The Early Edition: July 12, 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.

N.A.T.O. SUMMIT

President Trump has called an emergency meeting of leaders at the N.A.T.O summit in Brussels this morning, threatening that he will “do his own thing” if all member countries do not immediately increase their defense spending commitments. When asked at a news conference whether he could withdraw U.S. from N.A.T.O. without congressional approval, Trump stated, “I think I probably can, but that’s unnecessary,” adding that “the people have stepped up today…everyone in the room thanked me. There was a great collegial spirit in that room. … Very unified, very strong. No problem.” Breaking news from Michael Birnbaum and Philip Rucker at the Washington Post.

 “Angela, you need to do something about this,” Trump reportedly chastised German Chancellor Merkel, breaking diplomatic protocol in addressing her by her first name. Trump’s renewed attack this morning reportedly prompted leaders to gather in a special session excluding other summit participants, Reuters reports.

“N.A.T.O. is much stronger now than it was two days ago,” Trump told reporters this morning, describing this morning’s unscheduled crisis meeting as “fantastic” and having “a great collegial spirit”. Reuters reports.

Merkel told N.A.T.O. allies that Germany must do more with regard to defense spending, later remarking to reporters that “we had a very intense summit.” Reuters reports.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has told reporters that Trump did not threaten to quit N.A.T.O. at this morning’s meeting, Reuters reports.

President Trump pressured allies at yesterday’s meetings to double their military spending target to 4% of G.D.P., while questioning the value of the multinational alliance and criticizing Germany for its gas deal with Russia. The 29 leaders eventually agreed to a joint declaration committing them to moving toward a 2% target by 2024, Rebecca Ballhaus, Valentina Pop and Laurence Norman report at the Wall Street Journal.

It was unclear at that stage whether Trump was serious about his proposed 4% standard or whether he was using the number to nudge overall spending higher, with the president also putting his name to measures that would strengthen the alliance against the Kremlin, as well as a statement that the alliance does not accept Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Michael Birnbaum and Seung Min Kim report at the Washington Post.

Trump’s bellicose stance in his opening breakfast meeting with N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg seemed to contrast with his quieter approach in the leaders’ summit meeting, although the president reportedly left the meeting in ‘Room 1’ after hearing just a few of the interventions by fellow leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emanuel Macron. David M. Herszenhorn reports at POLITICO.

N.A.T.O. countries “must pay 2% of GDP IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025,” Trump remarked in a message on Twitter following the summit yesterday – misstating the deadline set by the alliance. The president sent a further series of messages this morning, claiming that the U.S. “pays tens of Billions of Dollars too much to subsidize Europe” and demanding that member nations meet their pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, which “must ultimately go to 4%!” Jonathan Lemire and Jill Colvin report at the AP.

“Billions of additional dollars are being spent by N.A.T.O countries since my visit last year, at my request, but it isn’t nearly enough,” Trump stated in a further message, adding that  “U.S. spends too much. Europe’s borders are BAD Pipeline dollars to Russia are not acceptable!” Trump suggestion that N.A.T.O. allies owe the U.S. money for Europe’s protection is mistaken as the spending goals agreed upon by member states concern their individual defense budgets, Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

“We think President Trump is basically right, that the foundation of a successful alliance is fair contributions by all parties,” new U.K. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt commented, apparently keen to make the most of the U.K.’s status as one of the few N.A.T.O. nations that meet the current spending target. Following a private dinner last night, the parties today will embark on a second day of talks thought to focus on the conflict in Afghanistan, Reuters reports.

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani will be present at today’s talks, at which Stoltenberg hopes the bloc will agree to fund Afghan security forces until 2024. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has already confirmed that the U.K. will send 440 more troops to serve in non-combat roles in Afghanistan.  The BBC reports.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed Trump’s 4% figure, commenting that “during the president’s remarks today at the N.A.T.O summit he suggested that countries not only meet their commitment of 2% of their GDP on defense spending, but that they increase it to 4%.” Sanders insisted that Trump had raised the issue at last year’s summit, but officials from other states said that the announcement had come as a surprise, Ewen MacAskill and Pippa Crear report at the Guardian.

“We are not prisoners, neither of Russia nor of the United States,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas hit back at Trump, following the president’s accusation yesterday morning that Berlin was “captive” to Russia. Maas added that “we are one of the guarantors of the free world and that will stay that way,” also disclosing that that Berlin plans an increase in defense spending of 80 percent by 2024 and that “that is of such a magnitude that it should be recognized,” Reuters reports.

