The Early Edition: August 9, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

NORTH KOREA

“Fire and fury.” Arms crossed, the President of the United States threatened to unleash “power the likes of which this world has never seen before” on North Korea if it endangered the U.S. yesterday, without being specific about what action by Pyongyang would trigger this unleashing, critics expressing the fear that Trump could stumble into a nuclear war with devastating consequences for everyone concerned, his supporters suggesting that he was attempting to get through to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by using language he would understand. Peter Baker and Choe Sang-Hun report at the New York Times.

North Korea made its most pointed threat yet to the U.S. in response to Trump’s comments, saying that leader Kim Jong-un had ordered his military to look at a plan for firing missiles at the island of Guam in the Pacific, a U.S. territory, via its official state media, the statement unusual because it was linked to a direct order from Kim as opposed to the usual vague warnings of strikes on the U.S. homeland and military assets in Asia, writes Jonathan Cheng at the Wall Street Journal.

“The nuclear war hysteria of the U.S. authorities including Trump has reached an extremely reckless and rash phase for an actual war,” North Korea’s state-run news agency K.C.N.A. stated, the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng tweeted this morning.

President Trump requires Congressional approval before he can launch a preemptive strike against North Korea, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said yesterday, Olivia Beavers reporting at the Hill.

North Korea’s warning of a missile strike on Guam was no threat and the island was prepared for “any eventuality,” the governor of Guam said today, Reuters reporting.

Calm was urged by China today following President Trump’s comments and North Korea’s subsequent threat to strike Guam, Reuters reports.

Germany called on China and Russia to put pressure on North Korea to stop pursuing policies that would lead to a military escalation in the region today, Reuters reports.

President Trump’s comments about North Korea are “not helpful” in the current “tense” environment, New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English said today, the AP reporting.

The current U.S.-North Korea confrontation is a “modern day Cuban missile crisis,” observed Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in an interview aired yesterday, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Trump administration officials should “tone down” the rhetoric on North Korea as “all that does is amp up the paranoia,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said yesterday, Olivia Beavers reporting at the Hill.

“You got to be sure that you can do what you say you’re going to do” or all comments like Trump’s are going to achieve is bringing the U.S. closer to a serious confrontation. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) explained why he took exception to President Trump’s “fire and fury” statement on local Arizona radio yesterday, NBC News’ Marianna Sotomayor tweeted yesterday.

Trump’s statement “can only be interpreted as a nuclear attack on North Korea if Kim Jong-un taunts him,” Obama-era senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted yesterday.

North Korea has successfully developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, according to a confidential assessment by U.S. intelligence officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Joby Warrick, Ellen Nakashima and Anna Fifield report at the Washington Post.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Thailand and Malaysia seeking cooperation on U.N. sanctions enforcement following the A.S.E.A.N. summit in the Philippines yesterday, at which North Korea refused to engage in negotiations over its expanding nuclear arsenal, which it said were not targeted at any other nation than the United States, the Wall Street Journal’s Jake Maxwell Watts and Ben Otto report.

Southeast Asian nations are “not happy” with North Korea’s missile tests, which are a threat to national security, Cambodia’s foreign minister said today, amid growing tensions between Pyongyang and Washington. Reuters reports.

NORTH KOREA: MEDIA RESPONSE

How likely is war between the U.S. and North Korea? Most observers believe that the possibility of conflict is still remote despite the trading of incendiary statements between the two unpredictable nuclear-armed leaders, with North Korea using its nuclear program as a bargaining chip rather than an offensive weapon. Benjamin Haas, Justin McCurry, Tom Phillips and Bonnie Malkin write at the Guardian.

To what extent does the latest exchanges between President Trump and Pyongyang break new and dangerous ground? Former U.S. assistant secretary of state P.J. Crowley writing at the BBC explains that the danger is that, at some point, the over-heated rhetoric creates an action-reaction cycle that cannot be stopped.

This is a “hinge” moment for the U.S. and China and for the international order both nations say they want, and if they manage to remain together in dealing with North Korea, a new era in which China plays a bigger and more responsible global role beckons – whereas if they cannot cooperate, the result could be a catastrophic military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, predicts David Ignatius at the Washington Post.

There is a glimmer of hope of progress in the fact that North Korea’s nuclear advances coincide with the presidency of Donald Trump, whose bluster, bravado an inexperience makes things more dangerous but also “concentrates minds,” not least in Beijing, suggests Jonathan Marcus at the BBC.

Why would the president of the most powerful country in the world want to descend to the level of reckless and unnecessary bombast? The Washington Post editorial board poses some reasonable questions in the wake of President Trump’s “fire and fury” comments yesterday made from his golf club in New Jersey.

Trump’s language, unusually aggressive for a U.S. president, has clear echoes of threats made by North Korea to America and its allies, observes Adam Taylor at the Washington Post.

