NATO summit opens; Unrest in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon; Trouble with cyber rules; Trump-favored firm gets Wall contract; And a bit more.

NATO leaders are meeting today in London for an event that’s been “kept deliberately short to minimize the risk of an outburst from [U.S. President Donald] Trump,” the Wall Street Journal reports, echoing what Defense One has heard informally from alliance officials in recent days.

Trump has already taken a few verbal swings at fellow alliance leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, calling him “very nasty” for recent comments about an alleged “brain death” among NATO members today; and Trump dinged Germany’s Angela Merkel “for spending too little on defense,” Reuters reports.

For his part, France’s Macron is pitching a few ideas at London, the Associated Press reports, including setting aside “the endless spending debate” in order to “focus on important strategic questions like who its enemies really are, how to improve ties with Russia and what to do with an unpredictable ally like Turkey,” whom Macron said “sometimes works with ISIS proxies.”

But leaders’ differences with each other may not be the real split. Defense One’s Kevin Baron, reporting from the summit, wonders, “What happens when political leaders no longer automatically go where national security leaders point? There is a growing gap between what the global security community wants and what the public wants. In many NATO countries, it has become politically advantageous to say and do things to cause doubt in the alliance, to openly call for self-protective alternatives, and to challenge its usefulness.” Read on, here

ICYMI: Watch a really good panel discussion on this subject (“What Americans Want”) from last month’s Defense One 2020 Outlook summit, here.


From Defense One

Small Contractors Struggle to Meet Cyber Security Standards, Pentagon Finds // Marcus Weisgerber: Even large companies aren’t doing as well as they think they are, the assistant acquisition chief said Monday.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ankara? // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: The question is not: “Can we live with a rogue Turkey?” but: “Do we have a choice?” said one U.S. official.The Surest Way to Lose to China Is to Disparage Expertise / AEI’s Oriana Skylar Mastro: In this new era of great power competition, we are not investing enough in area specialists.America’s Rivalry With China Is Nothing Like the Cold War / Melvyn P. Leffler: In today’s circumstances, Cold War–era policies are not only unnecessary, but likely to catalyze a destructive spiral of heightening tensions that would make the world a more dangerous place.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. Today in 1775, John Paul Jones first raised the Grand Union Flag — the predecessor to today’s Stars & Stripes — over the U.S. Navy’s flagship, the Alfred


White House officials say Iran may be closer to financial collapse than most observers think, the Wall Street Journal reports. This input comes, in part, from Brian Hook, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for Iran. And Hook is focusing on Iran’s foreign-exchange reserves, which represent “the emergency cash that countries use to pay off trade debt, safeguard currency and stave off financial turmoil.”
Why that matters: “In Iran, the currency reserves are estimated by the International Monetary Fund to be at $86 billion currently, or 20% below the level in 2013, when world-wide financial pressure forced Iran to negotiate on its nuclear program.”
Hook cites classified intelligence to suggest to the Journal that he believes “Tehran has access to only 10% of those cash reserves, as sanctions against the financial sector prevent the government from tapping them.”
Critical caveat: “The state of Iran’s economy is clouded by unknowns, as the country’s economic statistics aren’t always considered reliable or transparent, and intelligence from U.S. allies indicate Iran’s government may have sufficient amounts of off-book income to ease its shortfall.”
So what next? “They are in a state of panicked aggression,” a senior White House official told the Journal. That official anticipates more attacks “against energy supplies and [the] deployment of precision-guided missiles in Lebanon and Syria.” More about sanctions and Iran’s petroleum economy behind the paywall, here.
Elsewhere across Iran, security forces have killed more than 200 protesters since November, according to the human rights group Amnesty International. 
Iran’s reax: “I bluntly say that numbers and figures given by hostile groups are sheer lies,” Iran’s Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told reporters today. “Real statistics are seriously different from what they announce and numbers are far less than what they claim.” More from AP, here.

Iraq is without a prime minister; the parliament accepted the resignation of Adil Abdul-Mahdi on Sunday. That means now “the Trump administration faces Baghdad’s unpredictable succession process, entrenched political interests and competition from Iran,” the Wall Street Journal reported Monday evening. 
Context: “Iran is trying to shape the course of political developments in Baghdad,” WSJ’s Michael Gordon writes. “But it is facing considerable headwinds: an increasingly nationalistic Iraqi public that is resentful of political interventions by foreign powers.”
One high-profile illustration of Iraqi resentment occurred last week when protesters “set fire to the Iranian consulate in the Shiite pilgrimage city of Najaf.”
“The United States appears to be totally on the sidelines,” Brett McGurk told Gordon. “That’s risky because this nationalist current, while anti-Iran, is not at all pro-American. It’s pro-Iraq and can swing in any direction including to a new government that no longer wants us there at all.” More, here.

Unrest is still roiling Lebanon, where — to make sense of it all — you must “follow the trash,” the New York Times reports today from Beirut. Why? “[T]he country’s blond-sand beaches are now scarred with plastic bottles and its mountain streams befouled by open dumps,” the Times’ Vivian Yee and Hwaida Saad write. “The government’s inability to provide basic services, including 24-hour electricity and garbage collection, is rooted in an agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war nearly 30 years ago. The deal divided power between the nation’s 18 recognized religious sects, effectively institutionalizing corruption, with each group able to dole out government jobs, contracts, favors and social services to its followers.”
Bigger picture: “The issue is not limited to garbage — nor to a few politicians.” Read on for more, here.
BTW: The White House finally lifted its “mysterious” hold on $105 million in aid to Lebanon, NYTs and AP reported Monday. 
Background on that: “The money had languished in limbo at the Office of Management and Budget since September although it had already won congressional approval and had overwhelming support from the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council. The White House has yet to offer any explanation for the delay despite repeated queries from Congress.” More here.

And lastly today: A North Dakota company President Trump favored just got a $400 million contract “to build a span of new barrier across an Arizona wildlife refuge,” the Washington Post reported Monday off a routine Pentagon contract release. 
Involved: “North Dakota-based Fisher Sand and Gravel won the contract to build in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Yuma County, Ariz., the Defense Department said, with a target completion date of Dec. 30, 2020.”
Background: “Trump has repeatedly pushed for Fisher to get a wall-building contract, urging officials with the Army Corps of Engineers to pick the firm — only to be told that Fisher’s bids did not meet standards… Trump has been enamored with Tommy Fisher, the company’s chief executive, who has made multiple appearances on Fox News to promote his firm and insists that it would do a better job than those the government had already chosen.” More here.

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