President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order last Thursday related to religion.  Later that day, he traveled to New York, New York, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea and to meet with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.  The President spoke with President Vladimir Putin of Russia by telephone last Tuesday, discussing Syria and North Korea.  President Trump will welcome President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia to the White House on 18 May.

The Senate is in session this week, while the House is in recess.  Both chambers advanced a longer-term omnibus spending measure last week to fund government operations for the remainder of Fiscal Year (FY) 2017; President Donald Trump signed the measure into law on Friday.  The House also narrowly approved the American Health Care Act (AHCA) last Thursday, a step toward repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

America First – Secretary Tillerson’s Perspective

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed State Department employees on Wednesday to share his thoughts on a variety of subjects.  The Secretary provided an overarching view of President Trump’s approach of “America first,” saying:

“We must secure the nation.  We must protect our people.  We must protect our borders.  We must protect our ability to be that voice of our values now and forevermore.  And we can only do that with economic prosperity.  So it’s foreign policy projected with a strong ability to enforce the protection of our freedoms with a strong military.  And all of you that have been at this a long time understand the value of speaking with a posture of strength – not a threatening posture, but a posture of strength.  People know we can back it up.”

Secretary Tillerson also gave his assessment of the Administration’s earliest policymaking, “walking around the world” and starting with North Korea; moving on to China; other Asia-Pacific interests (ASEAN, South China Sea, Australia, New Zealand); defeating ISIS and working with Middle Eastern allies (such as Saudi Arabia); Afghanistan; re-engagement with Russia (Syria, Ukraine); Africa (terrorism/security; potential economic and trading opportunities); and the Western Hemisphere (refreshing agreements with Canada, Mexico; countering narcotics; addressing terrorist financing concerns; and the crisis in Venezuela).

Secretary Tillerson met last Tuesday with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.  The State Department also held a special briefing on the situation in Venezuela, which was described as a “second month of near-daily public protests against the policies and actions taken by the regime of Nicolas Maduro.”  Secretary Tillerson will travel to Fairbanks, Alaska, to attend the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting on 10-11 May.  He is expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov while in Alaska.

Recap of President Trump’s Meeting with the Palestinian President

President Trump welcomed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House on Wednesday to discuss resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  In a joint statement, President Trump said:  “I’m committed to working with Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement.  But any agreement cannot be imposed by the United States, or by any other nation.  The Palestinians and Israelis must work together to reach an agreement that allows both peoples to live, worship, and thrive and prosper in peace.  And I will do whatever is necessary to facilitate the agreement — to mediate, to arbitrate anything they’d like to do.  . . .  And we will get this done.”  President Trump also acknowledged their discussion would include his Administration’s “effort to help unlock the potential of the Palestinian people through new economic opportunities.”

President Abbas welcomed President Trump’s commitment and reiterated:  “our strategic choice is to bring about peace based on the vision of the two-state — a Palestinian state with its capital of East Jerusalem that lives in peace and stability with the state of Israel based on the borders of 1967.”  President Abbas added:  “it’s about time for Israel to end its occupation of our people and of our land after 50 years.  We are the only remaining people in the world that still live under occupation.  We are aspiring and want to achieve our freedom, our dignity, and our right to self-determination.  And we also want for Israel to recognize the Palestinian state just as the Palestinian people recognize the state of Israel.”

Syria – De-Escalation Zones Plan

On Thursday, the State Department issued a statement on Russia, Turkey, and Iran’s De-Escalation Zones Plan for Syria, as announced at the conference in Astana, Kazakhstan.  The United States was represented at the Astana conference by Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Affairs Bureau Stuart Jones.

While expressing appreciation for efforts to de-escalate violence in Syria, including noting the efforts of Turkey and the Russian Federation, the statement notes reservations with the Astana agreement, including the involvement of Iran as a so-called “guarantor.”  The statement notes “Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians.”  However, the statement concludes by cautiously endorsing the arrangement:  “We nonetheless hope that this arrangement can contribute to a de-escalation of violence, end the suffering of the Syrian people, and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict.  We look forward to continuing our dialogue with the Russian Federation on efforts to that can responsibly end the Syria conflict.  We continue to strongly support the UN-led process in Geneva, under the stewardship of Staffan de Mistura, as the center of international efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement.”

NDAA Markup Timeline

House Armed Services Chairman, Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) indicated last week that the full committee will mark up the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in late June, provided the Trump Administration’s budget rollout remains on track.  Speaking to reporters, Chairman Thornberry said that the committee aims to begin subcommittee action within a month of the budget’s release.  He explained that the aim is for the House to pass the NDAA before its recess in August.  The White House is expected to unveil its budget proposal the week of 22 May.

North Korea – Nuclear Threat Fuels New Legislation

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) is planning to introduce legislation to strengthen U.S. missile defenses in the face of the growing threat from North Korea, including by acquiring more interceptors in Alaska and California.  Sen. Sullivan’s bill would speed the development of new missile interceptors by accelerating testing and authorize the procurement of 28 additional Ground-Based Interceptors, among other provisions. In an interview, the Senator noted that the threat has increased dramatically in the wake of an unprecedented number of missile tests by North Korea.