Trumps remarks echoed the tone and cadence of President Harry S. Truman’s address announcing that the U.S. had dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, urging Japan to surrender and warning that if they refused they “may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth,” though while Truman’s incendiary remarks were aimed at a militarily inferior nation with no nuclear weapons, Trump’s were directed at a government which has developed nuclear weapons and has been successfully testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, writes Julie Hirschfeld Davis at the New York Times.

President Trump’s remarks reflect the deep concern in his administration about the progress of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and were likely aimed at both North Korea and China in the hopes of alarming the latter into taking action to enforce new U.N. sanctions against North Korea, suggest Paul Sonne, Shane Harris and Jonathan Cheng at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s warning was apparently intended to reinforce deterrence, important at this time as it looks like it could, for the first time in decades, fail, writes Gordon G. Chang at The Daily Beast.

Trump’s rhetoric plays right into Kim Jong-un’s hands by confirming Kim’s argument that North Korea needs nukes to ensure his regime’s survival and defend it against a warmongering United States set on unseating him, writes John Kirby at CNN.

The sovereign U.S. territory island of Guam houses a strategic airfield and naval station, as well as a T.H.A.A.D. anti-missile defense system – viewed as an escalating presence by Pyongyang and Beijing – and about 6,000 U.S. troops and growing, explains Alex Horton at the Washington Post.

IRAN

An Iranian drone came within 100 feet of a U.S. fighter jet over the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy said in a statement yesterday, adding that the drone “created a collision hazard” and that this was the 13th “unsafe” or “unprofessional” interaction between the U.S. and Iran this year. Helene Cooper reporting at the New York Times.

The drone ignored repeated calls from the U.S. Navy to stay clear of flight operations, an unnamed Defense official telling Fox News that it was the first time an Iranian drone has “interrupted a flight pattern,” Rebecca Kheel reporting at the Hill.

European allies have the opportunity to stop Trump from ripping up the Iran nuclear deal by clearly stating that they would not follow Trump’s lead if he pulled out, establishing that future cooperation on sanctions would be jeopardized, and taking other measures such as reviving E.U. regulations. Tyler Cullis and Reza Marashi set out the possibilities at Foreign Policy.

IRAQ

The Iranian-backed Shi’ite Sayyed al-Shuhada militia group accused U.S. aircraft of killing dozens of its soldiers on Monday in Iraq, near the border with Syria, the U.S.-led coalition denying involvement and the Islamic State claiming Monday that its fighters had attacked Iraqi army positions in the same area. The BBC reports.

An Iraqi Court has sentenced 27 men to death for their involvement the Islamic State’s massacre of up to 1,700 soldiers in June 2014, most of the victims believed to have been Shi’ite recruits, the BBC reports.

The U.N. is preparing to deal with hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis as a consequence of operations to drive out the Islamic State from their last remaining strongholds, it stated yesterday, adding further complications for the Iraqi security forces. Nick Cumming-Bruce reports at the New York Times.

SYRIA

U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the Syrian city of Raqqa have killed 29 civilians since Monday evening, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

The Trump administration must set out the ways to restrict Russia’s role in Syria before it can enlist its cooperation, and must be aware of relying too heavily on Russia to foster stability without having enough influence and leverage to manage the various parties to the conflict. Peter Rough writes at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 29 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Aug. 7. Separately, partner forces conducted six strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban released 235 civilians held in Afghanistan’s northern Sar-e Pul province, officials confirmed yesterday, the Taliban having taken control of the area on Saturday, with provincial officials also claiming that the Taliban and the Islamic State jointly carried out the attack which killed at least 52 civilians, the AP reports.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks across Afghanistan to showcase their geographical reach, marking a significant escalation in violence, causing anxiety in Washington and exploiting the sense of anger directed at President Ashraf Ghani’s government, Pamela Constable and Sayed Salahuddin observe at the Washington Post.

Outsourcing the U.S. Afghanistan strategy to private mercenaries does not constitute a solution and former Blackwater C.E.O. Erik Prince’s proposal – which unashamedly embraces neocolonialism – fails to consider reconciliation and aims only to secure resources, namely Afghanistan’s lucrative mineral deposits. Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post.

ATTACK IN PARIS

A car struck a group of soldiers in Paris today, the local mayor stating that the attack, which has injured six soldiers, was undoubtedly “deliberate.” The BBC reports.

French police are attempting to locate the driver of the car, Kim Willsher reporting at the Guardian.

The attack happened outside the soldiers’ military barracks near a building used for France’s counterterrorism unit, Operation Sentinelle, France24 reports.

The attack comes amid the ongoing state of emergency, introduced after the Paris terror attack in November 2015. James Masters and Bryony Jones report at CNN.

