FPI Overnight Brief: April 14, 2017

The Must-Reads

  • US braces for next provocation from North Korea
  • US may launch pre-emptive strike against N. Korea
  • Cronin: Why a limited strike against N. Korea could escalate
  • Lake: Trump Said No to Troops in Syria. His Aides Aren't So Sure.
  • John Yoo: Trump’s Syria strike was constitutional
  • Krauthammer: Trump’s great reversal – for now
  • ISIS’ lone-wolf tactics inspire Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate
  • Turkish vote to broaden Erdogan’s powers no sure thing
  • Report: Europe’s armies too slow for a Baltic clash
  • Andrew Michta: The deconstruction of the West
  • FPI’s Kirchick: Greece’s economic agony will go on and on

Middle East/North Africa

The Trump administration on Thursday sanctioned the brother of Iran’s top spy master and military strategist for alleged human-rights violations, amid growing calls by Congress for the White House to confront Tehran and bring home U.S. citizens still imprisoned in the country. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The Trump administration is leveling new economic sanctions against senior Iranian officials and its prison system for widespread human rights abuses, including the systematic torture of those being held in these facilities, according to White House officials familiar with the matter. – Washington Free Beacon
An airstrike by the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State killed 18 Syrian fighters allied with the United States, the military said on Thursday. – New York Times
Vilified by accusations of using a chemical bomb, Syria’s president intensified his counterpropaganda campaign on Thursday, suggesting that child actors had staged death scenes to malign him and that American warplanes had bombed a terrorist warehouse full of poison gases, killing hundreds of people. – New York Times
CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the U.S. cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield last week signaled to Iran that the United States is prepared to use force to protect American interests. – Washington Free Beacon
Syrian authorities — "abetted by Russia's continuing efforts to bury the truth" — still possess and use chemical weapons, an American diplomat told the international chemical weapons watchdog on Thursday. – Associated Press
Buses began evacuating hundreds of people from two rebel-besieged Shi'ite villages in northwest Syria on Friday and rebels began to leave two towns near Damascus with their families, under a deal between the government and insurgents. - Reuters
The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State on Thursday denied a Syrian army report it had carried out an air strike that had hit poison gas supplies belonging to IS and caused the deaths of hundreds of people. - Reuters

Eli Lake reports: Senior White House and administration officials tell me Trump's national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, has been quietly pressing his colleagues to question the underlying assumptions of a draft war plan against the Islamic State that would maintain only a light U.S. ground troop presence in Syria. - Bloomberg View

