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.

Biden Brings Out the Big Guns for NatSec Noms

Republicans are holding up top State Department picks.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Biden gives a press conference after a summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
U.S. President Joe Biden gives a press conference after a summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 14. Francisco Seco/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Situation Report! As a reminder, we’ll be taking a break from SitRep next Thursday to focus on stuffing our faces. We’ll get back to gracing your inboxes with our presence after Thanksgiving. If a week away from SitRep is too much to handle for you emotionally, just remember that absence makes the heart grow fonder. 

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the week: Biden gets heavyweight backing to break Capitol Hill deadlock on nominees, Washington considers sending home some Afghan evacuees, and a Russian anti-satellite test is raising alarm bells at the Pentagon.

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

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Situation Report! As a reminder, we’ll be taking a break from SitRep next Thursday to focus on stuffing our faces. We’ll get back to gracing your inboxes with our presence after Thanksgiving. If a week away from SitRep is too much to handle for you emotionally, just remember that absence makes the heart grow fonder. 

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the week: Biden gets heavyweight backing to break Capitol Hill deadlock on nominees, Washington considers sending home some Afghan evacuees, and a Russian anti-satellite test is raising alarm bells at the Pentagon.

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


Scoop: Former SecDef Makes Appeal to Senate on NATO Nominee

Unlike some of his predecessors, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn’t one to bask in the limelight of Washington politics after leaving office. But the former Pentagon chief for George W. Bush and Barack Obama is making an exception now, in an effort to unstick at least part of the giant logjam of foreign-policy nominees sitting in the Senate awaiting confirmation. 

Gates, in a letter to lawmakers obtained exclusively by the SitRep team, is appealing directly to U.S. senators to confirm Julie Smith, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to NATO. 

Gateskeeping. At a time when Russia is threatening Ukraine militarily and to cut off energy supplies to our NATO allies, the United States has no ambassador to NATO. It is critically important to fill that position,” Gates wrote in a letter sent to Senate Foreign Relations Committee members and Senate leadership. 

Smith—a longtime defense expert in Democratic foreign-policy circles who was a former aide to Gates at the Pentagon—was nominated back in June. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who held up Smith’s nomination, told Foreign Policy in a statement on Thursday that he had lifted the blockade, which he said was over raising NATO’s defense spending pledge. “Today’s security environment is far worse than the one we confronted in 2014, and our allies must increase defense spending accordingly,” Hawley said. “Julianne Smith recognizes that need and has committed to push our allies to go beyond the Wales commitment.”

(Biden notably has not yet named an ambassador nominee for Ukraine.) 

Cruz control. The letter reflects mounting concern and frustration in the Biden camp about an unprecedented blanket hold on State Department nominees from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, centered on a dispute over a Russian pipeline project. (Though Biden was slow to roll out ambassador nominees in the first place, now the main problem sits with the Senate.)

The numbers don’t look good. As of this week, Biden has submitted 124 nominees for senior State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development roles to the Senate. Of those, the Senate has confirmed only 30. There are nearly 100 ambassador posts that are vacant now. 

Rubio has entered the chat. There are other Biden nominees facing Republican opposition. Sen. Marco Rubio announced this week he was placing a hold on Biden’s ambassador nominee to China, veteran diplomat R. Nicholas Burns, and to Spain, Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón. “Nicholas Burns has a long career in public service, but it is a career defined by the failure to understand the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” Rubio said. 

The Burns hold is a big deal, given the way China looms over U.S. foreign policy these days. 

“Unbelievable. Nothing like benching your starting quarterback if you want a winning strategy for strategic competition? The only winners from this move are in Beijing,” the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tweeted in response to Rubio’s announcement. 

Forcing a vote. The holds prevent the Senate from approving less controversial ambassador nominees by unanimous voice vote, or they slow-walk votes on nominees that could be confirmed by votes of, say, 75 to 25. The holds take up valuable floor time on the Senate when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is already juggling other major pieces of legislation, including the defense authorization bill. 

For now, it’s unclear if Biden will be able to get an ambassador to NATO or China in place before the end of the year. 


Let’s Get Personnel

Biden is still plugging away at announcing nominees though. Among nominees the White House announced this week: Dimitri Kusnezov to be undersecretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security; Steven Fagin to be U.S. ambassador to Yemen; Jodi Herman to be assistant administrator for legislative and public affairs at USAID; and Lester Martinez-Lopez to be assistant secretary for health affairs at the Defense Department.


On the Button

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

The Halifax Forum. A group of foreign and defense ministers, top U.S. lawmakers, and top Western military commanders are descending on Nova Scotia, Canada, this weekend for the annual Halifax International Security Forum.

It’s the first major in-person get-together on the international conference circuit and the first time Western policymakers are meeting to reflect in person on the fallout from the stinging defeat in Afghanistan. SitRep will be on the ground in Halifax covering the event, so stay tuned for news. 

Send them back. The Biden administration is considering sending 200 Afghan evacuees at a U.S. military base in Kosovo back to Afghanistan if they do not clear security vetting, CNN reports. That’s just one option available to administration officials to deal with the problem—and the legal merits are still being questioned in Washington—but the problems at Camp Bondsteel point to a larger issue of where to house Afghans who don’t clear U.S. security hurdles. 

Let me testify. The Pentagon twice directed the commander of the D.C. National Guard to send troops to protect the U.S. Capitol against a pro-Trump mob seeking to stop the Jan. 6 presidential election certification, according to a newly released Defense Department probe, a finding that appears to run against retired Maj. Gen. William Walker’s congressional testimony.

Then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told Walker at 4:35 p.m. on Jan. 6 that he was authorized to deploy the D.C. troops—who operate under Army authority—and reissued the order 30 minutes later. Walker told Congress this year that he did not receive the go-ahead until 5:08 p.m., more than three hours after the Capitol was breached. 

Make it less juicy. U.S. Space Force is trying to make American satellites and astronauts less inviting targets, Defense One reports, after U.S. officials complained this week that Russian anti-satellite weapons test would put more harmful debris into outer space and possibly jeopardize the International Space Station. American officials believe the Russian explosion is a message to the Pentagon.

“It’s probably from a deterrence perspective,” Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback, Space Force’s director of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, said at an industry conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday. “This is a continuation of their intent to degrade and deter us from using our space capabilities.”


Candid Camera 

Tanks from the Kuwait Land Force take part in a military exercise with the Saudi and U.S. militaries.

Tanks from the Kuwait Land Force take part in a military exercise with the Saudi and U.S. militaries, north of Kuwait City, on Nov. 18.Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images


Put On Your Radar

Thursday, Nov. 18: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin departs for a multiday Middle East jaunt that will take him to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Friday, Nov. 19: EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell meets with USAID Administrator Samantha Power.

Friday, Nov. 19: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 


Quote of the week

“We have made very clear we support the Taiwan Act, and that’s it. It’s independent. It makes its own decisions.”

Biden appears to encourage Taiwanese political independence in an off-the-cuff gaffe reported by FP’s Amy Mackinnon and Anna Weber. Biden later clarified that there was no change in the United States’ “One China” policy.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Censured. Did you watch Republican Rep. Paul Gosar’s photoshopped anime video that depicted him killing progressive star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking Biden? House leaders certainly took note.

On Wednesday, the lower chamber of Congress voted to censure Gosar on a mostly partly-line vote, which will strip him of his committee assignments. Of more than 200 Republicans, only Republican Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney voted to censure Gosar.

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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