FPI Overnight Brief: April 27, 2017

The Must-Reads

  • US keeps military threat alive in plan to squeeze N. Korea
  • Rogin: There’s no Trump Doctrine, but there is a structure
  • Hopes fade for Trump’s military buildup, Talent: We need more ships
  • Pentagon will decide how many troops to send to fight ISIS
  • ISIS in talks for terrifying merger with al-Qaeda
  • WSJ editorial: China's stealth carrier program
  • Blumenthal: China seeks to surpass US influence in Asia
  • Understaffing at State Department likely to linger in 2018
  • Trump drops threat to pullout from NAFTA
  • Russia bans Kremlin critic’s group as more protests loom

Middle East/North Africa

Relatives of U.S. citizens jailed in Iran are trying to press the Trump administration to secure their release as worries grow over the health of an imprisoned father and son. – Los Angeles Times
Ten Iranian border guards were killed by Sunni militants in a cross-border attack on the frontier with Pakistan on April 26, Iranian media reported. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Syrian and rebel officials blamed Israel for several explosions on Thursday morning at warehouses near the Damascus airport that the Israeli news media said were housing weapons bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. – New York Times
France on Wednesday released new evidence directly linking the Syrian regime to an April 4 chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people, including many children, and prompted President Donald Trump to order Tomahawk missile strikes against a Syrian air base. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
This week, the State Department released an annual report on compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The most notable findings in the report, which covers Russia, Iran, and Syria, not surprisingly relate to Syria. The report states unequivocally that the "United States assesses that Syria did not declare all the elements of its CW program ... and that Syria may retain CWs as defined by the CWC" just as the 2016 report stated, and despite the repeated assertions of the Obama administration to the contrary. – The Weekly Standard
Jason Brodsky writes: Dethroning the Syrian president should not be an end in itself, but rather the means to ensuring a stable government and a durable peace.  That will require the preservation of some state institutions to prevent anarchy and terrorist organizations—Sunni and Shiite—and states like Iran from filling the void.  But fundamentally, if America is to remain first in U.S. foreign policy priorities, Assad must go. – Real Clear Defense
The Turkish government gave the United States less than an hour’s notice before conducting strikes on partner forces in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military said on Wednesday, stepping up its criticism of airstrikes the United States said endangered American personnel. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint
After years of tight White House management, the Pentagon will now have a freer hand in deciding how many of its troops are deployed in the war against ISIS and when they are sent there, BuzzFeed News has exclusively learned. – Buzz Feed
Iraqi paramilitary units captured the northern province of Hatra on Thursday, cutting off several desert tracks used by Islamic State to move between Iraq and Syria, the military. - Reuters
Bilal Wahab writes: The Kurds want to prove it to the world that they deserve to join the world community as an independent state. The way forward is a democratic, well-governed nation that taps into its youth not only to fight but to lead and build too. – The Cipher Brief
The presence of Islamic State so close to Israeli-populated towns and villages along the demarcation line in the Golan Heights poses an obvious threat—albeit one that so far hasn’t materialized into cross-border attacks. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Turkey’s main opposition party announced Wednesday it will challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s April 16 referendum victory to replace the country’s parliamentary democracy with an all-powerful “presidential system.” – Los Angeles Times
European Union officials are struggling to figure out how to improve vital economic and security cooperation with Turkey amid a widening political rupture that threatens the fraught relationship. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


