President Donald Trump met with Taoiseach Enda Kenny of Ireland last Thursday to discuss United States-Ireland economic and cultural ties as part of the White House’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration. President Trump welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House on Friday, where the President commended Germany’s contributions to the fight against ISIS. He is expected to welcome Prime Minister Abadi of Iraq to the White House on Monday.
The Trump Administration also released the President’s FY 2018 budget blueprint on Thursday, called the “America First” budget. The blueprint calls for a sizeable cut to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funds, including spending on foreign assistance programs. The Defense Department would benefit from cuts to these and a number of domestic agencies as part of the blueprint’s greater emphasis on and funding for national and homeland security priorities.
President Trump had lunch last Tuesday with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. White House readout of the meeting notes the two “reaffirmed their support for a strong, broad, and enduring strategic partnership based on a shared interest and commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East region. They directed their teams to explore additional steps across a broad range of political, military, security, economic, cultural, and social dimensions to further strengthen and elevate the United States-Saudi strategic relationship for the benefit of both countries. U.S. and Saudi officials intend to consult on additional steps to deepen commercial ties and promote investment, and to expand cooperation in the energy sector. The President and the Deputy Crown Prince noted the importance of confronting Iran’s destabilizing regional activities while continuing to evaluate and strictly enforce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis met on Wednesday with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to discuss the Middle East security environment and the two nations’ defense relationship.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan last Tuesday. The two reportedly discussed bilateral and regional issues, including the conflicts in Yemen and in Libya, the fight to defeat ISIS, and other counterterrorism efforts. Secretary Tillerson will host the foreign ministers and senior leaders of the Global Coalition working to defeat ISIS at the State Department this week on 22 March. Secretary Tillerson also travelled to the Asia-Pacific region last week, with stops in South Korea, Japan and China.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took action last Tuesday against al-Nusrah Front (ANF) and al-Qa’ida (AQ) facilitator Muhammad Hadi al-`Anizi. Al-`Anizi, who is based in Kuwait, was designated as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) pursuant to Executive Order 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism. Vice President Mike Pence swore-in Dan Coats to serve as the fifth Director of National Intelligence (DNI) on Thursday, after the Senate approved Coats’ nomination on Wednesday by a vote of 85 to 12. President Trump also announced his intention to nominate Patrick Shanahan to serve as Deputy Secretary of Defense, among some other civilian department officials.
The U.S. Congress is in session this week.
President Trump laid out plans for a military buildup in his first budget request last Thursday. The blueprint proposes $639 billion in defense spending for fiscal 2018, a 10 percent increase. The White House says the plan will provide the necessary funding to ramp up the fight against ISIS, improve troop readiness and build new ships and planes.
The President’s request aims to fulfill several of the promises he made on the campaign trail, including efforts to “demolish and destroy” ISIS, increase the total number of ships in the U.S. Navy fleet, and build additional F-35 fighter jets to expand the U.S. Air Force. The President’s request also includes $5.1 billion in overseas contingency operations funds, which would allow the Defense Department to accelerate the campaign to defeat ISIS and support Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan.
Two members of the House Armed Services Committee, both Iraq War veterans, questioned the Trump Administration’s proposed budget cuts to the State Department. Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) warned that any cuts to State Department funding would result in even more defense spending and would lead to more deaths of U.S. forces. Speaking at an Atlantic Council forum, the Congressman stated, “If you’re going to cut State, then you’re going to have to increase the bullets.”
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts) echoed Congressman Wenstrup’s concerns. At the forum, Moulton criticized President Trump for not including diplomacy as a core part of his counterterrorism strategy, stating, “You don’t hear him plussing up the State Department in the Middle East. You don’t hear him talking about fixing or helping the Iraqis fix some of the fundamental political parties there.”
North Korea – Military Action an Option
During his visit to South Korea, Secretary Tillerson said that “all of the options are on the table,” including the use of military force, to deal with the threat of North Korea and its escalating weapons program. Secretary Tillerson, making his first trip to Asia since assuming the Cabinet position, visited the demilitarized zone along the border with North Korea. He said that preemptive military action against North Korea, which recently conducted a ballistic missile test, could become necessary if the regime’s weapons program rises to a level “that we believe requires action.” The Secretary promised a different U.S. approach towards North Korea, but did not offer specifics of what that new direction will look like. Secretary Tillerson also criticized past U.S. policy in the region, noting that two decades of “diplomatic and other efforts” have been unsuccessful in stopping North Korea’s nuclear program.
Recap of Secretary Tillerson’s Asia-Pacific Trip
North Korea was a primary focus of Secretary Tillerson’s Asia-Pacific Trip that had stops in Japan, South Korea and China. In Beijing over the weekend, Secretary Tillerson said before his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday that the United States looks forward to building upon the telephone discussion that occurred between President Trump and President Xi, adding there will be many opportunities for both countries to explore areas of mutual interest but also to address areas of differences. Secretary Tillerson also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping while in Beijing.
At a press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Friday, Secretary Tillerson acknowledged China’s opposition to the deployment of the THAAD missile system to South Korea, while also saying China’s subsequent “economic retaliation against South Korea is inappropriate and troubling.”
