FPI Overnight Brief: March 17, 2017

The Must-Reads

Middle East/North Africa

Marie Donovan writes: Conservative politicians and senior IRGC officers alike recently have directed withering attacks against the president ahead of the May presidential elections. Also, while Khamenei normally moderates such conflicts -- this time he’s fueling them. Rouhani’s conservative opponents are notoriously bad at uniting around a candidate, so his defeat is far from inevitable. The U.S. should be wary because if a hardline president replaces Rouhani, then Iran could move away from Rouhani’s vision of limited economic and diplomatic engagement with the West. – AEI’s Critical Threats
The United States said Thursday that it had carried out an airstrike killing several al-Qaeda militants in Syria amid reports Friday that dozens of civilians may have been killed in the same attack. – Washington Post
A bipartisan group of senators introduced a resolution Wednesday on the sixth anniversary of the Syrian civil war asking the Trump administration for a strategy to end the violence. – The Hill
Syria said it launched anti-aircraft missiles against Israeli warplanes in Israeli-controlled territory early on Friday, following a series of Israeli airstrikes inside Syria — a rare military exchange between the two hostile Mideast neighbors that was confirmed by both countries. – Associated Press
Frederick and Kimberly Kagan write: If the Trump administration is serious about taking on Iran in the Middle East it must transform its strategy in Syria for fighting the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).  Our current strategy will only continue to strengthen Tehran’s grip on the region. The US needs a new approach that gives it the independence and leverage it needs to begin pushing back successfully. – Fox News
Islamic State fighters from outside Iraq are increasingly being abandoned by local militants as the group loses ground in Mosul, leaving a hardened core of extremists dominated by foreigners that is girding for a fight to the finish. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Iraqi and U.S. commanders offered conflicting accounts Thursday of progress in western Mosul, where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have been battling the Islamic State group for nearly a month as they try to retake the remainder of the city. – Associated Press
Lawmakers, advocates and survivors gathered Thursday to mark the anniversary of the U.S. designation of Islamic State genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in the Middle East, urging the Trump administration to turn those words into action. – Washington Times
President Donald Trump’s pressure on the military to "demolish and destroy" the Islamic State is raising anxiety inside the Pentagon that the United States could end up in another open-ended ground war, according to current and former military officials. - Politico
President Trump is asking Congress to provide an immediate $30 billion funding boost for the Pentagon, with $5 billion of it earmarked to quicken the pace of the fight against the Islamic State, according to documents released Thursday. – USA Today
A top Saudi Arabia official said the country is considering contributing to the ISIS fight in Syria, following a Pentagon meeting with national security leaders. – The Hill
Saudi Arabia
In royal trips to Asia and Washington, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an ambitious mission to woo global investors and seek opportunities abroad, placing a new brand of economic diplomacy at the heart of the oil-rich kingdom’s foreign policy. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
President Trump's proposed budget plan would maintain current U.S. foreign aid to Israel, while assistance to other countries is being evaluated, the State Department said Friday. – The Hill
The leaders of France and Germany condemned Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s verbal attacks on European states Thursday, in a sign that some European countries are closing ranks against the Turkish leader’s increasingly outspoken remarks against his next-door allies. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


