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: Obama tries to sell the nation on a broader fight against the Islamic State; Questions about the effectiveness of the American air campaign in the Middle East; The White House pivots toward Asia this week; and much more.

By David Francis with Sabine Muscat President Obama tries to sell the nation on a broader fight against the Islamic State. After announcing that an additional 1,500 American troops would be sent to the Middle East late Friday afternoon, Obama declared a "new phase" in the fight against the group Sunday. "Rather than just try ...

By David Francis with Sabine Muscat

By David Francis with Sabine Muscat

President Obama tries to sell the nation on a broader fight against the Islamic State. After announcing that an additional 1,500 American troops would be sent to the Middle East late Friday afternoon, Obama declared a "new phase" in the fight against the group Sunday. "Rather than just try to halt [the Islamic State’s] momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offense. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading [the Islamic State’s] capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making. Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back," Obama said on CBS’s "Face the Nation." "What hasn’t changed is our troops are not going to be engaged in combat." FP’s Kate Brannen details the president’s new plan here.

Obama’s decision marks a key moment in the U.S.-led campaign to stop the Islamic State. The fight in Iraq and Syria has been at a stalemate in recent weeks, with both sides trading victories and defeats. Obama is now sending American troops to train Iraqi security forces in an effort to end this stalemate. The White House plans to ask Congress for $5.6 billion to pay for the mission.

Amid conflicting reports on whether Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was injured by U.S. airstrikes, there are new questions about the effectiveness of the American air campaign. A new report indicates that a lack of useful intelligence is making it hard to find good targets.

The New York Times Eric Schmitt: "In Iraq, the air war is tethered to the slow pace of operations by the Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces. With relatively few Iraqi offensives to flush out militants, many Islamic State fighters have dug in to shield themselves from attack….The vast majority of bombing runs, including the weekend strike near Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, are now searching for targets of opportunity, such as checkpoints, artillery pieces and combat vehicles in the open. But only one of every four strike missions — some 800 of 3,200 — dropped its weapons, according to the military’s Central Command." More here.

The Times’ report, combined with the details of the president’s new plan, seem to indicate that the president is aware of the problem with the lack of good information. Better-trained Iraqi troops could help to solve it, but putting more American troops on the ground is a risk, especially after last week’s midterms when American voters rejected the president’s strategy to fight the group.

More on the Islamic State below.

Rejected at home, Obama is "pivoting" to Asian Pacific foreign policy this week. In China, Myanmar and Australia the president has the opportunity to follow up on his administration’s promise to "rebalance" American foreign policy. But there are many, sometimes contradictory, pieces to ensuring his legacy in a dynamic region where the U.S. competes for influence with China. Obama’s goals to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement (which excludes China) and to keep a strategic posture to assure its allies in the region are at odds with efforts to find a fresh start in the strained U.S.-China relationship.

Obama arrives in China with a very complex agenda, writes Mark Landler in The New York Times: "The centerpiece of the visit will be Mr. Obama’s session with President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People on Wednesday, where he will encounter a Chinese leader who has moved boldly to restore the primacy of the Communist Party with a radical anticorruption campaign, an overhaul of China’s economy and a crackdown on dissent." More here.

As host of the APEC meeting in Beijing, an increasingly confident and nationalistic China will not be an easy partner for Obama. But things are not easy for China either. Beijing tried to push for the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific to counter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) under negotiation between the U.S. and 11 other countries in the Asia Pacific. But a two-year study to look into China’s proposal was all that APEC trade ministers were willing to agree to. In the meantime, there is growing pressure on China to agree to a new International Technology Agreement under the World Trade Organization, as the Wall Street Journal’s Bob Davis reports here.

More on APEC below.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of the Situation Report.

If you’d like to be one of our subscribers, we’d love to have you. Send me a note at and we’ll sign you up. Like what you see? Tell a friend. And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to me early. Follow me: @davidcfrancis.

Who’s Where When Today

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey have no public or open media events on their schedules.

What’s Moving Markets

The amount of risky debt carried by European banks has doubled, another sign of weakness throughout the European Union. The Financial Times’ Christopher Thompson has more here.

From Bloomberg’s Anna Andrianova: "Russia’s economy will probably stagnate next year, the central bank said in the broadest official acknowledgment of the damage wrought by sanctions over Ukraine and a slump in oil prices." More here.

After Scottish voters threatened to break from the United Kingdom, 81 percent of Catalans vote to split from Spain, another threat to European unity and Spain’s recovery. More from Fernando J. Pérez and Pere Ríos in El País English here.   

Writing for Defense News, David Pugliese reports on how France is lobbying Canada to buy weapons from French companies. More here.

The Fight Against the Islamic State

More from The New York Times’ report on the limitations of airstrikes: "Airstrikes have also been constrained by a serious concern about civilian casualties, particularly in western Iraq. Commanders fear such casualties could alienate Sunni tribesmen, whose support is critical to ousting the militants, as well as Sunni Arab countries that are part of the American-led coalition." More here.

The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran, on how the United Arab Emirates has emerged as an ally. "On many nights, the American planes are accompanied by a wave of F-16 Fighting Falcons operated by the UAE’s air force. After the U.S. military, Emirati fighters have conducted more missions against the Islamic State since the air war began than any other member of the multinational coalition, often striking targets that are just as difficult and dangerous as those attacked by the Americans." More here.

The Wall Street Journal’s Matt Bradley, Felicia Schwartz and Ghassan Adnan on whether the airstrikes have hit Islamic State leadership. "Iraqi and regional media reported that two separate strikes on Friday night on the city of Al Qaim, about 250 miles south of Mosul, had either wounded or killed Mr. Baghdadi." More here.

