‘No first use’ nuclear policy proposal assailed by U.S. cabinet officials, allies

The Wall Street Journal reports: A proposal under consideration at the White House to reverse decades of U.S. nuclear policy by declaring a “No First Use” protocol for nuclear weapons has run into opposition from top cabinet officials and U.S. allies.

The opposition, from Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, as well as allies in Europe and Asia, leaves President Barack Obama with few ambitious options to enhance his nuclear disarmament agenda before leaving office, unless he wants to override the dissent.

The possibility of a “No First Use” declaration—which would see the U.S. explicitly rule out a first strike with a nuclear weapon in any conflict—met resistance at a National Security Council meeting in July, where the Obama administration reviewed possible nuclear disarmament initiatives it could roll out before the end of the president’s term.

During the discussions, Mr. Kerry cited concerns raised by U.S. allies that rely on the American nuclear triad for their security, according to people familiar with the talks. The U.K., France, Japan and South Korea have expressed reservations about a “No First Use” declaration, people familiar with their positions said. Germany has also raised concerns, one of the people said.

Mr. Carter raised objections to the “No First Use” declaration on the grounds that it risked provoking insecurity about the U.S. deterrent among allies, some of which then could pursue their own nuclear programs in response, according to the people familiar with the discussions. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and Russia’s actions in Europe have also complicated any change to the U.S. nuclear posture for the Pentagon.

Mr. Moniz, who weighs in on nuclear issues for the Department of Energy, also expressed opposition to a “No First Use” posture, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Mr. Obama ultimately didn’t issue a decision on the “No First Use” proposal at the National Security Council meeting, but people familiar with the White House deliberations say opposition from the critical cabinet members and U.S. allies reduces the likelihood of the change. They say a decision by Mr. Obama to press ahead with the declaration appears unlikely in his remaining months, given the controversy it would stir in the midst of a presidential election, but it isn’t impossible. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump wins, what happens to U.S. relations with its traditional allies?

Politico reports: It was a strange day for Estonia when the tiny Baltic nation became the focus of intense debate in the U.S. presidential campaign.

At issue: Would the United States honor its NATO obligation to defend Estonia in the event of an attack by Russia? Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized small NATO members for “taking advantage” of the United States, hedged his answer. “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us?” he told the New York Times. “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”

Hours later, Trump backer Newt Gingrich doubled down on the Republican candidate’s skepticism toward NATO duties, saying: “Estonia is in the suburbs of [the Russian city of] St. Petersburg … I’m not sure I would risk nuclear war over the suburbs of St. Petersburg.”

For Estonians, and all other NATO members in the region, that was a chilling message. “All of a sudden the issue closest to our skin — the defense of Estonia, of all things — becomes an issue in this campaign,” Jüri Luik, former Estonian ambassador to Russia, said. “It’s a totally unexpected development, and a gloomy situation for all of Eastern Europe.”

“NATO’s deterrent power depends in large part on the U.S. president’s position. If he is unsure … that weakens the deterrent immensely.”

Beyond regional security, the Estonian episode raised a bigger, more troubling question for Europeans watching the U.S. presidential campaign: If Trump wins, will he feel any obligation to uphold his country’s historical role as defender and guarantor of the West? [Continue reading…]

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NATO allies respond to Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. might not protect them from Russia

The Washington Post reports: Donald Trump has long suggested that he takes a skeptical view of the United States’ alliances. However, in an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday evening, the Republican presidential nominee went further than before, appearing to suggest that the United States should not be required to automatically defend NATO allies if they are attacked.

Trump specifically pointed to the Baltic states that sit near Russia’s borders and often complain of belligerence from Moscow. He said they would be helped only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” For some in those in the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — the American businessman’s comments provoked confusion and surprise.

“Estonia is of 5 NATO allies in Europe to meet its 2% def expenditures commitment,” Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves wrote on Twitter, referring to the percentage of gross domestic product that NATO members are expected to spend on defense.

The Estonian president also pointed to his country’s role in the war in Afghanistan as proof of the country’s commitment, retweeting a message that said Estonia had one of the highest casualty rates per capita in that conflict. “Estonia’s commitment to our NATO obligations is beyond doubt and so should be the commitments by others,” the Estonian Foreign Ministry added in an emailed statement.

“We take our commitments seriously,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in Washington, where he was attending meetings to coordinate military action against the Islamic State. “We hope and expect that all our allies, big and small, take their commitments the same.”

“There is no reason to doubt NATO’s commitment to the core function of the Alliance — collective defense,” Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmanis wrote on Twitter.

