SitRep: NatSec Drama in Washington; Putin Meets Obama, Reveals Subject of His Trump Chat
Return to Post-9/11 Mindset at the White House; And Lots More
The spectacle. It’s good TV. Or at least good advertising. Politicians, retired generals, and other officials posed and smiled for the cameras in front of the Trump-branded property in Bedminster, N.J. over the weekend, interviewing for top slots in the president-elect’s cabinet. The latest to enter the reality TV-style setup is retired Marine Corps general James Mattis, who met with Trump Saturday and who has been the subject of several tweets from the president-elect over what a great job he’d do as his Defense Secretary.
The highly respected Mattis — who retired from the Corps in 2013 — has long since morphed into a living legend for some pretty solid quotes delivered to troops he commanded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as head of the U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013.
Mattis and Iran. The former general’s dim view of the threat posed by Iran falls directly in line with that of the incoming administration, and especially fellow retired general Mike Flynn, who will be Trump’s National Security Advisor. Another thing the two share is having been pushed out of their last military posting by the Obama administration. In Mattis’ case, it was for pushing civilian officials to consider taking a harder line on stopping Iranian shipments of weapons to Syria, and Yemen.
President-elect Trump also met with retired Marine Corps general John Kelly over the weekend, who may be under consideration for Secretary of State. In July, FP’s Molly O’Toole sat down with Kelly, who was warning follow retired generals to stay out of the “cesspool of domestic politics.”
On Iran. The Obama administration is looking at ways to shore up the nuclear deal in the final weeks before January’s transition of power, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Team of rivals? The group of cabinet members Trump has already chosen could “return 9/11-era policies to the White House and back an all-out war on Islamist terrorists that will alarm U.S. allies, raise the risk of confrontation with Iran, and potentially jeopardize civil liberties at home,” reports a team of FP scribes.
The appointments unveiled Friday, with retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security advisor, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) as CIA director, “represent a sharp U-turn to the mentality that prevailed after the 9/11 attacks. George W. Bush’s administration declared a no-holds-barred ‘war on terror’ to justify expanded presidential powers — including the use of torture and unilateral military action. Trump’s new team offers plenty of echoes: Pompeo has defended the use of waterboarding, Sessions has argued federal agents’ shouldn’t be limited in their use of other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and Flynn has decried military rules designed to avoid civilian deaths as limitations that are crippling U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Scraps at the top. One of the big stories carrying the week will be the drama surrounding reports that top Obama administration officials have pushed to fire National Security Agency chief, Adm. Michael Rogers. “The recommendation, delivered to the White House last month, was made by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.,” reports the Washington Post.
“The news comes as Rogers is being considered by President-elect Donald Trump to be his nominee for director of national intelligence to replace Clapper as the official who oversees all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. In a move apparently unprecedented for a military officer, Rogers, without notifying superiors, traveled to New York to meet with Trump on Thursday at Trump Tower. That caused consternation at senior levels of the administration, according to the officials.”
Hitting the phones. President-elect Donald Trump is already conducting his own foreign policy, two months before he steps into the Oval Office. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Sunday Trump confirmed to him he was willing to repair the relationship between the two countries. “The President-elect confirmed he is willing to normalize Russian-American relations,” Putin said. “I told him the same. We did not discuss where and when we would meet.” No word from Trump Tower on the talks.
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President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for an abrupt exchange of views on the subject of Ukraine over the weekend. Both leaders were in Peru for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation being held there. The White House readout of the four minute conversation implies that Obama had some thoughts to share on Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, with an official saying the president told Putin to “to uphold Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements.”
Muslim-American civil rights groups are growing increasingly anxious about the emerging Trump national security cabinet picks. So far the Trump transition team has anti-Islamic figures such as retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn who has described Islam as a “cancer.” But it’s not just American Muslims on edge. A former Jordanian ambassador to the U.S. tells the Washington Post that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric could complicate U.S. foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East. Still, not all officials from Islamic countries are despairing. Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have both publicly celebrated Trump’s victory.
Add nuclear policy to the list of issues world leaders are uncertain about in the next administration. During the presidential campaign, Trump suggested that countries like Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia should develop their own nuclear weapons rather than count on their alliances with the United States for security. Trump later tried to walk back the remarks. In the days after the election, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye both spoke with Trump and pronounced themselves assured of American security guarantees.
A poll carried out by Military Times and the Institute for Military and Veterans Families says one in every four service members is worried that President Trump could order them to violate the laws or norms of the military. A full fifty-one percent of those surveyed said they support Trump. Most respondents said they thought Trump would be able to increase the defense budget and take on the Islamic State. But concern was highest among women in the military, 55 percent of whom said they’re concerned about their jobs under a Trump administration.
The Cold War is back and so are the weapons used to fight it. Sweden, newly concerned about the threat of Russian aggression, is having to raid weapons museums in order to defend its coastline. The Local reports that Swedish defense officials brought launch trucks for the Saab Robotsystem 15 anti-ship missiles out of retirement from the museums where they’ve been housed ever since the system was shelved in 2000. Analysts say the move is part of Sweden’s attempt to beef up its defenses along the Baltic Sea as Russia becomes more active in the region.
Russia and Turkey are looking to exploit the lame duck period between now and when the Trump administration comes into power by carrying out more operations in Syria, intelligence officials tell the Los Angeles Times. In the absence of a clear sign from the Trump transition team about its future Syria policy, both countries are hedging by trying to claim as much territory as possible to create facts on the ground before a new administration. For Russia, that means an increase in its bombing of rebel-held cities, whereas Turkey may try to push to take the city of Al Bab from the Islamic State.
Opposition areas in eastern Aleppo came under heavy bombardment over the weekend and hospitals once again took the brunt of the attacks. The Syrian American Medical Society tells CNN that the uptick in airstrikes has knocked out all of eastern Aleppo’s hospitals, including the last children’s hospital. Some activists say that as many as five medical facilities are still open, albeit operating at diminished capacity. Human rights groups like Amnesty International have accused Russia of repeatedly and deliberately targeting civilian hospitals with airstrikes in Syria.
Business of defense
The State Department has notified Congress that it plans to sell as many as 26 Certifiable Predator B drones to Britain’s Royal Air Force. The deal, worth about a billion dollars, would add to Britain’s existing fleet of ten Reaper drones. The Certifiable Predator B aircraft are cleared for flight in civilian airspace in NATO countries.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary