In Base Visit, Esper Avoids the White House Radar
The Pentagon chief ducks questions about federal agents in Portland in his first on-camera briefing since June.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Defense Secretary Mark Esper lays low during a visit to an air force base, Afghanistan troop withdrawals continue, and the U.S. Agency for International Development staffs up while the Pentagon sheds talent.
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Esper Stays in Stealth Mode During Bomber Trip
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper continued to survey the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on U.S. troops on Wednesday, when he traveled to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, home of the Pentagon’s stealth bomber fleet. Like the elusive B-2 Spirit bomber looming behind him during an eight-minute press conference, Esper—who hadn’t appeared for an on-camera briefing since bucking President Donald Trump last month over the use of active-duty troops to quell protests—was intent on staying off of the White House’s radar.
But even as Esper seeks to avoid the limelight, it finds him in far-flung military bases. A reporter asked about the deployment of heavily armed, federal agents to Portland, Ore., after a Pentagon spokesman said that Esper had raised concerns about law enforcement agents wearing military-style uniforms. “Today I’m going to focus on the important folks at Whiteman Air Force Base and the tremendous capability sitting behind me,” Esper told reporters.
After touring the rest of the facilities, including a simulated flight, Esper returned to Andrews Air Force Base. There he found Trump threatening to veto the Pentagon’s annual authorization bill because it would rename bases honoring Confederates and to send more federal agents to the streets of Chicago.
In Esper’s rear view mirror are the stealth bombers he toured: Storied as the B-2 is, the Air Force is currently making plans to phase out the 20 bombers at Whiteman. It’s set to test fly a next-generation replacement in the next two years.
What We’re Watching
Drawing out the drawdown. On Monday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States’ peace envoy and chief negotiator in Afghanistan, tweeted that the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan had been reduced from 12,000 to 8,600, and that five bases in the country had closed. The United States pledged to remove all troops from Afghanistan as part of the peace deal signed with the Taliban in February. However, in March, U.S. officials said they would pause withdrawals and reassess the situation once the figure was brought down to 8,600.
The Taliban has stepped up its attacks on Afghan government forces in recent months, straining the peace process. But Khalilzad confirmed that its attacks on U.S. personnel have stopped, a key part of the deal and a sign that troop withdrawals will likely continue.
Houston, Xi has a problem. The Trump administration upped the ante in its diplomatic showdown with Beijing this week, abruptly ordering the closure of China’s consulate in Houston by Friday. U.S. officials told Foreign Policy that the move came following a surge in Chinese espionage activities in the United States. What comes next? Expect China to respond in kind. U.S. officials indicated that could mean the closure of the U.S. consulate in Wuhan or in Chengdu.
But China could escalate by shuttering a larger U.S. consulate or even multiple consulates. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump suggested that he may order the closure of more Chinese consulates after the office in Houston closes.
Eastern promises. Ukrainian, Russian, and international representatives agreed to a full and comprehensive cease-fire on Wednesday, scheduled to go into effect on July 27. The agreement aims to breathe life back into the Minsk Accords and put an end to sporadic fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian paramilitaries. The Minsk Accords, which lay out the process by which the breakaway eastern republics can be reintegrated into Ukraine, are are contingent on an end to the fighting. The war in eastern Ukraine has simmered for years despite peace talks. Some experts are skeptical this diplomatic breakthrough will lead to lasting peace.
Should the U.S. cut troops in the Middle East? Two prominent Washington think tanks say so. The George Soros and Koch brothers-backed Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft is out with a new paper this week calling for the Trump administration to draw down American forces in the Middle East and become a more forceful diplomatic player in the region. The Center for a New American Security is also out with a report pushing for a new national security strategy that defines U.S. interests in the Middle East more narrowly.
Movers and Shakers
Pentagon loses legislative chief. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Robert Hood is set to leave the Defense Department on Friday, Foreign Policy first reported, raising the number of vacancies in civilian Pentagon posts to 21. That matches the Trump administration’s record. Hood’s departure leaves the Pentagon without a point person to lead eight civilians tapped for senior roles through Senate confirmation.
USAID gets new religious freedom advisor. Samah Norquist, the agency’s senior advisor on religious freedom and pluralism in the Middle East bureau, is set to move up to international religious freedom advisor for acting USAID Administrator John Barsa, the agency announced on Monday. She is married to Grover Norquist, a former lobbyist and anti-tax crusader.
More moves at USAID. Ken Hill, a former Department of Homeland Security official, was recently named USAID’s executive secretary, according to Politico’s Nahal Toosi. The move represents a break from past practice, as the role is typically filled by career staffers.
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The Week Ahead
The Senate Armed Services Committee holds a confirmation hearing for Anthony Tata, Trump’s pick to be undersecretary of defense for policy. He has come under fire for conspiratorial, offensive, and Islamophobic tweets.
And the Winner Is…
Last week, we asked readers for their most Washington-themed name for the Washington Football Team. Thanks to everyone who responded via email and Twitter. We now present the final list:
Winner: Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming. The Washington Swamp takes first place, suggested by multiple readers.
Runner up: D.C. resident Tripp suggests: Why not just add another government agency to manage the moribund team? The Washington Department of Football is his pick.
Honorable mention: Just lop off one letter of the current name and add starch, says reader Letty. The Washington Redskin Potatoes is her pick.
Some of our other favorites: The Washington Blob, The Washington SCIFs, The Washington Telecommuters, and The Washington Gridlock.
That’s it for today.
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