The Cable

SitRep: Obama and Trump Issue Warnings, Promises in New Speeches; China Flies Nuke-Capable Bombers Around Taiwan

Aleppo Falling; Trump and the Defense Industry, And Lots More

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 17:  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to the U.S. Central Command at the MacDill Air Force Base on September 17, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. Obama visited the base to receive a briefing from his top commanders at CENTCOM, on the strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 17: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to the U.S. Central Command at the MacDill Air Force Base on September 17, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. Obama visited the base to receive a briefing from his top commanders at CENTCOM, on the strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

 

Two speeches, warnings and promises: President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump delivered two speeches Tuesday aimed squarely at the other, shading their language in generalities, but leaving little doubt who their audience was.

Obama, appearing before a roomful of troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to deliver the final national security speech of his presidency, delivered a plea for caution and reflection before using the military as a blunt object, while offering a forceful rejection of torture.

“Adhering to the rule of law is not a weakness,” he said in an allusion to Trump’s calls to bring back waterboarding and other forms of torture. “In the long term, it is our greatest strength.”

He also warned about treating terrorism as an existential threat, to the exclusion of other threats gathering in the world. “A sustainable counter-terrorism strategy depends on keeping the threat in perspective,” Obama said. “Today’s terrorists can kill, but they don’t pose an existential threat to our nation. And we must not make the mistake of elevating them as if they do.”

The United States, he added, it’s a country where we “can criticize a president without retribution,” in a possible reaction to Trump’s tweets slamming Boeing, whose CEO voiced some concern over the President-elect’s trade policies.

Watching the detectives. The Obama speech — which sought to burnish his foreign policy and national security legacy — left some glaring omissions. He all but ignored the debates over the mass surveillance architecture he oversaw and fought hard to maintain throughout his presidency. As The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman rightly notes, “Obama reluctantly helped pass only one law curtailing bulk surveillance, a provision that left untouched the National Security Agency’s ability to collect Americans’ international communications without warrants and the FBI’s unrestrained ability to warrantlessly search through them.”

He also criticized Congress for not specifically authorizing war against the Islamic State, even as his own administration has relied on an ever-expanding interpretation of a 15-year old law meant to give the president power to target the masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to go after terrorist groups in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere.

Hi, there. Just hours later in North Carolina, Trump  introduced retired general James Mattis as his nominee to be Secretary of Defense. The nominee delivered a few short lines, likely trying to reassure service members concerned about being ordered to carry out illegal acts, and nervous allies fearful of American withdrawal from the world. Mattis said he was grateful for the opportunity to work at the Pentagon in “the defense of our Constitution, and with our allies strengthened, and with our country strengthened, I look forward to being the civilian leader, as long as the Congress gives me the waiver, and the Senate votes to consent.”

Trump got back on the mic and added, “Ohhhh, if he doesn’t get that waiver there’ll be a lot of angry people. Such a popular choice.”

There’s already a real fight brewing on Capitol Hill over Mattis, The Hill reports, and some Democrats are warning Republicans not to include language in a temporary spending bill that would grant Mattis the legal waiver he needs to serve, since he has not been retired from the military for the requisite seven years.

Trump’s vision. The President-elect’s speech hit some familiar themes: non-intervention in foreign conflicts, rebuilding the military, and criticism of Obama’s war-making policies. In a possible nod to his desire to focus narrowly on ISIS in Syria, he said, “we will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with,” and “we don’t want to have a depleted military because we’re all over the place fighting in areas that we shouldn’t be fighting in.”

Trump to Boeing: Stop building the planes you haven’t started building yet: On Tuesday morning, just hours after Boeing CEO publicly worried about Trump’s trade policies, the President-elect fired off a tweet slamming the company’s work to build two new Air Force One jets, claiming that “costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!”

Later he told reporters that “the plane is totally out of control, it’s going to over four billion dollars…and I think it’s ridiculous.” Problem is, Boeing hasn’t started building the planes yet, so we don’t know exactly how much they’re going to cost. Boeing has so far been awarded $170 million for work on the planes, which are expected to cost $2.8 billion over the next five years.

