FPI Overnight Brief: April 17, 2017

The Must-Reads

Middle East/North Africa


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in what appeared to be a defiant message to President Trump, said Saturday that Tehran will seek "no one's permission" to build missiles. – Fox News

The power struggle in Iran ahead of next month’s presidential election is intensifying as both pro-reform and hardline groups select two main candidates and speculation mounts over whether centrist president Hassan Rouhani will be allowed to run for a second term. – Financial Times

Michael Oren writes: In responding forcibly to North Korean and Syrian outrages, President Trump has made a major step toward restoring America’s deterrence power. His determination to redress the flaws in the JCPOA and to stand up to Iran will greatly accelerate that process. The U.S., Israel and the world will all be safer. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


Dozens of people were killed in the Syrian city of Aleppo on Saturday when a car bomb struck a group of buses carrying residents and fighters who had been evacuated from two besieged towns the day before. – New York Times

Some 3,000 residents and pro-government fighters were expected to evacuate a besieged Syrian town Sunday as part of an ongoing population transfer deal, the day after a car bomb targeting a convoy of evacuees killed more than 125 people. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

[S]ix years since the war began, this mountain of documentation — more perhaps than in any conflict before it — has brought little justice. The people behind the violence remain free, and there is no clear path to bring the bulk of the evidence before any court, anywhere. – New York Times

Lawmakers in Britain are urging the government to revoke the U.K. citizenship of the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to her support for her husband’s government during the six-year civil war. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

The Syrian army regained the strategic town of Soran near the city of Hama in the central part of western Syria on Sunday with an assault backed by heavy Russian air strikes, rebels and residents said. - Reuters

The evacuation of more than 3,000 Syrians that was scheduled to take place Sunday from four areas as part of a population transfer has been postponed, opposition activists said, a day after a deadly blast that killed more than 120 people, many of them government supporters. – Associated Press

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

Josh Rogin reports: The Trump administration is working hard to come up with a comprehensive strategy for Syria after striking the forces of Bashar al-Assad earlier this month. To that end, congressional leaders are preparing a new push to get their old ideas for pressuring the Syrian president, Russia and Iran to the president’s desk. – Washington Post

Frederic Hof writes: Getting eastern Syria right and taking the time to do it right are essential. But as the start of baseball season reminds us, keeping ones eye on the ball is essential. The Assad regime is the beating heart of the Syrian catastrophe. A strategy reverting to the practice of leaving him free to kill at will—provided he does so without chemicals—is a plan for failure, one that will outlive this administration and its successors for as far as the eye can see, and even beyond. – Atlantic Council


Iraqi forces gained fresh ground in door-to-door fighting in the Old City of Mosul, a military spokesman said on Monday, as the U.S.-backed offensive to capture Islamic State's de facto capital in Iraq entered its seventh month. - Reuters

The spokesman for the Joint Operation Command in Iraq says the Islamic State group has attacked government troops with some type of gas in western Mosul — the second such attack in as many days. – Associated Press

Flooding has made all bridges across the Tigris in and out of western Mosul impassable, cutting off aid supplies and escape routes for people fleeing the Islamic State-held part of the Iraqi city. - Reuters

James Jeffrey writes: An American-Iraqi decision on keeping U.S. troops in the country must be taken soon, as the rationale for their current presence—to defeat Islamic State—will fade as it is destroyed. The justification for a longer-term presence would be to train and equip Iraqi forces and assist against ISIS remnants. Strategically, it could also help keep Iraq independent of Iran. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


After three years in detention, the Egyptian-American aid worker Aya Hijazi was cleared of child abuse and human trafficking charges in Cairo on Sunday, abruptly ending a high-profile case that had become an international symbol of Egypt’s harsh crackdown on aid groups. – New York Times

