Security Brief

Democrats Clash on Top National Security Threats

The candidates also sparred about the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the war in Afghanistan.

Members of the first group of 10 Democratic presidential candidates take the stage for the first debate of the 2020 campaign in Miami-Dade County, Florida, on June 26.
Members of the first group of 10 Democratic presidential candidates take the stage for the first debate of the 2020 campaign in Miami-Dade County, Florida, on June 26. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

What’s on tap today: The Democratic presidential candidates debate the Iran deal, what to do in Afghanistan, and what constitutes the greatest threat to America; Pompeo’s hollow plan to enhance security for ships transiting through the Gulf; and Kushner fails to deliver a breakthrough in his efforts to achieve a Middle East peace deal

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First Democratic Debate

Deeper divisions. Foreign policy played a very small role in the first Democratic debate of the 2020 season, with candidates focused on President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and the economy. But when it did come up, the candidates clashed. 

Asked to identify the greatest threat to America, Gov. Jay Inslee won the biggest applause with his answer: Trump. Tulsi Gabbard said nuclear war. Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren said climate change. Amy Klobuchar said China, in economic terms, and Iran. Bill de Blasio said Russia. 

The lack of consensus reveals the Democratic Party’s deeper divisions on national security issues, writes Kathy Gilsinan for the Atlantic. 

Iran deal. Strikingly, none of the candidates unreservedly endorsed President Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, an agreement that Trump seizes every opportunity to slam as the “worst deal ever.” Instead several of them–Cory Booker, Klobuchar and Gabbard–suggested that Trump should return to the deal, but that it should be improved. 

Forever war. Gabbard, the only veteran on stage, said we have to come home from Afghanistan. “We are no better off in Afghanistan today than we were when this war began,” said Gabbard, who served in the Iraq War. She exchanged sharp words with one of her rivals, Tim Ryan, who argued the United States must “stay engaged.” 

It’s all well and good to declare that it’s time to focus on the homefront and pull Americans back from overseas entanglements, writes Kevin Baron in Defense One. But calling for an end to the forever wars without offering a solution is a soundbite, not security policy. 

Iran Latest 

War authorization. The Senate reached a deal on Wednesday that will allow the body to vote on Friday on whether Trump will require the consent of Congress before going to war with Tehran. Trump continues to insist that he can bomb Iran without congressional authorization. 

The deal for a vote on Friday will allow Democratic presidential candidates to return to Washington following two days of debate and clears the way for the Senate to consider the massive defense policy bill before the body leaves town for the July 4 recess. 

JCPOA. With Iran set to surpass limits on stockpiled enriched uranium set out in the 2015 nuclear deal it agreed to, hawks within the Trump administration and its allies on Capitol Hill are debating whether to rip up the last remaining vestiges of the deal, which provide waivers from sanctions for work on Iran’s civilian nuclear program, Politico reports

‘Obliteration.’ Iranian officials are pushing back against President Donald Trump’s threats to obliterate the country, saying that Iran will not capitulate to American threats. 

In his first public comments since the United States nearly launched a military attack on Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebuffed American offers to restart diplomacy. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dismissed Trump’s threat to unleash obliterating military force on Iran as bluster. The United States, he said, “is not in a position to obliterate Iran.”

Hollow plan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rolled out a new plan with a snazzy name this week to recruit U.S. partners to help enhance security for ships traversing the Strait of Hormuz and other choke points. But experts are skeptical that he can get allies in the Gulf, Europe, or Asia to shore up the resources needed to make a significant difference to the commercial vessels facing threats from Tehran in the world’s busiest shipping lanes, writes Lara Seligman. 

What We’re Watching 

Kushner comes up short. Presidential son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner failed to deliver a breakthrough in his efforts to secure a Middle East peace deal, as government officials and investors snubbed his ideas for economic investment at a conference in Bahrain, the Guardian reports

Summit-watch. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said North Korean and U.S. officials are holding talks to arrange a third summit meeting between the two countries’ leaders. Prior to departing Washington for Japan and the G-20 summit, Trump said he was unlikely to meet with Kim on the trip but that he “may be speaking with him in a different forum.” Trump travels to South Korea following his trip to Japan. 

ISIS leader captured. Saudi special forces claim to have captured the leader of the Islamic State’s Yemen branch earlier this month.  

Esper at NATO. Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made his debut on the international stage as Pentagon chief, traveling to Brussels for meetings at NATO headquarters where he urged American allies to join the United States in a coalition against Iran. In a tweet early Thursday, Esper answered another big question Europeans have been wondering about since Trump announced his intent to exit the INF Treaty with Russia: the United States does not intend to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe. 

Turkey sanctions loom. Turkey is going straight to lawmakers to push Congress for leniency on the U.S. sanctions resulting from its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, Al-Monitor reports. In a letter sent to Congress last month, Serdar Kilic, the Turkish envoy to the United States, argued that acquiring the Russian system was a matter of “necessity” to deal with the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and ballistic missile launches from opposition-held areas. 

Air Force pilot freed in Libya. An American Air Force veteran who was accused of acting as a mercenary in Libya has been freed after a six-week detention, the Washington Post reported, in a murky episode that highlights the tangled nature of that country’s civil war.


Withdrawal? Pompeo touched down in Kabul Tuesday for a surprise visit, where he said the United States has informed the Taliban that it is willing to withdraw U.S. troops from the country but has not settled on a timetable for doing so. 

Casualties. Two U.S. Special Forces troops were killed in a close-quarters firefight in Afghanistan on Wednesday, bringing the Americna death-toll in the country on the year to nine. 

Movers & Shakers

Challenger. Retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, a Republican, announced he will run against New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in a bid to unseat the Democrat in a state the GOP views as  a possible pick-up in their efforts to retain control of the Senate. 

CIO. President Trump formally nominated Dana Deasy as the Department of Defense’s chief information officer, a job in which he already serves but for which he must now be confirmed by the Senate due to a change in the law. 

Space Force! Derek Tournear will take over as the acting director of the Space Development Agency, DoD’s new clearinghouse for space acquisitions and research. Tournear currently serves as a deputy to Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin.

Tech & Cyber 

Taiwan election hacking. The rise of a pro-Beijing Taiwanese politician, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, from obscurity to superstardom last year had a little help: a campaign of social media manipulation orchestrated by a mysterious, seemingly professional cybergroup from China. As Taiwan’s presidential elections approach, with Han as one of the front-runners for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, just who is surreptitiously backing him—and why—is a matter of critical importance, writes Paul Huang for Foreign Policy

Cloud Hopper. A fresh Reuters investigation has new details on a globe-spanning Chinese hacking operation that targeted managed service providers and used the IT companies as a springboard to break into the computer systems of a slew of major companies. 

The companies targeted by the hacking group–known as Cloud Hopper–include Swedish telecom giant Ericsson and the American shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries, which builds warships and nuclear submarines for the U.S. Navy. 

NSA SNAFU. Documents obtained by the ACLU reveal that the NSA improperly collected text-message and telephone metadata, the second such compliance issue that privacy advocates argue show the agency incapable of properly collecting call-record data in large volumes.  

Huawei. American chip makers continue to sell goods to Chinese technology giant Huawei despite a U.S. ban on doing business with the company, the New York Times reports

Iran. An Iranian hacking group switched up tactics and infrastructure after being exposed in a March report. 

FP Recommends 

Making a spy. Deniss Metsavas was a model Estonian soldier, rising up the ranks and becoming a spokesperson for his country’s Russian minority. That career came crashing down when it was revealed he was spying on behalf of Russia. Michael Weiss profiles the spy for the Atlantic

That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to

Michael Hirsh contributed to this report. 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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