The Cable

SitRep: New Trump National Security Strategy Wrapped Up

New fighting in Yemen may have claimed former president, Pentagon buildup not looking good

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster at the White House on June 26. (Nicholas Kamim/AFP/Getty Images)
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster at the White House on June 26. (Nicholas Kamim/AFP/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

BREAKING: Videos circulating Monday appear to show the body of ex-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, after Houthi rebels blew up his house. The possible death of the leader comes amid a new wave of Saudi bombing runs against Houthi fighters and a weekend of street fighting which killed over 100 people in the city.

The phantom Pentagon buildup. At an annual national security conference at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California this weekend, Pentagon and Congressional leaders said they don’t see a path forward for President Donald Trump’s promised military buildup.

“The math just isn’t there,” Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, told Politico. “There is this assumption that there is this broad support for an increase in the defense budget,” added Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) “I don’t see it happening…we are no closer to an appropriations agreement today than we were last February, because as much as people want to spend more money on defense, they also want tax cuts. They also want a balanced budget.”

New national security strategy. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster told the audience that a new national security strategy document has been wrapped up, and it will “focus on protecting our homeland, advancing American prosperity, preserving peace through strength … and finally enhancing American influence,” he said.

Madman theory. Asked on Fox News on Sunday about  the possibility of war with North Korea, and the potential for deterring the regime there, McMaster said, “I don’t think you or anybody else is willing to bet the farm, or a U.S. city, on the decision-making – rational decision-making – of Kim Jong Un.”

In October, however, a top CIA official said Kim is a “very rational actor” who isn’t looking fro a war with the United States. “The last person who wants conflict on the [Korean peninsula] is Kim Jong-un,” said Yong Suk Lee, the deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center. Lee added that Kim “wants what all authoritarian rulers want … to rule for a very long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

War drums. “We’re getting close to a military conflict because North Korea’s marching toward marrying up the technology of an ICBM with a nuclear weapon…We’re running out of time,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said Sunday on CBS News. “I think it’s now time to start moving American dependents out of South Korea,” he said.

Cold War base getting facelift. The Pentagon is preparing to spend $14 million to fix up an air base in Iceland to better accommodate its P-8 Poseidon surveillance planes, FP’s Paul McLeary reports. The planes are adept at spotting and tracking submarines, and the move comes as a new generation of Russian nuclear and conventional submarines have been making more frequent trips through the area known as the “GIUK gap” — an acronym for Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom — the route for the Russian Northern Fleet to enter the Atlantic Ocean. The United States and Iceland have agreed to increase rotations of the American surveillance planes to Iceland next year, Pentagon spokesman confirmed.

Mattis in Pakistan. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis landed in Pakistan on Monday to try and get Islamabad on board with Washington’s new strategy for South Asia aimed at quelling the violence in Afghanistan. There has been little progress on that front since president Trump announced the strategy in August, however, and American officials remain frustrated by what they see as Pakistan’s failure to confront Taliban leadership in it’s country.

“We have heard from Pakistani leaders that they do not support terrorism … we expect them to act in their own best interest, and in support of peace and regional stability,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him. “I expect to see that sort of action reflected in their policies.”

Go West, young THAAD. The Defense Department is looking for west coast real estate in order to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems to deal with the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles, House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mike Rogers (R-) told Reuters. It’s unclear whether THAAD would be effective against the kinds of intercontinental ballistic missiles North Korea would fire at the U.S. as THAAD systems are primarily designed to deal with shorter-range missiles.

No, thanks. Retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, who turned down President Donald Trump’s offer to succeed Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor in February, got a call a few weeks ago gauging his interest in being the next CIA Director—if Mike Pompeo were to leave and become Secretary of State. It’s unclear what he said, but FP hears it’s unlikely he’d take the job.

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

Deterrence theater. The Air Force has sent six F-22 Raptors, the most advanced aircraft in the service’s fleet, to South Korea for a four day exercise, continuing the steady parade of marquee U.S. military equipment rotating into and out of the South as the Trump administration tries to respond to North Korean provocations.

Back channel to Moscow. Emails described to the New York Times shows an conservative political operative Paul Erickson told the Trump campaign that the Russian government was looking to set up a back-channel to the campaign and that he could help set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erickson suggested that the Russian government would use the National Rifle Association convention in Kentucky to reach out to the campaign with Russian central bank deputy governor Alexander Torshin as the likely point-man for contact.

99 problems. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has yet another problem with the financial section of his security clearance form, failing to disclose his role in the Charles and Seryl Kushner Foundation while the group was funding settlements in Israel.

Mystery missile. Did Houthi rebels fire a land-attack cruise missile at a nuclear plant in Abu Dhabi? Members of the Yemeni rebel movement released a video of a cruise missile launch on Saturday claiming it had been targeted at the United Arab Emirates’ Barakah nuclear reactor. Emirati authorities, however, denied any launch, trumpeting the country’s air defenses and proclaiming the reactor “immune.”

Red lines. Israeli warplanes struck an alleged Iranian military base in Damascus over the weekend, emphasizing the country’s recently-stated red line that Iran not be able to expand its military footprint in post-war Syria. As if to put a finer point on the message behind the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a pre-recorded video message reiterating that Israel will not accept Iran’s military presence next door.

No reply. CIA director Mike Pompeo has chosen to send his messages to Iran in a more direct manner, mailing a letter to Qods Force chief Qasem Soleimani “because he had indicated that forces under his control might in fact threaten U.S. interests in Iraq.” The letter was left unopened, which Pompeo says “didn’t break my heart to be honest with you.”

Phase four in Syria. On his way to Jordan over the weekend, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters that the U.S. is winding down its arming of Kurdish groups in Syria as part of an overall shift from supporting combat operations against the Islamic State to emphasizing police and local security efforts in order to secure recently liberated territory.

But the Assad regime gets a vote in whether major combat operations are over yet, too, and the recent announcement by the Syrian army that it plans to march on Raqqa, where U.S.-backed forces are currently posted, sets up the possibility of another clash between U.S.-backed and Assad regime-aligned forces.

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