South Asia
Pakistan successfully test launched a land-based anti-ship missile on Thursday, but the did not reveal its identity, possibly indicating it is a new development of its Babur land-attack cruise missile. – Defense News
The Indo-Russian fifth-generation fighter aircraft under joint development and production by the two countries has taken a hit, with Russia showing reluctance to fully transfer the aircraft technology, particularly stealth capabilities, despite repeated reminders, according to a top Indian Air Force official. – Defense News
Rachel Zissimos writes: To guarantee U.S. influence in a growing market and to maintain a technological edge, the Trump administration should promptly approve the sale of the Guardian to India. Doing so will bolster the U.S.-India defense partnership, improve our global security posture, and advance our own aspirations for economic growth and technological superiority. – The National Interest
North Korea
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson ruled out on Friday opening any negotiation with North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs and said for the first time that the Trump administration might be forced to take pre-emptive action “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program” to an unacceptable level. – New York Times
North Korea’s remaining links to global banking networks via Swift have been severed, according to the Brussels-based international system that supports most of the world’s financial transactions. – Financial Times
The leader of a scandal-tainted Japanese education group known for extreme right-wing views said Thursday that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had donated money to it in 2015, a claim that directly contradicted accounts by Mr. Abe. The assertion, if true, has the potential to inflict significant political damage on Mr. Abe. – New York Times
After seven decades of relying chiefly on U.S. military guarantees, Japan is considering moving its Self-Defense Forces into a more aggressive posture to help counter the growing threat from North Korea and China’s expanding military in the region. – Los Angeles Times
East Asia
Jim Talent and Dennis Shea write: Eliminating the current caps on defense spending and expanding the size of the U.S. Navy, as desired by the Trump administration, would send an important signal about U.S resolve while enhancing America’s military capabilities. The U.S. must continue to strengthen its alliances with Australia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and the Philippines, and upgrade relationships with important partners such as Taiwan. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
David Feith reviews Michael Auslin’s “The End of the Asian Century” - Of Americans with experience in Asia, a disproportionate number are businessmen. This doesn’t dictate how they’ll think about the risks of war, but it suggests that happy stories of economic miracles are more familiar than, say, harsh tales of anti-American or anti-Japanese indoctrination at the Communist Party schools that train China’s military and political leaders. Which is all the more reason to appreciate Michael Auslin’s timely reality check. Americans may not be interested in Asia’s growing problems, but Asia’s problems are interested in us. - Commentary
Southeast Asia
The U.S. State Department has approved a possible foreign military sale to Singapore for 120mm guided mortar rounds worth $66 million. – Defense News
Sen. Marco Rubio has proposed legislation that would penalize Chinese nationals or organizations that participate in China’s artificial island-building projects in the South China Sea. – Stars and Stripes
China plans to build the first permanent structure on a South China Sea shoal at the heart of a territorial dispute with the Philippines, in a move likely to renew concerns over Beijing’s robust assertions of its claims in the strategically crucial waterbody. – Associated Press
Trans-Pacific Partnership
Officials from Pacific Rim nations meeting in Chile pledged Wednesday to keep markets open and expand free-trade accords, pushing back against signs of protectionism in the U.S. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