Writing for FP, James Traub on the need for the president to invest more in the fight: "My impression, after talking to officials in the administration and the military, diplomats and regional experts, is that Obama has a chance to make the Middle East a slightly less terrible place — if he’s lucky, which he generally hasn’t been, and if he shows determination and fixity of purpose, which he all too often has failed to do." More here.

To counter the rise of the Islamic State, Jordan imposes rules on Muslim clerics. From William Booth and Taylor Luck in the Washington Post: "Stunned by the rapid advance of the Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Jordan has fortified its borders and put its air force and intelligence service to work in the U.S.-led alliance against the self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq." More here.

Former CIA chief John McLaughlin writing at, on how the president’s plan requires a number of difficult choices: "A number of harsh realities are staring us in the face." More here.


The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield, on how DOD is searching for a mission in the Asian Pacific. "Loudspeakers along the side of the field, which sounded like World War II relics, crackled out radio chatter in Japanese and English. ‘We have eyes on the enemy tank,’ an American voice said…[I]n a region of the world where there are enough territorial disputes on the islands surrounding Japan that battle sometimes feels possible, this is an exercise that reveals two military forces looking to redefine their mission. One is American, the other Japanese." More here.

Voice of America reports that China and Russia are finalizing energy deals on the sidelines of the conference: "The route will supply Russian natural gas to China along a western route. In May, the two sides signed a $400 billion deal for an eastern supply route." More here.

The U.S.-China rivalry pales in comparison to the outright animosity between China and its East Asian neighbors. More from the Japan Times here.

Business Insider‘s Jeremy Bender and Mike Nudelman have a map that illustrates all of Asia’s disputed borders.


The New York Times’  Matthew Rosenberg and Jawad Sukhanyar on explosions in Kabul: " Three blasts on Sunday morning punctured months of relative calm in Kabul, with the Taliban carrying out at least two attacks, including a suicide bombing inside the city’s heavily fortified Police Headquarters that reportedly targeted senior officials there." More here.

More from The New York Times, this time from Declan Walsh, on Kandahar’s Police Chief Lt. Gen. Abdul Raziq, who strikes fear in the Taliban: "Since taking control of security in Kandahar three years ago, he has imposed an uneasy peace on this onetime Taliban citadel — insurgent attacks in the city have fallen by two-thirds, according to Western estimates. His name prompts dread among the Taliban, experts say." More here.  


Writing for FP, Trita Parsi argues that Obama’s pen-pal diplomacy with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is smart diplomacy: "The real outrage is that communicating with key players in the Middle East in order to advance U.S. security is still considered outrageous in far too many policy and political circles in Washington. The ‘outrage’ Sen. John McCain has expressed reminds us why the American public over and over again has rejected McCain’s foreign-policy vision." More here.

The Washington Post’s Carol Morello on nuclear talks between John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif: "The mere fact they are still at it suggests progress is still possible, as more than a decade of negotiations boil down to the final two weeks before a Nov. 24 deadline. If the date passes without a deal or an extension, an interim pact dies, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the international effort to keep the Islamic republic from building a bomb." More here.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon: "Iran sent signals that it was open to overtures in a recent letter from U.S. President Barack Obama as talks kicked off here on Sunday, but tensions in both nations’ capitals are complicating attempts to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program as a diplomatic deadline approaches." More here.

The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Tom Hamburger on the "billionaire political kingmakers" who disagree with the president’s engagement with Iran: "Appearing before a new group called the Israeli American Council, [Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson] issued a call for unity when it comes to support for the Jewish state, reminding all prospective presidential candidates of the primacy of the U.S.-Israel relationship. And they agreed that Obama and his administration have not been tough enough in protecting Israel’s interests." More here.

From Warren Strobel in Reuters: "Iran, the United States and the European Union began an unscheduled second day of talks on Monday over disagreements blocking the resolution of a confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear program, U.S. and Iranian officials said." More here.


The New York Times’ Isabel Kershner on continuing tensions in Jerusalem. "The episode set off rioting in Kafr Kanna, where youths hurled stones and firebombs at the police, blocked a main road with burning tires, raised Palestinian flags and threatened an intifada." More here.

North Korea

From the Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Anna Fifield, on the release of two Americans prisoners by North Korea and how Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper helped make it happen. "The surprise release is in many ways the latest bewildering move by North Korea, a nuclear-armed country that is among the most insular in the world and a long-standing adversary of the United States." More here.

FP’s Isaac Stone Fish on the why the hostages were released: "North Korea has been surprisingly engaging with South Korea, the European Union, and the United States." More here.

The United States gives North Korea the silent treatment, according to The New York Times’ David Sanger. More here.

38 North‘s Frank Jannuzi argues that the release represents a diplomatic breakthrough with Pyongyang. More here.


New shelling in Ukraine threatens to break a two-month-old ceasefire between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists. More from Reuters here.

Bloomberg‘s Terry Atlas and David Lerman cover a new report show the chances of a military confrontation between Europe and Russia are on the rise. More here.


Writing for FP, Laurie Garrett on Liberia’s rapidly slowing Ebola infection rate. More here.

British Military

The Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith reports resistance to cutting the size of the British armed forces. More here.


The Federal Aviation Administration is concerned about security threats from drones at football stadiums. More from the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock here.

Revolving Door

FP’s John Hudson on Obama’s nomination of Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken for the position of deputy secretary of State. "The president came to that view despite the opinion of Secretary of State John Kerry, who advocated for Wendy Sherman, the under secretary of state for political affairs and chief U.S. negotiator on the Iran nuclear talks." More here.  

Obama’s pick for attorney general has little experience dealing with national security legal issues. FP’s David Francis has more here.

And finally, a day after the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, FP has a slideshow of the city in the 1990s. See it here.  


More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.