Among defense industry execs and industry analysts, the response to the tweet appears to be resignation over Trump’s utterances. Speaking to reporters at an annual defense industry luncheon on Tuesday, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association Dave Melcher told reporters, “what is tweeted today is not necessarily going to be the policy tomorrow. Most of these things tend to be more emotional in context, a rapid response. … We should not overreact.”

Likewise, industry analyst Byron Callan, a director at Capital Alpha Partners, sent out a note Tuesday that cautions not to take the President-elect’s words too seriously. Of Trump’s tweets about defense contractors — and there will be more — he assures investors, “we assume few will prove actionable.” He also noted that since the program is still in its early stages of development, “there appears to be no evidence of excess cost growth on the existing contract.”

Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

China

A week before President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, China flew nuclear-capable H-6K bombers around the island, according to NBC News. Taiwanese officials say that the bombers didn’t encroach on Taiwanese airspace but included four other planes in the circling, including two fighter jets and two surveillance aircraft. Taiwan’s defense ministry also denies there was a connection between the phone call between Tsai and Trump.

Aleppo

Syrian rebels battling government forces in the besieged city of Aleppo withdrew from the historic Old City overnight, in the face of an intensifying government assault. The army and allied forces now hold about 75 percent of the one time rebel stronghold, as rebel groups on Wednesday called for an immediate five-day truce and the evacuation of civilians to other opposition-held territory.

The choices are grim for the 250,000 residents of the eastern half of the city, FP’s Paul McLeary reports. On Tuesday,  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that “if somebody refuses to leave Aleppo on good terms, he will be eliminated…there is no other way out.” Moscow has long painted all anti-government rebels in Syria with the same brush, and refuses to acknowledge the differences between Islamist groups like the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and more moderate, U.S.- and Turkish-backed rebel units.

South Korea

South Korean military officials tell Yonhap News Agency that they believe North Korean hackers managed to break into the South’s cyber command intranet, infecting thousands of connected computers with malware including that of Defense Minister Han Min-koo. The officials say the hack originated with IP addresses based in China, where some say North Korea hosts a unit of hackers attached to its Reconnaissance General Bureau intelligence service. A complete damage assessment or detailed attribution of the attack, however, has yet to be released.

MANPADS

The Washington Post reports that the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act would allow the Trump administration to transfer man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to Syrian rebels in order to target low-flying aircraft. Supporters of the anti-Assad opposition have long urged the Obama administration to provide the weapons to rebels, but critics have argued that the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons could pose a threat to civilian airliners if they fell into the wrong hands. Members of the Trump administration, including the President-elect, however, have expressed skepticism about the rebels and a willingness to partner with Russia and the Assad regime.

Iran

There’s plenty of questions about the future of the Iran nuclear deal but for now at least the U.N. is saying that business is continuing as usual. Reuters spoke to an unnamed diplomat with access to a confidential International Atomic Energy Agency report stating that Iran transferred 11 tons of heavy water out of the country. Under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated with Iran, the Islamic Republic is supposed to keep its supplies of heavy water under 130 tons. Iran’s stocks had briefly risen above that level, raising questions about Tehran’s compliance but the recent transfer would reportedly bring Iran back under the 130 ton limit.

Nukes

Current and former officials at the Reagan National Defense Forum said the U.S. should spend more money to upgrade its nuclear arsenal, National Defense magazine reports. Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) predicted that Congress will shell out $234 billion to modernize American nuclear weapons over the next decade. Ellen Tauscher, former under secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, argued that more investment was needed in order to buttress what she said was the declining credibility of the U.S. land-based nuclear deterrent.

Propaganda

Social media companies are teaming up to create a shared database of terrorist media content in order to make it easier and faster to remove from their platforms. USA Today reports that Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube announced they’ll be sharing a database of hash values — unique digital signatures — of terrorist content they remove to allow partners in the project to identify remove the same media on their platforms. The move follows pressure from government officials in recent years to be more vigilant about removing and reporting terrorist propaganda.

Valor

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus tells USA Today that the service is upgrading two previously-awarded Navy Crosses to recommendations for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. The move comes after a review of awards handed out since 9/11 amid complaints that services had unfairly changed the criteria for recipients. Mabus wouldn’t say who received the awards or in which conflicts the recipients to be earned them.

 

Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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