A more pointed tone was taken by Ojars Eriks Kalnins, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Latvia’s Parliament, who called Trump’s remarks “dangerous” in comments also reported by Diena newspaper. Kalnins noted that it was unclear whether Trump was talking about the spending commitments or about generally being helpful to the United States.

“Too bad the NY Times didn’t ask Trump if he would defend NATO member Slovenia if attacked,” the U.S.-raised Latvian politician wrote on Twitter, referring to the Eastern European state where the Republican nominee’s wife, Melania Trump, was born and has family. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump’s threat to NATO

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Buzzfeed reports: The head of NATO has called for solidarity and warned that European security is tied to the safety of the United States, following remarks by Donald Trump that he would intervene to help only NATO allies who “fulfilled” their obligations to the US.

“Solidarity among allies is a key value for NATO. This is good for European security and good for US security. We defend one another,” Secretary General‎ Jens Stoltenberg told BuzzFeed News.

The Republican presidential candidate’s comments to the New York Times at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland are also expected to send a chill through Baltic members of NATO, which have witnessed growing Russian aggression on their borders in the past two years.

Asked explicitly whether the US would come to the aid of Baltic nations that are threatened by Russia, Trump responded, “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”

Article 5 of the NATO treaty states that the 28 members – the US was a founding member in 1949 – agree to come to the aid of any member should they be attacked. [Continue reading…]

The only time Article 5 has been invoked was after Al Qaeda’s attack on Trump’s home town, in response to which America’s NATO allies showed no hesitation in coming to this country’s defense.

NBC News reports: NATO’s treaty states that an attack on one member state constitutes an attack on all, a principle enshrined in Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty.

“If Trump wants to put conditions through Article 5, he would endanger the whole alliance,” said Beyza Unal, a fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank.

Sarah Lain, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, agreed. She said that Article 5 is the “core” of NATO’s defense strategy.

“The suggestion that Trump may consider abandoning a guarantee of protection to fellow NATO countries would in some ways indeed make NATO obsolete,” Lain told NBC News in an email. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump’s de facto alliance with Vladimir Putin

Jeffrey Goldberg writes: The Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump, has chosen this week to unmask himself as a de facto agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a KGB-trained dictator who seeks to rebuild the Soviet empire by undermining the free nations of Europe, marginalizing NATO, and ending America’s reign as the world’s sole superpower.

I am not suggesting that Donald Trump is employed by Putin — though his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was for many years on the payroll of the Putin-backed former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. I am arguing that Trump’s understanding of America’s role in the world aligns with Russia’s geostrategic interests; that his critique of American democracy is in accord with the Kremlin’s critique of American democracy; and that he shares numerous ideological and dispositional proclivities with Putin—for one thing, an obsession with the sort of “strength” often associated with dictators. Trump is making it clear that, as president, he would allow Russia to advance its hegemonic interests across Europe and the Middle East. His election would immediately trigger a wave of global instability — much worse than anything we are seeing today — because America’s allies understand that Trump would likely dismantle the post-World War II U.S.-created international order. Many of these countries, feeling abandoned, would likely pursue nuclear weapons programs on their own, leading to a nightmare of proliferation.

Trump’s sympathy for Putin has not been a secret. Trump said he would “get along very well” with Putin, and he has pleased Putin by expressing a comprehensive lack of interest in the future of Ukraine, the domination of which is a core Putinist principle. The Trump movement also agrees with Putin that U.S. democracy is fatally flawed. A Trump adviser, Carter Page, recently denounced — to a Moscow audience — America’s “often-hypocritical focus on democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.” Earlier this week, Trump’s operatives watered down the Republican Party’s national-security platform position on Ukraine, removing a promise to help the Ukrainians receive lethal aid in their battle to remain free of Russian control.

Now, in an interview with Maggie Haberman and David Sanger of The New York Times, Trump has gone much further, suggesting that he and Putin share a disdain for NATO. [Continue reading…]

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How can the U.S. count on a key NATO ally at war with itself?

Michael Weiss writes: Four days after Turkey’s failed coup, which left 300 dead and more than 1,400 injured, new details have emerged to suggest the putsch came closer to a successful overthrow of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan than many observers thought—and the operation could have a major impact on U.S.-Turkish military cooperation in the war against the so-called Islamic State just across Turkey’s borders in Syria and Iraq.

Aaron Stein at the Atlantic Council nails the core problem when he asks, “How can we credibly go to war with a NATO ally in coalition operations when that ally’s army is at war with itself?”

Turkey, remember, has the second biggest army in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, after the United States. In the Cold War years, its borders with the Soviet Union were vital to Western strategy. In the age of jihad, the fact that its territory abuts not only ISIS-land, but Iran, gives it enormous geopolitical importance.

The putschists, it now appears, relied heavily on a key NATO installation to carry out the aerial component of their daring plot, which was spearheaded by officers in the Turkish air force. And the enormous post-coup dragnet of suspected traitors already has snared high-ranking military officials who had been responsible for securing Turkey’s frontiers and carrying out coalition policy in Syria.

Had the coup not been detected in advance by Turkish intelligence, forcing the conspiracy to be moved up in the calendar, it might well have succeeded.

According to Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkey specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the head of the National Intelligence Organization, or MIT, Hakan Fidan uncovered “‘unusual activity’ within army ranks on Friday afternoon and [visited] the Chief of Staff around 5 p.m. This led to precautions and an inquiry at the senior level, forcing the coup plot to be executed at an earlier time.” CNNTurk corroborated this story.

A Sikorsky attack helicopter and putschist commandos apparently were mobilized to attack MIT headquarters in Ankara and try to kidnap Fidan.

“I think these guys missed decapitating the government by about 30 minutes and we’d have woken up on Saturday with a dead president, a surrounded parliament, and a chief of general staff in custody,” said Stein, my colleague at the Atlantic Council. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey sends U.S. evidence of coup plot

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Obama administration’s receipt on Tuesday of a cache of documents from Turkey as part of Ankara’s demand for the extradition of a U.S.-based cleric resident it blames for instigating last week’s failed coup formally kick-starts a lengthy process that holds far-reaching implications for the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State and for relations between two key allies.

Turkish officials said the material, sent by email, contains evidence that would prove Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania for nearly two decades, was behind the attempted coup.

Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters that government evidence shows that “a clique” of Mr. Gulen’s followers serving in the Turkish army carried out the failed coup.

In response, Mr. Gulen called Turkey’s extradition demand “ridiculous, irresponsible and false” and said he had nothing to do with the “horrific” failed coup.

“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan today once again demonstrated he will go to any length necessary to solidify his power and persecute his critics,” Mr. Gulen said. “I urge the U.S. government to reject any effort to abuse the extradition process to carry out political vendettas.”

The White House said the Justice Department had begun to review the documents as part of a process that ultimately would require U.S. federal court action for approval of an extradition, while distancing President Barack Obama from the final decision. [Continue reading…]

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With a hint of regret, Obama describes new kind of endless quasi-war

The Washington Post reports: President Obama, who had pledged to end America’s wars, described the landscape he was leaving to his successor as a state of quasi-war that could extend for years to come.

Obama, who was speaking Saturday to reporters at the NATO summit here, noted with pride that he has cut the size of the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from 180,000 troops to fewer than 15,000.

But U.S. drones and fighter jets are striking targets in seven countries on a regular basis, a span of geography that is virtually unprecedented in American history outside of major wars. U.S. Special Operations forces are still conducting dangerous raids in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. [Continue reading…]

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In shadow of Brexit, NATO will sound message of unity against Russia

The New York Times reports: Polish leaders have been waiting for years for a NATO summit meeting that would recognize what, to them, is a self-evident reality: that the proper way to respond to an increasingly pugnacious Russia is to plant more alliance troops and weaponry along the eastern front.

But now that this is actually expected to happen during NATO’s two-day gathering here this week, the question is whether — with Britain’s startling exit from the European Union sucking up all the political oxygen — anyone will even notice.

“Militarily, this summit will be about strengthening forces along the eastern front,” said Michal Baranowski, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund. “Politically, it’s a Brexit summit.”

The gathering here on Friday and Saturday — drawing every major leader in the trans-Atlantic alliance, including President Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — will be the largest NATO summit meeting in history, with 28 delegations from European Union countries, 26 from other nations, and representatives from the United Nations and the World Bank.

Much of what is expected to be adopted has already been agreed upon in earlier meetings of foreign and defense ministers — “It is pre-cooked,” as Mr. Baranowski put it — so attention is likely to focus instead on how alliance members, including Britain, make an ostentatious show of Western unity despite the shadow of “Brexit” and the weakening of the European Union. [Continue reading…]

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Effort to expose Russia’s ‘troll army’ draws vicious retaliation

The New York Times reports: Seeking to shine some light into the dark world of Internet trolls, a journalist with Finland’s national broadcaster asked members of her audience to share their experience of encounters with Russia’s “troll army,” a raucous and often venomous force of online agitators.

The response was overwhelming, though not in the direction that the journalist, Jessikka Aro, had hoped.