Egypt’s strongman leader, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, styles himself as a staunch defender of Copts, who account for one-tenth of the country’s 92 million people, and who openly rejoiced when he came to power in 2013. Yet Copts have had little to celebrate under Mr. Sisi, and find themselves still vulnerable to prejudice, violence and the vagaries of a system in which impunity is rife. – New York Times


Andrew Exum writes: After the nuclear deal with Iran, we in the Obama administration no longer had the credibility to deliver it—an annoying fact given the 35,000 American troops who currently sit in or offshore Sunni Arab Gulf states protecting them from Iran. The Trump administration can. But it will have to do so in a way that doesn’t suck the United States in further to a hopeless war that has already brought far too much suffering to the people of the region. – The Atlantic


A slim majority of Turkish voters agreed on Sunday to grant sweeping powers to their president, in a watershed moment that the country’s opposition fears may cement a system of authoritarian rule within one of the critical power brokers of the Middle East. – New York Times

The political rivals of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were Monday preparing to file formal objections to a closely-contested vote that, should results stand, would centralize governing powers in his presidential office and radically alter Turkey’s democracy. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

A Turkish prosecutor has opened an investigation into 17 people accused of fomenting last year’s failed coup, including many prominent American officials, academics and politicians, state news media reported on Saturday. – New York Times

Turkey’s resulting grip in Germany is coming back to haunt both sides. German intelligence agencies and politicians now charge that Mr. Erdogan is using the decades-old arrangement to hunt down and punish opponents as he pursues a desperately wanted victory that would make his authority all but unchallengeable. – New York Times

Editorial: The danger for the Middle East, and for Turkey’s NATO allies, is that the country could evolve into an Islamist state in the mold of Iran—albeit Sunni, not Shiite. Mr. Erdogan beguiled many in his early years as an Islamist leader who claimed to respect democratic norms, but the sad irony is that his drive for authoritarian power will lead many in the West to the unfortunate conclusion that Islam and democracy are incompatible. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)



Talks between the United States and Afghanistan wrapped up here on Sunday, as the Trump administration reviews its options in the 15-year American presence in Afghanistan in the face of a resurgent Taliban. – New York Times

The American military’s use of the most powerful conventional bomb in its arsenal on an Islamic State cave complex in Afghanistan has stirred up political trouble for the Afghan government, as former President Hamid Karzai on Saturday called his successor “a traitor” and declared that he wanted the Americans gone from the country. – New York Times

To potential adversaries like Syria and North Korea, the bombing could signal deterrence. For the American public, it underscored the Pentagon’s more aggressive stance under President Trump than under his predecessor, whose administration never even debated using the weapon. – New York Times

U.S. forces in Afghanistan have not yet assessed the impact of a massive strike on Islamic State militants in the eastern part of the country, a military spokesman said Friday, raising questions about the already controversial decision to deploy a 22,000-pound bomb on the battlefield. – Washington Post

Dropping the 11-ton "mother of all bombs" in Afghanistan was another indication that President Donald Trump has delegated more authority to field commanders in the conduct of operations against enemies worldwide. – Military.com

The number of militants killed in an attack by the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used in combat by the U.S. military has risen to 94, an Afghan official said Saturday. – Associated Press

General David Petraeus, USA (Ret.); Ronald Neumann, and Earl Wayne write: Given the importance of American investments in Afghanistan, and the terrorist groups still operating there, a fresh look at the U.S. strategy and vision is invaluable. The policy review should re-anchor America’s approach and role in the strategic country for at least the next four years. – The National Interest

Max Boot writes: Victory in any counterinsurgency requires improving the effectiveness of the government and bringing 24/7 security to the countryside. In the case of Afghanistan, it is simply not possible to achieve those objectives with only 8,500 United States troops assisting the embattled Afghan security forces, which are suffering heavy casualties and losing ground. General Nicholson asked for a “few thousand” more advisers, and if the Trump administration wants to maintain even the existing, tenuous level of security, it will have to, at a minimum, meet his request. Bombs alone, no matter how big, won’t get the job done. – New York Times

South Asia

H.R. McMaster, U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser, has arrived in Pakistan, a day after holding talks with Afghan leaders in Kabul. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

The Pakistan military says it has prevented a major terrorist attack planned for Easter after a successful overnight raid. – The Hill

Militants have stepped up attacks in Indian-ruled Kashmir and police warned officers not to go home, amid a spike in violence in the contested region, after the army allegedly tied a man to the front of a jeep as a human shield. - Reuters


The Treasury Department officially declined on Friday to label China a currency manipulator, breaking one of President Trump’s most prominent campaign promises. – New York Times

A former Pacific Fleet Intelligence director called on the Trump administration to reassert U.S. military presence in the Indo-Asia Pacific region to deter China from continuing its aggressive campaign of maritime expansion. – Washington Free Beacon

China has launched a crackdown on the booming insurance sector that could ensnare some of the country’s biggest and most globally active financial institutions, according to analysts and Chinese state media. – Financial Times

China’s economy has started 2017 with its strongest quarterly performance in 18 months, on the back of a surge in industrial activity, property investment and credit growth. – Financial Times

Leland Miller and Derek Scissors writes: Investors may be justified in assuming that Beijing will seek to quash any fallout until after the Party Congress this fall. But they should be equally clear that what we are seeing now is not a recovery, and it is certainly not an acceleration. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

North Korea

North Korea launched a ballistic missile Sunday morning from near its submarine base in Sinpo on its east coast, but the launch was the latest in a series of failures just after liftoff, according to American and South Korean military officials. – New York Times

In the wake of North Korea’s failed missile test over the weekend, Trump administration officials stepped up pressure on China, saying the threat has reached an inflection point that demands new urgency. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Vice President Pence warned North Korea Monday that it could be in for the same treatment as Syria and Afghanistan — both of which the Trump administration has bombed this month — if it continues with its nuclear program. – Washington Post

North Korea showed off what appeared to be at least one new long-range missile at a military parade Saturday, as tensions simmer over the possibility of a military confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Even as Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping pledge to stop North Korea’s fast-advancing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, there’s one uncomfortable secret that neither leader has publicly acknowledged: Chinese banks and businesses are playing key roles in providing Pyongyang with access to the global markets they need to acquire critical parts and technologies. - Politico

North Korea snubbed senior Chinese diplomats this month as tensions mounted with the U.S., according to people familiar with the situation, raising questions about the influence Beijing’s leaders have over Kim Jong Un. - Bloomberg

National security adviser H.R. McMaster said a failed early-morning missile test by North Korea "fits into a pattern of provocative and destabilizing and threatening behavior on the part of the North Korean regime." - Politico

How President Trump responds to North Korea’s push to develop a nuclear missile capable of striking the United States could be the “first real test” of his administration, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday. – The Hill

North Korea is sending a “message to China,” as well as the U.S. and Japan, with its latest round of failed missile launches, the top House Republican on military issues said Sunday. – The Hill

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said he's more concerned about North Korea launching a cyber attack on the U.S. than any direct military action. – The Hill

Analysis: What is playing out, said Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who tracks this potentially deadly interplay, is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” But the slow-motion part appears to be speeding up, as President Trump and his aides have made it clear that the United States will no longer tolerate the incremental advances that have moved Mr. Kim so close to his goals. – New York Times

Josh Rogin reports: Despite heated rhetoric about potential military conflict, the Trump administration’s official policy on North Korea is not aimed at regime change, but rather seeks to impose “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang in the hopes of returning to negotiations to get rid of its growing nuclear arsenal. That’s the result of a comprehensive policy review the Trump White House completed this month. – Washington Post

Editorial: Mr. Trump’s art of the deal includes keeping adversaries guessing, but eventually China may choose to test how far he is willing to go to stop a Korean nuclear missile. Mr. Trump needs to make clear what he will do if China won’t make a Korean deal. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

William Perry writes: We might have to use military force against North Korea at some point, but now is not the time. We still have a real opportunity for successful diplomacy. The big question is: Do we have the sense to seize this chance? After all, it could be the last one we have. - Politico

East Asia

South Korea’s recently impeached and ousted president, Park Geun-hye, was formally indicted on Monday on charges of collecting or demanding $52 million in bribes, becoming the first leader put on criminal trial since the mid-1990s, when two former military-backed presidents were imprisoned for corruption and mutiny. – New York Times

China and Russia have launched intelligence-gathering vessels to follow the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier as it travels toward the Korean Peninsula, multiple Japenese government sources told The Yomiuri Shimbun, as reported by the Associated Press. – The Hill

Josh Rogin reports: Pence’s four-nation tour of Asia, which will take him also to Japan, Indonesia and Australia, could be called a reassurance tour, meant to both remind America’s Pacific allies where we’ve come from and let them know that the United States under Trump has a clear sense and firm commitment to where we are going. There’s no doubt that reassurance is both badly needed and welcomed, given the confusion foreign partners have about the Trump administration. – Washington Post

Chris Miller and Joshua Walker write: On some issues of Asia-Pacific security, the United States and Russia might even find that they agree. Yet Washington too often only sees Russia through a European lens. Japan’s effort to rebuild its relations with Moscow just might help us see Russia and Asia in a new light. – War on the Rocks

Southeast Asia

The Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf has beheaded a Filipino hostage, the country’s armed forces announced Monday, just days after a clash in the central Philippines left five militants and four members of the security forces dead. – New York Times

A foiled attack on a central Philippine resort island this week was a kidnapping and bombing mission by at least three extremist groups affiliated with the Islamic State group in one of their most daring terror plots, security officials said Saturday. – Associated Press

Opponents of Thailand's military government expressed fears for the future of democracy on Monday after the mysterious removal of a plaque marking a 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchy. - Reuters



Squadrons across the Air Force will be grounded. Moves will be put on hold, throwing families into turmoil. New recruits won’t be able to start basic training. Bonuses for critical personnel could be deferred. And that’s just the beginning. – Defense News

President Trump is planning to increase U.S. defense spending by $54 billion next year. But a series of recent reports by the Defense Department Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office say that Pentagon accounting systems will struggle to track how the money is spent. – Defense News

The latest congressional impasse over the federal budget could hit troops’ bonuses starting next month, unless a deal is reached in the next few weeks. – Military Times

The Pentagon’s approval for the Marine Corps to start buying Lockheed Martin Corp.’s new heavy lift helicopter came with a hidden surprise: the projected total acquisition cost for the King Stallion program has increased 6.9 percent to $31 billion. - Bloomberg

The Army is pushing forward with its efforts to enable soldiers to carry a lighter load, especially while deployed. From 2018 to 2021, troops could see a replacement for the improved outer tactical vest, new head protection that resembles a motorcycle helmet, and eyewear that goes from light to dark in under a second. – Military Times

The Army has upgraded the power of its emerging Stryker-mounted laser weapon 5kW and confirmed the new weapon's ability to incinerate numerous enemy drones and launch offensive attacks during ongoing testing at Fort Sill, Okla., service officials said. – Scout Warrior

The U.S. Navy on Saturday said it will allow a fleet of its training jets to fly again under modified conditions while it determines what's causing a lack of oxygen in some cockpits. – Associated Press

Nuclear Weapons

Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories are claiming success with the first in a new series of test flights involving an upgraded version of a nuclear bomb that has been part of the U.S. arsenal for decades. – Associated Press


For the past few months, an elite hacking group calling itself the Shadow Brokers has sporadically leaked sensitive data from the National Security Agency. On Friday, just when its leaks had appeared to slow, the group released what appears to be its most damaging leak so far: a trove of highly classified hacking tools used to break into various Microsoft systems, along with what it said was evidence that the N.S.A. had infiltrated the backbone of the Middle East’s banking infrastructure. – New York Times

