The Cable

SitRep: McMaster Says Trump Doing Right Thing; Putin, Trump Talk; Pentagon Nixes Navy Plans in South China Sea

European Command Reverts to War Posture; Congress Worried About saudi Assault in Yemen; Army Secretary Nominee in Hot Water; 355 Ship Navy Will Take Decades to Build



With Adam Rawnsley

Disruptor in Chief. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster praised president’s Trump’s approach to thorny foreign policy problems on Tuesday, saying his “disruptive” approach is exactly what the country needs.

Trump “does not have time to debate over doctrine,” and “is not a super-patient man,” McMaster told a crowd in Washington at an Israeli Independence Day event. “Some people have described him as disruptive. They’re right. And this is good – good because we can no longer afford to invest in policies that do not advance the interests and values of the United States and our allies.”

Over the past week, the president has offered to meet with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, and invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House despite his support for a wave of vigilante killings in his country that has led to the murder of thousands. McMaster, an active duty U.S. Army officer who is expected to stay away from political talk of any kind, also said “arduous circumstances,” including Islamic State violence and Iranian support for Syria, “may allow us to resolve what some have regarded as intractable problems, problems like disputes between Israel and the Palestinians.”

“President Trump has taken a typically unconventional and fresh approach to this problem,” McMaster added.

China watching. Trump’s nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to China took a hard line on Tuesday over Beijing’s controversial program of building, and militarizing, small islands in the South China Sea. “China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce its neighbors or limit freedom of navigation or overflight,” Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad said during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Talk, action. Despite Branstad’s comments and Trump’s tough talk over Chinese activities on the campaign stump, the Pentagon has so far nixed several requests from the U.S. Pacific Command to carry out freedom of navigation operations near Chinese-claimed islands, according to the New York Times. The operations, designed to challenge China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, began during the Obama administration, but senior officials in the Defense Department have been hesitant to green light the operations for fear of annoying Beijing. While the Trump administration came into office swinging at China over a range of issues, the White House has grown increasingly solicitous of China’s favor, particularly in its efforts to halt North Korea’s aggressive weapons of mass destruction programs.

Calling it. In the first conversation between president Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin since American ships launched cruise missiles at a Syrian air base occupied by Russian troops last month, the two leaders discussed a ceasefire in the country, and talked about meeting in Germany in July. According to readout of the call, Trump agreed to send a representative to Russian-brokered cease-fire talks this week in Astana, Kazakhstan.

But there appears to be differing takes on plans for establishing safe zones in Syria to protect civilians caught up in the bloody, six-year civil war. A White House statement said the two leaders had discussed zones “to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons,” but the Kremlin made no mention of safe zones, and Mr. Putin’s spokesman said they had not been discussed in any detail.

“The official White House and Kremlin readouts from the call are vague, but what’s not in them is arguably as important as what is in them,” FP’s Robbie Gramer and Emily Tamkin write in a deep dive into the statements from the two capitals.

More more more. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, head of U.S. European Command testified on Capitol Hill Tuesday, where he called for more troops, and more heavy armor to act as a deterrent to Moscow.

“Russia’s posture is not a light force, it’s a heavy force,” he told the Senate appropriations subcommittee. As a result, “we need more armored forces…to make sure that we do have a force of enough size that enables us to deter Russia.” It wasn’t the first time the general made the request. Back in March, Scaparrotti, who also commands NATO forces in Europe, revealed he was in discussions with the Pentagon over obtaining “additional maneuver forces, combat air squadrons, anti-submarine capabilities, a carrier strike group and maritime amphibious capabilities.”

The general also said his command is changing, and has shifted its focus “from security cooperation and engagement to deterrence and defense…in short, we are returning to our historic role as a warfighting command.”

Worries about Saudis in Yemen. A group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill sent a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis this week, urging him not to support what appears to be an imminent Saudi assault on the Yemeni port city of Hodeida. “In the face of Yemen’s senseless humanitarian tragedy, where 19 million people need emergency support, we are committed to using our Constitutional authority to assert greater oversight over U.S. involvement in the conflict and promote greater public debate regarding U.S. military participation in Yemen’s civil war, which has never been authorized by Congress,” the letter stated.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Escape hatch. The U.S. and China are working closer to put pressure on North Korea, but some say Pyongyang is hoping Russia can help it get a little relief from the international effort to put the squeeze on it. Reuters reports that Russia’s trade with North Korea has increased in a small but noticeable way, with more North Korean ships making stops in Vladivostok and Russia picking up the slack from China’s halted exports of jet fuel to the North. Kim Jong Un appears to be courting Russia diplomatically as well, putting Russian President Vladimir Putin first on his Lunar New Year greeting card list this year instead of China.  

Sales. New Zealand just got one step closer to being the proud owner of a shiny, new P-8A Maritime Surveillance Aircraft. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the State Department approved the sale of four P-8As to New Zealand for $1.46 billion. New Zealand, however, says that price tag is still too high to commit to a purchase and so it’s continuing negotiations with the U.S. while it eyes comparable aircraft from Airbus and Japan’s Kawasaki.

Navy. If the US. wants to get to a 355 ship Navy, it’s going to have to wait 25-30 years to get there. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee, tells USNI News that the Navy could reach the oft-cited 355-ship goal in 25 years if it lays out an extra $5-6 billion above current funding levels. Wittman said adding new funding this year would be an important demand signal for the shipbuilding industry to start expanding its capacity, but the politics of defense spending are still tricky in the era of budget caps.

Chemical weapons. In the wake of the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, many questioned why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would risk using chemical weapons despite a winning hand in the Syrian civil war. In a new piece at War on the Rocks, Army Capt. Luke O’Brien argues that Assad’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun is consistent with the historic use of chemical weapons in counterinsurgencies ranging from Ethiopia, Morocco, to Iraq. Authoritarian regimes have historically used chemical weapons in order to depopulate key areas and drain the civilian support base used by insurgent groups.

Army. The pressure is mounting on Mark Green, President Trump’s pick for Army secretary. Over the weekend, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called Green’s controversial comments about LGBT people and Islam “very concerning” saying that “there are some issues that clearly need to be cleared up.” Democrats, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), have called for Green to withdraw his name from the nomination. At least according to CNN, that prospect may become reality. The cable new network reports that Green could withdraw his name this week in the face of an uncertain confirmation process. Green’s advisor, Darren Morris, calls the reports of a pending withdraw “completely, absolutely untrue.”


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