Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Senate Dems Break Biden Nominee Deadlock

On your marks, get set, staff up!

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Committee chairperson Sen. Robert Menendez and ranking member Sen. James Risch confer during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee business meeting.
Committee chairperson Sen. Robert Menendez and ranking member Sen. James Risch confer during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee business meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington on Aug. 4. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Hope you’re planning a wee day out for yourself this weekend, but first, here’s all the defense news you need to know.

Here’s what’s on tap for the day: Senate breaks hold on U.S. President Joe Biden’s NatSec picks, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ready to talk to South Korea, and the Defense Department’s top brass is grilled on Afghanistan

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Hope you’re planning a wee day out for yourself this weekend, but first, here’s all the defense news you need to know.

Here’s what’s on tap for the day: Senate breaks hold on U.S. President Joe Biden’s NatSec picks, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ready to talk to South Korea, and the Defense Department’s top brass is grilled on Afghanistan

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Nominee Logjam (Somewhat) Broken

Mid-level diplomats rejoice!

After months of procedural limbo in the Senate, the State Department is finally getting some of its senior leaders in place as Senate Democrats maneuver to overcome a blanket hold from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

This is thanks in large part to Sen. Robert Menendez, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senate aides told SitRep

The names include: Karen Donfried to be assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink to be assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Mary “Molly” Phee to be assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jessica Lewis to be assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, Todd Robinson to be assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, and Monica Medina to be assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. 

Once they actually got to the full floor voting stage, most of these nominees weren’t that controversial. Donfried, for example, was confirmed by a vote of 73 to 26. It’s the politics of the confirmation process before that point—from their nominations on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to carving out enough floor time for a vote—that’s causing Team Biden the most headaches. 

What’s in a name? For the uninitiated, the “assistant secretary of state” role doesn’t sound like much. But one seasoned diplomat who spoke to SitRep compared it to a regimental commander in the military. You’ve got your four-star generals; you’ve got your majors, lieutenants, and privates; but you need that level in between to carry out orders, take initiative, and get things done. 

Okay, it’s an imperfect analogy, but routine foreign-policy work at the State Department is gummed up without confirmed assistant secretaries of state in place to make decisions. 

What about ambassador posts? Yep, those are mostly stuck too. Biden has been slow to nominate ambassadors out of the gate, but the Senate blockade isn’t helping. Just 2 of 61 total ambassador nominees have been confirmed since Biden took office in January. 

Take Vietnam, for example. It’s been nearly six months since career diplomat Marc Knapper was nominated to be ambassador to Vietnam, and his nomination is still sitting before the Senate. Meanwhile, Singapore hasn’t had a U.S. ambassador in place since the Obama administration—almost six years. 

Even with the latest slate of new confirmations, State Department officials are getting fed up. “The vast majority of our nominees that have gone through the committee are still just languishing on the floor,” said one State Department official. 

All’s not well in the Senate. The holds have caused a lot of tension between Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has traditionally been seen as a more bipartisan committee on the hill. 

Cruz’s hold over the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline held up nominees for ambassador posts well beyond Europe—Cameroon, Somalia, and Vietnam to name a few. (Cruz’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.) 

Partisan gridlock to NatSec threat. Senior U.S. diplomats portray this unending logjam as a national security threat, citing findings from the 9/11 Commission.

“The 9/11 Commission identified the lack of confirmed senior officials as a major contributing factor in our failure to detect and anticipate the 9/11 attacks,” said Eric Rubin, a senior career diplomat and head of the American Foreign Service Association.

“We are now far behind where we were in 2001 in terms of Senate confirmations,” he added. “This is a major threat to our national security and our economic and political interests. No other country fails to promptly fill its key national security jobs.”

Hurry up and wait. European diplomats in Washington, meanwhile, are telling their capitals that the wait for U.S. ambassadors might take months or even years. It doesn’t reflect well on Washington’s reputation abroad, which has already taken big hits after four years under former U.S. President Donald Trump and now Biden’s chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.

“It seems to be the trend now,” one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told SitRep. “It’s rather amazing, the level of dysfunction here, even by Washington standards.” 