South Asia
In another sign of a tough year ahead for President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, supporters of his embattled vice president protested on Wednesday in a northern province against what they said was the marginalization of their faction in the government. – New York Times
The government in India’s Jammu and Kashmir State ordered internet service providers in the restive Kashmir valley to block social networking services there on Wednesday, an unusually harsh measure to counteract escalating waves of protests and violence in the region. – New York Times
Civilians casualties caused by the war in Afghanistan declined slightly in the first three months of 2017, the United Nations said on Thursday, a rare drop that officials attributed mostly to residents fleeing areas of fighting. - Reuters
Editorial: Reading inspectors general’s reports about how billions in U.S. and other international development aid have been squandered, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the West should abandon Afghan nation-building. Yet progress has been made — the country’s gross domestic product has doubled , and education levels, including for women, have risen sharply. Sustaining that development, even if it is slow and painful, is as important as turning back the Taliban. – Washington Post
The Hong Kong police arrested nine pro-democracy activists on Thursday, adding to a recent crackdown said to be aimed at defanging opposition protests ahead of an expected visit by President Xi Jinping of China in July. – New York Times
China's launch of its first homegrown aircraft carrier on Wednesday could be the beginning of a financial train wreck, according to carrier design and construction specialists. – Washington Free Beacon
A Chinese hacker group known for targeting US defence and aerospace companies has shifted its focus to critical infrastructure across Asia following a US-China deal on electronic espionage, according to cyber security company FireEye. – Financial Times
China needs to raise its military capabilities to protect its growing overseas interests, its foreign minister said following the launch of China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, while vowing not to pursue expansionism. - Reuters
Editorial: Beijing’s silence as the PLA deploys new weapons suggests a return to a traditional strategic culture of deception. Neighboring countries are expressing alarm that China seems to want to restore its premodern dominance over the region. Wednesday’s carrier launch will reinforce their concern. – Wall Street Journal (Subscription required)
Korean Peninsula
The Trump administration said it is launching an urgent push, combining diplomatic pressure and the threat of military action in a bid to halt North Korea’s advancing nuclear-weapons program. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
A North Korean propaganda outlet Thursday released an inflammatory video clip showing a simulated attack on the White House, declaring “the enemy to be destroyed is in our sights.” – Washington Post
The antimissile system that the United States deployed in South Korea over China’s objections is close to becoming operational, giving the two allies the capability to defend against missile attacks by the North, the South’s Defense Ministry said on Thursday. – New York Times
At a time when South Korea is struggling to deter North Korea’s nuclear threats, human rights advocates say its military is targeting gay soldiers in its ranks. – New York Times
The top U.S. commander in the Pacific region told Congress that America and its Asian-Pacific allies are trying to navigate their way through the increasingly aggressive threats issued by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the more limited reach of his military forces. – The Daily Beast
The head of the U.S. Pacific Command warned on Wednesday that North Korea directly threatens American interests and allies in the Pacific region, but tempered his dour assessment of the secretive country’s motivations by saying regime change is not the policy of the United States. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
The Senate took part in a rare White House briefing on Wednesday to hear what senior leaders described as "an urgent national security threat" posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. – Washington Free Beacon
Testifying to the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday, Adm. Harry Harris countered recent reports from media outlets including Bloomberg that the Vinson and its escort ships, the guided-missile destroyers Wayne E. Meyer and Michael Murphy and guided-missile cruiser Lake Champlain, were not equipped to fend off a North Korean missile attack. – Military.com
The head of all U.S. forces in the Pacific told lawmakers continuing exercises between the South Korean and U.S. forces are vital to the alliance amid China’s call to curtail them. – Defense News
Democrats on Wednesday night were dumping on President Trump's invitation to be briefed on the White House grounds about the North Korea threat, by saying the White House provided no new information that they and the public didn't already know. – Washington Examiner
The United States is considering putting North Korea on its state sponsors of terrorism list, multiple news outlets reported a senior White House official saying Wednesday. – Washington Examiner
East Asia
The Pentagon’s top commander in the Pacific accepted full responsibility on Wednesday for a bewildering chain of events this month that mistakenly left the impression that the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson was rushing to confront an increasingly belligerent North Korea, when it was not. – New York Times
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said another direct phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump could take place again and she urged the self-ruled island's political rival China to step up to its global responsibility to keep the peace as a large nation. - Reuters
Blank screens and red text warning about threats to press freedom interrupted Mongolian television late on Wednesday to protest against legal changes media groups say could harshly punish journalists accused of defamation ahead of elections. - Reuters
Dan Blumenthal writes: Therefore, those who believe in an inevitable Chinese takeover of Asia may not be wholly wrong. But that is not because China is overtaking the United States in wealth generation; far from it. Rather, it is because Beijing is taking advantage of an American political system unwilling to deal with its fiscal problems and provide for the common defense against the country’s most challenging threats. – Real Clear World
Southeast Asia
Complex situations in the Asia-Pacific region have forced the United States to both rely on China as a partner in deescalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula and admonish as an aggressor, with the U.S. vowing to push back with upcoming Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea and pushing other countries to do the same, U.S. Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris told lawmakers – USNI News
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday it was pointless discussing Beijing's contentious activities in the South China Sea at this week's Southeast Asian summit, and no one dared to pressure China anyway. - Reuters


