FPI Overnight Brief: April 20, 2017

The Must-Reads

  • North Korean submarine missile program advances
  • Rogin: VP Pence says US not seeking negotiations w/N. Korea
  • Tillerson toughens tone on Iran, may re-impose sanctions
  • Eli Lake: Tillerson’s decision contentious within administration
  • Watchdog: Sarin was used in Syria attack, Israel: Assad still has 3 tons
  • Burns: The risks of Trump hollowing-out US leadership
  • Gedmin, Muravchick: What the beginning of the end of democracy looks like
  • Boot: Trump’s making a big mistake on human rights in Egypt
  • Sen. Gardner: Getting the US-China relationship right (PDF)
  • Putin-linked think tank drew up plans to say 2016 election

Middle East/North Africa

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson declared on Wednesday that Iran continued to threaten the United States and the rest of the world and said that President Trump’s administration was reviewing ways to counter challenges posed by Tehran. – New York Times
The Trump administration is considering re-imposing a massive set of economic sanctions on Iran that were lifted by the Obama administration as part of the landmark nuclear agreement that gave Tehran billions in economic support, according to U.S. officials who told the Washington Free Beacon that Iran's military buildup and disregard for international law could prompt U.S. reprisal. – Washington Free Beacon
After her first UN Security Council meeting on the Middle East in February, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley knocked the organization’s “anti-Israel bias.” On Thursday, Haley will try to turn the spotlight from Israel to Iran, the latest target of the Trump administration’s tough talk. - Bloomberg
Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani has dismissed a call by the head of the powerful Guardians Council to prevent members of religious minorities from running in city council elections in May, according to two lawmakers. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Twenty years after her initial effort, Taleghani is the most prominent of the 137 women who have registered as candidates for the vote. She knows she is likely to be rejected once again. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Companies from China and Iran will this weekend sign the first commercial contracts to redesign an Iranian nuclear plant as part of an international deal reached in 2015 over Iran's nuclear program, China's Foreign Ministry said on Thursday. - Reuters
Eli Lake reports: Tillerson's certification decision was contentious within the Trump administration. U.S. officials familiar with the interagency process tell me the White House and State Department fought throughout the day on Tuesday over the language of Tillerson's statement to accompany his notice to Congress certifying Iran's compliance with what is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. – Bloomberg View
The deadly nerve agent sarin was used in an attack that killed scores of civilians in northern Syria this month, a global chemical weapons watchdog group said Wednesday. – Washington Post
Syria still has up to three tons of chemical weapons, Israeli defense officials said Wednesday in the first specific intelligence assessment of President Bashar Assad’s weapons capabilities since a deadly chemical attack earlier this month. – Associated Press
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have made progress extracting Islamic State fighters from their last redoubts in the northern city of Mosul, but the battle has descended into a frustratingly bloody affair at its six-month milestone with brutal street-by-street combat. – Washington Post
A senior U.S. general operating in Mosul said Wednesday that a chemical attack launched against coalition forces by the Islamic State three days ago had "no impact" on American or Iraqi troops. – Washington Free Beacon
The U.S. State Department has cleared the sale of almost $300 million worth of equipment — including 4,400 rifles, 113 Humvees and 36 howitzers — to arm two infantry brigades and two support artillery battalions for Iraqi Kurds. – Defense News
The Islamic State is increasingly targeting civilian residents and murdering hundreds each week in the embattled city of Mosul, a top U.S. general in Iraq said Wednesday – Washington Examiner
North Africa
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in the Egyptian capital Thursday morning seeking to strengthen bonds with the country’s leaders that were strained under the previous presidential administration. – Stars and Stripes
Max Boot writes: While the U.S. has certainly backed its share of dictators over the years, it’s hard to think of any president other than Richard Nixon who showed such indifference to the moral dimension of foreign policy. Trump clearly looks upon human rights concerns as a distraction from his strategic goals. What he doesn’t understand is that the United States has been a “winner” in no small part because of our idealism, which has made America an attractive ally for freedom-seekers around the world. By jettisoning human rights promotion, Trump is sacrificing what has made America great. – USA Today
Fadil Aliriza writes: Six years after the start of the Arab Spring, Tunisia continues to cling to its precarious status as the Arab world’s sole parliamentary democracy. This week, however, a battle between a politically well-connected TV station and a group of anti-corruption activists is spotlighting a fundamental question: Who really controls the Tunisian state, citizens or tycoons? – Washington Post
Arabian Peninsula
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called on Wednesday for a political solution in Yemen between Sunni Arabs, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, and Iranian-backed Houthis, but he stopped short of publicly warning America’s Sunni allies against a planned bombing campaign targeting the port city of Al Hudaydah. – New York Times
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is considering a range of additional military support for Saudi Arabia’s fight against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen in the hope of forcing the group into peace negotiations. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with President Donald Trump in Washington on May 3, the White House said Wednesday. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Israelis say the strike is not about living standards. Conditions for jailed Palestinians, many of whom have killed Israelis, exceed international standards, they say.  It’s about politics, the Israelis insist: a battle for leadership within the Palestinian Authority over who might replace Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when the time comes. – Washington Post
he man predicted to win Israeli elections if they were held today picks a seemingly contradictory way of describing himself: “an extreme moderate.” Once dismissed as a passing fad, Yair Lapid, a 53-year-old former TV anchor, has emerged as the most serious political rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And he has done so by trying to dispense with the traditional left-right divide of Israeli politics – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
In a dramatic departure from previous Israeli Navy modernization plans — which prescribed several years of study before determining requirements for its future undersea force — a senior officer now says the service needs three new Dolphin AIP-class submarines “as fast as possible.” – Defense News
President Trump plans to meet next month with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to Turkish and U.S. officials, just weeks after Erdogan claimed victory in a referendum that vastly increased his powers and has been questioned by the opposition and international observers. – Washington Post
Turkey’s electoral commission rejected petitions submitted by three political parties to annul the results of Sunday’s constitutional referendum, closing one of the last legal options to challenge a vote marred by allegations of widespread irregularities. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
With nearly half of the country opposing the constitutional changes — 51 percent voted in favor — it seemed to provide a rare opening for Turkey’s perennially weak opposition to challenge ­Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, a finely tuned, election-winning machine.  There was a problem, though: There may be no one to lead such a challenge. – Washington Post


