Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

FP’s Situation Report: Control of Congress at stake today; State to end program collecting evidence of Syrian war crimes; top Afghan commander reassessing withdrawal plans; staffing shakeup at State; and much more

By David Francis with Sabine Muscat Control of Congress is at stake as American voters head to the polls today. The midterm elections have become a referendum on President Obama’s crisis management abilities. Polls show Republicans poised to take control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House. A GOP-controlled Congress could disrupt ...

By David Francis with Sabine Muscat

By David Francis with Sabine Muscat

Control of Congress is at stake as American voters head to the polls today. The midterm elections have become a referendum on President Obama’s crisis management abilities. Polls show Republicans poised to take control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House. A GOP-controlled Congress could disrupt policy on the Islamic State, Israel and the future of the U.S. military. As defeat looms, some Democrats have distanced themselves from the president and his policies.

From the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and David Nakamura: "Obama’s journey from triumphant, validated Democratic hero to a political millstone weighing on his party’s chances is a tale of a second-term president quickly and repeatedly sidetracked by a series of crises — some self-inflicted — and the widely held perception that the White House has not managed them well. The fallout has led to questions about the president’s effectiveness, his resolve and his general ability to lead, at home and abroad." More here. 

Obama’s responses to the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa are very much on the minds of voters, who widely disapprove of the administration’s handling of both. In recent weeks, both have been featured by Republicans in attack advertisements. However, as FP’s Elias Groll notes, the ads are more rooted in fear than reality. Read his piece on the most disingenuous ads here.

More on the elections below.

The State Department plans to end a $500,000 annual program collecting evidence linking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to war crimes. This program funded the Commission for International Justice and Accountability’s work collecting evidence against the Assad regime and its proxies. Members of the group, comprised of lawyers, law students and local researchers, were tasked to document Assad’s role in barrel bombing campaigns, mass murder and starvation.

FP’s Colum Lynch with an exclusive: "The move, which has not previously been reported, comes as the Obama administration is stepping up funding to collect evidence of war crimes in Iraq by the Islamic State, an extremist Islamist organization that has horrified the world with its mass killings, enslavement of women, and beheadings of ethnic minorities, foreign aid workers, and journalists, including two American reporters who were executed in recent months. The funding shift has raised concern among human rights advocates that the United States and its allies are reducing their commitment to holding the Syrian leader accountable for the majority of Syrian atrocities because the interests of Washington and Damascus are converging over the fight against the Islamic State." More here.

The fight against the Islamic State has made for strange bedfellows. Syria and the United States share interests in the battle, but the White House should not forget Assad’s brutality during the Syrian civil war. The Syrian president has already escaped punishment for war crimes once; Obama reneged on a threat to use force to stop Assad after evidence emerged that he used chemical weapons against his own people. Compromising America’s moral authority again at a time when U.S. leadership is being questioned could sink the president’s international standing even further.

More on the Islamic State below.

The top Afghan war commander is reassessing the American withdrawal plan. The Obama administration has stood firm in its commitment to the withdrawal timetable in Afghanistan. Marines recently left Helmand province and about 19,650 troops remain in the country. However, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell tells FP’s Gopal Ratnam that the Pentagon is now assessing whether troops should stay past 2016.

An exclusive from Ratnam: "Insurgent attacks have reached the highest levels since 2011, the Afghan army has sustained heavy combat losses and is experiencing high attrition rates, and opium poppy cultivation has more than doubled from its pre-1999 levels when the Taliban ruled the country. These trends potentially undermine the Afghan state’s legitimacy at a time when the nation is experiencing budget shortfalls, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said in a quarterly report sent to Congress last week." More here.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has many concerned that a similar group could take advantage of a fragile Afghanistan once the vast majority of foreign troops leave the country. Given this concern, a reassessment by DOD on current strategy, as hinted by others within the Pentagon, makes perfect sense. However, the president has shown little desire to revisit his plan to have all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016. If Afghanistan takes a turn for the worse, the problem would be inherited by the next president, something Obama has learned all too well in Iraq.

Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of the Situation Report.

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Who’s When Where Today

8:00 a.m. Secretary Kerry meets with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, at the Department of State.? 9:30 a.m. Secretary Kerry delivers remarks on U.S.-China relations, at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. 4:00 p.m. The president and the vice president will meet Hagel in the Oval Office.

What’s Moving Markets

The European Union has cut growth forecasts. This is yet another sign that European monetary policies aren’t working, which has the EU considering more drastic action to spur growth. More here.

The fight is on in the Eurozone as to whether or not the European Central Bank should dive into a massive bond purchase program (as the United States and Japan have done). It’s no secret that Germany leads the opposition against such a move — but Der Spiegel’s Anne Seith quotes U.S. economists like Willem Buiter as cautioning that monetary policy alone might not be sufficient to deal with Europe’s current stagnation. More here. 

Writing for FP, Chen Weihua, Hugh White, and Wu Jianmin offer their suggestions on what Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping should discuss at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders Meeting next week. More here.


Writing for FP, Bruce Stokes argues that a Republican win today could push Obama into a more aggressive foreign policy stance. "[P]olls suggest that if the Republicans gain a majority in the Senate and retain control of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, a widely anticipated outcome, the GOP may be under pressure from its base to chart a different and more aggressive course on U.S. foreign policy than that pursued by the Obama White House." More here.

The Senate race has become a reality check for Democrats, writes David A. Fahrenthold, Katie Zezima and Paul Kan in the Washington Post. "In all, there are 13 states where Senate seats might change from one party to the other. Republicans need to win nine of them to attain a 51-seat majority in the Senate for the first time since 2007. On Monday, Republicans seem to be leading, by a lot or by a little, in eight of those races." More here.

From the New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman and Ashley Parker, on the electorate’s sour mood: "A slowly but steadily improving economy — with six months of strong growth, gasoline below $3 a gallon for the first time in four years and substantial deficit reduction — has not translated into broader optimism. Voters are more inclined toward blame than credit." More here.

Defense One’s Molly O’Toole on how defense committees on Capitol Hill will get new leadership regardless of today’s results. More here.

Islamic State

Writing for FP, Tirana Hassan on gangs in Iraq using the fight against the Islamic State as a pretext to destroy Sunni Arab communities across the country. "The men bore no insignia of Iraq’s armed forces: Most had on mismatched military fatigues, while some wore black balaclavas printed with a menacing skeleton face. From their slender frames, it looked like some were no more than 16 or 17." More here.

From Karen DeYoung in the Washington Post, U.S. officials weigh a broader air campaign that targets the al-Nusra group. "Extremists from the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group were said Monday to be within a few miles of the Bab ­al-Hawa crossing in northwestern Syria on the Turkish border, one of only two openings through which the moderate Free Syrian Army receives military and humanitarian supplies provided by the United States and other backers." More here.

The Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy on how the Islamic State evolved in an American prison. "Camp Bucca…now represents an opening chapter in the history of Islamic State — many of its leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were incarcerated and likely met there. According to former prison commanders, analysts and soldiers, Camp Bucca provided a unique setting for both prisoner radicalization and inmate collaboration — and was formative in the development today’s most potent jihadist force." More here.

State Department

FP’s John Hudson with an exclusive on President Obama’s break with Secretary of State Kerry on State staffing: "After months of intensive negotiations between the White House and the State Department, multiple sources familiar with the discussions say President Barack Obama now favors the nomination of Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken for deputy secretary of state, the No. 2 position in Foggy Bottom…The president came to that view despite a strong push by his own secretary of state, John Kerry, who advocated for the nomination of Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs and chief U.S. negotiator on the Iran nuclear talks.." More here.


