- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
With Adam Rawnsley
London. In the wake of Saturday’s terrorist attacks in London that killed seven people, British Prime Minister Theresa May declared, “enough is enough,” vowing to launch a sweeping review of Britain’s counterterrorism strategy after the third major terrorist attack in the country in three months. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it had been carried out by “a detachment of Islamic State fighters.” The attack comes after the U.K. had already raised its terrorism alert level following a suicide bombing at a concert in Manchester. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Manchester attack, as well.
We’re here. We promise. Two top U.S. officials spent the weekend attempting to reassure Asian allies of Washington’s commitment, despite president Trump’s harsh words for friends and scuttling agreements in the region and in Europe. In separate speeches in Singapore and Australia, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted that despite Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, allies should pay more attention to their actions than the president’s words.
“What a crummy world, if we all retreat inside our own borders,” Mattis told regional leaders in Singapore. “Like it or not, we are part of the world.” In Australia on Monday, Tillerson told reporters, “I hope the fact that we are here demonstrates that is certainly not this administration’s view or intention to somehow put at arm’s length the other important allies and partners in the world.”
State of confusion. Still, allies are worried. “We are still trying to figure out his (Trump’s) policy in our region,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said over the weekend. “I would like to know very clearly what are the true intentions of the new administration.” Several countries in the region are forming their own alliances, unsure of what might come next in Trump’s world.
Tough talk for Beijing. Despite Trump’s recent praise for China’s leadership, Mattis slammed Beijing’s construction of bases and man-made islands in the South China Sea, citing “China’s blatant disregard for international law and its contempt for other nations’ interest its effort to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues.” He added that the U.S. opposes “militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law. We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.”
Chinese officials shot back at Mattis’ comments, displeased with the criticism.
Tillerson doubled down on Mattis’ comments, saying Washington would not allow China to use its economic power to “buy its way out of other problems, whether it’s militarizing islands in the South China Sea or failing to put appropriate pressure on North Korea”. In Singapore, regional leaders pressed Washington to continue its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, to keep pressure on China.
Promises, promises, words. But what effect will assurances from Trump’s cabinet officials have when the president remains impulsive, prone to Twitter outbursts that undermine his own policies, and remains close to nationalist advisors like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller?
The power of that faction was evident during Trump’s coalition-rattling speech at NATO headquarters last month, when Trump belittled European allies and refused to support Article 5, the alliance’s mutual defense agreement. The president’s cabinet had signed off on what they thought was going to be a fence-mending speech praising the alliance, but without warning Trump tossed that speech out and with the support of Bannon and Miller, delivered a blistering address that shocked both allies as well as Mattis, Tillerson, and national security advisor Lt Gen. H.R. McMaster.
Politico’s Susan Glasser writes that the three believed the president would reaffirm Article 5, but when “Trump started talking…the president’s national security team realized their boss had made a decision with major consequences – without consulting or even informing them in advance of the change. ‘They had the right speech and it was cleared through McMaster,’ said a source briefed by National Security Council officials in the immediate aftermath of the NATO meeting. ‘As late as that same morning, it was the right one.’”
Still, McMaster delivered a speech over the weekend saying everything is great, and the president had a successful trip to Europe.
Moscow sanctions. Momentum is building in Congress to impose tough new sanctions on Russia even as the White House is conducting a review of existing sanctions policy, FP’s Dan De Luce reports. The Senate Banking Committee on Thursday announced a bipartisan agreement for legislation that would strengthen and expand punitive sanctions against Moscow over its seizure of Crimea, its support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and its military backing for the Syrian regime.
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Tweets. President Trump’s thumbs have gotten him and the U.S. in trouble once again after Trump unloaded on London’s mayor just hours after the terrorist attack. “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!'” Trump tweeted on Sunday. The comment reflects an apparent misunderstanding of a statement by Mayor Sadiq Khan, telling city residents that “Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. There’s no reason to be alarmed” Asked for a response, a spokesman for Khan later said “He has more important things to do than respond to Donald Trump’s ill-informed tweet” at the moment. The State Department moved to try and undo the damage by Trump’s missive, with acting U.S. Ambassador Lewis Lukens tweeting “I commend the strong leadership of the @MayorofLondon as he leads the city forward after this heinous attack.”
Rumble in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt have all cut off relations and transportation links with Qatar in a rapidly escalating feud among the Gulf countries. The Gulf countries accused Qatar of supporting extremist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as alleged comments from the Emir of Qatar arguing for a diplomatic thaw with Iran. The breakdown in relations and transportation links puts the U.S. military, which has a naval base in Bahrain and an airbase in Qatar, in a difficult spot and throws a wrench into the Trump administration’s effort to piece together a united front against Iran.
Palace intrigue. White House advisor Steve Bannon’s parallel National Security Council has ceased to exist, the Daily Beast reports. Bannon had set up a body he called the Strategic Initiatives Group (SIG) shortly after the Trump administration was sworn in but insiders say the SIG, intended to generate policy ideas, quickly fell prey to a lack of budget and power conflicts between Bannon’s Trump’s son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner. The demise of the SIG has also left controversial White House advisor Sebastian Gorka with little to do, according to the Beast, with one administration insider saying “He has no discernible or real impact on policy making, period.”
Bunker. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has hunkered down on the seventh floor with access to him tightly controlled by a couple of close aides, according to Politico. Even confidantes such as former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice have reportedly had difficulty getting in touch with Tillerson, as aides screen his calls even from intimates like Rice. Tillerson has grown especially reliant on two aides, Margaret Peterlin and Brian Hook, both of whom critics say have cut him off from advice and contacts that could help the secretary improve his performance.
Covert ops. Leaked documents from Macedonia’s intelligence agency reveal a covert Russian influence campaign to stir up trouble in the former Yugoslav republic. The documents, leaked to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and shared with the Guardian, point to nearly 10 years of Russian subversion aimed at preventing Macedonia’s entry into NATO. Macedonian intelligence alleges that Russia’s foreign intelligence agency has three officers based in Skopje, who work with the Russian news agency Tass and to try and gin up anti-NATO sentiment, paying off media outlets to publish disinformation.
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