The Early Edition: July 30, 2019

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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.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

At least 14 people were killed and 23 others were wounded yesterday in an airstrike in the al-Thabet market in Saada province in northern Yemen, a stronghold of the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels. In a statement made today, Yemen’s internationally-recognized government blamed the Houthis for the strike, contradicting earlier claims by the rebels who said the coalition was responsible; the statement did not explain why the rebels would target an area under their control, the AP reports.

The U.S. Senate yesterday failed to override President Trump’s vetoes of legislation passed by Congress that would have blocked billions of dollars of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In three separate efforts to overturn the president’s vetoes, senators voted 45-40, 45-39 and 46-41, falling well short of the two-thirds majority needed, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Five Republicans joined Democrats in voting to override Trump’s vetoes. The resolutions blocking the arms sales are targeted at trying to pressure the Saudi government to boost its human rights record and take more action to avoid civilian casualties in a war in Yemen, while the administration and Republicans supporting the arm sales maintain they are necessary amid Iran’s progressively violent steps in the region, Catie Edmondson reports at the New York Times.

Real estate investor and close Trump ally Tom Barrack sought Saudi government funding to buy the U.S. nuclear reactor maker Westinghouse Electric Corp – even as he lobbied Trump to become a special envoy and promote the company’s work on building nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia – according to a congressional report released yesterday that uncovers fresh details of attempts to transfer sensitive nuclear technology to the kingdom, Warren P. Strobel reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The bid was one of Barrack’s several apparent attempts to influence U.S. policy in the Middle East in ways that could have furthered his own business interests. Documents obtained by the U.S. House of Representatives oversight committee raise “serious questions about whether the White House is willing to place the potential profits of the President’s friends above the national security of the American people and the universal objective of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons,” the report said, Tom Hamburger and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

China yesterday threw its backing behind Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam and defended police conduct during another weekend of demonstrations in the region – saying “radical” protesters must be swiftly punished. “Hong Kong will surely overcome all difficulties and challenges on its way forward,” spokesperson for Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office Yang Guang said at an unprecedented news briefing yesterday, adding that the central government “firmly supports” Lam, Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy report at the New York Times.

China indicated that it wants a political rather than a military solution to the demonstrations. Beijing officials also acknowledged some causes of young people’s dissatisfaction, such as the need for more economic opportunity and affordable housing in the region as well as improvements to schooling, Anna Fifield and Shibani Mahtani report at the Washington Post.

China blamed Western forces for the recent violent clashes; Yang said certain “irresponsible people” in the West have applied “strange logic,” causing them to be sympathetic to “violent crimes” but critical of the police force’s “due diligence.” “At the end of the day, their intention is to create trouble in Hong Kong, make Hong Kong a problem to China, in order to contain China’s development,” Yang added, without specifically naming any individuals or countries, Yanan Wang and Katie Tam report at the AP.

“Compromise” or “crackdown” are the only options left for Beijing to get protestors off the streets, Antony Dapiran argues at Foreign Policy, commenting that Hong Kong’s “ongoing stalemate with Beijing’s attempts to stifle dissent and suppress the city, followed by outbursts of popular protest in a seemingly endless cycle … is a status quo that pleases nobody.”

“Beijing is likely to prioritize political control of the territory over the economy,” Gideon Rachman argues at the Financial Times as protests in Hong Kong become more unruly, noting that “even without U.S. sanctions, heavy-handed Chinese intervention would provoke a spontaneous loss of confidence, prompting international businesses to pull out of the territory.”

An analysis of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union draws useful lessons for the Trump administration that can be used to inform policy decisions today with respect to the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China, Stephen M. Walt writes at Foreign Policy.

AFGHANISTAN

Two U.S. service members were killed yesterday in an apparent “insider attack” in Afghanistan, the N.A.T.O.-led Resolute Support mission said in a statement. The service members’ names will be withheld until next of kin are notified, in accordance with Defense Department protocol, the BBC reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed yesterday that President Trump ordered him to reduce the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan by the 2020 election, in comments that highlight the mounting pressure from Washington to cut troop numbers there and wind down the nearly 18-year conflict. “That’s my directive from the president of the United States … he’s been unambiguous: end the endless wars … draw down … reduce,” Pompeo stated at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., referring to Trump’s directive, adding “we hope that overall the need for combat forces in the region is reduced,” Lesley Wroughton and Rupam Jain report at Reuters.

At least 1,366 civilians were killed and another 2,446 wounded in the first half of 2019 in the war against militant groups, according to a report released today by the U.N. mission in Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.) which shows that more Afghan civilians were killed by Afghan and Nato forces than by the Taliban and other militants. While the U.N. welcomed the almost 30 percent drop in casualties compared to the same period last year, it “continues to regard the level of harm done to civilians as shocking and unacceptable,” U.N.A.M.A. said in a statement, adding that the agency “acknowledges that parties have announced efforts to reduce civilian casualties, but they are insufficient,” AFP reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday defended his decision to block an election security bill and hit back at critics who suggested he was assisting Russia, accusing them of “lying” and “modern-day McCarthyism.” “They saw the perfect opportunity to distort and tell lies and fuel the flames of partisan hatred, and so they did,” McConnell said in a nearly 30-minute speech on the Senate floor, Paul Kane reports at the Washington Post.

“There’s an easy way for Leader McConnell to silence the critics who accuse him of blocking election security: stop blocking it,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday from the Senate floor, calling on McConnell to bring up election security legislation after he lashed out at critics. “Leader McConnell doesn’t have to put the bills that we have proposed … or the bill the House has passed, there are bipartisan bills — and we can debate the issue,” Schumer added, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“Actors like the Russian and Iranian governments aren’t waiting for Election Day to attempt to undermine confidence in our elections and our broader democracy,” Joshua Geltzer argues at Just Security, warning that “2020 election security can’t wait till 2020.”

Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony last week “marked a turning point in the case against the president,” Michelle Goldberg argues at the New York Times, commenting that an impeachment inquiry is coming and “the first step in solving a crisis of democratic governance is admitting you have one.”

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Democrats and former officials have expressed concern over President Trump’s pick for director of national intelligence Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas). Officials fear the move is intended to pacify spy agencies the president has long considered to be disloyal and silence occasional dissent in his administration, leading to politicization of what is supposed to be a nonpartisan job, Greg Miller reports at the Washington Post.

Federal Judge Carl Nichols yesterday ordered lawyers for President Trump and House Democrats as well as New York state to try to reach a compromise in a battle over the president’s state tax returns. In a surprise decision, Judge Carl indicated he would like the three sides to set out possible next steps in the dispute by 6:00 P.M. today, Brian Faler reports at POLITICO.

IMMIGRATION

Yesterday’s ruling from Attorney General William P. Barr could undercut thousands of asylum claims from Central Americans and other asylum seekers who seek protection in the U.S. because they are members of families that are victims of drug cartels or other criminals in their homelands, according to immigration lawyers. Federal law permits immigrants to claim asylum based on a fear of persecution in their homelands due to belonging to a “particular social group” – for years this has included families targeted by gangs and drug cartels, however Barr ruled “genetic ties” alone are not enough to establish that a migrant is a member of a particular social group, Maria Saachetti reports at the Washington Post.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador yesterday declared Mexico “had not and could not” commit to a safe third-country agreement akin to the one Guatemala entered into with the U.S. to curb a flow of undocumented Central American migrants north. Lopez Obrador told reporters that the ideal way to control the problem was through “cooperation for economic development, which Mexico has been doing,” Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The head of Sudan’s ruling military council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan today demanded “immediate accountability” after at least five people, including four children, were shot dead yesterday in the city of El-Obeid. “What happened in El-Obeid is a regrettable and upsetting matter and the killing of peaceful citizens is unacceptable and rejected and a crime that requires immediate and deterrent accountability,” al-Burhan was quoted as saying by state news agency S.U.N.A., Reuters reports.

A new video released yesterday by Iranian authorities shows officials warning a British warship “not to interfere” with Iran’s seizure of a British commercial vessel in the Strait of Hormuz earlier this month. In the video, an officer is heard telling the British tanker: “you are ordered to not interfere in my operation;” a British officer responds that the ship is in international waters with the merchant vessel conducting transit passage and the Iranian officer can then be heard saying “don’t put your life in danger,” the AP reports.

The Treasury Department yesterday issued sanctions against Kim Su Il – a North Korean man who the U.S. says dodged trade restrictions and was employed by a government department that helped develop the nuclear-capable missiles Pyongyang test-fired last week. Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A former software engineer from Seattle was arrested yesterday in relation to a giant data breach that potentially puts over 100 million Capital One credit card applicants at risk, Doha Madani and Andrew Blankstein report at NBC. 

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About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).