The Cable

SitRep: Trump and Kim Jong Un Reach Tipping Point, White House Disorganized

Options for shoot down; NSC memo revealed

US President Donald Trump, with National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, speaks during a security briefing on August 10, 2017, at his Bedminster National Golf Club in New Jersey.  / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump, with National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, speaks during a security briefing on August 10, 2017, at his Bedminster National Golf Club in New Jersey. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)


With Adam Rawnsley

Who moves first? A Chinese newspaper published by the ruling communist party warned both North Korea and the U.S. against military action on Friday. The Global Times told Pyongyang it would stay neutral if it started shooting first, and would take unspecified action to prevent Washington from trying to overthrow the regime of Kim Jong Un.

Options. There aren’t many great options for Washington and its allies if North Korea launches four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam in the coming days, as it has pledged to do.

Both the U.S. and Japan are able to shoot missiles down using the ship-based Aegis radar and missile defense system, or the Guam-based THAAD missile defense unit, FP’s Paul McLeary writes. Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists tells FP that “whoever launched the defense would use multiple interceptors against each missile to increase the effectiveness of the defense, perhaps four or five if they have time. DPRK has suggested it would launch four missiles, and there should be plenty of interceptors for such a situation.”

Washington has a range of other options, including cyber attacks, U.S. News and World Reports points out.

Preemptive strike? The NYT adds:  “American officials, however, do not have high confidence that the military could find and destroy North Korea’s entire arsenal of long-range missiles and nuclear warheads. It would be up to American missile defenses to knock out any that survived and that North Korea might use to attack the United States or its allies.”

And then, there’s Team Trump. The White House committed yet another unforced error Thursday when Sebastian Gorka — a presidential advisor allied with Stephen Bannon — ripped into Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for promoting diplomacy as a way to solve the North Korean crisis. At issue was Tillerson’s comment that no U.S. military strike was imminent, leading Gorka to charge that “idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical.”

Gorka, when not tooling around Capitol Hill in his Mustang with a custom license plate that reads ART WAR, and blocking journalists on Twitter, blankets cable TV to defend the administration. He was back at it Thursday night, trying to walk back his Tillerson comments, explaining that he was simply “admonishing the journalists of the fake news industrial complex” for putting words in Tillerson’s mouth.

Pals. In a staggering move that won’t do much for morale problems at the State Department, Trump on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for ordering the United States to slash its diplomatic staff in Russia. It was the first time the president has commented on Putin’s July 30 order cutting U.S. embassy and consulate staff by nearly two thirds. Trump said: “I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll.”

The State Department was “horrified and rattled” by Trump’s remarks,  a veteran U.S. diplomat told Reuters, and Heather Conley, formerly a top State Department official dealing with European affairs, said the expulsions of hundreds of people from an important U.S. embassy is extraordinary and “it is very difficult to see how the president could view these expulsions as a ‘positive’ development in any form.”

Conspiracies and firings. Foreign Policy’s Jana Winter and Elias Groll got a copy of the internal NSC memo that got staffer Rich Higgins fired, and led to the ouster of other controversial staffers brought on board by fired Michael Flynn.

The full memo, dated May 2017, is titled “POTUS & Political Warfare, and” it provides a sweeping, if at times conspiratorial, view of what it describes as a multi-pronged attack on the Trump White House.

Trump is being attacked, the memo says, because he represents “an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative.” Those threatened by Trump include “‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans.”

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary and @arawnsley.

Turn around. A Chinese frigate warned the USS John S McCain ten times to turn around during a freedom of navigation exercise around Mischief Reef, which China claims as its territory. Despite the shadowing and warnings, a U.S. official says the interaction between the two countries was “safe and professional.”

Canada, too. After the U.S. announced that an unspecified sonic device caused profound hearing loss in American diplomats stationed in Havana, now Canada has come forward to say that one of its diplomats suffered similar symptoms in Cuba. A spokeswoman for Canada’s foreign ministry said the government is unsure of what caused a Canadian diplomat’s hearing loss but that it’s talking to the U.S. and Cuba “to ascertain the cause.”

A day in the life. The Washington Post follows Afghan pilot, Capt. Jawid Karimi, for a day as he makes resupply runs for Afghanistan’s fledgling air force. The Afghan military uses the Cessnas to supplement its aging fleet of Soviet-vintage helicopters as well as A-29 Super Tucanos for light attack missions and armed MD-530 helicopters.

DIY. Unhappy with the Trump administration’s lack of a strategy for the war in Afghanistan, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) released a strategy of his own on Thursday. The document doesn’t outline the number of troops McCain things the U.S. should send to Afghanistan but its calls for U.S. training and advisory teams seeded throughout the Afghan military would necessitate a large increase over current troop levels.

eBay. The Islamic State has been using eBay to help launder money for potential terrorist attacks, according to the Wall Street Journal. The scheme allegedly involved Islamic State leaders in Syria using eBay to send payments to a Maryland man for fake online purchases in an attempt to disguise seed money for potential terrorist attacks.

Suicide prevention. A new proposal to make servicemembers sign a pledge against suicide has raised concern among experts, who argue the move could actually increase the risk of self-harm. Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), an Army veteran, pushed to include the voluntary Oath of Exit in the National Defense Authorization Act, which would ask troops to pledge “to not bring harm to myself without speaking to my fellow veterans first.” But suicide prevention experts say such pledges haven’t worked before and may actually stop suicidal veterans from reaching out for help.


Photo Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

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