Paul Miller writes: As conservative internationalists have long argued, just because a country signs a piece of paper does not mean a foreign policy has been accomplished. The United States can and should continue to invest in and support the liberal international order, but that does not mean it must be guileless in how it goes about upholding that order. Hard power is still a crucial sine qua non of international politics. – The Hill
John Yoo writes: The Constitution creates a presidency that can respond forcefully to prevent serious threats to our national security. Presidents can take the initiative, and Congress can use its funding power to check presidents. Instead of demanding a legalistic process to begin war, the Framers left war to politics. As we confront the new challenges of terrorism, rogue nations, and WMD proliferation, now is not the time to introduce sweeping, untested changes in the way we make war. – National Review Online
Julia Ioffe writes: The American airstrike on the Shayrat air base in Syria didn’t do all that much. A day and 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles later, Bashar al-Assad was still in power, his planes were still taking off from Shayrat, still flying and still dropping bombs and killing people in the same areas of Idlib Province where a sarin gas attack killed more than 80 people last week. What the strike did do, though, was radically alter the power dynamic between Moscow and Washington that Vladimir Putin had spent the last three years establishing: one in which Putin acts and Washington, gobsmacked, scrambles to react. – The Atlantic
Erin Wodewald writes: The U.S. is fairly efficient at removing tyrants – think Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi – but we are less adept at filling the void that is left behind. Even when we have had time to adjust our support from a failing ally to a more viable option (the Shah in 1979 or Mubarak in 2011), we have lacked the foresight and nimbleness to act in time with a plausible alternative. In Syria, finally, we now might have the opportunity to thoughtfully prepare for what comes next. Because what fills the void matters. – Philos Project
With Islamic State expelled, Iraqi Christians are trickling back to the ransacked town of Qaraqosh, beset by anxiety for their security and yet hopeful they can live in friendship with Muslims of all persuasions. - Reuters
Arabian Peninsula
Al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch office is focusing more on the single-jihadi terrorist business, muscling in on operations advocated by its Sunni extremist competitor, the Islamic State group. – Washington Times
Amid reports President Trump is considering more American military help for the Saudi-led fight in Yemen, U.S. lawmakers are urging caution, if not an about-face. – Defense News
Four senators have introduced a resolution to limit U.S. support for a Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war, they announced Thursday. – The Hill
More than two dozen U.S. insurers affiliated with Travelers have sued two Saudi banks, companies affiliated with Osama bin Laden's family, and several charities for at least $4.2 billion over the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. – Reuters
The Egyptian government needs to do more to protect the country's Coptic Christians from a "wave of persecution" following bombings that killed dozens during the church's most solemn week of the year, a senior bishop said. - Reuters
After months of publicly defending the actions of a Jordanian guard who opened fire on a U.S. military convoy of Army Special Forces soldiers, killing three, Jordanian government officials have admitted that the shooter did not follow the military’s protocol and will face prosecution. – Washington Post
Martin Peretz writes: For those of us who care for Israel, we are in an old, sad, difficult dilemma. Our principles, our people’s experience of the diaspora, our belief in transcending difference, our dismay at Republican tribal politics leads us to the Democrats. But there comes a point at which the urge to transcend difference comes at the expense of hard realities. Michael Oren was right—the last president passed that point with Israel. How much will his successors in the party leadership follow his lead? – Tablet
Anna Borshchevskaya writes: Trump, like nearly all of his White House predecessors dating back to Dwight Eisenhower, has made Middle East peace a priority for Washington. Putin’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should signal to Trump and son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whom Trump tasked with brokering a Middle East peace deal, that the Kremlin plans to play a larger role in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Trump may play peacemaker, but he will not be alone in the sandbox. – Foreign Affairs
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposed constitutional overhaul to undercut Turkey’s parliamentary system in favor of an executive presidency, the subject of a referendum on Sunday, could alter the nation more radically than at any point since the founding of the republic in 1923. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Turkey is a country in chaos, and the question voters will decide on Sunday is an important one: Is the proposed constitution a necessary means of quelling the country’s many crises, as Mr. Erdogan’s supporters say? – New York Times
Turkey accused the United Nations on Thursday of meddling in its internal politics shortly before a referendum that could give President Tayyip Erdogan sweeping presidential powers. - Reuters
High yields and a benign global backdrop are keeping many investors engaged with Turkish bonds and stocks ahead of a crucial referendum, but the outlook is glum for this once favored emerging economy. - Reuters
Soner Cagaptay writes: As Europe and the United States await the April 16 referendum to gauge the future of an important partner, they must also recognize a sad reality, Turkey’s ties to the West are in deep trouble. – The Cipher Brief


The United States dropped the “mother of all bombs” — the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal — on an Islamic State cave complex in Afghanistan on Thursday, the Pentagon said, unleashing a munition so massive that it had to be dropped from the rear of a cargo plane. – New York Times
As many as three dozen militants with the radical Islamic State group were killed when U.S. forces dropped a 22,000-pound bomb on their hideout in eastern Afghanistan, defense ministry officials said Friday. – Washington Post
Washington is planning to skip a conference on reconciliation in Afghanistan that Russia is hosting on April 14, acting U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Analysis: Even though President Trump didn't authorize dropping of a 21,000-lb. bomb in Afghanistan on Thursday, he may still get a political boost from it. – USA Today
Editorial: What happened at the receiving end of the bomb isn’t known, nor would White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer say whether President Trump personally gave authorization, which isn’t needed to deploy the GBU-43. But like the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that struck a Syrian airfield last week, the right people no doubt noticed this display of American purpose. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
South Asia
A mob of students at Pakistan’s Abdul Wali Khan University beat a fellow student to death on campus for allegedly committing blasphemy, police said Thursday. – Washington Times
Interview: While al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) may be regionally focused, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says “that doesn’t mean AQIS can be divorced from al Qaeda’s aspirations to attack the West.” In an interview with The Cipher Brief, Gartenstein-Ross also said he believes the group may be looking to expand into Myanmar. – The Cipher Brief