In Japan on Thursday, Secretary Tillerson met with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, where they discussed regional developments, including the Korean Peninsula and China. Both affirmed they would not condone North Korea’s nuclear program and discussed the role that China can play in curbing North Korea’s ambitions. The Secretary also met with Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn.
Middle East Surge
Since President Trump took office, the U.S. has sent hundreds of additional troops to Iraq and Syria to counter ISIS, fight militants in Yemen, and stem a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. The Trump Administration’s demand for a more aggressive strategy has raised some concern among commanders about whether they can accomplish the mission without turning U.S. troops into a substitute for local fighters, which until now have depended only on U.S. military advisers, special operations forces, and air strikes. While President Trump has prioritized the defeat of ISIS, he has also expressed wariness about large-scale military involvement in the Middle East.
The Pentagon is also considering sending several thousands of additional troops to Kuwait and has stepped-up its bombing campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), raising further questions about deeper involvement in Yemen’s civil war. Military spokespersons have insisted that the U.S. role will remain one of advising and assisting local forces and that American ground forces will be inserted directly into the fight only if absolutely necessary.
To fight ISIS, the United States is leading a coalition of nations in supporting Iraqi security forces and troops from the Kurdish area of northern Iraq in the battle for Mosul. In Syria, in addition to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S. is also working with the People’s Protection Units, a militia that is a mix of Arabs, Turkomen and Kurds and in conflict with neighboring Turkey, a NATO ally.
Syria – U.S. Military Plans to Retake Raqqa
The U.S. military has drawn up early plans that would deploy up to 1,000 more troops into northern Syria in the coming weeks, expanding the American presence in the country ahead of the offensive on ISIS’ de facto capital of Raqqa. The deployment, if approved by Secretary Mattis and President Trump, would potentially double the number of U.S. forces in Syria and increase the potential for direct U.S. combat involvement. President Trump, who has criticized former President Obama with being weak on Syria, gave the Pentagon 30 days to prepare a new plan to counter the Islamic State, and Secretary Mattis submitted a broad outline to the White House at the end of February. The President has indicated that he is willing to increase the number of U.S. troops in Syria, but has been clear about his expectation that regional neighbors, who share U.S. goals in Syria, will carry the primary burden there. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, has more recently shared some further details on the plan and is set to forward his recommendations to Secretary Mattis by the end of this month.
In recent weeks, U.S. Army Rangers have been sent to the city of Manbij west of Raqqa to deter Russian, Turkish, and Syrian opposition forces all operating in the area. A Marine artillery battery recently deployed near Raqqa has already come under fire, according to a defense official with knowledge of their operations. The moves mark a departure from the Obama Administration, which resisted committing more ground troops to Syria. However, the implementation of the proposed plan relies on a number of variables, including how much to arm Kurdish and Arab troops on the ground, and what roll regional actors, such as Turkey, may have in the Raqqa campaign.
Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing last Wednesday titled “Six Years of War in Syria: The Human Toll.” The hearing examined the challenges that humanitarian organizations and personnel face in Syria, and the U.S. role in providing assistance to those affected by the conflict.
NATO Chief Urges Members to “Redouble” Monetary Commitments
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in an annual report released last week, urged Alliance members to “redouble efforts” to increase their respective spending commitments. While praising a 3.9 percent growth overall, Secretary-General Stoltenberg criticized the failure of individual members to allocate more and advised that “in 2017, we must redouble our efforts to sustain the positive momentum and speed up national efforts to keep our pledge.”
Stoltenberg asked allies to “gradually” increase defense spending, with the aim to “move toward spending 2 percent of GDP on defense within a decade.” At NATO headquarters earlier this year, Secretary Mattis stated that the United States might “moderate its commitment” to the Alliance if other partners fail to increase theirs. Currently, 68 percent of NATO defense expenditures are paid for by the United States, despite accounting for only 46 percent of the alliance’s combined GDP.
Foreign Policy-Focused Congressional Hearings This Week
- On Monday, 20 March, the House Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hold an open hearing on its investigation into Russian active measures during the 2016 election campaign.
- On Tuesday, 21 March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Pressuring North Korea: Evaluating Options.”
- On Wednesday, 22 March, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Anti-Semitism Across Borders.”
- On Wednesday, 22 March, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “U.S. Policy Toward the Baltic States.”
- On Wednesday, 22 March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Flashing Red: The State of Global Humanitarian Affairs.”
Defense-Focused Congressional Hearings This Week
- On Tuesday, 21 March, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “America’s Role in the World.”
- On Tuesday, 21 March, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “U.S. Policy and Strategy in Europe.”
- On Wednesday, 22 March, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “The Evolution of Hybrid Warfare and Key Challenges.”
- On Wednesday, 22 March, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “A Review of the Budget & Readiness of the Department of Defense.”
- On Thursday, 23 March, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “High Consequences and Uncertain Threats: Reviewing Department of Defense Strategy, Policy, and Programs for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction for Fiscal Year 2018.”
- On Thursday, 23 March, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “United States European Command.”
Washington is expected to focus on the following events:
- March: Trump Administration expected to formally notify Congress of intent to renegotiate NAFTA
- 21-23 April: World Bank/International Monetary Fund Spring Meeting in Washington
- 28 April: S. Federal Government funding expires