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres will visit Israel and Palestine for the first time later this month, the Palestinian ambassador to the U.N. saying that the trip “comes at a critical time in which there are attacks against the two-state solution” which Guterres fully supports as the only option for regional peace, and the Israeli ambassador saying that the trip would be an excellent opportunity for Guterres to witness the “challenges and opportunities” faced there firsthand, including “Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon in violations of Security Council resolutions.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Israel’s revocation of residency of almost 15,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem demonstrates a two-tiered system and is a violation of international law, according to Human Rights Watch, Al Jazeera reports.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Bahrain and U.A.E. agreed to open up airspace for the state-owned Qatar Airways, a spokesperson for the International Civil Aviation Organization said yesterday, Al Jazeera reporting.

Qatar has managed to withstand the two month isolation by Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain by relying on its vast wealth and cultivating relations with Turkey and Iran, potentially reshaping regional alliances and causing increasing concern among U.S. officials that the Gulf crisis will hinder efforts to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Sudarsan Raghavan summarizes the crisis that began on June 5 at Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

The Trump campaign, Donald Trump Jr. and former campaign manager Paul Manafort have begun handing over documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee in connection with its investigation into possible Trump-Russia collusion during last year’s election, Steven T. Dennis reports at Bloomberg.

President Trump has been passing private messages of “appreciation and greetings” to special counsel Robert Mueller via his lawyers despite his public criticism of the man in charge of the government’s investigation into Trump-Russia collusion, Trump’s chief counsel informed David Jackson and Kevin Johnson at USA Today yesterday

Trump’s private messages to Mueller are “peculiar,” former U.S. attorney general Preet Bharara tweeted yesterday, adding that it would be “more helpful” if Trump stopped undermining Mueller publicly. Olivia Beaver reports at the Hill.

Mueller’s private finances disclosed yesterday reveal that he left a $3.4 million partner job in a white shoe law firm to serve as special counsel and are likely to be scrutinized by President Trump’s allies as they seek support for their criticisms that Mueller and his team have conflicts of interest, writes Matt Zapotosky at the Washington Post.

The more important questions in the ongoing Trump-Russia saga of why Russian President Putin is engaging in collusion with Washington and what Americans should expect next have gone unanswered – until now, by Leon Aron at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

It remains unclear whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed human rights with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the State Department stating yesterday that Tillerson expressed concern over Duterte’s handling of its war on drugs in response to Duterte’s claim at a news conference Monday that the U.S. and Australia had “considerably toned down” their criticisms and that human rights was raised “only in passing.” Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his Vietnamese counterpart agreed to a deeper defense partnership yesterday amid growing tensions over the disputed South China Sea, agreeing a visit from a U.S. aircraft carrier – the first such visit since the end of the Vietnam War. Eric Beech and My Pham report at Reuters.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Grant Schneider is the new senior director for cybersecurity policy at the National Security Council (N.S.C.), while retaining his position as deputy federal chief information security officer, Joe Uchill reports at the Hill.

The U.S. new ambassador to N.A.T.O. Kay Bailey Hutchinson has extensive experience in military affairs and defense spending, and her support for the military alliance would likely be a source of comfort to N.A.T.O. allies once she takes up her position in Brussels – expected to be later this month. David M. Herszenhorn profiles the ambassador at POLITICO.

“The notion that’s been out in the press and the media of a hollowed-out State Department that is not effective is counterfactual,” Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said yesterday, denying reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has undermined morale and fostered dysfunction, and drawing attention instead to Tillerson’s successes such as the U.N. Security Council resolution for sanctions against North Korea. Nicole Gaouette and Elise Labott report at CNN.

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s media allies have targeted National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, branding him as being insufficiently pro-Israel and too lax on the Islamic State, posing a question for the new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly over how to deal with Bannon. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the breakaway Abkhazia region of Georgia on the ninth anniversary of the war over the territory yesterday was criticized by N.A.T.O. as “detrimental to international efforts to find a peaceful and negotiated settlement” to the conflict, David M. Herszenhorn reports at POLITICO.

Four Pakistani soldiers were killed in an attack by a suicide bomber in the northwest of the country near the border with Afghanistan, where Pakistan began a military offensive against fighters linked to the Islamic State last month, Pakistan’s army said today. Jibran Ahmed reporting at Reuters.

The “widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions” by soldiers against Venezuelans protesting Nicolas Maduro’s government over the installation of an all-powerful Constituent Assembly was criticized by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein yesterday, while Secretary-General António Guterres again urged the Venezuelan government and the opposition to restart negotiations for the benefit of the Venezuelan people. [UN News Centre]

Statements made in captivity by former prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl currently facing a court martial for wandering away from his base in Afghanistan in 2009 will be suppressed, a military judge in North Carolina has ruled, after Bergdahl’s defense attorneys argued the statements were highly unreliable and were coerced, Phil Helsel reports at NBC News. 

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About the Author(s)

Zoë Chapman

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security, Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK