SitRep: Washington’s New Terrorism Problem; Bannon Snipes at Flynn; Republicans Balk at Muslim Ban; Trump’s ‘Safe Zone’ Coalition
Fallout from the weekend's executive orders continues
Weekend warriors. It’s likely that the United States has not yet felt the full consequences of the Trump administration’s decision to ban Muslim visitors from seven countries across the Middle East and Africa.
“The move was not something counter-terrorism officials had lobbied for or championed,” FP’s Dan De Luce noted. “Their focus has been on finding better ways to counter Islamic State’s online propaganda and forging closer cooperation with other governments — including in the Middle East — to uncover terrorist plots and networks. Instead, experts and lawmakers said, the order provides a propaganda jackpot that Islamic State could never have managed on its own.” Jihadist groups, in fact, praised the ban over the weekend.
And some congressional Republicans have rejected the presidential order. “Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism,” said Sen. John McCain (R- Ariz) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement on Sunday. The Washington Post lists over a dozen other Republicans who have slammed the move.
BOLO. The decision largely overshadowed two other issues that might loom even larger in the coming months: Trump’s foray into building international support for undefined “safe zones” inside Syria and Yemen, and presidential advisor Steve Bannon pushing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence out of their traditional roles on the National Security Council.
The reorganization of the NSC gives Bannon — a self-described “economic nationalist” who courted neo-Nazis while head of far-right, conspiracy-leaden Web site Breitbart — a regular seat on the Principals Committee, a meeting of the secretaries of state, defense, and intelligence leaders. According to a memo put out by the White House Saturday, the chairman and director will now only attend NSC Principals Committee meetings “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” a move seen as consolidating power for Bannon national security advisor Michael Flynn.
The move was met with a wall of disapproval from former Republican and Democratic national security officials. “The last place you want to put somebody who worries about politics is in a room where they’re talking about national security,” said Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff, defense secretary and C.I.A. director in two Democratic administrations. “That’s not what the National Security Council is supposed to be about.”
Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Robert Gates, who served presidents from both parties, called it “a big mistake” to exclude the DNI and Chief. President Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice tweeted over the weekend that the move was “stone cold crazy.”
Mark it. The New York Times’ Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman recorded what might be the first shot from Bannon’s camp at Flynn. The relevant bit: “People close to Mr. Bannon said he is not accumulating power for power’s sake, but is instead helping to fill a staff leadership vacuum created, in part, by Mr. Flynn’s stumbling performance as national security adviser.”
Plenty of questions remain. Defense officials working at the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command told SitRep on Sunday they were studying the executive order, and were unsure about how to handle several imminent issues. Chief among them are servicemembers born in the targeted countries.
There was no guidance handed down on how to move forward for those servicemembers, and one defense official emailed that the Pentagon “recruits about 5,000 Legal Permanent Residents per year,” and “the average number of non-citizens serving on active duty from 2010-2015 was about 18,700.” There was no breakdown for specific countries available. Another official at Centcom — which directs U.S. military policy in the Middle East — is working through what the order means for the Iraqi pilots and officers who are in the U.S. for training, and how to bring in other Iraqi officials for meetings and training sessions.
Baghdad’s move. The White House has made things difficult for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who, as the Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Missy Ryan point out, is already under pressure from radical Shiite elements in his government, and an angry Sunni minority.
“The decision undermines Abadi, straddled between a Western ally whose support he needs to fight militants and Shiite political peers who view the U.S. presence with hostility.” Lukman Faily, who served as the Iraqi ambassador in Washington until last year, said “it will certainly put the prime minister in the most awkward position,” and “it will not help him navigate his politics while he’s completing [a major battle] and while he has an oil crisis to deal with.” The Wall Street Journal obtained a memo from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that “showed that diplomats appeared blindsided by the order issued on Friday. They warned that it could do lasting harm to bilateral relations with a nation the U.S. considers a close ally.”
Well-timed. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will host Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein at the Pentagon Monday morning. Jordan is not on Trump’s ban list, and is an ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
Safe zones. The other major issue, of course, is President Trump’s embrace of a “safe zones” in Syria and elsewhere in the region where refugees fleeing the fighting would be protected. According to White House readouts, during Trump’s call with Saudi King Salman on Sunday, the president “requested, and the king agreed to support, safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts.”
In his conversation with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the White House said Trump “raised the idea of supporting safe zones for the refugees displaced by the conflict in the region, and the crown prince agreed to support this initiative,” according to the White House readout.