Defense Budget
The Pentagon’s request for $30 billion in additional funds for the current year will go toward new aircraft and weapons and the fight against Islamic State, according to officials who on Thursday detailed President Donald Trump’s federal budget supplement. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
By presenting the majority of its fiscal year 2017 defense supplemental funding request as base budget dollars rather than special war funding, the Trump administration has set itself on a collision course with Congress, top Pentagon budget officials confirmed Thursday. – Defense News
President Donald Trump’s new budget proposal promises to lay the groundwork for his much-anticipated military buildup. But it is already being criticized as over-hyped. - Politico
The White House released its Fiscal Year 2017 supplemental funding request today, which had been touted as being focused on gaining near-term readiness but may come too late to fully support operations and maintenance additions in this current year. – USNI News
Mackenzie Eaglen writes: President Trump is proposing to increase military spending in his first budget blueprint to Congress. By how much is debatable, since there is no agreed-upon baseline from which to measure growth. But one outcome is clear: the president’s proposed defense budget increases are inadequate to meet his stated goals of rebuilding the U.S. military. – The Hill
Todd Harrison writes: As was the case some thirty years ago in the Reagan buildup, the decisions made today will determine the capabilities available thirty years from now—and most of the men and women who will serve in that future force have not yet been born. Military and civilian leaders are latching on to the idea of a “readiness crisis” in the hopes of securing short-term budgetary gains. But they would be wise to slow down and consider the long-term consequences of how they grow the defense budget. – Defense One
The U.S. Marine Corps has received a new 67,500-pound Amphibious Combat Vehicle, the ACV 1.1, for evaluation. – Washington Times
Lockheed Martin said Thursday it has finished a 60-kilowatt laser system for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command and is preparing to hand it over to the Army for further testing. In initial tests, the company achieved 58 kilowatts of power but expects its laser to reach its full potential by the time of its delivery in the next few months – Washington Post’s Checkpoint
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has asked service leaders to immediately produce a strategy on the Army’s network, according to the acting assistant secretary of the service’s acquisition branch. – Defense News
Envision a scenario where two or more supersonic fighter jets are conducting combat maneuvers in such close proximity that they come less than 500-feet away from one another -- when an automatic computer system engineered into the aircraft takes over and re-directs the fighters, saving lives and averting a catastrophic collision. This is precisely the scenario scientists at the Air Force Research Lab are hoping to make possible by the early 2020s through an ongoing effort to deploy an emerging technology called Air Automatic Collision Avoidance System, or ACAS. – Scout Warrior
Strategic Issues
David Ignatius writes: If you think cyberwar raises some tricky issues, get your mind around this next big threat worrying the Pentagon. Similar problems exist in both the cyber and space domains: U.S. commercial and military interests are interwoven but deeply suspicious of each other; the technologies are borderless but are being weaponized by hostile nation-states; and attacks on satellites and other systems may be invisible and difficult to attribute. – Washington Post
William Lloyd Stearman writes: The Russian military buildup should be met by a comparable U.S. increase of both nuclear and conventional weapons, so that Mr. Putin is made to understand that Moscow cannot possibly win an arms race with Washington—just as the U.S. and its NATO allies cannot tolerate the threat of a tactical nuclear conflict in Europe. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The Trump administration, led by Director Mick Mulvaney’s Office of Management and Budget, released a basic outline of its budget priorities for the coming year in a March 16 “budget blueprint,” offering the broad strokes of a full plan to come in May. Among the top priorities for President Trump’s first budget: Cybersecurity. – Defense News
A Homeland Security pilot program designed to monitor a specific kind of mobile hacking may have discovered consistent attacks around the country. But a source with knowledge of the program says it is too early to make that determination. – The Hill
Anne-Marie Slaughter writes: Cyber security is just one example of problems raised by the internet. Others include terrorism, corruption, money laundering, drug and arms trafficking and intellectual property piracy….Designing and operating customised networks will be a critical element of future foreign policy, for government officials and corporate and civic leaders alike. – Financial Times


The European Commission has agreed to send Ukraine 600 million euros to shore up its deteriorating economy, ending months of delays over conditions linked to the loan. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Ukraine's suspended tax and customs service chief, Roman Nasirov, has been released on bail from his two-month pretrial detention on embezzlement charges. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Kiev has imposed sanctions on five Russian banks after the Kremlin issued a decree requiring lenders to recognise passports issued by Ukraine’s two Moscow-backed breakaway republics. – Financial Times
Mr. Dokuchaev, a stocky 33-year-old who appears on an F.B.I. “wanted” poster wearing a blue suit and with a mop of sandy hair, is emerging as a central figure in fraught relations between the United States and Russia on cybersecurity issues. – New York Times
Moscow’s foreign arms sales plummeted after its 2014 annexation of Crimea as Ukraine, which was a major supplier of parts to Russian arms manufacturers, cut off shipments in protest. But Russian arms exports rose 16% last year, to $6.4 billion, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, which tracks arms sales. Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year that customers had placed orders for $56 billion in future deliveries, a record high for Russia. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
A Russian spy ship was spotted 50 miles from a U.S. Navy base in Georgia, ABC News reported on Thursday. – The Hill
FPI Fellow James Kirchick writes: If the Putin regime cannot live alongside a democratic West, a democratic West cannot live with the Putin regime. A genuinely democratic Russia would feel no threat from Europe, and thus lack the impulse to debase and disrupt it. To be sure, the illiberal movements currently roiling the EU would exist regardless of Russia; anyone remotely familiar with the Continent’s bloody history knows that Europeans don’t require outside instigation to fall for the siren songs of chauvinism, populism and other illiberal forces. But only absent the revisionist and belligerent regime in Moscow is a Europe whole, free and at peace possible. - Politico
President Donald Trump often slammed Angela Merkel on the campaign trail, calling her refugee policy “insane.” When the German chancellor meets her new U.S. counterpart for the first time Friday, she will come face to face with the gaping differences over that and a host of other policies clouding a vital trans-Atlantic relationship. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
After a post-Cold War era in which the military in Europe was at risk of being downsized into virtual non-existence, commanders are now quietly planning for a larger mission. That presents an immediate practical problem: if the Pentagon decides to send in more soldiers, there are few places left to put them after decades of drawdowns. – Stars and Stripes
Editorial: A thriving economy based on greater economic freedom and global competitiveness will always be the best answer to Scottish (or Northern Irish) separatism. That’s an option available to Mrs. May, provided she has the courage of free-market convictions and the will to make Brexit a success everywhere from Penzance to Aberdeen. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
James Rubin writes: The Russia question will play out over many months. In the meantime, those who care about Western values can continue to look to Merkel, but now with a small dose of optimism. For while this week’s election in the Netherlands may not be a permanent setback for Europe’s neo-nationalists, it should give comfort to those who worried that Trump’s victory in America would be contagious and that continental Europe was sure to catch the disease. - Politico
For the Dutch, both the British vote to leave the European Union and Donald J. Trump’s election in the United States broke political dikes, leaving the Dutch ill at ease with the conflict and uncertainty that has ensued. – New York Times
The Netherlands’ election result, for all its local idiosyncrasies, foreshadows themes that will color other European elections in the year ahead in France, Germany and potentially Italy. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The Dutch anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders acknowledged Thursday that voters denied him a chance to rule his nation. But to many Dutch Muslims, his victory was secured long before his nation’s nail-biter election. – New York Times
Editorial: If there’s any lesson from the Dutch vote, it’s that Europe’s political class got lucky. But that luck will eventually run out if they don’t soon provide voters with sustained economic growth and genuine security against terrorism and unsafe neighborhoods. Reaching those goals isn’t impossible, but the lesson from Wednesday is that voters won’t wait forever for the status quo politicians to act. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Anne Applebaum writes: Because we were looking at the Netherlands with populist-colored glasses, we missed the bigger story: the implosion of the unified center-left — the Dutch Labor Party — which is a story that really does have pan-European significance, affecting electorates in almost every country. – Washington Post
Christopher Caldwell writes: Migration pressure from North Africa and the Middle East is a military problem. This aspect of the problem can remain latent for a long time, but not forever. European politicians like the refugee deal because it spreads the illusion among European citizens that a complacent, comfortable, consumerist decline is possible. That may be what Erdogan likes about it, too. – The Weekly Standard


United States of America
At least two sets of internal data that have been available to the Trump administration — but that have never been publicized — appear to undercut the government’s argument for a travel ban that it had hoped would take effect Thursday, according to several officials familiar with the documents. – Washington Post
Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, was paid over $65,000 by companies linked to Russia in 2015, according to a letter released on Thursday by congressional investigators. – New York Times
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, facing growing anxieties President Donald Trump’s “America First” economic platform could trigger a damaging series of retaliatory sanctions around the world, said Thursday the administration doesn’t want to start any trade wars. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee suggested Thursday President Trump disclosed classified information during a Fox News interview the night before. – The Hill
An admitted al-Qaida fighter was convicted on Thursday of federal terrorism charges for participating in a fierce firefight in Afghanistan that left two U.S. servicemen dead. – Associated Press
Trump Budget
The U.S. Institute of Peace has dispatched staffers from its ultramodern building near the Mall in Washington to some of the world’s most dangerous places, but now the federally funded organization is facing its own demise at the hands of the Trump administration. – Washington Post
Congress could cause a partial government shutdown next month, with proposed defense spending at the center of a looming feud between Capitol Hill and the White House. – Military Times
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is pouring cold water on President Trump's first budget, warning that it won't pass the Senate. – The Hill
State Department/United Nations
Efforts to overhaul the State Department arrive at Foggy Bottom about as often as a 13-year cicada, an insect that emerges from the soil on the nearby Mall to great noise and annoyance but little effect. Veterans of previous overhauls have tried to reassure junior colleagues in recent days that things are never as dire as they seem when such plans are announced, partly because Congress — where some department initiatives are born or nurtured for decades — rarely consents to drastic change. – New York Times
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told agency employees in a letter Thursday morning that next year’s budget proposal, marked by deep funding cuts, is an “unmistakable restatement” of the country’s needs and a harbinger of new priorities. – Washington Post
It is an awkward relationship. But as the White House stands poised to slash funding for the United Nations — how severely is still to be determined — it is a critical relationship for both the secretary general, António Guterres, and the United States ambassador, Nikki R. Haley. – New York Times
President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal crystallizes the administration’s ideological priorities, calling for bolstering spending on the military and border security while gutting funding for diplomacy and foreign aid, scientific research, and most of the federal government. – Foreign Policy
Many budget detractors are confident that Trump's proposal will never become a reality due to bipartisan resistance in Congress. Still, the vocal dissent from across the political spectrum underscores how worried people are about the signal the White House is sending to the rest of the world by merely proposing the cuts. - Politico
The United Nations and dozens of its affiliated agencies are facing deep funding cuts and possibly an end to U.S. contributions, as the Trump administration seeks to slash billions of dollars from diplomacy and development assistance in next year’s budget. – Associated Press
Trump Wiretapping Claims
President Trump insists he is right. No matter how many officials, even in his own party, dismiss his unsubstantiated claim that President Barack Obama secretly tapped his phones last year, the White House made clear on Thursday that it would stand by the assertion. – New York Times
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that he expects FBI Director James Comey to debunk President Trump’s claim that he was “wiretapped” in a highly anticipated public hearing next week. – The Hill
A House Democrat on Thursday introduced a resolution asking President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to produce evidence of Trump’s allegation that former President Obama wiretapped him. – The Hill
British intelligence officials angrily slapped down claims that President Donald Trump had been under surveillance by GCHQ during his election campaign, after they were repeated by the White House. – Financial Times
Marine Corps
The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee expressed confidence Thursday in the Marines’ ability to tackle a nude photo sharing scandal after receiving a closed briefing, even as he acknowledged the military as a whole has yet to fully grasp the gravity of the issue. – The Hill
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has identified hundreds of Marines who are members of the Marines United Facebook group, where some members allegedly shared nude photos of female troops, veterans and civilians, a Democratic House lawmaker said on Thursday. – Military Times
Coast Guard
The US Coast Guard seems to have survived attempts by the Trump administration to reduce its budget thanks, in large part, to an “avalanche” of support from Congress, the service’s top officer said Thursday. – Defense News
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is asking President Trump to move Coast Guard oversight from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the Defense Department, citing a lack of funds under the DHS. – The Hill
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said free trade has led to a number of jobs in both the United States and Canada, while also saying he’s open to “tweaks” in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). – Washington Times


Somali pirates who seized an oil tanker earlier this week have released the ship and its crew without conditions, officials said late Thursday. – Associated Press
President Donald Trump’s proposed deep cuts in foreign aid could mark the retreat of U.S. support for South Sudan, a nation America enthusiastically helped to create. – Associated Press

Trump Administration

President Trump has nominated six individuals to fill some of the highest posts at the Pentagon, including a Boeing executive who will serve as the department’s second-in-command, according to a news release put out Thursday by the White House. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) on Thursday lauded the promotion of President Donald Trump's senior counselor for economic initiatives, Dina Habib Powell, to deputy national security adviser for strategy. – Washington Free Beacon
Editorial: Mr. Tillerson’s reticence may be suitable for an oil company chief executive, but the job of chief diplomat of the United States comes with a responsibility to be a voice for the policies of the president, and the values and principles of the nation. – Washington Post
Peter Feaver writes: The Powell appointment moves the administration a bit further forward on the path towards a White House process that simultaneously fits Trump’s style and also offers the prospect of producing coherent, well-vetted policies. – Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government

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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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