The Cable

SitRep: Tillerson on Japanese Nukes; WH Hands Off on Troop Deployments; Abadi to Washington

Israel and Russia Talk Syria Strikes; USAF Reduces Nuke Stockpile; Germany Pushes Back on Trump’s NATO Comments; And Lots More

BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 18:  Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (2nd-L) meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (2nd-R) at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on March 18, 2017 in Beijing, China. Tillerson is on his first visit to Asia as Secretary of State. (Photo by Lintao Zhang -Pool/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 18: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (2nd-L) meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (2nd-R) at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on March 18, 2017 in Beijing, China. Tillerson is on his first visit to Asia as Secretary of State. (Photo by Lintao Zhang -Pool/Getty Images)

With Adam Rawnsley

 

Rex in Effect. In his first interview as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson raised the possibility of both Japan and South Korea eventually obtaining nuclear weapons, something President Donald Trump has alluded to in the past. Speaking with the Independent Journal Review — the only outlet allowed to travel with the secretary on his trip to Japan, South Korea, and China — Tillerson said Washington’s overall objective remains “a denuclearized Korean peninsula.”

But if North Korea continues to move forward on its nuclear and missile programs, he added, “circumstances could evolve to the point that for mutual deterrence reasons, we might have to consider that.” He was quick to point out that “there’s a lot of steps and a lot of distance between now and a time that we would have to make a decision like that.”

Some early assessments of his trip are coming in, and Chinese news outlets are calling his visit to Beijing a “diplomatic victory” for China, as Tillerson echoed some Chinese catchphrases about the relationship between the two countries that American officials have previously carefully avoided. The Chinese, however, were also uneasy over Tillerson’s comments that all options — including the use of preemptive military force — are “on the table” in North Korea.

Rocket man. On Sunday, a day after Tillerson’s trip wrapped up, North Korea tested a new rocket engine that the South Korean Defense Ministry said showed “meaningful progress,” over previous boost technologies. The North’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, of course, really went for it, calling the test “a great event of historic significance” that represented “a new birth” of the country’s rocket capabilities. “The whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries,” he said on Monday.

Baghdad to DC. Back in Washington, President Trump meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday in the first face-to-face meeting between the two. Abadi comes to town as his forces continue to squeeze the Islamic State in the Western half of Mosul in bloody street by street fighting. After huddling with the White House national security team, Abadi will head over to the United States Institute of Peace (which is slated to lose its funding under the budget the White House sent to Congress last week) for a 5:00pm speech and Q&A session.

New way. There are dozens of U.S. Special Operations Forces accompanying Iraqi troops in and around Mosul, and close to one thousand U.S. troops in Syria training local militias in the Kurdish-held north, some of which FP recently had a chance to visit. The decision earlier this month to send approximately 500 troops to Syria was carried out without much input from the White House, the New York Times’ Michael Gordon reports. “Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signed off on the deployments and notified the White House. But [National Security Advisor] General McMaster neither convened a meeting at the White House to discuss whether to send the forces nor presented the Pentagon with questions about where, precisely, the troops would operate or what risks they might confront.”

The new hands-off policy represents a sharp break from the deep involvement on tactical issues — often derided as micromanagement by military officials — practiced by the Obama administration. Trump wants the National Security Council to focus more on strategy, and less on military planning, something underscored by two recent McMaster hires. Last week, Dina Powell, Trump’s senior counselor for economic initiatives, was named deputy national security adviser for strategy, and Nadia Schadlow, a former Pentagon official, was hired to draft a new security strategy.

Short-term. Where that new strategy assessment might go is another question. It’s not clear if the White House is interested in developing a longer-term plan for combating the Islamic State, for instance, as one administration official tells the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe. “Mattis and McMaster view ISIS as a global problem,” said a senior U.S. official, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “They see it as a 20-year war. The president doesn’t see it that way. He’s focused on the near-term threat in Iraq and Syria.”

More ops in Africa. In a story about an annual special operations training exercise in Chad, the New York Times’ Eric Schmitt reminds us of the American military investment in Africa: “Between 200 and 300 Navy SEALs and other special operators work with African allies to hunt shadowy Shabab terrorists in Somalia. As many as 100 Special Forces soldiers help African troops pursue the notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. And Navy SEALs are training Nigerian commandos for action in the oil-rich delta.” The Pentagon is also building a $50 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, likely to open sometime next year to monitor Islamic State fighters across North Africa.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Shots across the bow. Israel is telling Lebanon that a war between Israel and Hezbollah wouldn’t remain narrowly confined to the terror group. The Times of Israel reports that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot warned that the IDF would hold both “the state of Lebanon and the terror groups operating in its territory and under its authority,” responsible in the event of a war. The comments follow Israel’s interception of a Syrian surface-to-air missile fired at an Israeli fighter jet as it bombed targets within Syria. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Sunday that Israel would “destroy [Syrian air defense systems] without the slightest hesitation” in the event the Assad regime fires on Israeli jets again.

No more. Syria’s U.N. ambassador claims that Russia is moving to end the Israeli Air Force’s ability to strike targets from the skies over the country. Haaretz reports that Ambassador Bashar Jaafari told Syrian state television that Russia told Israel “this game is over” when it summoned Israel’s ambassador to Russia for talks about Israel’s recent strikes in Syria, reportedly to intercept arms shipments to Hezbollah. Israel is widely believed to have reached a tacit agreement with Russia following Russia’s touchdown at Latakia in September 2015 to allow Israel’s operations against Hezbollah in Syria to continue — much to the annoyance of Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Moscow. But it’s unclear whether Jaafari was speaking beyond his brief or if Russia really is changing the rules of the game in Syria’s airspace.

Insider attack.Three U.S. soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan in an insider attack at a base in Helmand province. Military Times reports that an Afghan soldier opened fire at Camp Antonik before being shot and killed. An Afghan official, however, characterized the soldier’s actions as a “mistake.” Camp Antonik was the scene of a previous insider attack that cost the lives of two airmen in 2015.

A new start. President Trump has said he wants a bigger and more capable U.S. nuclear deterrent. But despite the rhetoric, the Air Force is still going ahead with cuts to the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force agreed to as part of the New START treaty with Russia. According to the AP, the Air Force is nearly finished reducing its ICBM arsenal from 450 to 400 missiles. President Trump had reportedly criticized the arms agreement with Russia in a February phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That’s not how it works. Germany would like President Trump to know that NATO defense spending targets are not, in fact, dues paid to the United States in exchange for protection. Reuters reports that German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen took aim at a tweet from President Trump claiming that the country “owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States.” Noting that “there is no debt account at NATO,” von der Leyen reminded Trump that NATO’s defense spending targets mandate that members spend two percent of their gross domestic product on their own defense budgets — not to the U.S. or NATO . Like many members, Germany has failed to live up to the alliance’s budget targets.

Pensions. Senior Navy officers convicted in the “Fat Leonard” corruption scandal are so far still able to collect their full pensions, according to the Washington Post. The Navy has yet to make a decision on whether and how much to reduce the pensions of seven officers who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from Leonard Glenn Francis, the president of an Asia-based defense contracting firm who plied sailors with cash and prostitutes in exchange for classified information and other kinds of help in securing contracts from the Pentagon. Pensions have usually been off-limits as disciplinary tools for the military but the Navy tells the Post that “These are serious matters, and the Navy engages in the diligence demanded in considering each case individually.”

 

Photo Credit: Lintao Zhang -Pool/Getty Images

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

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