All all of a sudden, U.S. policy toward China seems broadly similar to that pursued by his predecessor. Trump might be a very different personality to Barack Obama, the Global Times newspaper commented Friday, “however there are many signs he is returning to Obama’s diplomatic strategy.” Yet how deep is this new found friendship with China, and how sustainable is the relationship? – Washington Post
North Korea
North Korea appears prepared to stage its sixth nuclear weapons test as soon as this weekend, current and former U.S. officials said, placing immediate pressure on President Donald Trump and his efforts to improve bilateral relations with China. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Amid sharply rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear arms program, China said on Thursday that its trade with the country had expanded, even though it had complied with United Nations sanctions and stopped buying North Korean coal, a major source of hard currency for Pyongyang. – New York Times
North Korea hit out at President Trump on Friday, accusing him of “making trouble” with his “aggressive” tweets, amid concerns that tensions between the two countries could escalate into military action. – Washington Post
The U.S. is prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test, multiple senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News. – NBC News
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned Thursday that North Korea may be capable of firing a missile loaded with sarin nerve gas toward Japan, as international concern mounted that a missile or nuclear test by the authoritarian state could be imminent. – Associated Press
Patrick Cronin writes: It will be vital for U.S. national security officials to remain clear-eyed about the limits of military power. The U.S. national security team should remain attentive to the potential for a pattern break in North Korean behavior. The White House must be tough but smart about North Korea. North Korea is not Syria. – The National Interest
James Durso writes: The North’s best model is economic development à la Chine. China wants to lead its “little brother” and, despite the historical friction between the Chinese and the Koreans, it is the best example of how an authoritarian government develops a market economy. Offering an economic opening to the world with Kim and Co. in power will definitely be a glass-half-full situation, but war it ain’t. – The Hill
LTG Dan Leaf, USAF (Ret.) writes: There is, however, a viable military option — a defensive option — that has not received the attention it deserves. The U.S. can significantly strengthen the missile defenses protecting Hawaii by deploying an operational missile system. Timely investment in a combination of current capabilities could protect Hawaii from the North Korean (and other) threats quickly and affordably. – Defense News
East Asia
Now, with less than a month to go before the election and as tensions flare on the Korean Peninsula, Mr. Ahn, 55, has suddenly become a leading contender to be the next president, offering hope to conservatives and others alarmed by the North’s nuclear and missile threats. Mr. Ahn’s support in polls has surged this month, turning the campaign into a two-way race between him and Moon Jae-in, the candidate from the largest political party, the left-leaning Democrats, who control 119 parliamentary seats. – New York Times
Japan scrambled a record number of fighter jets in the past year, according to official figures released on Thursday, in a sign of rising tensions with China. – Financial Times
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to South Korea on Sunday in what his aides said was a sign of the U.S. commitment to its ally in the face of rising tensions over North Korea's nuclear program. - Reuters
Southeast Asia
The two women who claim they were tricked into assassinating the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader appeared in court Thursday, where their lawyers argued that Malaysia’s decision to free three North Korean suspects ended any chance of bringing the real culprits to justice. – New York Times
Thailand's junta has warned people against contacting three prominent foreign-based critics of the country's monarchy, saying it could mean breaking the law. - Reuters
Hunter Marston writes: Only by delivering on political compromise, which will include conceding that some form of federalism or decentralized authority is inevitable, will the general’s daughter be able to fulfill Burma’s long quest for genuine peace and national reconciliation. – Washington Post


A visibly frustrated Gen. Paul Selva, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for Congress to pass a budget before the end of the month, even if it is simply a return to what the Pentagon asked for at the start of fiscal year 2017. – Defense News
The U.S. Air Force appears to be breathing new life into its fleet of F-16s, with plans for upgrades and structural work inching forward as the service contemplates whether to replace its F-15C/Ds with the newer, less expensive F-16. – Defense News
The Navy plans to expand its requirement for opposing force flight training to include fourth-generation fighters, and the company that currently provides that service is preparing to scour the globe for fighters for sale to meet this need. – USNI News
The Air Force has grounded a big portion of its newly refurbished, multibillion-dollar fleet of C-5 Galaxy transport planes, just to avoid spending the relatively small amount of money it costs to fly them. – Roll Call
The US Army continues to receive prototypes of a newly-engineered up-gunned Stryker infantry vehicle armed with a more lethal, longer-range 30mm cannon as compared with the currently installed .50-cal machine guns. – Scout Warrior
There’s growing concern the U.S. Army’s munition stockpile is shrinking as it supports operations in the Middle East and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) is pushing to prevent the service’s lower-cost interceptor -- the Patriot Guided Enhanced Missile -- from being phased out of the inventory. – Defense News
“Trust, but verify.” On Gus Hargett’s last day at the National Guard Association of the United States, that’s the advice the long-time NGAUS president gave his successor, Roy Robinson, on dealing with regular active-duty leaders. – Breaking Defense
The fallout from allegations by Devin Nunes of potential surveillance abuses by the Obama White House has a top former intelligence official warning that such claims threaten to undermine the intelligence community's credibility. – The Weekly Standard
Microsoft published its biannual transparency report on Thursday, revealing its first National Security Letter from the FBI. – The Hill
Kimberly Dozier reports: In a week of head-snapping policy reversals by the Trump administration, new CIA chief Mike Pompeo delivered an unexpected broadside at WikiLeaks and Russia, both of which were once praised by his boss on the campaign trail—and even Pompeo himself once tweeted out WikiLeaks stories. – The Daily Beast