However, the new measure might face skeptics in Congress, who are concerned about how U.S. adversaries might respond.  Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who recently introduced his own bill to restrict the first use of nuclear weapons, has cautioned that boosting missile defense might set off an unwanted arms race.

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) has also commented on the North Korean nuclear threat, suggesting in a recent interview that the Trump Administration should consider a preemptive strike, if the U.S. determines that regime can mount a nuclear weapon onto a ballistic missile.  The Chairman described ruling out possible military action as “foolish,” but warned that military action should be considered only as “the very last option.”  Chairman McCain also called on China to use its leverage over North Korea to “put the brakes on this.”

Afghanistan – Strategy Headed to President Trump

Military strategy recommendations for Afghanistan are expected to reach President Trump as early as this week.  The recommendations could include more troops and changes to the rules of engagement, according to Special Operations officials.  Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, Theresa Whelan, stated that they are “actively looking at adjustments to the approach in Afghanistan right now.”  Both Whelan and the U.S. Special Operations Command chief Gen. Raymond Thomas were asked whether additional troops were needed in Afghanistan during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week.  The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, has previously testified that several thousand more troops are needed to break a stalemate between Afghan forces and the Taliban.  Gen. Thomas testified that higher troop levels are being considered, but that there an “adequate number of [his] troops, special operations forces on the ground.”

On 7 May, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani confirmed that the head of Islamic State in Afghanistan, Abdul Hasib, had been killed in an operation led by Afghan special forces in the eastern province of Nangarhar.  Last month, a Pentagon spokesman said Hasib had probably been killed during a raid by U.S. and Afghan special forces in Nangarhar during which two U.S. Army Rangers were killed, but there was no confirmation. Defeating the Islamic State remains one of the top U.S. priorities in Afghanistan.  The U.S. currently has 8,400 troops in Afghanistan.

Iraq – U.S. in Talks to Keep Troop Presence

The Trump Administration is reportedly in talks with the Iraqi government about keeping U.S. troops in Iraq after the fight against ISIS in the country is over.  Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Iraqi officials are discussing “what the long-term U.S. presence would look like,” according to an Associated Press report.  The Pentagon currently has nearly 7,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to train Iraqi forces, coordinate airstrikes, and ground operations and operate on the front lines in the fight against ISIS in Mosul.

The U.S. launched a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS in August 2014, after it overran Mosul and swaths of Iraq’s north and west territory.  The campaign has since expanded to include forces on the ground, with Iraqi soldiers backed by the U.S.-led Coalition to reclaim territory from ISIS.  The U.S. forces would continue to act as advisers and assist with security in the city.  These forces would be stationed inside existing Iraqi bases in the Mosul area and along Iraq’s border with Syria.

Europe – NATO Commander Calls For More Armored Forces

NATO Commander, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, told Congress last week that he needs more armored forces stationed in Europe to deter Russia.  The U.S. European Command currently maintains two permanent armored brigades and under the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) is continuously rotating in a third.

Gen. Scaparotti emphasized the need to “have a force of enough size that enables us to deter Russia and is a good posture for the follow-on forces should we have a crisis.”  Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) told the General that he anticipates Congress will provide increased funding for ERI in FY 2018, including for a significant increase in military construction.

Despite his call for additional forces, Gen. Scaparrotti told the Subcommittee that EUCOM’s posture “is in good shape” along its Southern flank through the “Tailored Forward Presence.”  The initiative rotates U.S. forces to support a multinational brigade serving in Romania and Bulgaria, among other countries.

President Trump’s Upcoming Travel

The White House released a statement regarding President Trump’s overseas travel later this month.  In the Middle East, President Trump has accepted invitations from King Salman bin Abd Al-Aziz of Saudi Arabia; Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.  The President will travel next to Italy to meet with His Holiness Pope Francis at the Vatican.  President Trump will also meet with Italian President Mattarella in Rome and participate in the G-7 Summit in Taormina.  He will continue on to Brussels for the NATO Summit and meetings with EU and Belgian leaders, and to Sicily for the G-7 Summit.

Congressional Hearings This Week

  • On Monday, 8 May, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Russian Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election.”
  • On Tuesday, 9 May, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing to consider the nomination of John J. Sullivan to serve as Deputy Secretary of State.
  • On Tuesday, 9 May, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Importance of U.S. Democracy Assistance.
  • On Tuesday, 9 May, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “United States Cyber Command.”
  • On Wednesday, 10 May, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Cyber Threats Facing America: An Overview of the Cybersecurity Threat Landscape.”
  • On Wednesday, 10 May, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Law Enforcement Access to Data Stored Across Borders: Facilitating Cooperation and Protecting Rights.”
  • On Wednesday, 10 May, the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on National Security and International Trade and Finance is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “NSITF: Secondary Sanctions Against Chinese Institutions: Assessing Their Utility for Constraining North Korea.”
  • On Wednesday, 10 May, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Emerging External Influences in the Western Hemisphere.”

Looking Ahead

Washington is expected to focus on the following upcoming events:

  • 18 May: President Trump welcomes Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos
  • May: Formal notification to Congress of intent to renegotiate NAFTA expected
  • 25 May:  President Trump to attend the NATO Leaders Meeting in Belgium
  • 26-28 May:  President Trump to attend the G-7 Leaders’ Summit in Taormina, Sicily
  • 18-20 June:  SelectUSA Investment Summit in National Harbor, Maryland