With help from Daniel Lippman, Lara Seligman and Lili Bayer
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America’s special envoy for Yemen, TIM LENDERKING, has one of the toughest portfolios of any U.S. diplomat.
Yemen has been the scene of a yearslong, vicious war between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition that was once fully backed by Washington. As Yemenis died in battle or from starvation, the conflict became known as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
But this year, there’s hope. A two-month truce not only held, it was recently extended another two months. Some airlines have resumed international flights from Yemen, and food and other aid is more easily reaching the needy.
In a talk with our own NAHAL TOOSI this week, Lenderking sounded upbeat but cautious. He warned that the diplomacy is so delicate that current attempts in Congress to further pressure Saudi Arabia could derail it. And one of the most ominous notes he sounded is about a rotting oil tanker in the region.
Here are some highlights:
— The truces have come about due to an array of factors, Lenderking said, including sheer exhaustion among Yemenis, battlefield setbacks for the Houthis, and eagerness among Saudis to resolve the conflict. Oman has played a key role in facilitating talks as well.
Yes, it could all still fall apart, but “with each day in which the parties are adhering to the terms of the truce that they themselves publicly agreed to, it gets more difficult for any party to you know, to backtrack, or undo the work that they’ve done,” he said.
— The truce hints at a “rare moment of harmony” between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen, Lenderking said.
“What we really need to see from the Iranians, though, is that they can live by the words that they have … publicized, and that is to say that they would not continue to provide lethal support to the Houthis, continue to smuggle weapons and individuals into Yemen through various means,” the special envoy said. “If there’s anything we would want to see from Iran, it’s a new approach to the conflict where they’re not pursuing a militaristic or a lethal track, but really supporting the changes that are afoot and a political process.”
— There is widespread, bipartisan frustration with Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen, especially its airstrikes that have killed many civilians. While the Biden administration has scaled back U.S. support of the Saudis in the war, some U.S. lawmakers are pushing a measure to end any U.S. activities that still could be viewed as supporting the Saudi fight, including maintaining aircraft.
Lenderking, however, stressed that the Saudis are partners of the United States, and that they’ve faced Houthi attacks. “I don’t think that legislation that somehow jars or constrains the positive gains that have been made is productive at this particular time,” he said.
— The world, especially the private sector, needs to step up and raise the tens of millions of dollars needed to deal with the FSO Safer, a rotting, huge oil tanker in the Red Sea. The risk of ignoring the vessel is of a catastrophic oil spill that will affect not just Yemenis and the marine life in the region, but even companies from far away who use that waterway.
“This is a ticking time bomb — 1.1 million barrels of oil. That’s four times what the Exxon Valdez spilled in 1989,” Lenderking said. “This vessel has not been maintained for seven years. There’s a very small crew of people on board who are just keeping basic functions going, but there’s no power in the engines. The inert gases that need to be injected into the compartments to prevent explosion are not being supplied. There’s concern that come more heavy weather in the fall that this would be another opportunity where the vessel could break up, if not explode.”
— The United States is still pressing the Houthis to release Yemenis affiliated with the U.S. embassy. One detainee died in Houthi custody. “There’s no justification for these local staff, who are all Yemenis, to have been detained in the first place,” Lenderking said. “It seems to be a straight up intimidation campaign. The Houthis should release these innocent people … this is a real stain on [the Houthis] and their reputation when many other things are going well for the first time in Yemen.”
TRAINING UKRAINIANS ON ROCKET SYSTEMS: The U.S. will train individual platoons of Ukrainian troops on how to use advanced rocket systems, Gen. MARK MILLEY, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday.
“We’ve got to start this thing with a program that is rational and deliberate and gets them trained to a standard where they become effective,” he said, per the Washington Post’s DAN LAMOTHE and CATE CADELL. “It will do no good to just throw this weapon system into the battle. You’ve got to be trained on it to get the maximum effective use out of the weapon as a precision system.”
The remark comes shortly after both the U.S. and Britain said they would send multiple-launch rocket systems to Ukraine, providing Kyiv with longer-range weapons they’ve long clamored for.
The U.S. is planning to send four HIMARS to Ukraine and officials have left open the possibility of sending more.
On the amount of security assistance allies have provided Ukraine, our own LILI BAYER caught up with JULIANNE SMITH, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, where she pointed out there was “no pressure” from NATO to provide arms to Ukraine.
“We have a situation where every member of the NATO Alliance is providing some form of assistance,” Smith said. “But those that have stepped forward have stepped forward in a very constructive and generous way. And we’ve seen many, many NATO allies individually come forward and provide security assistance that’s literally making a difference on the ground each and every day.”
JAN 6 HEARINGS: The day is finally upon us.
After more than 1,000 interviews in nearly a year of investigations, the January 6 select committee will air its findings tonight on primetime TV. But don’t expect a typical hearing with expert witnesses. Instead, we may see video footage from that day on the hill and some of the committee’s most powerful interviews from behind closed doors.
“The Select Committee has obtained a vast amount of testimony and documents,” Committee member and Rep. STEPHANIE MURPHY (D-Fla.) told NatSec Daily in an email. “Our goal—and our challenge—is to use the public hearings to distill this information down to its essence, to tell an accurate and easy-to-understand story about why January 6th happened, and to provide some concrete recommendations about how our country can prevent something like it from happening again. Our audience are Americans across the political spectrum who are committed to securing our democratic institutions and processes.”
The committee has pieced together and analyzed a timeline and will look to answer key questions including what former president DONALD TRUMP, his staff and family were doing during the attack, who funded the insurrection, who stormed the hill and breached the Capitol and who did and did not cooperate with the panel.
One notable vice president from Indiana who remains unwillingly central to the whole operation is MIKE PENCE. Pence, who has consistently refuted Trump’s election claims, has had his name come up in emails provided to the select committee, according to reporting from our own KYLE CHENEY and NICHOLAS WU.
“The committee has repeatedly declined to rule out seeking Pence’s testimony, leaving it as one of a handful of loose ends heading into the public hearings,” Cheney and Wu wrote. “In recent weeks, Thompson has described the committee’s conversations with Pence World as active, but lawmakers still have no plans to issue a formal invitation.”
SUMMIT SENSITIVITIES: The Summit of the Americas convention — meant to promote regional unity and progress — is now relying directly on President JOE BIDEN to keep everything from falling apart following the high-profile snubs of several counterparts.
The plan is for Biden to meet with Brazil’s president JAIR BOLSONARO today, but there could be some underlying tension according to The Associated Press’ CHRIS MEGERIAN and JOSH BOAK.
“When Bolsonaro accepted an invitation to the summit, he asked that Biden not confront him over his election attacks, according to three of the Brazilian leader’s Cabinet ministers who requested anonymity to discuss the issue,” they wrote. However, Biden’s national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN told reporters that Biden hadn’t agreed to any conditions for his meeting with Bolsanaro, the AP also reported.
It’s the first time the U.S. is hosting the summit since 1994 and the power dynamic is real. “World Bank data shows that the U.S. economy is more than 14 times the size of Brazil, the next-largest economy at the summit,” Megerian and Boak wrote.
BIDEN WEIGHS CHANGES TO OBAMA-ERA CLASSIFICATION RULES: The Biden administration is weighing a number of changes to an Obama-era executive order governing classification of national security information in order to increase transparency, the Wall Street Journal’s DUSTIN VOLZ reports.
“The review of the 2009 order includes an examination of how technological advancements have affected the classification process, said an official familiar with the matter. The official and other people familiar with the review didn’t say how far along it is or whether changes being weighed marked a substantial overhaul or minor adjustments.”
The review comes as lawmakers press the federal government to declassify more information, and coincides with the Biden administration’s recent success in releasing sensitive information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Volz writes.
“Transparency advocates have argued for decades that the U.S. government reflexively over-classifies information—especially when it pertains to national security—and that advancements in communications technology, such as email, have contributed to an unwieldy glut of documents at many federal agencies inaccessible to the public,,” according to Volz.
Overclassification can cause problems internally as well. For example, the commission created to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concluded that “overclassification created intelligence silos within agencies, often resulting in a failure to share pressing information about urgent security threats,” Volz reports.
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NUCLEAR WATCHDOG REBUKES IRAN: The International Atomic Energy Agency’s board passed a resolution slamming Iran for failing to cooperate with an investigation about undeclared nuclear materials found in the country, The Wall Street Journal’s LAURENCE NORMAN reported.
“In a statement after the resolution passed, Tehran said it also would install hundreds of advanced centrifuges at its Natanz underground site, increasing its future uranium-enrichment capabilities and posing a fresh threat to the already slim chances of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. The foreign ministry said other steps could follow,” he wrote.
Yesterday we told you about how in response to a draft of the resolution by Western nations, the Iranian government had shut off two U.N. devices that were monitoring uranium enrichment at one of their nuclear sites. While it wasn’t the first time Tehran has shuttered IAEA access to its nuclear program, it does come amid stalled talks between Iran and world powers on whether there will be a return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
In a statement, Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN applauded the passage of the resolution (which the U.S. co-sponsored) and called for Iran to come back to negotiations.
“The resolution is at the heart of the IAEA’s mandate and Iran’s core obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, not about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),” the statement read. “The United States remains committed to a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA.”
MYSTERY CHINESE BASE IN CAMBODIA: Cambodia has moved forward on a Chinese-funded upgrade to its Ream naval base suspected of being an expansion of China’s military capabilities, and the United States isn’t too pleased with the news.
One senior defense official told Reuters reporter IDREES ALI that “the two countries had taken steps which were ‘bordering on the absurd’ to hide Chinese military activity, including disguising Chinese personnel during visits by foreign officials to the base.”
Cambodian Minister of Defense TEA BANH denied that China was building a military base, saying that the funding is simply based on modernizing its base and that Cambodia welcomes development from other countries as well, according to a quote in state-run Agence Kampuchea Presse.
The launch of the project comes as U.S. Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN lands in Singapore for a security meeting, which is expected to include Chinese minister of national defense general WEI FENGHE.
GREECE WATCHING JERUSALEM: Following a ruling from Israel’s top court that sides with a right-wing group’s contentious purchase of an East Jerusalem property from the Greek Orthodox Church, the Greek foreign ministry issued a statement expressing “deep concern about the situation developing in the Christian quarter” of Jerusalem.
The late-night Supreme Court decision dismissed the church’s appeal of the sale, which took place in 2004 and caused anger within the Palestinian community at the time. The church accused buyers hiding of using shell companies to purchase the properties, according to reporting from The Times of Israel’s SUE SURKES.
The statement is the second in two days by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs involving Israel, and follows a previous call for “appropriate action to be taken” after an “incursion into a property owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Chapel there by members of a Jewish seminary.”
We’ve seen tensions boil over in similar situations, but Israeli Prime Minister NAFTALI BENNETT is out of town on a surprise visit to Abu Dhabi where he will meet new president MOHAMED BIN ZAYED AL NAHYAN. The two will likely focus discussions on Iran.
HOW STARLINK CHANGED THE UKRAINE WAR: ELON MUSK’s communications satellites — known as Starlink — have changed the way Ukraine repels Russian invaders, our own CHRISTOPHER MILLER, MARK SCOTT and BRYAN BENDER report.
“Ukrainian drones have relied on Starlink to drop bombs on Russian forward positions. People in besieged cities near the Russian border have stayed in touch with loved ones via the encrypted satellites. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, the country’s president, has regularly updated his millions of social media followers on the back of Musk’s network, as well as holding Zoom calls with global politicians from U.S. President Joe Biden to French leader EMMANUEL MACRON,” they wrote.
“The Ukrainian troops who held out in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol were able to maintain contact with their commanders and even Zelenskyy — and conduct live video interviews with journalists — because they had a Starlink system in the besieged factory. All told, Starlink — and Ukraine’s use of the satellite network, both for its military and civilians — has thwarted Russia’s efforts to cut the Eastern European country off from the outside world, giving Kyiv a much-needed victory against Moscow in a conflict that shows no sign of ending.”
All that is great news for Ukraine and great news for Musk, who has a proof of concept that Starlink can be invaluable during war. U.S. military officials NatSec Daily has spoken to since Starlink’s introduction in Ukraine say the backpack-sized satellite stations will be ubiquitous on future battlefields.
NOT SO FAST: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) note that not a single major defense acquisition program reviewed by the Government Accountability Office was able to accelerate its delivery timeline from 2021 to 2022 — and a third fell further behind schedule, the congressional watchdog says in a new detailed assessment of dozens of programs.
“None of the 29 programs for which we reviewed their schedule reported accelerating a cycle time,” the report found. “Moreover, nine programs that reported schedule delays in our last assessment also reported further delays as of January 2022.”
Why it matters: DoD has made speeding up the delivery of new systems a top priority for years and has adopted countless acquisition reforms to help.
Yet some of the same factors “still hinder many programs,” GAO said, including “committing billions of taxpayer dollars before obtaining key information, including reliable cost estimates and proven designs.”
“And they slow the department’s current emphasis on delivering capabilities to the warfighter faster,” it added.
AFFORDABLE MILITARY HOUSING: Sens. JON OSSOFF (D-Ga.) and MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.) introduced the Military Housing Affordability Act to help service members who live in high-cost areas to afford good housing for themselves and their familiar.
Per a news release, the bill would “grant a two-year extension of the Secretary of Defense’s authority to temporarily adjust the basic allowance for housing (BAH) rates where the cost of adequate housing differs more than 20% from the current BAH rate. The DoD’s current authority expires on September 30, 2022.”
“The men and women who dedicate their lives to serve our country should not have to worry about being unable to afford a decent home for their families,” Rubio said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill would help military families suffering from inflation, supply chain issues, or natural disasters continue to access affordable housing.”
Ossoff said he introduced the bipartisan legislation because “Many Georgia military families have asked me to help with the high cost of housing.” Over the last year, he led an eight-month investigation into how some military families were mistreated in privatized housing.
WSJ BOARD SLAMS MERKEL’S RECORD: “Rarely has a foreign policy legacy been discredited as rapidly, and thoroughly, as former German Chancellor ANGELA MERKEL’s.”
So began an editorial in the Wall Street Journal last night that was unsparing in its critique of the former leader’s 16 years in power, which followed her first public comments on her legacy since stepping down.
“I don’t blame myself,” she told an audience in Berlin when asked about her inability to rein in Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN and decision to keep Germany dependent on Russian energy. “I have tried to work in the direction of preventing mischief. And if diplomacy doesn’t succeed, this doesn’t mean that it was therefore wrong. Thus I don’t see why I should say: ‘That was wrong.’ And therefore I won’t apologize.”
“I was not naive,” she stated.
Our own ALEX WARD spent a few days in Berlin this week and what he heard, writ large, is a growing disappointment with Merkel, especially since the invasion of Ukraine. She still has her fans — and they defend her by saying she maintained Germany as a global leader during her chancellorship — but overall the general assessment in the capital is that Merkel got Russia wrong, even if she won’t apologize.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — MICHAEL HIRSH is leaving Foreign Policy as senior correspondent and deputy news editor. He will become a columnist at FP focused on major foreign policy and economic issues and will freelance for other publications. Hirsh, a former national editor for POLITICO Magazine, is also writing a dystopian novel with the working title “The Sapients.”
— Lt. Gen. MICHAEL LANGLEY has been nominated to be the commander of U.S. Africa Command and would receive his fourth star. Langley is currently serving as commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command; commanding general, Fleet Marine Force Atlantic; and commander, Marine Corps Forces North, Norfolk, Virginia. If confirmed by the Senate, Langley would be the first Black Marine Corps four-star officer.
— Former Rep. SCOTT TAYLOR (R-Va.) is now the president of the U.S.-Qatar Business Council.
— WILEY BARNES started last week as the executive director of the Office of Defense Engagement at Colorado State University. Barnes was formerly an Air Force officer and worked at both Palantir and eSimplicity.
— NADÈGE ROLLAND, Foreign Affairs: “China’s Southern Strategy”
— STEVEN COOK, Foreign Policy: “Biden Was Always Going to Need Saudi Arabia”
— IVOR PRICKETT and MARIA VARENIKOVA: “Evacuating the Vulnerable Amid the Terror of War”
— The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 4:00 a.m.: “The 2022 Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment — with LYNN KUOK, TANVI MADAN, YUN SUN and more”’
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies, 8:00 a.m.: “Cooperation on Scientific Innovation, Supply Chains, and Geopolitical Risk in Northeast Asia, — with ROSE BUTCHART”
— House Oversight and Reform Committee, 9:00 a.m.: “The U.S. and International Humanitarian Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine — with CHRISTOPHER STOKES, JOSE ANDRES, AMANDA CATANZANO and PETE WALSH”
— The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, 9:00 a.m.: “Our Immersive Digital Future: How Extended Reality May Affect International Relations”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 10:15 a.m.: “Addressing Rising Tensions Between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda — with JASON STEARNS and MVEMBA PHEZO DIZOLELE”
— The Atlantic Council, 11:00 a.m.: “Are Sanctions on Russia Working?— with MOLLY MONTGOMERY and SVITLANA ZALISCHUK”
— The Brookings Institution, 12:00 p.m.: “The global rise of white supremacist terrorism — with DANIEL BYMAN, VANDA FELBAB-BROWN, J.M BERGER and HEIDI BEIRICH”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to editor, Ben Pauker, who when he makes a mistake, always says “I don’t blame myself.”