South Asia
After months legal wrangling and political melodrama, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled narrowly Thursday that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could keep his job but ordered further investigation into corruption allegations. – Washington Post
At a time when India is also sliding into Hindu religious fervor, with vigilante violence threatening the country’s minorities over protecting cows that are considered sacred, Pakistan’s spy games can only make it tougher for the two South Asian neighbors to even explore peace, let alone find it. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
China and India have renewed a war of words over the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a Tibetan Himalayan region claimed by Beijing, after China said it would “standardise” six place names in the territory. – Financial Times
U.S. troops are still battling suspected Islamic State fighters near the site where a massive bomb was dropped in eastern Afghanistan last week, a U.S. military official said on Wednesday. - Reuters
Korean Peninsula
On Wednesday, after it was revealed that the carrier strike group was actually thousands of miles away and had been heading in the opposite direction, toward the Indian Ocean, South Koreans felt bewildered, cheated and manipulated by the United States, their country’s most important ally. – New York Times
Analysts who examine satellite images of North Korea reported on Wednesday that they had spotted some unexpected activity at the country’s nuclear test site: active volleyball games in three separate areas. – New York Times
Trump administration officials on Wednesday denied misleading the public about the location of an aircraft carrier and whether it was redeployed as a show of strength against North Korea. – Washington Post
North Korea is making rapid progress on developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles and missile-firing submarines, according to a report by a United Nations panel of experts. – Washington Free Beacon
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. is mulling whether it should restore North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. – The Hill
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday that the United States can't rule out using military force against North Korea, Reuters reported. – The Hill
North Korea is bowed but not broken by international sanctions, according to clues gleaned by a small group of outsiders dedicated to shining a light on the reclusive Asian nation. – Financial Times
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations had a message for North Korea on Wednesday: "We're not trying to pick a fight so don't try and give us one." – Associated Press
Josh Rogin reports: When Vice President Pence spoke at the Korean demilitarized zone on Monday, he said that the United States sought to solve the North Korean crisis “through peaceable means and negotiations,” after increasing pressure on the Pyongyang regime. But in an interview with me on Wednesday afternoon, he adopted a harder line: The Trump administration, he said, demands that North Korea abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs without any promise of direct negotiations with the United States. – Washington Post
Bill Gertz reports: The unsuccessful test launch of a North Korean medium-range missile on Saturday has fueled media speculation the missile blew up as a result of U.S. clandestine cyber attacks. – Washington Times
Editorial: The White House is directing questions to the Pentagon, which has conceded it should have communicated the timing more clearly, but then the Defense Department did nothing to correct press reports suggesting the vessels were underway. Mr. Trump broadcast a show of force to underscore the power of an American deterrent, but the lesson is that it’s dangerous for Presidents to sell a military mirage. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
East Asia
Taiwan’s government said on Wednesday that a Chinese political activist who intended to apply for asylum had voluntarily returned to China after meeting with the immigration authorities. His departure spares the government a potential diplomatic tangle as it continues to seek information on the detention of a Taiwanese rights advocate in China last month. – New York Times
Taiwan has issued a request for tender to build a new amphibious ship for its Navy, according to local media. – Defense News
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said: A mature, productive, and peaceful relationship with Beijing is in the national security and economic interest of both nations. While the United States can and should seek to engage China, we must do so with a clear vision of what we want from Beijing, not just over the next four years, but also over the next forty years. As such, it is necessary that President Trump leads with this sense of strategy and purpose when dealing with China in the future – Project 2049 Institute (PDF)
Southeast Asia
The Christian governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, lost a bitterly contested race on Wednesday that was widely seen as a test of religious and ethnic tolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. – New York Times
Indonesian prosecutors on Thursday recommended a one-year suspended jail sentence for Jakarta's Christian governor in his blasphemy trial, which has been seen as a test of the Muslim-majority nation's religious tolerance. - Reuters
Russian navy vessels arrived in the Philippines on Thursday for joint exercises as part of a drive for new security ties under President Rodrigo Duterte's revamped foreign policy of courting the traditional foes of Manila's top ally, Washington. - Reuters
Editorial: Indonesians can’t afford to be complacent because Jakarta often sets the direction for national politics. The Islamist groups that threaten minorities and burn Christian churches have now proved they can be political kingmakers. As the election for governor shows, the danger is that moderate politicians like Mr. Baswedan who seek to exploit communal tensions for short-term gain will end up setting back the country’s development. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Pavin Chachavalpongpun writes: As an academic, I treat the monarchy as a subject of study and am therefore obliged to give an honest assessment of how the institution has had an impact on politics and inevitably on the people’s everyday life. Yet this has made me a target of the Thai state. Not content with declaring me an unperson in my own country, the government is now trying to do the same in cyberspace. – Washington Post