The New York Times’ David Sanger on a possible agreement for Iran to ship uranium stockpiles to Russia: "Under the proposed agreement, the Russians would convert the uranium into specialized fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran’s only commercial reactor. Once the uranium is converted into fuel rods, it is extremely difficult to use them to make a nuclear weapon. That could go a long way toward alleviating Western concerns about Iran’s stockpile, though the agreement would not cut off every pathway that Tehran could take to obtain a nuclear weapon." More here.


Israel announced that it plans to build 500 new apartments in east Jerusalem. The move was quickly condemned by the United States. Read Barak Ravid, Jack Khoury, and Nir Hasson in Haaretz here.


Yesterday, I mistakenly said that the Ebola crisis in Liberia was worsening. It’s actually improving there; it’s worsening in Sierra Leone. I apologize for the mistake.

More on the decline of new Ebola cases in Liberia from the Washington Post’s Lenny Bernstein. "The turnaround has occurred without the provision of a single treatment bed by the U.S. military, which has promised to build 17 Ebola facilities containing 100 beds each across Liberia." More here.

Laurie Garrett, writing for FP from Monrovia, the center of the epidemic. "American Ebola-fighters now face three fearsome challenges: death from viral infection, lack of clear routes of return to the United States should they become infected here in West Africa, and forced quarantine and stigmatization once they get home." More here. 

Ukraine Crisis

FP’s Gopal Ratnam on U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove’s warning that Russia is forming a new border with Ukraine. "Breedlove said the dynamic is a replay of what happened in Crimea after Russian forces invaded and annexed the Ukrainian territory earlier this year. Putin, Breedlove said, was using the new borders to set ‘a situation that could develop into a frozen conflict’ between Moscow and the Western-backed Ukrainian government in Kiev." More here.  

Writing for the New York Times, Andrew E. Kramer and Michael R. Gordon on Russia’s continued training of pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine. More here. 


From FP’s David Francis and Gopal Ratnam: Hagel Puts Off High-Profile Trip to Vietnam and Myanmar… "The cancellation comes as American allies in the region are growing increasingly concerned that the administration’s long-planned pivot to Asia has stalled." More here.


The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will start to review the case against the NSA’s bulk phone collection program that was revealed by Edward Snowden. "Though three appeals courts are in the process of weighing the legality of NSA surveillance, Tuesday’s hearing is the only one to follow a lower-court ruling that largely condemned the government’s spying apparatus", writes Dustin Volz in the National Journal. More here.

The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris on Gen. Keith Alexander, the former NSA spy chief who bet money on AT&T as the company spied on Americans. "In 2008, Alexander bought and sold tens of thousands of dollars in stock in a company called Synchronoss Technologies Inc., based in Bridgewater Township, N.J., according to the retired Army general’s financial-disclosure forms. You’ve probably never heard of Synchronoss, but, like the NSA, it probably knows who you are." More here.

Burkina Faso

The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock: Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, the officer who has seized power in Burkina Faso, received U.S. military training. "In 2012, when he was a major, Zida attended a 12-day counterterrorism training course at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida that was sponsored by the Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations University." More here.

Revolving Door

From Booz Allen: "Booz Allen Hamilton…announced that Robert F. Hale, former Department of Defense Comptroller, has been selected as a Booz Allen Fellow and will serve as an advisor to the firm…Prior to joining Booz Allen, Hale served more than five years as Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller)." More here.

From DOD: Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel A. Dailey has been selected to be next Sergeant Major of the Army. He starts his new job January 30th of next year. More here.

From Defense News: "The White House announced over the weekend that President Barack Obama intends to nominate David Berteau for the post of assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness at the Pentagon." More here.

From the Associated Press: "The Air Force on Monday fired two more nuclear commanders and disciplined a third, fresh evidence of leadership lapses in a nuclear missile corps that has suffered a rash of recent setbacks, including the firing last year of its top commander." More here.

And finally…

A victory for the F-35. The plane has suffered a lot of setbacks. Yesterday, it took a step forward, making "an arrested landing aboard a flattop today, an important milestone both in the development of the stealth fighter and in naval aviation history." Watch the video at Navy Times here.



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