As she expected, she received some feedback from people who had clashed with aggressively pro-Russian voices online. But she was taken aback, and shaken, by a vicious retaliatory campaign of harassment and insults against her and her work by those same pro-Russian voices.

“Everything in my life went to hell thanks to the trolls,” said Ms. Aro, a 35-year-old investigative reporter with the social media division of Finland’s state broadcaster, Yle Kioski.

Abusive online harassment is hardly limited to pro-Russian Internet trolls. Ukraine and other countries at odds with the Kremlin also have legions of aggressive avengers on social media.

But pro-Russian voices have become such a noisy and disruptive presence that both NATO and the European Union have set up special units to combat what they see as a growing threat not only to civil discourse but to the well-being of Europe’s democratic order and even to its security.

This “information war,” said Rastislav Kacer, a veteran diplomat who served as Slovakia’s ambassador to Washington and at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, “is just part of a bigger struggle.” While not involving bloodshed, he added, it “is equally as dangerous as more conventional hostile action.” [Continue reading…]

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Struggling to fight ISIS in a fractured Libya

Frederic Wehrey writes from Sabratha, Libya: Ahmed “Amu” Dabbashi, the 28-year-old leader of a militia in this seaside town near the Tunisian border, proudly unfurls a black Islamic State flag, seized during late-February raids on safe houses of ISIS, as the group is also known. He shows me a captured arsenal, too: truck-borne explosives, detonators, crates of ammo, crew-served machine guns, and identification cards of foreign fighters.

Days earlier, American warplanes had bombed an Islamic State training site at a nearby house. Then, Amu tells me, “we decided to cleanse our town.” In the raids that followed, fighters for the so-called caliphate struck back, assaulting a police station and cutting the throats of several officers. Scores of youths perished in gunbattles.

Elsewhere across Libya, disparate factions are trying to hold the line against ISIS, often tenuously. The terrorist group is most entrenched in the central city of Sirte. Refugees fleeting Sirte tell me that ISIS extorts businesses and stops traffic to conduct executions.

In late March, a new presidential council — formed under the auspices of a U.N.-brokered unity agreement — arrived with great fanfare in the capital of Tripoli. Washington and its allies had hoped this would provide a foundation for a military campaign against ISIS. But after an initial burst of public enthusiasm, the council is struggling to exert its authority.

The fight against Islamic State faces daunting challenges. First, there still is no unified military structure through which the U.S. and Western allies can channel assistance. A powerful eastern faction allied with Gen. Khalifa Haftar remains hostile to the unity agreement and has tried to sell oil independently from Tripoli. Other militias, even if nominally supporting the new government, remain beholden to towns, tribes and power brokers.

Thus, Western special forces must work with militia surrogates in any operations against Islamic State. But this is risky: Assisting these armed groups could rekindle old rivalries and further reduce the incentives for national reconciliation.

Militias have figured out that signing up for the campaign against Islamic State is the best way to get legitimacy and attention. Whether or not they intend to use outside support solely against ISIS is another story. Many still regard their local rivals as the pressing concern. In some cases, the West may find them unsavory partners: traffickers, hard-line Salafists, tribal supremacists, military officers with authoritarian and anti-Islamist leanings.

This is evident in Sabratha, where Amu’s extended family has had longtime links with smugglers and jihadists. In the capital of Tripoli, a Salafist militia leader lets me tour his prison’s rehabilitation center, where Islamic State suspects are thrown in with drug addicts for undefined stretches with no due process. In a trip to Benghazi last fall, I saw how neighborhood militias carried out what amounts to personal and tribal vendettas, all under the cover of combating Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. activates Romanian missile defense site, angering Russia

Reuters reports: The United States switched on an $800 million missile shield in Romania on Thursday that it sees as vital to defend itself and Europe from so-called rogue states but the Kremlin says is aimed at blunting its own nuclear arsenal.

To the music of military bands at the remote Deveselu air base, senior U.S. and NATO officials declared operational the ballistic missile defense site, which is capable of shooting down rockets from countries such as Iran that Washington says could one day reach major European cities.

“As long as Iran continues to develop and deploy ballistic missiles, the United States will work with its allies to defend NATO,” said U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Robert Work, standing in front of the shield’s massive gray concrete housing that was adorned with a U.S. flag.

Despite Washington’s plans to continue to develop the capabilities of its system, Work said the shield would not be used against any future Russian missile threat. “There are no plans at all to do that,” he told a news conference.

Before the ceremony, Frank Rose, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, warned that Iran’s ballistic missiles can hit parts of Europe, including Romania. [Continue reading…]

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