At the Group of Seven meeting in Lucca, Italy, on April 11, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked the other foreign ministers, “Why should US taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” US Senator Rob Portman and several other panelists answered that question at an April 5 conference on Ukraine in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Atlantic Council and the Razumkov Centre. – Atlantic Council
Steven Pifer writes: Secretary Tillerson’s question, if odd coming from him, is one that many American might ask. However, there are very good reasons why the United States should take an interest in Ukraine. – Brookings Institution
Russian officials on Thursday gave a restrained assessment of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, saying it was too early to say if friendlier ties could be restored between Washington and Moscow. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
United Nations experts demanded on Thursday that Chechnya halt the abduction, detention, beating and killing of gay and bisexual men, after weeks of reports about violent repression there. – New York Times
Russian police stormed into the home of popular video blogger Vyacheslav Maltsev and took him to Moscow for questioning on April 13. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Russian athletes will not be able to return to global competitions unless there is significantly more progress cleaning up Russia's doping culture and introducing a satisfactory testing regime, the world athletics federation said on April 13. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Yet after Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Moscow as US secretary of state — where he decried the “low level of trust” between the countries — that optimism has given way to a sinking suspicion that Mr Trump’s Russia policy may be no friendlier than his predecessor’s. Nevertheless, executives and financiers add that Russia’s economy is already doing better without the help of the new president. – Financial Times
Jacqueline Ramos and Julie Smith write: Russia, specifically Putin, has been a thorn in the side of four successive U.S. presidents. As a consequence, many U.S. policymakers have found themselves tangling with Russian diplomats, intelligence operatives, and military leaders on a range of topics, often without much success. In an attempt to learn the lessons of years past, we’ve selected five tidbits of advice. – Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government
An Iraqi who was detained after the bombing of a soccer team bus in Dortmund is suspected of having led an Islamic State unit before fleeing to Germany last year, the federal prosecutor said Thursday. – New York Times
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban is gambling that a new law targeting a top Budapest university will help shore up his core support ahead of next year's election, but the scale of protests it has prompted suggests he may have gone too far this time. - Reuters
FPI Fellow James Kirchick writes: The Greek desire to stay within the eurozone, combined with the fact that Athens’s creditors ultimately have more leverage, has lent an element of kabuki theatre to the entire sovereign debt saga. Because both sides know that Greece, even under a radical Left-wing government, will ultimately accept bailout terms, there is always a great deal of drama and hand-wringing and last-minute tension. But a deal is always agreed – thereby saving the country from immediate disaster, but prolonging its economic agony. - CapX
[W]ith just two weeks to go before the first round of the election, the question is whether Macron, long considered the favorite in the race, and his romantic, often lofty proposals can persuade a largely undecided and disillusioned electorate to join his march. In an age of political extremes — in which those voters certain to participate have increasingly said they will support the far right or far left — Macron’s careful center is not sure to hold. – Washington Post
Little more than a week before France’s presidential election, Marine Le Pen remains a front-runner after working hard to sanitize the image of her party, the National Front, and to distance it from the uglier associations of Europe’s far right. But descriptions of the inner workings of her party by present and former close Le Pen associates, as well as court documents, raise fresh doubts about the success and sincerity of those efforts. – New York Times
The Paris headquarters of the far-right National Front party was hit by a petrol bomb overnight, in a sign of the strength of feeling against the anti-immigration party among some as France gears up for elections in less than two weeks. – Financial Times
President Trump has expressed strong support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday. – Washington Times
U.S. forces can't rely on Europe's top three military powers to quickly deploy brigade-size armored units to the Baltics in a crisis because their ground combat units are undermanned, overextended and lack sufficient equipment, said a study of alliance capabilities released Wednesday. – Stars and Stripes
This is a historic deployment for NATO, for many reasons. It is the first deployment of substantial combat forces in NATO’s east. As well, Germany’s command of the Lithuanian eFP battalion is evidence that Berlin is waking up to the need for its leadership in European security. Finally, it is one of the first real signs that NATO is shaking off its expeditionary and counter-insurgency mindset, forged over more than two decades of operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and going back to defense and deterrence. – Defense One
Poland on Thursday welcomed the first U.S. troops in a multi-national force which is being posted across the Baltic region to counter potential threats from Russia. - Reuters
Analysis: That was then. After 82 days in office, Mr. Trump officially pronounced NATO rehabilitated, taking credit for transforming it into a modern, cost-sharing, terrorism-fighting pillar of American and European security….After weeks of being lobbied, cajoled and educated by the leaders of Britain and Germany, not to mention “my generals,” as he likes to call his national security team, Mr. Trump has found fresh virtue in a venerable organization. – New York Times


