The Cable

SitRep: McMaster Calls Out Russia, While Trump Squashes Russian Rules in Bill

Haley to offer evidence of Iranian meddling; another General sees victory in Afghanistan

Flanked by members of the U.S. military, President Donald Trump signs the National Defense Authorization Act on December 12. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Flanked by members of the U.S. military, President Donald Trump signs the National Defense Authorization Act on December 12. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Just in: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday his government will not accept any role for the United States in the Mideast peace process “from now on,” in response to President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Abbas made the announcement during a meeting of top officials from Islamic nations in Turkey that is expected to carve out a unified stance against Trump’s move.

Also at the meeting is Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who said Wednesday that “Iran is ready to cooperate with all Muslim countries without any precondition to defend the legitimate rights of Palestinians.”

New national security strategy out on Monday. National security adviser H.R. McMaster previewed the major thrusts of the new strategy recently, but added Tuesday that the forthcoming document will take into account new Russian forays into the gray zone as “very sophisticated campaigns of subversion and disinformation and propaganda, using cyber tools, operating across multiple domains, that attempt to divide our communities within our nations and pit them against each other and try to create crises of confidence.”

He also decried “economic aggression” from China that is “challenging the rules-based economic order.”

Trump signs, but has Russian reservations. President Trump on Tuesday signed a $700 billion defense spending bill, saying the military “has got to be perfecto.” But he had some reservations. Chief among those are a series of provisions dealing with Russia, leading the president to issue a signing statement claiming the measures “could potentially dictate the position of the United States in external military and foreign affairs.”

The bill restricts military cooperation with Russia, prohibits the United States from recognizing Russia’s legal right to Crimea, and requires the military to “develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to counter threats by the Russian Federation” — including Russia’s use of disinformation, social media and support for political parties.

Missile expo. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley will be showing off components of ballistic missiles fired at Saudi Arabia which intelligence officials say will highlight Iranian complicity in Yemen’s Houthi missile program and violation of U.N. sanctions.

Tillerson opens door to North Korea talks: “We’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition…Lets just meet, and we can talk about the weather if you want,” Tillerson said, giving the starkest opening to talks with Pyongyang the Trump administration has yet made. Read more here from FP’s Robbie Gramer.

But White House on Tuesday night pushed back, saying, “the President’s views on North Korea have not changed.”

More from Rex. That Tillerson spoke was actually news in itself. Never the most communicative diplomat, his silence has caused friction both abroad and within the department. But now his team is pushing to change that. On Tuesday, Tillerson held a town hall for the State Department employees and then gave a speech at the Atlantic Council, part of a plan, officials say, to have Tillerson communicate better both internally with his own employees and with the outside world. This comes as his top communications advisor, R.C. Hammond resigned to move back into the private sector, working for the Herald Group, a public affairs consulting firm.

Afghanistan, again. Add this one to your “Back to the Future” files on Afghanistan. On Tuesday,  Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, who leads to U.S. air war in Afghanistan told reporters at the Pentagon that president Trump’s new strategy for the war, which allows U.S. commanders to target Taliban networks, revenue sources, and opium facilities means “this will be a very long winter for the Taliban.”

Bunch added that “these are new efforts that have never been tried before in Afghanistan…The war has changed.” U.S. forces had previously targeted Taliban-affiliated opium producing facilities, but ended the effort after it alienated local farmers. But military officials continue to insist that this effort is something new in the 16 year-old war. “It has definitely been a game-changer, Bunch said. and the Taliban is definitely feeling it.”

New job. The White House announced Tuesday night that it was naming Andrea L. Thompson to be the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.  Thompson currently serves as a Special Advisor in the Office of Policy Planning at the Department of State.  Previously, she was Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President.

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

Tweets are endorsements. Trump backers are fond of telling concerned observers to disregard the president’s sometimes erratic tweets, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Russia “considers all statements made on his [Trump’s] official Twitter account to be official.” Peskov also said Kremlin staff brief President Vladimir Putin whenever Trump releases one of his thumb missives.

Bitcoin: for all your sanctions-evading needs. The bitcoin bubble is getting so big that now one advisor to President Putin is saying the Russian government could use it to evade Western sanctions when paying for “sensitive” services. Sergei Glazyev, sanctioned in 2014 by President Obama in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, said Russia has an “objective need” for a cryptocurrency as sanctions have bit into the Russian defense industry’s ability to procure equipment from abroad.

The idea may not be too terribly off base as the world’s most heavily-sanctioned country is likely making a tidy profit on the bitcoin boom. North Korean hackers have allegedly raked in a few bitcoin to unlock data encrypted by the WannaCry ransomware episode and targeted South Korean bitcoin exchanges to steal cryptocurrency.

Two more years of Jens. Nato members are extending the leadership of upper body exercise enthusiast and current Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for another two years.  

Post-conflict cash crunch. A lack of reconstruction aid in formerly Islamic State-held areas of Iraq is threatening to undo the gains made against the terrorist group and pave the way for its return, American and Iraqi officials tell the Wall Street Journal. U.N. officials say a handful of predominantly Sunni areas of the country are in need of an infusion of at least $300 million in aid money over and above $770 million already offered by members of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

Saudis still blocking aid to Yemen. Saudi Arabia is still not opening up Yemen to humanitarian aid shipments, according to USAID director Mark Green. The Trump administration had issued an unusually blunt statement calling on the Saudis to lift its blockade on the country, at risk for famine, but Green says “Unfortunately I can’t tell you there has been an easing of the blockade.”

Back on an even keel? When the USS Coronado broke down on its maiden voyage, it became a symbol of what the Littoral Combat Ship many critics said was wrong with the program — too much money for a ship with too many problems and too little capability. But now that the Coronado is back at sea, Navy officials are saying that reforms to the program put in place by Naval Surface Forces commander Vice Adm. Tom Rowden have fixed many of the problems that plagued the LCS.  

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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