Doing so pokes a stick in the eye of Europeans whom Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain and others consider to be too slow, and too cautious, to confront Moscow. And of course, no story about Nuland is complete without a detailed textual analysis of the “F**k the EU” incident.”

Scenes from a lonely podium. We’re four months into the tenure of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and he’s still without a spokesman. Word from the top is that after scrambling to find a civilian talker with whom Carter and his team are comfortable – and who wants to join the Obama administration in the twilight of its tenure – a decision is finally near. Though he is still being vetted, and nothing is in stone, FP has learned that Bloomberg Television’s Peter Cook appears to be the most likely candidate to take the Pentagon’s press room podium.

There’s been talk for months that Carter and his team have been looking to hire someone with a journalism background, and rumors have swirled about some other prominent TV names turning down the job after being approached. Cook has been at Bloomberg since 2003, covering the usual stew of Beltway stories revolving around Congress and the White House, and was assigned to cover the Pentagon for NBC and MSNBC for a time during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

There is some precedent for hiring a television reporter to do the podium job. In 2007, then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates hired Geoff Morrell away from ABC News, where he was a White House correspondent. Morrell stayed on until George Little took over in July 2011 when Leon Panetta replaced Gates.

While the Pentagon briefing room is a lonely place, the building itself will be a bit quieter next week as Carter, his staff, and planeloads of European-focused U.S. policy officials jet off to the NATO Ministerial meeting in Brussels.

Slow and steady? The Defense Department says that it should be on track to have about 5,400 Syrian fighters trained and ready to begin fighting the Islamic State — but not until next May. After starts and stops, the U.S. Special Forces-led training program finally kicked off last month at sites in Jordan and Turkey, but so far has only managed to bring in about 180 Syrian fighters, a fraction of the 6,000 who have applied for the program. A Pentagon spokesperson said on Thursday that the effort, being led by hard-charging U.S. Army Special Forces Maj. Gen. Mike Nagata, has managed to vet about 1,500 of those fighters so far, but getting them out of Syria to the training sites in Jordan and Turkey has proven to be tough.

Another week on the national security desk is in the books, and unlike some U.S. diplomats, we think we have avoided insulting any key international allies. We’re about to officially hit summer here in Washington, so send along any comments, suggestions, tips, or event notices before our senses become too dulled by the swampy magnificence of the National Capital Region. As always, give a shout to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com, or on Twitter: @paulmcleary

An FP story last month by John Hudson and Paul McLeary about the the loss of six U.S. Marines in a helicopter crash in Nepal while serving on a humanitarian mission has spurred congressional action. FP reported that because the Marines were not killed in combat, the Defense Department would not cover the expenses to fly their family members to Delaware to meet the plane carrying their remains home. After the families appealed to their members of Congress, the Marines made an exception in their policy for the case.

But now that exception may become the rule in similar tragedies going forward. Citing the FP story, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) filed an amendment that has been included in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act “to ensure families of fallen service members serving on non-combat missions receive the same travel benefits as those serving in combat areas.”

Israel

Out of concern that Israeli Druze would try to cross the border into Syria in order to help their families, the Israeli government has declared the Golan Heights a closed military area, Haaretz reports.

Russia

The Russian ambassador to Sweden said that if the country gives up its non-aligned status and makes a move to join NATO, “there will be counter measures” from Moscow. “Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind and re-orientate our troops and missiles,” he warned Sweden’s largest newspaper.

Despite the ongoing tension between Russia and the United States, the two countries are still speaking to each other about ways to assign blame for chemical weapons use in Syria by the Assad regime. Reuters reports that the duo are hashing out plans at the U.N. to try and find a way through the mess.

China

China has started to require civilian ships to meet military standards so they can potentially be used in conflict, Agence France Presse reports. The regulations “will enable China to convert the considerable potential of its civilian fleet into military strength.”

Military tech

Competing visions of close air support: There’s an interesting debate going on over at War on the Rocks, where Benjamin Fernandes writes a response to an article by fellow contributors Derek O’Malley and Andrew Hill, arguing that the authors overestimate the ability of technology to provide near-perfect situational awareness, and underestimate the likelihood of operating in low threat environments.

Islamic State

Qasim al-Raymi, the new leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda’s new No. 2 leader, has a younger brother he hasn’t seen in a while. That’s because Ali Yahya Mahdi al-Raymi has been held at the U.S. Navy detention center at Guantanamo Bay since 2002. The elder Raymi rose in the jihadi ranks last week after his former superior, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.

Afghanistan

Despite recent reports that Tehran has been helping the Taliban try to beat back the surge of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, Iran’s ambassador to Kabul says not so fast. Mohammad Reza Bahrami tells the Wall Street Journal that “we haven’t supported Taliban and we will not support any terrorism and extremism groups.” No, no they wouldn’t.

The road

A group of former U.S. Army generals and defense policy officials is hitting the road this summer to take the temperature of where the Army is, and where its soldiers, civilian workers, and family members think it should go. On Thursday, they kicked things off by gathering in a cramped conference room in a building near the Pentagon, where they were assaulted by megabytes of Army-produced PowerPoint slides detailing the service’s budgetary woes.

The whole thing is part of a congressionally-mandated effort to settle a fight over how Big Army plays with its Guard and Reserve brethren in the coming years. A key stress point is the Army’s insistence that it strip the National Guard of one of its favorite toys, the Apache attack helicopter, and replace it with the far less lethal Black Hawk utility chopper. The plan is part of the service’s effort to save $12 billion over the next several years, but Guard leadership, and state governors who love their flashy Apaches, have pushed back pretty hard against the plan.

Think tanked

The Congressional Research Service’s Kathleen J. McInnis drops a nice, succinct little report on “The Addition of Trainers to Iraq: Background for Congress” that comes with the added bonus of maps. Maps!

Carnegie’s Yezid Sayigh takes a look at security sector reform in Yemen and Libya, noting that not much will be accomplished in stabilizing either country unless their governments – such as they are – can get their hands around the problem of building trustworthy security institutions. Same as it ever was.

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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