America cannot apply Buy America provisions on a widescale basis and buy the best weapons, no matter how much President Trump and his team may feel otherwise. It’s a simple as that. – Breaking Defense
The Air Force is surging forward with a massive, fleet-wide modernization overhaul of the battle-tested, Vietnam-era B-52 bomber, an iconic airborne workhorse for the U.S. military dating back to the 1960s. – Scout Warrior
The chief of the U.S. Army’s intelligence branch said it is deep in the midst of a "bottom-up review" of its force to determine what is needed at every echelon and across all of the combatant commands. – Defense News
As Islamic State-piloted commercial drones complicate the offensive in Mosul, sending Iraqi troops scattering as grenades and bomblets rain down, the Army has field tested vehicle-based lasers to combat the growing threat of enemy eyes in the sky. – Stars and Stripes
The Army has been planning for two vertical lift aircraft to begin flight demonstrations in the fall of 2017 critical to the process of informing and shaping the design of a Future Vertical Lift helicopter fleet expected to come online in the 2030s. – Defense News
The Navy needs to delay a year before awarding the roughly $9 billion contract for the upgraded frigate version of the Littoral Combat Ship, because it needs more time to thrash out cost estimates and detailed designs, says congressional watchdog GAO. – Breaking Defense
The U.S Navy’s Commander Logistics Group Western Pacific/Task Force 73 has reorganized the process for dealing with maintenance incidents for Littoral Combat Ships deployed to the Indo-Asia-Pacific, reducing turn-around time for such incidents from 15 days to four days, Rear Adm. Don Gabrielson told USNI News. – USNI News
With women now serving aboard submarines, defense contractor Electric Boat is designing what will be the first Navy subs built specifically to accommodate female crew members. – Defense News
Nuclear Weapons
The Pentagon is scheduled to complete the review by the end of the year, an essential step as the military seeks to modernize different aspects of its nuclear deterrent. But a new report from the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, or UNIDR, argues that as the modern battlefield becomes more technologically complex, crowded with more sensors, satellites, drones, and interconnected networks, the risks of another nuclear accident are growing, not shrinking. – Defense One
President-elect Donald Trump was very clear: “I will appoint a team to give me a plan within 90 days of taking office,” he said in January, after getting a U.S. intelligence assessment of Russian interference in last year’s elections and promising to address cybersecurity. Thursday, Trump hits his 90-day mark. There is no team, there is no plan, and there is no clear answer from the White House on who would even be working on what. - Politico
Forget about spies. It's rogue insiders that cause heartburn at U.S. intelligence agencies these days. - McClatchy
Kelly surveyed a long list of threats to the U.S. homeland, which included the usual suspects but also some less frequently observed, including the “plodding pace of bureaucracy” and the danger of “going it alone” on cybersecurity, which Kelly noted in written remarks prepared ahead of the speech. – Defense News
The CIA and the FBI are looking for the person responsible for leaking top-secret material detailing CIA tools for surveilling smartphones and other devices, CBS News reported Wednesday. – The Hill
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee is calling for the National Security Agency (NSA) to be split from U.S. Cyber Command. – The Hill
A Department of Energy exercise last year found shortcomings in the way that federal, state and local governments would work with industry to respond to a major cyber incident affecting energy infrastructure on the East Coast. – The Hill
Most of the federal government’s cybersecurity operations are run out of Washington, D.C., far from the technology hubs of California, Texas and Massachusetts, where many tech professionals live and work. But, say experts, those hubs may be the secret to meeting a growing shortage in the federal information technology workforce. – The Hill


