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.

The Biggest National Security Stories of 2021

Plus, a holiday reading list for fellow NatSec wonks.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Virginia National Guard soldiers are issued their M4 carbines and live ammunition on the east front of the U.S. Capitol.
Virginia National Guard soldiers are issued their M4 carbines and live ammunition on the east front of the U.S. Capitol.
Virginia National Guard soldiers are issued their M4 carbines and live ammunition on the east front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 17. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! We’re back to grace your inboxes with one of the year’s last editions. We hope everyone is getting ready to enjoy a relaxing holiday break and new year. 

One thing we’re really looking forward to this week: the long-anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, a massive project some 20 years in the making. 

Alright, back to more Earthly matters. Here’s what’s on tap for the day: a look back on 2021’s hectic and wild year for the national security world. Plus, keep scrolling down. We’ve got a winter holiday reading list for NatSec wonks. 

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! We’re back to grace your inboxes with one of the year’s last editions. We hope everyone is getting ready to enjoy a relaxing holiday break and new year. 

One thing we’re really looking forward to this week: the long-anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, a massive project some 20 years in the making. 

Alright, back to more Earthly matters. Here’s what’s on tap for the day: a look back on 2021’s hectic and wild year for the national security world. Plus, keep scrolling down. We’ve got a winter holiday reading list for NatSec wonks. 

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


Another Year of Living Dangerously

Well, we made it. Another year, and a hectic one at that. But the world keeps turning, the sun keeps rising, Defense Department officials keep leaving for cushy jobs at defense contractors to score lucrative Pentagon deals, and the seasons keep changing. 

We at SitRep wanted to pause and take a look back at some of the biggest national security stories of the year and how those stories will keep reverberating across Washington and the world in 2022. Don’t worry, we’ve pared it down to 12 major NatSec news items—one per month.

Think of this as your go-to cheat sheet for when history teachers quiz you on what happened in 2021. 

Jan. 6: A violent, pro-Donald Trump mob storms the Capitol building in a deadly riot and attempted insurrection after the outgoing president bandied false claims about having the election stolen from him. The political fallout continues to this day, with a special congressional committee probing the crisis and the U.S. military carrying out a campaign to root out extremists from its own ranks. 

Feb. 9: Trump’s second impeachment trial begins, focusing on the former president’s role in fomenting the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. (Trump was acquitted days later, after 57 senators voted to impeach and 43 voted against, failing to reach the two-thirds majority required.) 

March 23: The Ever Given container ship becomes stuck in the Suez Canal, laying bare how vulnerable the global economy is to supply chain interruptions, even to things as simple as a ship getting a bit too sideways in a canal.

April 14: U.S. President Joe Biden sets a final date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan for September, presaging a stunningly successful Taliban offensive and culminating in the collapse of the Afghan government and the most stinging U.S. foreign-policy defeat in modern history. 

May 7: A ransomware attack temporarily destroys a pipeline system that supplied half of the United States’ eastern seaboard’s fuel. Cybersecurity experts had warned about vulnerabilities to the U.S. energy system for years. Later this year, the U.S. government convenes a summit to sort out how to go on the offensive against cybercriminals. 

June 2: A political coalition in Israel strikes a deal to oust the country’s longest serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Few—if any—foreign leaders played a more outsized role in U.S. politics than Netanyahu, particularly during the Trump era.

July 21: Republican Sen. Ted Cruz issues a sweeping and unprecedented hold on all of Biden’s senior State Department nominees after disputing with the president over a controversial Russian gas pipeline project in Europe. Cruz’s move held up dozens of nominees from being confirmed for much of Biden’s first year in office, hobbling his administration’s foreign-policy machinery until a last-minute deal was struck in late December to end the impasse. 

Aug. 15: The Taliban take over Afghanistan after the Afghan government’s rapid collapse, erasing almost two decades of fighting and $2 trillion worth of U.S. taxpayer money in nation-building overnight. All U.S. forces would withdraw weeks later amid a chaotic and deadly evacuation that left tens of thousands of Afghan allies abandoned and precipitated a massive humanitarian crisis the country is still reeling from.