Let’s Get Personnel

Menendez has tapped longtime aide Damian Murphy to become staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He replaces Jessica Lewis (mentioned in the top section). 

Rebecca Ingber is joining the State Department’s legal affairs bureau as counselor on international law. She was previously a professor at ​​Cardozo School of Law in New York. 

Former Obama administration Air Force Secretary Deborah James has been named chairperson of the Defense Business Board, one of the top outside advisory boards to the Pentagon. Other high-profile appointees include Sally Donnelly, a top aide to former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Gen. Joseph Votel, a former U.S. Central Command chief.

Pooja Jhunjhunwala, former acting spokesperson of the U.S. Agency for International Development, joined the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation as spokesperson and press secretary. 

Daniel Correa was named CEO of the Federation of American Scientists. 


Weekly Dossier 

What should be at the top of your radar, if it isn’t already.

No talk. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he’s willing to restore ruptured communication with his southern neighbor but is still shunting the Biden administration’s offer to talk without preconditions. Cross-border hotlines between the two countries on the Korean Peninsula, which have never signed a permanent peace agreement nearly 70 years after the Korean War, have been left unused for the past six months.

The move, reported by the Hermit Kingdom’s state-run media outlet, comes in the wake of North Korea conducting its first short-range missile tests in six months. 

Worst case. The United States is getting ready for a surge of migrants on the southern border in anticipation of the Biden administration lifting COVID-19 restrictions, NBC News reported. The worst case scenario could have 350,000 to 400,000 migrants crossing the border in October, according to an internal U.S. government count, more than double the previous record set in July.

The surge also comes as the Department of Homeland Security faces withering criticism over border agents on horseback using whips on Haitian migrants as a form of crowd control.

Russian it. Russia poses a great near-term military threat to U.S. military interests around the world, but China is catching up, according to a RAND Corporation analysis about military interventions dating back to the beginning of the Cold War.

But the number and scale of military interventions by Russia, China, and Iran remain lower than they did at the height of the global tussle between the United States and the then-Soviet Union. The greatest risk from great powers right now is that they could “more radically shift to involve substantially more-aggressive and larger-scale interventions,” the think tank reported. 


Snapshot 

A covered Chengdu Aircraft’s J-10C for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

A covered Chengdu Aircraft’s J-10C for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is seen a day before a Chinese aviation and aerospace exposition in southern China’s Guangdong province on Sept. 27.Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images


Hot Mic

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley tangled with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, an ally of Trump, over his predictions about the war in Afghanistan at a House Armed Services hearing on Wednesday. 

Matt Gaetz: Feb. 26, 2020, House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Milley: ‘We know we’re not going to defeat the Taliban militarily and they’re not going to defeat the government of Afghanistan militarily.’ You really blew that call, didn’t you, general?

Mark Milley: I believe that was an issue of strategic stalemate, and if we had remained in Afghanistan with the advisory levels of effort—

Gaetz: That’s an interesting answer to a question. You spent more time with [journalist] Bob Woodward on this book than you spent analyzing the very likely prospect that the Afghanistan government was going to fall immediately to the Taliban, didn’t you?

Milley: Not even close, congressman.


Put On Your Radar

Oct. 4: Big deadline for Biden’s immigration policy as temporary protected status for El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras, and Nepal is set to expire. 

Oct. 5: The Senate Armed Services Committee holds a confirmation hearing for four Biden civilian Army and Air Force nominees.

Oct. 7: Russian President Vladimir Putin turns 69.


Quote of the week

“We can look at 20 years: Pick your favorite general, pick your favorite president, pick your favorite leader. None of them could successfully do what so many members of this committee are sitting here telling these gentlemen that they’re basically idiots for not being able to do.”

House Armed Services chairperson Rep. Adam Smith speaks about the Pentagon leadership’s conduct under Biden during the Afghanistan withdrawal after members of the panel bashed Defense Department leaders for the chaotic war effort.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Tons of fun. It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Fat Bear Week, that is. Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska is letting the public vote to find its chunkiest cub—and the competition this year looks fiercer than ever

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

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

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