The International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague has refused Ukraine’s request to impose provisional measures against Russia to block what Kyiv says is Russia's monetary and military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Mykhailo Zhernakov writes: Ukraine’s reforms are being shaped by Ukraine’s reform-minded civil society and the conservative government. While the authorities make the final decisions, and the conservative direction is more likely to prevail, the government has learned over the past three years that you underestimate Ukraine’s civil society at your peril. – Atlantic Council
Aivaras Abromavičius and Alexey Mushak write: Land reform is crucial to stimulate much-needed economic growth in Ukraine. A liberal reform will result in the country’s citizens finally exercising their constitutional right to buy, sell, and use their land; the state will receive substantial additional revenue; agricultural companies and farmers will mobilize additional investments to further strengthen Ukraine’s position as the “breadbasket of Europe”; and commercial banks will finally have a high-quality form of collateral that will enable them to initiate long-term financing of other sectors of the economy. – Atlantic Council
Exxon Mobil is pursuing a waiver from Treasury Department sanctions on Russia to drill in the Black Sea in a venture with Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, a former State Department official said on Wednesday. – New York Times
A prominent Russian journalist known for articles criticizing Russia’s government and President Vladimir Putin has died at a hospital in St. Petersburg after being severely beaten by unknown assailants. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) says Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad should disqualify it from hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. – The Hill
Ecologists in Russia's northern capital are raising the alarm over government plans to fuel a floating nuclear power plant just 2 kilometers from the heart of the city. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
 Three years ago, when the US and EU imposed sanctions on the country that restricted companies such as Rosneft from foreign capital and technology, complex wells were exactly the kind of ambitious projects that were supposed to be rendered impossible. Western governments hoped that pressure on Russia’s main energy companies would help change Mr Putin’s political calculations. But as projects like Tsentralno-Olginskaya-1 attest, Russia’s oil and gas majors have found ways to carry on regardless. – Financial Times
A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters. - Reuters
Populist triumphs in Britain and the United States came last year despite young voters, not because of them. Millennials — generally at ease with immigration, trade and multiculturalism — lined up against both Brexit and Donald Trump. It was older voters who sought to overturn the existing order with nationalist answers to the problems of a globalized world. – Washington Post
With elections in France this weekend and in Germany later this year, pro-EU forces are adopting a new approach: a full-throated defense of the economic bloc and its place in their countries’ future. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
British Prime Minister Theresa May received overwhelming support Wednesday from Parliament to hold early elections in June, as the government seeks more clout before difficult talks on Britain’s break from the European Union. – Washington Post
With no political party to speak of, and never having held elective office, Mr. Macron, 39, a onetime investment banker and former economy minister, is leading an improbable quest to become modern France’s youngest president. His profile is that of an insider, but his policies are those of an outsider. If the ever-precocious Mr. Macron is to succeed, his first challenge is to sell a product still largely unfamiliar to almost everyone: himself. – New York Times
Editorial: Europe continues its rousing election year on Sunday with a first round of the French presidential contest that will decide if the center can hold or a blood-and-soil nationalist will square off against a throwback socialist. What could go wrong? – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


