SitRep: Trump Advisor Bannon Predicts Wars With China, Middle East; Pentagon Officials Say Gloves Off in Yemen
Pentagon Didn’t Cook the Books; Mattis and the Weight of Expectation; Fighting in Ukraine
Bannon’s world. For someone who ran a media company — and hosted a radio show — before become President Trump’s top advisor, there’s been an air of mystery surrounding Steve Bannon. The USA Today went back and listened to dozens of recordings of the show he hosted for the conspiracy-minded, ultra-right wing Breitbart media company, and found that much of what he said in 2015 and early 2016 has since been parroted by POTUS.
In one episode, Bannon said, “you have an expansionist Islam and you have an expansionist China. Right? They are motivated. They’re arrogant. They’re on the march. And they think the Judeo-Christian West is on the retreat” He went on to predict a war between the U.S. and China within the next decade.
He also predicted “a major shooting war in the Middle East” in the coming years. “To be brutally frank, I mean Christianity is dying in Europe, and Islam is on the rise,” he said in January 2016. “Some of these situations may get a little unpleasant,” Bannon said. “But you know what, we’re in a war.”
Keep an eye on Yemen. Some Pentagon officials are looking at Yemen as a place where the Trump administration might allow the military more room for action than the Obama administration, according to the Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Missy Ryan.
After the weekend’s Navy SEAL raid on an al Qaeda camp that killed over a dozen fighters — along with the 8 year-old daughter of deceased American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in 2011 in a U.S. drone strike – along with Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, defense officials see more action coming. “We expect an easier approval cycle [for operations] under this administration,” one defense official told the Post. Another former officials with experience in Yemen said that more U.S. troops on the ground in Yemen was “overdue.”
Military clears itself of wrongdoing. Remember back to late 2015, when a group of civilian intelligence analysts at the U.S. Central Command charged that their bosses were tweaking their work to make it look like the war against ISIS in Iraq was going better than facts on the ground warranted? This might surprise you, but a Pentagon investigation due out Wednesday finds little evidence to support those charges. Buzzfeed’s Nancy Youssef first reported the results of the investigation, saying one of the analysts called the report a “whitewash.”
Asking too much of Mattis? Expectations for new Defense Secretary James Mattis are high — with allies and domestic observers expecting him to act as a bulwark against an inexperienced White House’s desire to move fast.
“Mattis is the canary in the coal mine,” signaling the mood of the Trump administration, one foreign official told the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold and Julian Barnes. That’s a lot to ask of any cabinet member, and let’s not forget that Mattis has bosses: national security advisor Michael Flynn and President Trump, to whom he’s accountable, and whose policies he’s tasked with carrying out.
But the SecDef is wheels up for Asia on Wednesday, stopping off in Japan and South Korea on the first overseas trip of any member of the Trump administration. While there, Mattis will address the North Korean threat, China’s moves in the South China Sea, and calm jittery allies unsure over Trump’s campaign pledges to pull U.S. troops out of overseas bases in the region. Later this month, Mattis will head to an international summit in Germany, where he’ll again be asked to be the leading face for the future of U.S. foreign policy.
Tell us how you really feel. A senior career diplomat “delivered a soaring and thinly-veiled critique of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy in a farewell address Tuesday that pleaded with colleagues to stay in their positions and uphold America’s longstanding policies of openness and liberty,: FP’s John Hudson reports from Foggy Bottom.
“We still owe something to America,” said Tom Countryman, the outgoing under secretary of state for arms control, at a private goodbye party at the State Department. “A policy without professionals is by definition an amateur policy. You have to help make the choices that bring this country forward.”
You down with FSB? A top cybersecurity specialist and his deputy in Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, are reportedly being accused by the Kremlin of “breaking their oath” by working with America’s Central Intelligence Agency, FP’s Emily Tamkin tells us. “Sergei Mikhailov, allegedly detained at a board meeting last December, and his deputy, Dmitry Dokuchaev, were arrested by the Kremlin on Jan. 27 for treason and illegal hacking. Then, on Tuesday, Russian news agency Interfax, after hearing from unidentified sources, reported that they, along with Ruslan Stoyanov, the head of cybercrime investigations at Kaspersky Labs, and a fourth, as yet unnamed person, are suspected of passing along secret information to the CIA — or of passing it to someone who passed it to the CIA.”