The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee batted down reports Wednesday that Congress is angling toward a $15 billion hike in defense spending this year. – Washington Examiner
Defense hawks are starting to lose hope in President Donald Trump’s promises of a “historic” military buildup. - Politico
While North Korea threatens to shoot and sink American aircraft carriers and launch nuclear weapons, Pacific Command is running short of precision-guided munitions. And Pacific Command does not have enough surface ships, submarines and antimissile radars to keep up with current and emerging threats, its commander Adm. Harry Harris told the House Armed Services Committee today. – Breaking Defense
After months of delays, the newest iteration of the F-35’s logistics system is finally ready to be installed on the aircraft, manufacturer Lockheed Martin announced Wednesday. – Defense News
The Navy is preparing an emerging Standard Missile 6 missile variant for combat by test-firing the weapon engineered with upgraded software - enabling it to perform a range of functions to inlcude air-warfare, ballistic missile terminal defense and anti-surface warfare capabilities, service officials said. – Scout Warrior
The chief of the National Guard Bureau and lawmakers on Wednesday discussed new legislation that would amend a plan to convert the Guard's uniformed technicians into federal civilian employees -- a move state adjutants general argue will weaken that Guard's readiness to respond to domestic emergencies. – Military.com
Jim Talent writes: All his administration — or the top level of it anyway — needs to do is focus like a laser on two things: a) getting more money for defense, and b) spending the money with reasonable efficiency, so that Congress will give him even more money. Money is not the solution to most of the problems in Washington. But for all intents and purposes, it’s the solution to this one – National Review Online
The War
The Islamic State group and al Qaeda, long rivals for supremacy in the jihadi struggle, are feeling more pressure to combine as the Islamic State loses its territorial base in Syria and Iraq and the still-potent terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden prepares to welcome legions of foreign fighters fleeing the advancing U.S.-backed coalition, analysts and officials in the region say. – Washington Times
Missile Defense
The top U.S. military officer in the Pacific said Wednesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “clearly in a position to threaten Hawaii today” with a ballistic missile attack and that the Pentagon should consider adding new ballistic missile interceptors and defensive radar there to counter that possibility. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint


Ukraine's state security service raided the Kyiv offices of the country's largest investment bank looking for illegal software on April 26, drawing a dismayed reaction from Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Russia's $1.3 billion plan to build two new power plants in Crimea aimed to show that Moscow could complete high-tech projects on the annexed peninsula despite Western technology sanctions. - Reuters
The Russian government moved on Wednesday to defang efforts to stage antigovernment rallies this weekend by blacklisting the coordinator, Open Russia, an organization founded by the Kremlin critic Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky. – New York Times
Russia is increasing disinformation operations aimed at undermining government and public support for American military forces in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. officials. – Washington Free Beacon
A U.S. government commission on religious freedom is recommending that Russia be designated as a "country of particular concern" (CPC), putting it in a group of the world's worst offenders of basic rights on religious worship. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
European lawmakers say Russia and Iran are among a group of countries that are increasingly abusing Interpol red notices to seek the arrest of political opponents, contributing to a five-fold increase of red notices during the past decade. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
A new opinion poll shows growing dissatisfaction among Russians for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, with as many as 45 percent saying he should step down. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Russia's main domestic security agency says that it arrested 12 people in the Kaliningrad region for suspected involvement with an Islamic extremist group – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Quaintly decked out in their finest, some in bow ties and the older among them grasping canes, the Jehovah's Witnesses slowly trickle in to a modest temple in northwest Moscow for their first service as "extremists." – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
United Kingdom
Britain’s defense equipment plan is at risk of becoming unaffordable, according to a parliamentary Public Accounts Committee investigation into the financial viability of the 10-year procurement program set up for the delivery of weapons and other systems to the military here. – Defense News
Eastern Europe
Hungary’s leader issued a blistering attack against the American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros on Wednesday, after the European Union criticized a new Hungarian law that threatens to shut a university founded by Mr. Soros. – New York Times
A divisive Russian energy project dripping with geopolitical tension reached a major milestone this week. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would pump natural gas from Russia into Northern Europe, lined up financial backing from the western energy industry on Monday despite a barrage of protest from many European Union members fearful of Moscow’s hold on Europe’s energy supplies. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
The U.S. Army in Europe is moving ahead with a plan to place another brigade’s worth of combat-ready armor and artillery inside Poland in an effort to push firepower closer to potential hot spots along NATO’s eastern flank – Stars and Stripes
Estonia's defense minister said on Thursday that Russia may use large-scale military exercises to move thousands of troops permanently into Belarus later this year in a warning to NATO. - Reuters
Judy Dempsey writes: Today the Polish government is under the control of the nationalist conservative Law and Justice Party, which is revealing increasingly illberal inclinations. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has increasingly undermined democratic institutions. Both countries are now at loggerheads with the E.U. It could hardly be otherwise. Both appear determined to pursue their own nationalist agendas and power politics even if they clash with E.U. values. – Washington Post


United States of America
Many [State Department staffers] have little to do until the Trump administration starts filling the nearly 200 jobs at the department that require Senate confirmation, and their agendas look increasingly as though they will remain empty. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has done almost nothing to select leaders for the White House’s consideration, and nominations for assistant secretaries and others who largely run the State Department are unlikely to be made for months. – New York Times
Rod Rosenstein, confirmed late Tuesday as the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, will face immediate scrutiny on a potentially volatile question: how he will run the department’s probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The flagging U.S. probes into the Trump administration’s ties to the Kremlin are about to get an injection of fresh blood. Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats have tapped April Doss, a former NSA lawyer, to join the committee’s investigation of Russia’s intervention in the U.S. election. Meanwhile, Rod Rosenstein, who was confirmed as deputy attorney general on Tuesday, will take the reins of the Justice Department’s sprawling probe into Trump’s Russia ties and Kremlin meddling. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
Bill Gertz reports: Justice Department rules limit supplying politically sensitive information to the White House, a review of attorney general guidelines for domestic FBI intelligence investigations has found. – Washington Times’ Inside the Ring
The Trump administration said it was no longer considering pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, following a day of intense lobbying from business leaders and lawmakers who rallied to quash internal White House discussion of the prospect. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
What does "Hamilton" have to do with trade policy? More than you might think in the case of acting U.S. Trade Representative Stephen Vaughn, who counts himself among the hit Broadway musical's legions of fans. - Politico
Editorial: The issue today is how to preserve those gains in a global steel market characterized by excess capacity, much of it in China’s state-run industry. President Trump’s answer, seemingly, is last week’s executive order calling for the Commerce Department to study the impact of steel imports on national security; nine months hence, when the study is done, he might have the option, under a previously obscure 1962 federal statute, of imposing tariffs. – Washington Post
Latin America
The brisk, open gas trade is one of the more obvious manifestations of Mexico’s national fuel-theft epidemic. Thieves are now siphoning gasoline and diesel fuel at record-high rates from the system — often by drilling taps into pipelines under cover of darkness — and are selling it on the black market around Mexico and perhaps even in the United States and Central America. – New York Times
A 43-year-old governor has unexpectedly become the face of President Mauricio Macri’s efforts to dismantle the legacy of Peronism, the movement that has dominated Argentine politics for the past seven decades. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Faced with growing criticism from its neighbors over a slide toward authoritarian rule, Venezuela announced Wednesday it will quit the Organization of American States, the hemisphere’s oldest regional alliance. – Washington Post
Protesters blocked a highway in Venezuela's capital Caracas for nearly eight hours this week in an effort to show the opposition's dedication to civil disobedience as their main tool to resist President Nicolas Maduro. - Reuters