United States of America
Ever since F.B.I. investigators discovered in 2013 that a Russian spy was trying to recruit an American businessman named Carter Page, the bureau maintained an occasional interest in Mr. Page. So when he became a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign last year and gave a Russia-friendly speech at a prestigious Moscow institute, it soon caught the bureau’s attention. – New York Times
A top House Republican is urging President Trump to submit to Congress a new use-of-force resolution governing the country's fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). – The Hill
A strong majority of voters support President Trump’s missile strike in Syria, but the public would be opposed to similar action in North Korea, a new poll shows. – The Hill
Posting nude pictures of service members without consent is now, for all intents and purposes, a crime in the Navy and Marine Corps — a response to the nude photo-sharing scandal that surfaced when a reporter outed a private Facebook group of Marines and sailors that was used at times to swap nudes. – Military Times
The officer who was in charge of two riverine boats that strayed into Iranian waters in January 2016 scored a victory Tuesday before a separation board in Imperial Beach, California, allowing him to stay in the Navy. – Military Times
Robert Samuelson writes: Don’t be fooled: There is no strong consensus on trade. Perhaps the wisest commentary comes from Timothy Taylor on his Conversable Economist blog. Public polls, he writes, suggest that “U.S. opinions about trade are just not very deeply rooted, and are more expressions of transient emotions and political partisanship.” Almost everyone favors putting “America first.” The real question is: What does that mean in practice? – Washington Post
Latin America
Protesters demanding elections and a return to democratic rule jammed the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities on Wednesday. National Guard troops and government-aligned militias beat crowds back with tear gas, rubber bullets and other weapons, and at least three people were killed, according to human rights groups and news reports. – New York Times
President Nicolás Maduro has lost support among the legions of poor Venezuelans that once backed the late Hugo Chávez, but they have largely shown little interest in joining the opposition-led protests that have convulsed the country the past three weeks. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
At least three other former Mexican state governors are missing, and more than a half-dozen are under investigation or fighting prosecution on corruption charges. Whatever the accusations, the governors in this rogues gallery share at least one trait: All behaved as if they were untouchable. – New York Times
In a slick video, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva fires the opening salvo of what many believe could become one of the country`s most remarkable political comeback attempts. – Financial Times


Tanzania, with potential reserves of 5 billion tons of coal, is planning its first coal-fired power plant. Kenya wants to build for its own coal-powered plant, while Ghana and Nigeria are eyeing expanded use of coal for electricity. Landlocked Botswana is building a 1,000-mile railway to transport coal to a port in neighboring Namibia for export to the world. If there’s a “war on coal” in Africa, coal may be winning. – Washington Times
Nick Bailey writes: While Benin’s democratic achievements to date are something to be praised, the government must take more comprehensive action against corruption and human rights abuses in order to win back public support and lay the foundations for economic modernization and long-term prosperity. This in turn will help ensure that Benin remains a positive example of democratic stability for the region and the world. – Freedom House’s Freedom at Issue

Trump Administration

Mr. Trump’s mix of chest thumping and real action — the missile attack and the use of a huge bomb against Islamic militants in Afghanistan — entails serious risks overseas. It could also backfire at home, where a majority of Americans, and many of the populist conservatives who backed him in 2016, oppose long-term military commitments. – New York Times
From NAFTA to the Iran nuclear agreement to the Paris climate accord, President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric is colliding with the reality of governing. Despite repeated pledges to rip up, renegotiate or otherwise alter them, the U.S. has yet to withdraw from any of these economic, environmental or national security deals, as Trump’s past criticism turns to tacit embrace of several key elements of U.S. foreign policy. – Associated Press
Joseph Bosco writes: The competent performance that has already brought positive results should prompt former critics to look forward, not back, when gauging administration policies and the desirability of serving it.  The president should do the same when judging future loyalty from a talented, experienced, and patriotic national security bench.   It is time to end the mutual boycott; it is time for all hands on deck. – Real Clear Defense

Democracy and Human Rights

Jeffrey Gedmin and Joshua Muravchik write: A range of developments make this a dangerous time. America’s abdication of leadership, of its devotion to ideals and practice of generosity in favor of a policy of narrow and short-term self-interest will only make this time more dangerous, not least for America itself. – Washington Post


William Burns writes: Without U.S. leadership and its fundamental elements — the idea our country represents, the initiative animating alliances that set us apart from lonelier powers such as Russia and China, and the institutions that underpin our influence — the realities around us will grow more complicated and more threatening. – Washington Post

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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