The Early Edition: July 10, 2018

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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.

The SUPREME COURT

President Trump yesterday nominated Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, saying that “Judge Kavanaugh has impeccable credentials, unsurpassed qualifications and a proven commitment to equal justice under the law.” Louise Radnofsky, Peter Nicholas and Brent Kendall report at the Wall Street Journal.

Judge Kavanaugh serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and has close ties to the Republican legal establishment, including work for the George W. Bush administration. Robert Costa, Robert Barnes and Felicia Sonmez report at the Washington Post.

The nomination is likely to lead to a contentious Senate confirmation battle as Judge Kavanagh, a committed conservative, could have a deciding vote on key cases and shift the balance of the court to the right. Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Republican lawmakers and leaders have welcomed Trump’s nomination and have expressed hope for swift confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh in the Senate. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Judge Kavanaugh could have a deciding vote on the future of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians, Darren Samuelsohn explains at POLITICO.

A profile of Judge Kavanuagh is provided by Domenico Montanaro at NPR.

A breakdown of top legal thinkers’ reaction to Trump’s nomination is provided by POLITICO Magazine.

Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination comes at a time when the world is turning against liberal democracy, the Senate Democrats should use the confirmation process as a public-education opportunity and “Americans who care about the court’s future and its role in the American system of government need to turn to the political process to restore the protections the new majority will take away.” The New York Times editorial board writes.

Judge Kavanaugh “has the experience and intellect to be a leader on the Court, not merely a predictable vote on this or that issue,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, adding that the American people should not believe claims from the Democrats that the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court means the rollback of American rights.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump yesterday expressed his confidence that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would “honor the contract” signed by the two leaders last month in Singapore. Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump claimed that his handshake with Kim was more important to his assessment of Kim’s commitment than the signed document itself, sending a message on Twitter remarking that “I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake. We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea.” John Wagner and John Hudson report at the Washington Post.

“China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not!” Trump added, suggesting that China may be interfering in negotiations with Pyongyang in response to the U.S.’ imposition of punitive tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese exports last week. Reuters reports.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that Beijing’s position on North Korean issue remains consistent, and that the Chinese administration acts in a responsible manner. Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that the return of remains of missing U.S. troops from the 1950-53 Korean War could build trust between North Korea and America. Pompeo made the comments during a visit to Vietnam following two days in Pyongyang, comparing the two nations in a message on Twitter reading: “this same act 45 [years] ago built trust between our nations … today we have a strong relationship … [North Korea] committed to repatriate remains as well,” Reuters reports.

Kim may have been too busy visiting a potato farm to meet Pompeo, Pyongyang’s state media implied today, with the North Korean leader’s seven-day absence from the headlines prompting speculation on his whereabouts until four reports today were released today on his trip to remote Samjiyon county on the Chinese border. AFP reports.

South Korea announced today that it has decided to scrap an annual government mobilization drill that would have formed part of a suspended joint exercise with the U.S., but will nonetheless perform its own drills to ensure readiness. The South Korean Ulchi exercises usually take place every August in conjunction with the joint U.S.-South Korean Freedom Guardian military drill, Reuters reports.

SYRIA

Syrian government forces have surrounded rebel-controlled areas of the city of Deraa as part of their offensive in the southwestern province, activists claimed yesterday. The city marks the location where the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began seven years ago, prompting a civil war that has killed 400,000 and displaced 5 million people, the AP reports.

Syrian government forces reconnected a trade route that runs from Turkey and Lebanon down to the Arabian Peninsula when the Syrian troops retook control of the main crossing at the Jordanian border. The restored route may prove to be important to Jordan, currently hosting around 650,000 Syrian refugees, Bernard Smith reports at Al Jazeera.

A group of eight scientists in Damascus have begun reconstructing ancient sculptures from the city of Palmyra wrecked by Islamic State group fighters in 2015, the Russian Defense Ministry said yesterday citing state news agency R.I.A.-Novosti. The AP reports.

