The Early Edition: September 26, 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.

U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY

President Trump used his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in New York yesterday to highlight his commitment to his “America First” foreign policy, also boasting of his administration’s achievements in its first 20 months in office. Trump claimed that “in less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” provoking murmurs and laughter from the audience, Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

Trump arrived late for the summit – only departing from Trump Tower at his scheduled speech time; on reaching the podium, the president gave a 34-minute address outlining his explicit dislike of multilateral institutions, which he portrayed as inherent threats to U.S. sovereignty. “America is governed by Americans,” Trump claimed, adding: “we reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

“Responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty … and not just from global governments … but from other newer forms of coercion and domination,” Trump continued. Despite the president’s focus on the merits of national sovereignty, Trump singled out the behavior of particular governments for fierce criticism, including Iran, China, Venezuela and the 15 Organization of the Petroleum Exporting (O.P.E.C.) countries, Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

“I didn’t expect that reaction … but that’s OK,” Trump responded to the audience’s laughter as he bragged about his administration’s accomplishments. Following the meeting, he told reporters that he had meant to be funny: “oh it was great, well, that was meant to get some laughter, so it was great,” the AP reports.

Trump traded taunts with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani from the podium, with Trump vowing further sanctions against Tehran while Rouhani suggested his U.S. counterpart suffers from a “weakness of intellect.” Trump told the General Assembly that “Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction … they do not respect their neighbors or borders or the sovereign rights of nations;” Rouhani meanwhile rebuked Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, claimed he had “no need for a photo opportunity” with Trump and suggested that “confronting multilateralism is not a sign of strength … rather … it betrays an inability in understanding a complex and interconnected world,” Reuters reports.

“We are witnessing rulers in the world ride public sentiments and gain popular support through the fomenting of extremist nationalism and racism and through xenophobic tendencies resembling a Nazi disposition,” Rouhani added. The Iranian President did not directly refer to Trump in these comments, but did refer to the U.S. sanctions on his country as “economic terrorism,” Justin Wise reports at the Hill.

The U.S. president told Germany to follow the example of Poland and not rely on Russia for its energy supplies – which could make it vulnerable to “extortion and intimidation.” Reuters reports.

Trump reserved praise for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his apparent attempts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, telling the General Assembly that “the missiles and rockets are no longer flying in every direction, nuclear testing has stopped, some military facilities are already being dismantled … I would like to thank Chairman Kim for his courage and for the steps he has taken, though much work remains to be done …the sanctions will stay in place until denuclearization occurs.” Trump’s remarks stand in marked contrast to his speech at last year’s General Assembly, at which he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and disparagingly referred to Kim as “Rocket Man,” Reuters reports.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said yesterday that he is willing to meet with Kim, in a move that could lessen tensions between Tokyo and Pyongyang, although Abe insisted that any summit with the North must lead to a resolution on the North’s alleged abductions of Japanese citizens. “North Korea is now at a crossroads at which it will either seize, or fail to seize, the historic opportunity it was afforded,” Abe commented, Justin McCurry reports at the Guardian.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres used his address to warn that the world faces a “trust deficit disorder,” and that the only solution to global problems is through multilateral cooperation. “The world is more connected, yet societies are becoming more fragmented,” Guterres told the audience, adding that “challenges are growing outward, while many people are turning inward … multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the rise of nationalism claiming that it had had led the system of international cooperation into crisis. In direct contrast to Trump’s speech, Macron derided a “certain nationalism we’re seeing today, brandishing sovereignty as a way of attacking others,” also using his speech to defend multilateral agreements—including the Iran nuclear accord and the Paris Climate agreement—as forms of cooperation safeguarding world peace, Stacey Meichtry reports at the Wall Street Journal.

N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday that he wants a more constructive relationship with Russia, but expressed concern regarding Russia’s military interference in Ukraine and Georgia, its support for the Syrian administration and the strengthening of Moscow’s naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean. Stoltenberg met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the fringes of the General Assembly, with neither side appearing willing to make concessions, Frank Jordans and Angela Charlton report at the AP.

Lavrov yesterday launched a broadside at Norway for its arrest of a Russian parliamentary official suspected of spying, describing the espionage accusations as “propaganda.” Speaking on the sidelines of the General Assembly, Lavrov commented “do you realize he was invited by the Norwegian parliament? Norwegian hospitality,” the AP reports.

The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) will support U.N. proposals for new peace talks on Yemen, a senior U.A.E. official said early today after meeting with U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths on the fringes of the General Assembly. The comments come two weeks after the collapse of previous peace talks for Yemen in Geneva, where the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebel delegation failed to show up, Al Jazeera reports.

Trump is today set to preside over the Security Council – the first time he has assumed the chair of the U.N.’s “most powerful body. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has commented that today’s session “is going to be the most watched Security Council meeting ever,” Jennifer Peltz reports at the AP.

A summary of world leaders’ responses to Trump’s speech yesterday is provided by Jesus Rodriguez at POLITICO.

Bullet point summaries of all of yesterday’s major speeches at the General Assembly are provided at Al Jazeera.

A collection of quotations from leaders who may not have made the headlines yesterday is provided at the AP.

U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“Actually, it’s not O.K … America’s president is now openly derided in the most important international forum,” the New York Times editorial board comments, characterizing the president’s world view as “dark and cramped”

“Trump … has spent much of his career trying to get the laughter — real or perceived — to stop,” writes Michael Schwirtz at the New York Times, exploring the significance of the laughter that met Trump’s speech yesterday.

“Trump’s bet at the United Nations is that he rides a tide of nationalism in the world’s developed countries strong enough to withstand the moderating forces posed by international institutions,” Spencer Ackerman comments at The Daily Beast, noting the contradiction between Trump’s emphasis on national sovereignty and his insistence on setting “the conditions for the world to follow, cloaked in revisionist history.”

The president presented a “false choice” between globalism and patriotism – mistakenly casting “organizations that we need to make us safer and more prosperous as threats to U.S. sovereignty.” Daniel B. Shapiro explains at NBC.

“Trump’s words were intended for another audience: his core supporters who despise the U.N. and all it represents,” Julian Borger comments at the Guardian.

A fact-checker for the assertions in Trump’s speech is provided by Linda Qiu at the New York Times.

An explainer on the “purpose, power and problems” of the U.N. itself is provided by Somini Sengupta at the New York Times.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

The Senate Republican leadership is moving to expedite the final stages of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court to Friday, following tomorrow’s scheduled hearing with California Professor Christine Blasey Ford – who has accused Kavanuagh of sexual assault. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office put senators on notice they should be prepared to work over the weekend, suggesting the chamber could take a procedural vote that would allow for a final, full-Senate vote early next week, Natalie Andrews and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

An attorney for Deborah Ramirez – the second woman to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct – said last night that he would not recommend Ramirez testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee without an F.B.I. investigation, also accusing Republican staffers on the committee of stonewalling his requests on the matter. “This is not something that can be done via the Senate or some hired-gun prosecutor that wants to cross-examine either Ms Ford or Ms Ramirez,” Ramirez’s lawyer told C.N.N., adding “this has to be by the F.B.I, who can investigate the matter with the threat of perjury,” Brett D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

President Trump yesterday escalated his rhetoric in support of Kavanaugh, describing the allegations against the judge as “a con game being played by the Democrats,” and saying of Ramirez that “the second accuser has nothing.” Reuters reports.

Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell will question Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh about the sexual assault allegations at the public hearing tomorrow. A biography for Mitchell is provided by Matt Stevens at the New York Times.

A set of questions that Kavanaugh “needs to answer” at tomorrow’s hearing is set out by the New York Times editorial board.

A guide to the format of tomorrow’s hearing is provided by Phil Mattingly and Kate Sullivan at CNN.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump has reportedly told advisers that he is open to keeping Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in post, following speculation this week that Rosenstein was to be fired in the wake of reports that he had suggested secretly recording Trump in the White House. Allies of Rosenstein – who oversees special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election – claimed yesterday that he has given the impression that he does not plan to resign, Michael C. Bender and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to say yesterday whether Trump has confidence in Rosenstein, telling ABC’s “Good Morning America” that she did not want to get ahead of the president, who is scheduled to meet Rosenstein tomorrow. Judah Taylor reports at POLITICO.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has issued a subpoena to Randy Credico – allegedly former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone’s “back channel” to Julian Assange – founder of whistleblowing website Wikileaks, U.S. intelligence agencies maintain that Wikileaks was used by Russian operatives to release Hilary Clinton’s hacked emails online, and Credico has already submitted testimony to  Mueller’s investigation, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

IRAN

The top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Ali Akbar Velayati – has said that an offer by the Trump administration to meet with Iranian leaders would never be accepted. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an offer for talks on Fox News on Sunday; Velayati was quoted yesterday as saying by news agency I.R.N.A. that “Trump’s and Pompeo’s dream would never come to reality,” Reuters reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton yesterday warned Iran’s rulers that there will be “hell to pay” if they harm the U.S., its citizens or allies – making the comments at an anti-Iran conference in New York. Bolton claimed that the “murderous regime” of “mullahs in Tehran” would face substantial consequences if they continued to “lie, cheat and deceive,” the BBC reports.

Saudi Arabia has denied accusations that it backed the gunmen who killed 29 people at a military parade in southwestern Iran, Saudi state news agency reported yesterday. Following claims from Khamenei on Monday that the attackers were paid by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.,) the Saudi Foreign Ministry released a statement yesterday stating that the country “rejects and condemns the false accusations that Iranian officials have made,” Al Jazeera reports.

“The evil and adventurous American president has focused on an economic war and cruel sanctions to deviate the Iranian nation from the revolutionary values and its national interests,” the Iranian Revolutionary Guards claimed in a statement yesterday. Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

European efforts to salvage the 2015 international Iran nuclear deal have likely failed, Michael Hirsch comments at Foreign Policy.

SYRIA

The government of Syrian President Basha al-Assad intends to retake the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, either through military force or through peaceful means, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad stated in remarks published yesterday. “Just as we won in every other part of Syria, we will be victorious in Idlib,” commented Mekdad, projecting that Idlib will follow three other regions previously considered de-escalation zones –eventually retaken by government forces following lengthy sieges, the AP reports.

“We will continue to act to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and we will continue the military coordination between the I.D.F. [Israel Defense Forces] and the Russian army,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters yesterday before boarding a flight destined for U.N. General Assembly in New York. The pledge to keep Israeli forces in the country follows Russia’s supply of an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria on Monday, despite strong Israeli objection, Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 78 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 17 and Sep. 23 [Central Command]

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

China has rejected a request from a U.S. warship to make a port visit to Hong Kong next month, according to officials from both nations yesterday, with relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorating on both military and economic fronts. Steven Lee Myers reports at the New York Times.

China yesterday demanded that the U.S. cancel a $330 million sale of military equipment to Taiwan, projecting “severe damage” to bilateral relations and mutual cooperation if should Washington proceed with the sale. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters that the sale violates international law and the “basic norms governing international relations,” Christopher Bodeen reports at the AP.

Chicago man Ji Chaoqun has been arrested for alleged espionage on U.S. engineers and scientists under direction from Beijing, according to U.S. prosecutors. Chaoqun, 27, has been charged with acting as an illegal foreign agent in the U.S., the BBC reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises was a “prudent risk” but has resulted in a “slight degradation” of readiness on the Peninsula, the General nominated to take command of U.S. forces in South Korea – Gen. Robert Abrams – said during his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday. Abrams remarked that “something has to adjust, in my view, to be able to start to build trust and confidence as we move forward in the relationship [with the North],” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The U.S. ratcheted up pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro yesterday, imposing sanctions on his wife and further individuals from his inner circle and issuing stern warnings regarding his vulnerability to overthrow. President Trump commented that the “repressive regime” in Caracas “could be toppled very quickly by the military if the military decides to do that,” AFP reports.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan announced today that 21 civilians were killed in two separate airstrikes over the weekend. The U.N. said it was unclear whether the strikes were carried out by Afghan or N.A.T.O. forces, the AP reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that a court – not politicians – will determine the fate of detained U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, whose incarceration has provoked a rift between Ankara and Washington. “As the president, I don’t have the right to order his release … our judiciary is independent … let’s wait and see what the court will decide,” Erdogan commented, NBC reports.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said yesterday that a bipartisan election security bill will not be passed by Congress ahead of November’s midterm elections. The legislation – designed to protect elections from cyberattacks – was initially scheduled to be discussed by a Senate committee in August, Jaqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill. 

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About the Author(s)

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).