United States of America
When President Donald Trump signaled Wednesday he would end a yearslong debate within the Republican Party over the U.S. Export-Import Bank, he sided with the business establishment to restore an agency that some conservative Republicans, including members of his own administration, wanted to cripple. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
European intelligence agencies, including British entities, captured Russian officials and citizens communicating with Donald Trump's campaign during the election, and forwarded those documents to U.S. spy agencies, according to a report published Thursday afternoon. – Washington Examiner
Latin America
The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Thursday to end its 13-year-long peacekeeping mission in Haiti, and replace its blue-helmeted soldiers with police officers. – New York Times
The violent clashes between protesters and Venezuelan pro-government forces claimed a fifth life Thursday as groups opposed to President Nicolás Maduro gathered for a new round of demonstrations. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Gerónimo Gutiérrez, says his country's stance toward President Trump is one of "strategic patience." – The Hill
[A] reinvigorated [Venezuelan] opposition is not backing down, even after clashes left five dead and scores wounded and detained in recent days. After mass demonstrations in 2014 led nowhere, leaving dozens dead in opposing camps, protesters have found new momentum in their bid to remove Mr Maduro from office. – Financial Times
Venezuela's opposition was rallying across the nation on Thursday as part of a bid to strain security forces by staging anti-government protests in each of the volatile country's 335 municipalities. - Reuters


On Thursday, Nigerian government officials said they were negotiating the release of more of the nearly 200 girls who remain captive. But the government is known for exaggerating its successes against Boko Haram. Officials made the same statement months ago, so the new one generated little optimism among family members. – New York Times
Zambian police denied on Thursday that opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema had been refused access to his lawyers and family since his arrest this week but his attorney insisted this was the case in an intensifying political crisis. - Reuters

Trump Administration

For any new occupant of the White House, the early months are like a graduate seminar in policy crammed into every half-hour meeting. What made sense on the campaign trail may have little bearing on reality in the Oval Office, and the education of a president can be rocky even for former governors or senators. For Mr. Trump, the first president in American history never to have served in government or the military, the learning curve is especially steep. – New York Times
President Donald Trump on Thursday praised the decision to drop a massive bunker-busting bomb in Afghanistan as an example of the “total authorization” he has given his military commanders. But such boasts only deepen defense experts' concerns that Trump is ceding the military too much influence over the United States' actions abroad — creating the danger of an unbalanced policy that gives short shrift to interests like diplomacy. - Politico
President Trump on Thursday called the recent high-profile military actions overseas proof that he’s fulfilling his promise to let defense leaders act decisively without interference from politicians. – Military Times
Charles Krauthammer writes: We’ve just witnessed one about-face. With a president who counts unpredictability as a virtue, he could well reverse course again. For now, however, the traditionalists are in the saddle. U.S. policy has been normalized. The world is on notice: Eight years of sleepwalking is over. America is back. – Washington Post
David Ignatius writes: President Trump, after a mostly disastrous first two months, has had a good run these past two weeks in foreign policy. He acted decisively in Syria, gained China as a possible partner in dealing with North Korea, repaired relations with NATO and began addressing the serious tensions with Russia. Why is Trump making better decisions now? And what could disrupt his progress toward a more coherent foreign policy? – Washington Post
If Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan is confirmed as deputy secretary of defense, he will be forced to hit the ground running, inheriting a number of internal projects from an experienced manager of the U.S. defense bureaucracy. – Defense News
President Trump is facing a tough confirmation battle in the Senate over Mark Green, his nominee for Army secretary. – The Hill
The photo from inside Donald Trump’s makeshift situation room at Mar-a-Lago affirmed what White House insiders have recognized for some time - that Dina Powell has quietly established herself as a White House power. – Associated Press


Andrew Michta writes: The greatest threat to the security and survival of the democratic West as the leader and the norm-setter of the international system comes not from the outside but from within. And with each passing year, the deconstruction of Western culture, and with it the nation-state, breeds more internal chaos and makes our international bonds across the West ever more tenuous. – The American Interest

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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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