West Africa
Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, is seeking approval from lawmakers to borrow nearly $6bn from the Export-Import Bank of China for railway projects, as his government seeks to revive a recession-hit economy through spending on big infrastructure projects. – Financial Times
East Africa
Ms Lagarde said the east African nation, ruled by former bush rebel Yoweri Museveni for the past 31 years, is at a crossroads. “The policies that Uganda chooses today will determine whether you are on a road to overcome poverty and provide opportunities to all Ugandans,” she said. – Financial Times
Somalia's al Shabaab gunmen shot and killed a senior national intelligence officer in front of his own house in the capital Mogadishu on Thursday, police and militants said, in the latest such incident by the group. - Reuters
Kenya's opposition alliance is expected to announce that veteran politician Raila Odinga will be its presidential candidate on Thursday, party sources said, as busloads of cheering, whistling supporters in orange T-shirts began converging on the capital. - Reuters
South Africa
When Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s deputy president, delivered a speech that included a stinging attack on “the politics of patronage” in the African National Congress, it was widely interpreted as the unofficial launch of his bid for the party’s leadership. – Financial Times

Trump Administration

Josh Rogin reports: There is no foreign policy doctrine, but there is a structure for how foreign policy is being developed in the Trump administration. The emerging pattern shows how President Trump’s campaign statements are being transformed into policy, senior White House officials tell me — and Trump himself is intimately involved. – Washington Post
Interview: Flournoy, who is currently the CEO & Founder of the DC-based think tank the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), sat down with The Cipher Brief’s CEO & Publisher Suzanne Kelly to discuss her views on the new Administration, and why she thinks North Korea is the most pressing challenge. – The Cipher Brief
Danielle Pletka writes: What we have seen from Trump in his early days as president is a man who is owning his burdens, one who wants to rebuild the deterrent power of the United States, one who is shocked by the horrors of war and one who is game to push back on enemies. All to the good. But what we don’t see is a man who is game to threaten other leaders’ personal power, viz. Putin and Erdogan. Nor, most important, do we have a sense of his worldview or the policies that underpin his initial tactical steps. On national security, at least, it will be those policies, and not the occasional phone call or airstrike, that will make or break this president in the world. – Washington Post
Will Inboden writes: Of the two Trumps we have seen, which one will emerge as our president for the next four years is anyone's guess. I and many other conservatives are hopeful it will be the President Trump who is committed to America's international leadership, America's allies, and America's values of strength and liberty. – Dallas Morning News
Hal Brands writes: President Donald Trump came to Washington pledging to break dramatically with American foreign policy as we have known it for decades, and his early presidency has been a whirlwind of activity, controversy, and chaos. So what do we know about foreign policy in the Trump era? There are six key takeaways so far. – Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government
Roula Khalaf writes: So even if Mr Trump would hate to admit it, there has been more continuity than radical shift in foreign policy. This goes beyond the fact that the president has accepted that Nato is not obsolete as he once thought and the EU is not destined for break-up as he once hoped. – Financial Times

Democracy and Human Rights

Nearly two-thirds of countries worldwide have measured deterioration in press freedom, according to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index released Wednesday. – Washington Times


Interview: Before the U.S. can determine its military budget, it first needs to know the threats the nation faces. The Catalyst convened two leading security thinkers from different starting points to discuss those threats: Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, and Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign and defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution. – The Catalyst

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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