Islamic State group fighters retreating into desert regions to escape U.S.-backed forces in Syria and Iraq are utilizing stashed weapons and ammunition to mount renewed attacks in both countries, as tensions between the group’s international opponents slow joint efforts to destroy it totally. Sune Engel Rasmussen, Nour Alakraa and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Russia’s strategy in Syria is going according to plan, Ishaan Tharoor reports at the Washington Post, explaining that as the international community’s enthusiasm for ousting Assad has dimmed, a grudging acceptance of the Russian-authored status quo is taking hold in the West.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 31 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 2 and July 8. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan’s capital Kabul yesterday, where he claimed that the prospect for talks between the Kabul government and Taliban militants was now brighter due to the Trump administration’s rejuvenated strategy in the war-torn country. Craig Nelson reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Pompeo spoke at a news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, where he reiterated that Washington will participate in the peace process initiated by Ghani last month. Pompeo claimed that the U.S. policy of setting conditions rather than timelines for success in the war “is indeed working,” but stressed that while the U.S. is “prepared to facilitate” negotiations, they must be both led and conducted by Afghans, Pamela Constable and John Hudson report at the Washington Post.

“The region and the world are all tired of what are taking place here in the same way that the Afghan people are no longer interested in seeing war,” Pompeo added. Nonetheless, it is far from clear how the Taliban will respond to such an offer after nearly 17 years of war, Matthew Lee reports at the AP.

“Now more than ever the U.S. stands as an enduring partner for Afghanistan,” Pompeo claimed, adding that “an element of the progress is the capacity that we now have to believe that there is hope that many of the Taliban now see that they can’t win on the ground militarily.” Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

Ghani indicated that it will be necessary to proceed with caution, commenting that “if we think only in one day a 40 year-crisis can be ended we are being unrealistic.” Reuters reports.

Ghani hailed Trump’s strategy in Afghanistan as a “game changer in the conflict,” thanking Pompeo for ongoing U.S. support. AFP reports.

A suicide bomber attacked the Afghan city of Jalalabad this morning killing at least 10 people according to government officials, although no militant group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. The attacker reportedly detonated his explosives near a petrol station, and a member of the provincial council has commented that “most of the victims were children, who were working in a car wash close to the suicide bombing site,” Reuters reports.

Several shops and vehicles close to the explosion were also destroyed in the fire that followed the blast, according to Kabul-based news website Tolo News. Al Jazeera reports.

Trump’s greatest foreign policy failure is inherited from the Obama administration – “the fruitless but never-ending effort to defeat the Taliban and achieve some sort of meaningful victory in Afghanistan,” Stephen M. Walt comments at Foreign Policy.

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

“The simple reality is that Russia has committed an attack on British soil which has seen the death of a British citizen,” the Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson told Parliament yesterday, referring to the death of Dawn Sturgess on Sunday after being exposed to the Novichok nerve agent. Her death in the town of Amesbury, near Salisbury, came a few months after Britain accused Russia of using Novichok to poison the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, Richard Pérez-Peña reports at the New York Times.

Russia’s embassy in London said that it considers the incidents in Salisbury and Amesbury to be “irresponsible anti-Russian provocation.” Reuters reports.

The Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has expressed hope that Britain will have a “political epiphany” on the incidents in Salisbury and Amesbury now that British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has resigned from government. Reuters reports.

A key question regarding the Novichok poisonings is how much the Russian state had control over the situation. Amy Knight provides an analysis at The Daily Beast.  

N.A.T.O. SUMMIT

President Trump yesterday attacked U.S. allies in Europe for their lack of spending on N.A.T.O., making the comments ahead of this week’s N.A.T.O. summit in Brussels and his upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16. Demetri Sevastopulo and Michael Peel report at the Financial Times.

“It is always worth knowing who is your strategic friend and who is your strategic problem,” the European Council President Donald Tusk said in a statement today, hitting back at President Trump for his criticism of European allies and adding that “America does not have and will not have a better ally than Europe today.” Lorne Cook reports at the AP.

The N.A.T.O. summit presents a challenge for U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who has to balance his approach to the transatlantic alliance and internationalist worldview with his relationship with Trump. Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe report at the Washington Post.

Mattis will play a small part in the summit but experts and diplomats have said this does not represent how he is viewed among N.A.T.O. allies, with one senior European official stating that “in the Trump administration, he is seen as the most articulate adult in the room.” Phil Stewart and Robin Emmott reports at Reuters.

Former foreign ministers have criticized and offered some praise of Trump and his approach to N.A.T.O. in a letter sent to the president yesterday, stating that it was positive that he has spurred more defense spending but warning that the mood in Europe is one of “both fear and confusion.” Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

Former U.S. officials have warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin will come to the July 16 Helsinki summit with Donald Trump armed with facts and figures, offering a consistent narrative of Russian grievances and angling to extract concessions from Trump in return for little, Reuters reports.

Putin’s K.G.B. training will equip him well for the summit, David J. Kramer comments at the Washington Post, arguing that Putin will flatter Trump; blame all problems on  Trump’s predecessor –Barack Obama; and “appeal to Trump’s apparent desire to take a wrecking ball to the international order” – all in order to con Trump.

Trump faces a number of risks at his upcoming summit Putin, Gerald F. Seib comments at the Wall Street Journal, explaining that Trump’s critics portray him as too close to Putin and that failure to play the summit well “could allow the meeting to play directly into that critique.”

An analysis of the “muddled American policy on Russia” is provided by Courtney Weaver, Katrina Manson and Max Seddon at the Financial Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

An immediate closure of the primary cargo crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip was ordered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, taking the decision in response to Palestinians launching incendiary kites and balloons into Israeli territory and vowing to use a “heavy hand” against the militant Palestinian Hamas group, who control the Gaza Strip. The AP reports.

The closure of the crossing will ban many items from entering the Gaza Strip and will effect exports from Gaza, although transfers for humanitarian needs will be allowed. Al Jazeera reports.

Hamas has called the move a “crime against humanity” while the rival Palestinian militant group, Islamic Jihad, has said Netanyahu’s decision is a “declaration of war.” David M. Halbfinger reports at the New York Times.

“In the coming days we will make it more difficult at all the crossings,” the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday. Chaim Levinson, Yaniv Kubovich and Jack Khoury report at Haaretz.

IRAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said today that his focus is on denying Iran “the financial capacity” to continue its “malign behavior” in the region, making the comments today to an Arab satellite news channel while on a short trip to the United Arab Emirates, also vowing to keep waterways open for the transit of oil following Iranian threats to disrupt oil exports out of the Middle East. Matthew Lee and Jon Gambrell report at the AP.

“It would be a mistake to think the U.S. economic war against Iran will have no impact,” the Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said today according to the Fars news agency, but said Iran would “sell as much oil as we can” and that the Iranian government thinks that Europe “will act in a way to meet Iranian demands” after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reinstated sanctions against Tehran. Reuters reports.

The U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell has called on Berlin to intervene to stop Iran from withdrawing millions of euros from accounts in Germany, and said the Trump administration was “very concerned” about the Iranian plan. Die Welle reports.

IRAQ

An attack by Islamic State group militants in the northern Iraqi city of Baiji yesterday killed three government-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) militiamen, according to police and militia sources. Reuters reports.

An Iraqi military airstrike has killed 20 Islamic State militants near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which was formerly the de facto capital of the Islamic State group in Iraq. The AP reports.

ETHIOPIA-ERITREA RELATIONS

Ethiopia and Eritrea declared an official end to their “state of war” yesterday in a joint declaration, adding that a “new era of peace and friendship has been opened.” The two nations have been at war for almost two decades and over 80,000 people have been killed, Selam Gebrekidan reports at the New York Times.

“We feel a wind blowing the direction of peace,” the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said yesterday at the second annual U.N.-African Union conference, referring to developments between Ethiopia and Eritrea and peace talks on South Sudan. The U.N. News Centre reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The Judiciary Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee are scheduled to interview former F.B.I. lawyer Lisa Page in private tomorrow, according to a Republican sources familiar with the events. Page has become a key target for the right after the public disclosure of anti-Trump texts that she exchanged with F.B.I. counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and their role in the F.B.I. investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. election, Katie Bo Williams and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

Congressional attacks on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are undermining prosecutorial independence and investigative confidentiality, and ultimately serve to jeopardize the rule of law, John McKay, Joyce Vance and Norman Eisen argue at POLITICO Magazine.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has made no major gains in its offensive to seize control of the strategic port of Hodeidah from Iran-backed Houthi rebels, leaving the coalition without the decisive increase in leverage it had sought in the context of a U.N.-sponsored peace. U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths has been shuttling between the parties attempting to avert an all-out assault on the port, Reuters reports.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila has postponed a planned visit this week from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and African Union Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat, and additionally refused to see U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who diplomats claimed had separate plans for a visit to the capital Kinshasa. Reuters reports.

South Sudan rebels yesterday rejected a proposed peace plan that would reinstate insurgent leader Riek Machar as vice president, saying that the plan would not be sufficient to dilute the strong power base of President Salva Kiir Mayardit. Reuters reports. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

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

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).