Microsoft says all of the security flaws exposed in Friday's leak of National Security Agency (NSA) hacking tools were already fixed in supported versions of its software. – The Hill

Ted Koppel writes: As the Trump administration confronts the nuclear ambitions of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and the toxic fallout from Bashar al-Assad’s chemical warfare against Syrian civilians, it is worth remembering that both dictators also command cyber-units. On the face of it, their impact is significantly less lethal, and they can easily be underestimated. – Washington Post



Anne Applebaum writes: Tillerson’s boss isn’t going to be an advocate for America’s alliances. Will he? It would help if he could start by understanding that their stability, not their value for money, are the most important measure of success in his job. – Washington Post


Chechen state television promised over the weekend to produce a tell-all investigation into reports on the torture of gay men in that Russian republic — not into the question of torture itself, but into how the story saw the light of day. It said that the existence of gays in Chechnya was “invented by opposition media.” – Washington Post


The Uzbek man who is suspected of steering a hijacked beer truck into a crowd of shoppers in central Stockholm last week had been recruited by the Islamic State, and had encouraged other Uzbeks to travel to Syria to fight for the militant group, Uzbekistan’s foreign minister said on Friday. – New York Times

The Georgian Defense Ministry has drafted and submitted to parliament a "concept" for the creation of a strong reservist force capable of supporting and augmenting the regular army in the event of a full-scale armed conflict. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Jeffrey Gedmin and Dalibor Rohac write: First-order issues are rule of law, pluralism and academic freedom. Congress and the administration need to push back against the Orbán government's moves to close CEU. Failure to do so means that the slippery slope of soft authoritarianism in former communist Europe gets steeper and more dangerous. – The Hill


One man gives shivers to banks, businesspeople and the bourgeoisie. One man has been rising rapidly in polls, threatening the front-runners a week before the first round in France’s presidential election. One man has suddenly turned the French contest, locked for months between two favorites, into a four-man race. That one man is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, sworn enemy of NATO and high finance, and candidate of his own “France Unsubjugated” movement – New York Times

Those who fear for the future of the European Union are confronting a painful paradox: Many of the strongest bids to tear apart the E.U. are being underwritten by E.U. cash. – Washington Post

French prosecutors requested the European Parliament lift the immunity of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen as part of an investigation into whether she misused European Union funds, according to a person familiar with the matter. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Editorial: Two years ago, having repeated his loathsome views, he was expelled from the National Front and repudiated by his daughter, then eyeing a presidential bid. But the party, which leads in next weekend’s first-round presidential races, according to some opinion polls, hasn’t really been remade, just recast. Ms. Le Pen has made that clear. – Washington Post


United States of America

When Republicans kicked the fiscal 2017 spending deadline into April last December, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said they’d rather negotiate with incoming GOP President Donald Trump than the outgoing Democratic one. But now, congressional Republicans are talking about largely ignoring requests from the White House as they negotiate with Democrats over a spending bill to take the government off autopilot for the remaining five months of the fiscal year. – Roll Call

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, who has deep ties to Russia, is offering advice to a Chinese billionaire on how to win construction contracts for the US president’s promised $1tn infrastructure buildout. – Financial Times

Warnings of US protectionism by Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and others are “rubbish”, Donald Trump’s top trade official has said in a new attack on the big trade surpluses of China, Europe and Japan. – Financial Times

United Nations

Matthew Continetti writes: Haley’s charge is obviously true. The council exists only because its ancestor, the UN Human Rights Commission, had become so monopolized by autocrats, dictators, anti-Semites, anti-Americans, and chronic human-rights violators that it was dissolved upon American withdrawal in 2006. Its replacement is little better, since any human-rights body whose members do not recognize rights within their own borders is not worthy of the name…Nikki Haley has the clarity of vision and political gumption to call corruption by its name. No wonder the Times finds her so unusual. - Commentary

Latin America

Nearly every nation in South America has been jolted by large protests or violent clashes in recent weeks, a continental surge of antigovernment anger unlike anything in years. – Washington Post

[I]n recent days, as once-prosperous Venezuela descends deeper into chaos — with mass protests against food scarcities, rising crime and Maduro’s autocratic style — Capriles has adopted a more radical stance. – Los Angeles Times

After a six-month manhunt spanning at least three continents, the former governor of Veracruz state in Mexico was captured in Guatemala and will face extradition to Mexico, where he is wanted on suspicion of diverting millions of dollars to phantom companies, Mexican authorities said. – New York Times

Editorial: Haiti may have been especially vulnerable to exploitation by peacekeepers as the hemisphere’s poorest nation, leveled by a devastating earthquake in 2010 and a hurricane last year. Some children and teens reportedly were raped outright; others engaged in what victims called “survival sex,” coerced into trading their bodies for scraps of food or a few dollars. The United Nations insists it is making progress in holding peacekeeper-contributing countries to account; it said much the same thing a decade ago. – Washington Post

Jackson Diehl writes: Venezuela’s steady descent into chaos has repeatedly prompted pundits like me to predict that the authoritarian populist regime founded by Hugo Chávez was doomed to collapse, or be ousted. That it hasn’t happened yet says a lot about how this Latin American meltdown is different and worse than any other in the past century. And it may be even more telling about the change in global role of the United States. – Washington Post


Two suspects were arrested in connection with the murders last month of two United Nations investigators in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the authorities said on Friday, although one of them subsequently escaped. – New York Times

Congo's government on Saturday said it had returned the body of a tribal leader whose death last year triggered a conflict in Kasai Central province that has killed more than 400 people. - Reuters

The United States is deploying "a few dozen" troops to Somalia to assist the national army and conduct unspecified security operations, a U.S. military spokeswoman said Saturday. - AFP

Editorial: The United States should quickly supply its normal share of U.N. funding for food and push others to contribute. It should insist that Saudi and South Sudanese leaders open up the bottlenecks that are slowing food deliveries. If the White House will not supply the necessary funds, Congress should step in. The United States must not stand by as millions starve this year. – Washington Post

Trump Administration

Trump promised to drain the swamp and instead rely on Washington outsiders, but nearly 100 days into his term, the staffing and political realities have set in, and his team has been turning to some of the top old hands of the Bush administration. - Politico

U.S. President Donald Trump's airstrike on Syria did not significantly raise his overall job approval rating, according to a new Marist College poll. – Defense News

Deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland dodged on Sunday when asked whether President Trump plans to name her as the U.S. ambassador to Singapore, saying only that “there are changes coming.” – The Hill

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said President Trump is breaking with his campaign rhetoric as he takes a harder line on North Korea and Syrian President Bashar Assad. – The Hill

Once soft on Russia and hard on China, President Donald Trump rapidly reversed course in the last weeks, concluding there's more business to be done with Beijing than with Moscow. – Associated Press

Kimberly Dozier reports: There’s a new band in town that’s guiding national security by quietly tutoring the most powerful man in America. Never-Trump Republicans who’d been apprehensive about President Donald Trump are celebrating the trio’s influence, calling Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Homeland Secretary John Kelly the “Axis of Adults.” – The Daily Beast

Video: FPI Fellow James Kirchick discussed President Trump’s emerging foreign policy – Fox News

Richard Fontaine writes: The problem is that no one agrees about what the Trump Doctrine is, whether it’s good or bad, or if one even exists. The administration itself should avoid trying too hard to fill in the intellectual gap. Perhaps the worst thing the president’s team could do this early in its term would be to embrace a rigid doctrine that constrains its choices in a fluid world. A Trump Doctrine, if one should ever emerge, will arise from events and choices made over a period of time. It should not be the premature product of an administration still finding its feet. - Politico

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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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