“… Supplies of pipeline gas do not lead to dependence of one country on another but to complete mutual dependence,” commented a Kremlin spokesperson this morning, rejecting Trump’s characterization of Germany as a “captive” of Russia, and adding that the arrangement “is a guarantee of stability and future development.” Reuters reports.

“I wanted to say that, because of current events, I have witnessed this myself, that a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union,” commented Merkel – who grew up in East Germany – in her arrival remarks at the summit, adding that “I am very happy that we are today unified in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany.” Trump’s relations with Merkel appear to be at an all-time low, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill,

Trump and Merkel struck a more positive tone following their own meeting, with Trump telling reporters “we have a very, very good relationship with the chancellor, we have a tremendous relationship with Germany,” and Merkel claiming that “I am pleased to have this opportunity to be here for this exchange of views … [including] the future of our trade relations.” Merkel concluded: “we are partners, we are good partners, and wish to continue to cooperate in the future,” Steven Erlanger and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report at the New York Times.

“N.A.T.O. is not a stock exchange where you can buy security. N.A.T.O. is an alliance of sovereign countries united by strategic targets and common values,” remarked Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, with Trump’s rhetoric adding to growing unease about the threat posed by Russia. AFP reports.

U.S. ambassador to N.A.T.O. Kay Bailey Hutchison and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly appeared visibly uncomfortable during Trump’s breakfast with Stoltenberg, in which Trump cited German imports of Russian gas as evidence that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia.” Rebecca Tan reports at the Washington Post.

Current and former N.A.T.O. officials are anxious about the effects of Trump’s conduct on the alliance, with former head of the U.S.’ Army’s European contingent Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges commenting that “the mood here is mix of concern, disappointment, anger and disgust.” Christopher Dickey and Spencer Ackerman report at The Daily Beast.

N.A.T.O. leaders called on all nations to maintain “decisive pressure” on North Korea yesterday, backing full implementation of United Nations sanctions and “complete verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”  Members also expressed concern about Iranian missile tests and declared that the alliance is committed “to permanently ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful,” Reuters reports.

Canada has offered to lead a new N.A.T.O military training mission in Iraq and contribute around 250 troops, with the mission set to start later this year and aiming to assist local security forces with vehicle maintenance, bomb disposal and civil-military planning. “We know N.A.T.O. is as necessary now as it was in the height of the Cold War,” commented Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Jessica Donati and Paul Vieira report at the Wall Street Journal.

N.A.T.O. leaders agreed yesterday to invite Macedonia to commence accession talks to join the alliance, with the organization furthering its reach in the Balkans in defiance of Russia. In a landmark agreement with Greece, the ex-Yugoslav nation’s name will become ‘Republic of North Macedonia,’ although the agreement (upon which the nation’s membership of N.A.T.O. will depend) will be put to the nation’s people in a referendum, Reuters reports.

N.A.T.O. SUMMIT: OPINION & ANALYSIS

A factcheck of President Trump’s claims about spending by N.A.T.O. allies is provided by David Welna at NPR.

The benefits of America’s membership of N.A.T.O. is set out by former U.S. ambassador to N.A.T.O. Nicholas Burns at the New York Times.

Trump’s criticism of N.A.T.O. marks his latest attack on U.S. allies and demonstrates that “if ever there was a chance for Trump to tilt the balance of global power toward conservative nationalism and away from the old liberal democratic order, this week is it.” Jonathan Allen writes at NBC News.

The relationship between the U.S. and its allies in Europe is breaking down “on a day-to-day, operational level,” Abraham Newman writes at POLITICO Magazine, warning of the implications of the lack of communication on issues of U.S. national interest.

The U.S. ambassador to N.A.T.O. Kay Bailey Hutchinson has the unenviable job of trying to maintain relations and make the case for N.A.T.O. once Trump leaves the summit, Robbie Gramer writes at Foreign Policy.  

Trump’s approach to the N.A.T.O. summit has given Russian President Vladimir Putin a “win” ahead of his summit meeting on July 16. Evelyn Farkas writes at POLITICO Magazine, saying that Trump has created more division within the N.A.T.O. alliance and will likely be manipulated easily by Putin.

Other countries are concerned about the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project from Russia into Europe and the security implications. Trump cited the project as the reason why Germany is “captive to Russia” at the N.A.T.O. summit yesterday, Patrick Wintour explains at the Guardian.

Trump used hyperbolic language but was right to criticize Germany for its role in the Nord Stream 2 project as the pipeline poses a strategic threat to the N.A.T.O. alliance. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

TRUMP’S U.K. VISIT

President Trump will land in the U.K. today to meet with Prime Minister Theresa May and Queen Elizabeth II. He is likely to face largescale protests, the BBC reports.

May praised the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. ahead of Trump’s visit, and the prime minister and her newly appointed foreign secretary are preparing for any potential blunders or insults. Peter Walker and Vikram Dodd report at the Guardian.

May has urged on Trump to call out Russia’s “malign behavior” when he meets with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki next week, and to raise the issue of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury with the Novichok nerve agent. Pippa Crerar reports at the Guardian.

Trump’s trip comes at a time of turmoil in May’s government over her plans for Britain to leave the European Union. Michael Holden reports at Reuters.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has said that President Trump’s upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin could help lessen the risk of confrontation between Russia and Western nations, telling leaders at last night’s N.A.T.O. dinner that that poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal was an example of “a well-established pattern of Russian behavior” to “undermine our democracies and damage our interests around the world,” but that “open channels of communication between the U.S. and Russia are key to managing the risks of confrontation.” The AP reports.

The fact that the summit is going ahead is a big geopolitical win for Putin, with the upcoming meeting regarded by Moscow as a U.S. recognition of Russia’s status as a great power and a belated realization that its interests must be taken into account. Andrew Osborn reports at Reuters

“The relationship between Iran and the Russian Federation is a strategic relationship and in recent years the collective bilateral and regional relations have expanded,” claimed top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Ali Akbar Velayati – during a visit to Moscow yesterday. Velayati added that President Trump’s “unreliable” actions mean that Tehran’s close ties with Moscow are all the more necessary, Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean officials did not turn up to today’s scheduled meeting with the U.S. military to discuss the return of U.S. troop remains from the 1950-53 Korean War, according to a U.S. official. Adam Taylor reports at the Washington Post.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has questioned the Trump administration’s approach to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, asking in a letter whether “the public pronouncements … align with the Intelligence Community’s (I.C.’s) assessments on [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un’s willingness to make concessions on verifiable denuclearization.” Ken Dilanian reports at NBC News.

The lack of progress on denuclearization is down to Trump, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s frosty reception in Pyongyang last week demonstrates how the president “got played” when he met with Kim last month. Colin Kahl writes at Foreign Policy.

SYRIA

Syrian state vehicles accompanied by Russian military police drove into Deraa city today to raise the national flag over longstanding rebel-held area, according to witnesses, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad poised for another major victory. Reuters reports.

Israeli air force planes struck three military positions in Syria last night, according to the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.). The I.D.F. claimed that the attack was carried out in response to a Syrian drone that entered Israeli airspace and was shot down earlier in the day, while Syrian media claimed that Hezbollah positions were hit in the Quneitra province near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Haaretz reports.

That incident occurred as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin concerning Syria and Iran, with Israel keen to keep Iranian forces backing the Syrian government as far away from its border as possible. The AP reports.

“We never had a problem with the Assad regime …. for forty years [following the 1973 Middle East war] not one bullet was fired on the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said, adding that “the heart of the matter is retaining our freedom of action against anyone who acts against us, and the removal of the Iranians from Syrian territory.” Reuters reports.

“We won’t take action against the Assad regime,” one Israeli official quoted Netanyahu as telling Putin in Moscow yesterday, though Netanyahu’s spokesperson David Keyes denied that the Prime Minister had made that statement, adding “we don’t get involved in the civil war. We will act against anyone who acts against us.” Reuters reports.

Russia has warned it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to withdraw fully from Syria, despite Israel’s repeated claims that it will not allow Iran, or its Shi’ite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in the postwar country. There have, however, been recent signs of a compromise growing between the parties, Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

Top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Ali Akbar Velayati – arrived in Moscow yesterday, and is reportedly due to deliver an “important message” to Putin from the Supreme Leader according to the Iranian Labour News Agency. Velayati will meet Putin today and will stay for another day to hold further meetings with Russian officials, Al Jazeera reports.

Putin and Velayati discussed the situation in Syria and bilateral relations at this morning’s meeting in Moscow, according to the Kremlin. Reuters reports.

“To our friends in Israel – be very careful making agreements with Russia re Syria that affect U.S. interests,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) commented in a message on Twitter, adding that “I don’t trust Russia to police Iran or anyone else in Syria. U.S. must maintain presence in Syria to ensure ISIS doesn’t come back and to counter Russia/Iran influence.” Amir Tibon reports at Haaretz.

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]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The former F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok is due to testify publicly before Congress this morning, appearing at a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees where he will face Republicans who have criticized him for political bias and accused him of misconduct. Strzok was a lead agent in the first year of the investigation into whether Trump associates conspired with Russia to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Karoun Demirjian and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

Special counsel Robert Mueller yesterday requested 100 blank subpoenas from a Virginia federal court in the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, with the subpoenas requiring their recipients to testify in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria on July 25 when Manafort’s trial is set to begin. Mueller’s team is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

Manafort has recently told contacts that he is being treated like a “VIP” at the Virginia prison where he’s been held since June 15, according to telephone calls being monitored by Mueller’s team, which revealed yesterday that it can listen in on any calls that Manafort has other than those with his lawyers. Prosecutors are relying on one such call in their opposition to the Manafort’s request to postpone his upcoming Virginia trial until after a separate criminal case concludes in Washington D.C., Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

House Democrats’ plans to interview the wife of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos – Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos – hit a roadblock last night, with Papadopoulos commenting to POLITICO that her refusal to appear was based on the committee’s Republican majority’s unwillingness to reimburse her transportation from Chicago. George Papadopoulos has been cooperating with Mueller after pleading guilty last year to lying to the F.B.I. about his relationship with a Russia-linked professor, with his wife serving throughout as his unofficial spokesperson, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s assertion that Mueller’s appointment was unconstitutional provokes opposing views from legal experts, with Professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and co-founder of the Federalist Society Steven G. Calabresi, and New York lawyer George Conway on opposite sides of the fence, George F. Will explains at the Washington Post.

An analysis of the new members brought into Mueller’s investigating team is provided by Betsy Woodruff at The Daily Beast.

GUANTÁNAMO BAY

Guantánamo Bay detainees who have been held for up to 16 years without charge cannot be imprisoned indefinitely, lawyers representing eight men detained at the base told U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan yesterday, arguing that the Trump administration had violated prisoners’ rights as it had no intention of trying the men nor resettling them overseas. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

Hogan questioned whether he was entitled to reinterpret higher court rulings on which laws apply to non-citizens held in detention offshore, but agreed with the attorneys representing the detainees that the Guantánamo captives have been held as long as some convicted criminals in the U.S., and probed a Justice Department lawyer about the limits of Law of War detention operating at the military facility. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Taliban carried out two separate attacks in Afghanistan today, according to officials, killing at least 15 soldiers in the northern Kunduz province and four police officers in western Farah province. Amir Shah reports at the AP.

The investigations into mysterious health symptoms suffered by employees at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and a U.S. Consulate in China are ongoing, with the top State Department official Kenneth Merten telling lawmakers yesterday that authorities still do not know what caused the health problems. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has asked federal prosecutors to help him look through government documents relating to Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was nominated by President Trump on Monday to be Supreme Court Justice. Former law enforcement officials have expressed concern about Rosenstein’s request, Katie Benner reports at the New York Times.

The leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) Gen. Khalifa Haftar has handed back control of oil ports in eastern Libya to the national oil corporation. The capture of the ports had threatened efforts at political reconciliation, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

The rights group Amnesty International has called for a war crimes investigation into abuses carried out by the U.A.E. in Yemeni prisons. The U.A.E. is a key partner of the U.S. and is a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, Sudarsan Raghavan reports at the Washington Post.

The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar has been thrust into the limelight due to its geographical location between Israel and occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Loveday Morris and Sufian Taha explain at the Washington Post.

The Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) is not seeing Russian interference in the midterm elections on a level that rises to the “2016-directed, focused, robust campaign,” Christopher Krebs, the leader of the D.H.S. cybersecurity unit, told lawmakers yesterday. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

An explanation of how Iran could disrupt oil flows from the Gulf – which Tehran has warned it would do should countries heed the Trump administration’s calls for zero oil exports from Iran by November – is provided by Parisa Hafezi, Jonathan Saul and Bozogmehr Sharafedin at Reuters. 

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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).