Sept. 15: U.S., U.K., and Australian leaders announce a new security arrangement, AUKUS, headlined by Australia receiving U.S. nuclear submarine technology. AUKUS sparked a diplomatic crisis with France, which was blindsided by the deal, and showcased U.S. efforts to counter China with allies in the Asia-Pacific.

Oct. 18: Colin Powell, former U.S. national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state, dies from COVID-19 at the age of 84. Powell broke barriers as the first Black American in a number of senior U.S. government roles, but the U.S. national security community is still undergoing a reckoning over systemic racism and diversity issues. 

Nov. 1: Western powers begin growing increasingly alarmed about a massive buildup of Russian military forces near its border with Ukraine. The crisis is ongoing, as the Biden administration and NATO allies scramble to bolster support for Kyiv and deter Russia from launching another invasion of Ukraine. 

Dec. 2: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who led Europe’s most powerful economy for 16 years and navigated the European Union through multiple crises, leaves office, marking the end of an era in European politics. Center-left Social Democrat Olaf Scholz took over as her successor shortly after. 

So long, 2021. Here’s hoping 2022 is better and much, much less pandemic-y. 


Snapshot 

Volunteers place wreaths on tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery.

Volunteers place wreaths on tombstones as part of the 30th annual “Wreaths Across America” project, which places wreaths on more than 250,000 tombstones of military service members, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on Dec. 18.Al Drago/Getty Images


What to Read On Your Holiday Break 

Still looking for some books to tide you over into the new year? Don’t worry, SitRep has your back. We’ve curated a small list of some of the best books, old and new, that we read this year and know our SitRep readers will love. All of them pair well with a long holiday break, a comfy couch, and some spiked eggnog.

Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War by Jessica Donati. Donati, a veteran Wall Street Journal correspondent, writes a gripping and gut-wrenching account of the battle-weary special forces on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan’s final stages. I couldn’t put it down. –Robbie 

The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley by Wesley Morgan. Yes, another Afghanistan book. But there are few zoomed-in histories of the Pentagon’s trials and tribulations in places like the Pech, where U.S. special forces hunted for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden early in the war before the mission expanded, in dribs and drabs, to a sprawling maze of far-flung bases across Afghanistan’s mountains and valleys. Morgan documented this in more than a decade of journalistic deployments to the Pech, which started when he was an undergraduate at Princeton University. Full disclosure: He’s a former colleague in the Pentagon correspondent’s bullpen, and I owe him a beer. –Jack

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. Here’s the first book in an action-packed science fiction series (that’s also become a great TV show, courtesy of Amazon Prime). There’s plenty of rich material in this series for national security wonks—including the complex games of deterrence, detente, alliance-building, and alliance-breaking—between Earth, Mars, and the “Belters.” Fair warning: Once you’re sucked in, it’ll be hard not to binge the entire series over your holiday break. –Robbie 

Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World by Evan Thomas. Was the Eisenhower administration’s nuclear brinkmanship like playing a good hand of poker? That’s how longtime foreign-policy historian Evan Thomas frames it in this riveting biography of the United States’ 34th president, which pits the famous war-skeptical general against hawks in his own cabinet (like then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) and post-war doves. –Jack

China’s Civilian Army: The Inside Story of China’s Quest for Global Power by Peter Martin. We hear so much in Washington about Chinese President Xi Jinping and the state and size of China’s military, but what about the soft-power side of things? Martin gives us a fascinating and meticulously researched inside history (or as close as one can get when it comes to China) of China’s diplomatic corps. –Robbie 

Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy by Stephen Wertheim. The Trump and Biden administrations have seen a sharp shift away from the United States’ desire to be the preeminent power in the world. But how did it get there in the first place? In painstaking detail, Wertheim draws the battle map of intellectual warfare that went on during World War II between U.S. thinkers who wanted the United States to continue the tradition of British preeminence and those who didn’t. –Jack

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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