Security Brief

Trump’s Plan to Deploy Anti-Drug Mission in Caribbean Sparks Backlash in Pentagon

The Department of Defense is set to send Navy destroyers and small combat ships to the region to ramp up counter-drug efforts.

The U.S. Navy llittoral combat ship the USS Independence (LCS-2) arrives at Mole Pier at Air Station Key West, Florida, on March 29, 2010.
The U.S. Navy llittoral combat ship the USS Independence (LCS-2) arrives at Mole Pier at Air Station Key West, Florida, on March 29, 2010. Nicholas Kontodiakos/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. We hope all of our readers are staying safe and healthy and doing their part to flatten the curve. What’s on tap today: Some in the Pentagon are pushing back on Trump’s directive for a counter-narcotics deployment in the Caribbean, the U.S. military is pulling out of more bases in Iraq, and the U.S. Space Force ramps up spending.

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Pentagon Pushes Back on Trump’s Caribbean Counter-Drug Mission

The U.S. Defense Department has pushed back sharply against President Donald Trump’s decision to send a phalanx of naval assets to interdict drug shipments in the Caribbean Sea, a former senior administration official told Foreign Policy. Resources are somewhat limited: The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged a U.S. aircraft carrier in Asia and sidelined thousands of troops.

Trump apparently ignored the opposition. “DoD was against it. Didn’t matter to POTUS,” the former senior administration official said, adding it was “all politics.” The assets heading out for the counter-narcotics mission include U.S. Navy destroyers and littoral combat ships, as well as Coast Guard cutters, helicopters, reconnaissance, and patrol planes.

Distraction? The former official added that the timing was off, coming as the White House released projections showing that as many as 240,000 Americans could die from the coronavirus. Trump, the official said, wants to be able to tout the administration’s work on building the southern border wall and stopping the flow of drugs from South America. It comes after the United States indicted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro last week on charges of narco-terrorism conspiracy and drug trafficking.

Pivoting assets? Though Trump’s announcement came as a surprise to some Pentagon officials, another former defense official said there has been a growing conversation about sending Navy assets to support U.S. Southern Command. With the Pentagon likely pausing some deployments due to the impacts of COVID-19 and Trump facing re-election, pivoting assets for the drug fight could be another blow to the administration’s strategy to get ready for a potential future war with China.

What We’re Watching

 U.S. withdrawals from Iraqi bases continue. The United States continues to consolidate its troop presence in Iraq. On Tuesday, it withdrew from the K1 Air Base in the northern part of the country, the third base that it has transferred to Iraqi forces since the beginning of March. The base was at the center of a geopolitical row between the United States and Iran in December, after Iranian-backed Iraqi militias killed a U.S. contractor at the site. That attack led to the U.S. strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani in January. Withdrawals from two more bases in western Iraq are planned for the coming days.

Space Force begins spending big time. The newly created U.S. Space Force has wasted no time in doling out awards for lucrative contracts to ramp up the military’s eyes and ears in space. The latest example: The Space Force awarded L3Harris Technologies a contract worth up to $1.2 billion to maintain and upgrade the Pentagon’s ground-based sensors tracking developments in space, as C4ISRNet reports. Still, none of this means that the United States’ next war is in space, as the new director of operations for Space Command emphasized in an interview with FP in December.

More missile tests from North Korea. Because the world doesn’t have enough to deal with, North Korea has decided to test fire more missiles. As the country’s leadership becomes more concerned about the coronavirus within its borders, some experts suggest that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is now using missile tests to demonstrate control in the face of crisis. On March 29, Pyongyang fired two ballistic missiles into the sea, the latest in a series of similar tests it has conducted in recent weeks. U.S. negotiations with North Korea have been at a standstill for months.

A pandemic PR coup for Moscow. A Russian military transport plane landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport on Wednesday, delivering medical supplies to the United States following a call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States is sorely in need of medical supplies—but it’s also a major public relations victory for Russia, giving it a geopolitical edge on the West, as FP’s Amy MacKinnon and Robbie Gramer report.

Movers and Shakers

Canada’s ambassador in Washington. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has formally appointed Kirsten Hillman as ambassador to the United States. Hillman previously held the post of deputy ambassador from August 2017 to August 2019, before taking over as acting ambassador upon the resignation of David MacNaughton.

Foreign Policy Recommends

 Sanctions in the pandemic era. The Trump administration is facing growing pressure to temporarily ease some sanctions on countries including Iran and Venezuela to help them better respond to the pandemic. Could this backfire? Sanctions expert and former Treasury and CIA official Brian O’Toole explores what the U.S. government can and should do in a new piece for the Atlantic Council.

The Week Ahead

Today the Afghan government begins the process of swapping prisoners with the Taliban, in line with the peace deal struck between the Taliban and the United States in February. The Afghan government will release 100 jailed Taliban militants in exchange for 20 members of its security forces.

Despite a raft of military maneuvers canceled amid the pandemic, Europe’s largest exercise is moving forward. The British-led Exercise Joint Warrior exercise will continue in Scotland until its scheduled end date on April 9, though it has been downsized because of the pandemic.

Odds and Ends

Case study in Chinese espionage. How did an ordinary, hard-working American woman sent to do public service abroad end up working as an asset for Chinese intelligence? A captivating long read in the Economist’s 1843 Magazine by Mara Hvistendahl details how a U.S. State Department administrative employee was wooed by Chinese intelligence, perhaps before she even realized what was happening.

That’s it for today.

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Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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