The more you know. Russian defense ministry has just launched a Arabic language version, and is unveiling a Chinese site next month, according to Kremlin-funded Sputnik.
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is making good on his promises to warm relations with China in contrast to the recent tensions between the two countries over disputed territory in the South China Sea. Reuters reports that Duterte said he’s asking China to pitch in to help with the Philippines’s piracy problem in the Sulu Sea. Duterte says he’d be “glad” if Chinese coast guard vessels patrolled the waters, where Islamist militants have kidnapped sailors and held them for ransom. Duterte has argued for a pivot to Russia and China and away from the U.S. following criticism from American officials over his policy of encouraging the vigilante murders of drug addicts.
Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine are increasing their use of heavy artillery, shelling population centers in territory held by the Ukrainian government and raising the question of what, if anything, President Trump intends to do about it. The Washington Post reports that ten people have died in the fighting already, but all eyes are on the Trump administration to see what its policy will be towards the conflict. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump expressed support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and skepticism that the Russian troops involved in the operation were actually Russian.
The UN Security Council expressed “grave concern” on Tuesday over the fighting. “The members of the Security Council expressed their full support of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the Security Council — which includes Russia, and Ukraine on a rotating basis — said in statement. “The members of the Security Council called for an immediate return to a ceasefire regime.”
President Trump’s policy towards Syria and the anti-Islamic State fight is becoming somewhat clearer following claims from U.S.-backed rebels that they had been provided armored vehicles by Washington. The predominantly Kurdish SDF has been among the most effective American allies against the Islamic State but U.S. support for it has come at the cost of mounting irritation from Turkey, which considers the Kurdish groups that compose the SDF to be terrorists. SDF spokesman Talal Sello called the shipment of the vehicles the marker of “a new phase” in the U.S.-SDF relationship, noting that the Obama administration had been less willing to supply the group with more than light weapons.
The New York Times got a hold of some of the Islamic State’s internal documents on its drone program. The terrorist group has been using commercial and purpose-built drones to drop small explosive like grenades on Iraqi forces trying to clear out the city of Mosul. According to the documents, the Islamic State has standardized checklists for drone missions as well as documentation showing the various commercial components used to build and equip the devices. A spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition told the times that the terrorist group’s drones have killed about a dozen people and injured 50 so far.
One of the Defense Department’s flagship counter-messaging programs against the Islamic State is bogged down by incompetence and dubious impact, according to an AP investigation. The program, called WebOps, is supposed to use Arabic-speaking personnel to dissuade potential recruits to the Islamic State and counter their message. But the wire service found allegations that WebOps personnel often have weak grasps of Islam and the Arabic language, have awarded contracts based on nepotism, and provided their own misleading assessments about the impact of WebOps on Islamist militants online.
Business of defense
When the Obama administration greenlit the sale of fighter jets to Gulf countries, it let Kuwait and Qatar’s purchases move forward but held back the sale of F-16s to Bahrain until it improved its human rights record. Now, Defense News reports, it looks like the fine print about human rights is no more and the sale will go through unimpeded. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) says he thinks the Trump administration will approve the $2.8 billion sale without any restrictions.
In a move that will surprise few, a Navy SEAL is writing a book. Robert O’Neill, a member of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6 and the man that, by some accounts, pulled the trigger on the shot that killed Osama Bin Laden, will be publishing a memoir in April about his life with the special operations unit. Matt Bissonnette, a fellow Team 6 alumni and participant in the Bin Laden raid, also published a memoir that touched on the famous raid only to find himself in legal trouble failing to clear it through pre-publication review. O’Neill’s book, by contrast, has been vetted through the pre-publication review process already.
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary