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Security Brief

Pompeo Edges Closer to Senate Run

Trump’s top diplomat has been eyeing the open Kansas Senate seat for months.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a press conference at the State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a press conference at the State Department in Washington on Dec. 11, 2019. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo eyes a Senate run, the Trump administration plans to withdraw 4,000 troops from Afghanistan, and new tensions flare with North Korea as nuclear talks flounder.

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Pompeo Tiptoes Into 2020 Election Cycle

For months, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo has batted away rumors he will step down from his post as chief diplomat to run for Senate in his adopted home state of Kansas. But as the 2020 election cycle looms, Republican strategists and sources close to Pompeo have hinted that he will run, though no decision has been announced.

So have the secretary of state’s own actions. Over the weekend, Pompeo created a personal Twitter account, which he will “use for future plans,” according to a source close to the secretary. And Sen. Ted Cruz, a noted Iran hawk, at last unblocked the nomination of Stephen Biegun, the current North Korea envoy and a possible Pompeo replacement, to be the next deputy secretary of state.

Biegun’s nomination would ensure a smoother transition for Pompeo’s designated deputy to take the reins of the State Department. The Iran hawks in Congress released Biegun only after the Trump administration agreed to release part of an internal legal opinion on reinstating U.N. sanctions on Iran, as the Associated Press reports.

Visits to Kansas. In recent months, Pompeo has made frequent “official” visits to Kansas under the guise of promoting American diplomacy in the heartland. He has also courted Republican donors in both Kansas and during a recent trip to London for a NATO meeting, drawing criticism from some top Democratic lawmakers who say he may be violating a law banning federal employees from engaging in political activities in their official capacity.

Will he or won’t he? In an administration defined by its revolving door of abrupt firings and resignations, Pompeo has emerged as one of President Donald Trump’s closest and steadiest confidantes. But Trump has said he would support Pompeo’s decision to run for Senate if it appeared the Republicans would otherwise lose the seat in 2020. Current polls suggest just that.

What We’re Watching 

Trump will pull 4,000 troops out of Afghanistan.  This week Trump is expected to announce a plan to withdraw 4,000 troops from Afghanistan, leaving between 8,000 and 9,000 in the country. Trump has called for a reduction in U.S. troop presence there for some time. Last weekend U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told an audience at the Reagan National Defense Forum that a drawdown would occur even if the Taliban does not negotiate a political settlement. The drawdown, Esper said, would not negatively impact U.S. counterinsurgency operations in the country.

Washington recently rejoined peace talks aimed at ending the 18-year conflict, but it announced a “pause” after a two high-profile attacks by the Taliban, one at Bagram Air Base and another at a military base in Ghazni Province.

Congress authorizes sale of new weapons to Ukraine. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act last week, authorizing the sale of a new security package to Ukraine that includes coastal defense and anti-ship weapons. The bill will likely pass the Senate this week, and Trump is expected to sign it into law. The United States has committed more than $1.5 billion to Ukraine since Russia’s intervention in 2014. Although the only missiles cleared for sale to Ukraine so far have been Javelin anti-tank weapons, the latest package suggests the United States is increasing its commitment.

The move comes as Trump faces a crucial impeachment vote in the House this week over his decision to suspend military assistance to Ukraine to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation into former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, his chief political rival.

Another test in North Korea. North Korea announced on Friday that it had conducted another “crucial test” of what appeared to be an advanced missile engine, suggesting plans to launch a ballistic missile before the end of the year. The news follows other provocative actions by North Korea, including a similar test last week and a threat to deliver the United States a “Christmas gift” if it does not remove sanctions and give security guarantees. Amid the tensions, Stephen Biegun, the special envoy to North Korea, was dispatched to the region in a last-ditch attempt to restore diplomacy with Pyongyang. Diplomatic relations have deteriorated since the 2018 Singapore summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Protests flare over citizenship law in India. Protests have erupted in India over a new law that grants citizenship to some non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistanall Muslim-majority countries. Some protesters see the law as blatantly Islamophobic, while others worry that it opens the door to mass migration. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended the law, saying it offers protection to persecuted groups who have nowhere else to go. The unrest comes just months after India’s controversial decision to revoke Muslim-majority Kashmir’s special autonomous status. Critics consider this an outward displays of the government’s Hindu nationalism, and it has further strained relations with neighboring Pakistan.

Movers and Shakers

Heading for the exits. The Pentagon lost two more senior civilians last week, with both Randy Schriver, the Asia policy chief, and Jimmy Stewart, who had been acting as the department’s personnel chief, heading for the exits. Stewart, who was confirmed as assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs in October 2018, was also filling the role of undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Air Force No. 2 steps up. Matthew Donovan, who has served as the Air Force undersecretary since 2017, with a brief stint as acting Air Force secretary this year, will move over to fill Stewart’s shoes as acting personnel chief, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Friday. Sources say the intent is to nominate Donovan for the permanent position.

Odds and Ends

Chinese spies booted from U.S. The U.S. government expelled two Chinese diplomats over suspected espionage in September after the pair drove onto a military base in Norfolk, Virginia. The Chinese officials said they were on a sightseeing tour and got lost, but U.S. officials have doubts. It is unclear what they were doing at the base, but some U.S. officials suggested they may have been testing its security, paving the way for senior-level infiltration.

It is the first time in more than three decades Chinese diplomats in the United States have been suspected of espionage.

Russia’s only aircraft carrier is on fire. The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, caught fire last Thursday while docked in the Arctic port of Murmansk, killing one crew member and wounding 11 others. The carrier has been beset by several unlucky setbacks since it was launched in 1985. Though Russia uses the ship to project hard power in the Mediterranean and beyond, its unfortunate history raises questions about Russia’s ability to challenge U.S. naval power.

Softball interview. At the glitzy, high-profile Doha Forum this weekend, Ivanka Trump caught flak for being interviewed onstage by one of the Trump administration’s own—State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus—when all senior foreign leaders faced hardball interviews on stage from journalists. “Even Vladimir Putin doesn’t get interviewed by Dmitri Peskov,” one Russian journalist told Buzzfeed News, referring to Putin’s spokesman.

That’s it for today.

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Dan Haverty contributed to this report.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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

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