SitRep: White House Threatens Veto of Defense Bill
Rhodes says no; U.N. moving on arming Libya; more U.S. Navy ships headed for the South China Sea; and plenty more
We’ll throw down. There’s a fight brewing over the 2017 Defense Department budget, and right in the middle of the scrum is how to use the $58 billion the White House has set aside to pay for military operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The House of Representatives votes this week on its version of the bill, which yanks $18 billion from that account and uses it to buy more ships, dozens of fighter jets, and adding about 50,000 more troops to the rolls.
The White House and Pentagon aren’t happy about the whole thing.
On Monday, the Office of Management and Budget released a memo threatening a presidential veto of the bill, calling the move a “gimmick.” The memo added, “shortchanging wartime operations by $18 billion and cutting off funding in the middle of the year introduces a dangerous level of uncertainty for our men and women in uniform carrying out missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. ”
And there are lots of elsewheres. Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic, just to name a few. On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its own version of the 2017 defense policy bill, which rejects the House funding plan. The entire defense bill is $610 billion.
How will the blob react? The White House pointedly rejected a request by a top Republican lawmaker for Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes to come up to the Hill to explain how he sold the Iranian nuclear deal to the American press, and public. The disagreement follows an incendiary New York Times Magazine profile of Rhodes, where he talked about how he pushed the deal to gullible reporters. FP’s John Hudson has more on the ask, and the rejection.
White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston sent a letter to House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz on Monday, saying, “the appearance of a senior presidential adviser before Congress threatens the independence and the autonomy of the president, as well as his ability to receive candid advice and counsel in the discharge of his constitutional duties,” Eggleston wrote. “We will not make Mr. Rhodes available to testify.”
A hundred tiny Hezbollahs. In some Assad-controlled regions of Syria, the Lebanese group is making friends, influencing militias, and developing a new model of asymmetric warfare, FP contributor James Harkin writes from the war-torn country.
Guns for Libya. Maybe. In a move that world powers have been slowly circling for months, the United States and the four other permanent U.N. Security Council members said Monday they would approve exemptions to a U.N. arms embargo on allowing military sales to Libya’s Government of National Accord. In a joint communique, the allies said that a broader embargo will remain, but they are “ready to respond to the Libyan government’s requests for training and equipping” government forces.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook on Monday said the military is taking a cautious approach, however. “We stand ready to play our role in that,” he said, “but as I am aware of at this moment, that communique was just issued and there has not been any particular marching orders to us.” The United States, Britain and France all have small groups of special operations forces on the ground in Libya to help local forces counter the spread of the Islamic State.
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South China Sea
The commandant of the Marine Corps says you all can just get used to freedom of navigation operations ,because they’re here to stay. Marine Gen. Robert Neller told attendees at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space exposition on Monday that the exercises will continue in the South China Sea, adding that “we have to be able to meet our treaty obligations and exercise our sovereign rights under international law to transit the seas.” Neller spoke obliquely of “certain nations” (read: China) by carefully tiptoeing up to the point of conflict without going over while “pushing boundaries.” The statement comes shortly after the U.S. Navy destroyer USS William P. Lawrence sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, home to a growing array of Chinese military weapons.
Who’s where when
9:00 a.m. House Armed Services Committee is holding a hearing on the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program featuring the U.S. Navy’s Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, director, Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Livestream here.
9:30 a.m. The Stimson Center hosts a panel discussion on “Drone Proliferation: Impacts on Security, Strategy, and Policy,” featuring FP’s own Dan De Luce. The event also has Michael Horowitz, associate professor, University of Pennsylvania; Sarah Kreps, associate professor, Cornell University, and is moderated by Rachel Stohl from the Stimson Center. Livestream here.
12:15 p.m. Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses the Sea-Air-Space conference. Livestream here.
Protip from the State Department: don’t book that vacation to Pyongyang. The Hill reports that the department has updated its travel warning for U.S. citizens planning to visit the Hermit Kingdom. The new warning now “strongly urges” Americans to avoid the country “due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement, which imposes unduly harsh sentences” for behavior that Americans — or most others — wouldn’t consider criminal. The North has arrested 14 Americans over the past decade, including an American student sentenced to hard labor for attempting to take a propaganda poster.
Amnesty International says a coalition of rebel groups in the predominantly Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud area of Aleppo carried out “indiscriminate attacks” that have killed 83 civilians, 30 of whom were children. The attacks came as the Fatah Halab rebel coalition attacked Kurdish PYD forces between February and April of this year. Amnesty also says it has received reports of chemical weapons, specifically chlorine gas weapons, being used against the residents of Sheikh Maqsoud.
The Islamic State
The Islamic State has lost approximately half of its territory in Iraq, according to the U.S.-backed coalition in Iraq and Syria. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters that the most recent estimates are that the jihadist group has lost 45 percent of its territory in Iraq and 16 to 20 percent of its territory in Syria. Those figures are up slightly from previous estimates, which previously put the tally of lost territory at 40 percent in Iraq and 10 percent in Syria.
Iran’s covert operations chief and Syria war commander Qassem Soleimani continues to rack up air miles in defiance of United Nations sanctions restricting his travel. NOW News reports that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force boss visited the Dahiyeh neighborhood of Beirut to offer his condolences to the family of Mustafa Badreddine, Hezbollah’s top Syria operations commander who was recently killed in Damascus. Soleimani reportedly told Badreddine’s family that he was “a leader and a dear brother” and that his death “a great loss for the entire Islamic nation.”
America: We’re no longer number one. The Washington Post reports that Germany has taken top honors in the NATO Strong Europe Tank Challenge, a competition in Grafenwoehr, Germany designed to test armored warfare skills. Germany and its Leopard 2A6 tanks came in first place, followed by Denmark and Poland. Your United States Army, along with Italy and Slovenia, did not medal in the competition. The games were part of the Atlantic alliance’s recent attempts to revitalize forces in Europe in the face of growing worries about Russia’s aggressive behavior in eastern Europe.
The Navy is working on a plan that would allow submarines to launch drones from underwater, according to National Defense magazine. The Navy has selected AeroVironment’s Blackwing drone as the vehicle of choice to be launched from subs. The Blackwing is a loitering munition which carries a warhead on board and hanging out in the air over targets, waiting for the go-ahead to fold its wings back and smash into them like a missile.
The eagle-eyed avgeeks over at the Aviationist have spotted old school bomb tallies painted on the side of a stealth F-22 Raptor at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, England. The Raptor, part of the 95th Fighter Squadron based in Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, had 15 bombs marked on the side of its cockpit, representing GBU-32 joint direct attack munitions. The markings likely represent missions undertaken against the Islamic State in Syria, where the Raptor had its combat debut, or Iraq.
The military might complain about the recent budget cuts in the wake of sequestration. As tight as budgets may be now, they’re not as tight as they were in the post-Cold War peace dividend days of the 1990s — when the Marine Corps had to resort to using the vintage first person shooter DOOM to train Marines.
Photo Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary