Trump hits China on N. Korea; US spent $1.5 trillion on wars; Russian live-fire drill in Med; Joy in Raqqa as women rebuild; and just a bit more...

President Trump has apparently cancelled U.S. military “war games” on the Korean peninsula. The message came in a broad window into the president’s thinking about the North Korean denuclearization problem facing the White House. In a self-referential tweet early Wednesday evening, Trump wrote “President Donald J. Trump feels strongly that North Korea is under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese Government. At the same time, we also know that China is providing North Korea with considerable aid, including money, fuel, fertilizer and various other commodities. This is not helpful!”

After a line about Trump’s “very good and warm” relationship with North Korea’s leader, Trump got to the military exercises: “there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games. Besides, the President can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea, and Japan, if he so chooses. If he does, they will be far bigger than ever before.” And about the rest (“U.S.-China trade disputes, and other differences”), Trump said he and “China’s great President Xi Jinping” will work it all out later.

China’s reax: “irresponsible,” Reuters reports. More fully, “The U.S. side’s irresponsible distortion of facts and logic is world-leading and really not something the ordinary person can understand,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

But wait — there’s “no reason” for the exercises, right? Well, here’s what a Pentagon spox to Reuters after the president’s tweet-storm: “Routine planning continues for major ROK-US exercises on the Peninsula in accordance with the normal exercise program planning cycle,” without elaborating.

It would appear that SecDef Mattis has been rebuffed again. This comes a day after the defense secretary appeared to suggest that the joint exercises, cancelled by Trump in a surprise June order, might be restarted. (Add this to the list of POTUS’s public pushbacks on his SecDef.)

From Defense One

Women Rise as Raqqa Rebuilds Without the World’s Help // Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Local women and local security are reawakening the Syrian city, with few Americans in sight.

The Plan to End the Korean War // Uri Friedman, The Atlantic: An adviser to South Korea’s president explains what it might mean to finally declare the conflict over—and why the proposal has now become a sticking point in nuclear talks.

John McCain, Nuclear Disarmament, and What Might Have Been // Joe Cirincione: If McCain had become president in 2008, the world might have had far fewer nuclear weapons today.

No Matter Who Wins the Syrian Civil War, Israel Loses // David Kenner, The Atlantic: Assad is Iran’s most important Arab ally; his would-be successors are Sunni militias and jihadists. Netanyahu’s overtures to Putin can’t change that.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief  by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. On this day in 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed at Atsugi Airport in Japan and drove himself to Yokohama so that he could oversee the formal surrender of the Japanese.

Russia is about to put some rounds down range from the Med, announcing “major military drills” there next week — and maybe even part of a widely-publicized probable offensive against rebels in northwestern Syria.
Involved: “25 ships, including a missile cruiser, and 30 jets” focusing “on anti-air and anti-submarine defense,” the Associated Press reports from Moscow.
Read more about that likely offensive on NW Syria’s Idlib province at this AP report, also filed this morning and from Beirut.
The quick read: “If a campaign does proceed against Idlib, it is likely to follow the formula set in previous battles. Russian and Syrian warplanes would launch wave after wave of devastating airstrikes, before government forces besiege towns and cities, forcing residents to surrender or starve.” Worth the review, here.

Death toll revised upward for Hurricane Maria. An estimated 2,975 people died in the storm or its aftermath, which saw “widespread and lengthy power outages, a lack of access to adequate health care, water insecurity and diseases related to the crisis,” according to a report released Tuesday by George Washington University. The study was requested by the Puerto Rican government, which has accepted the topline figure as its official death toll. (A Harvard study earlier this year estimated the toll as between 800 and 8,000.)
That puts the 2017 storm in the top five U.S. disasters by deaths, just after the 1900 Galveston hurricane, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the 9/11 attacks.
Will the U.S. government learn from its response to the island’s crisis, widely criticized as poorer than those to Texas and Louisiana communities hit by Maria? “I think we did a fantastic job,” Trump told a reporter who asked him about it on Wednesday.

U.S. is denying passports to Americans along the border. Washington Post: “In some cases, passport applicants with official U.S. birth certificates are being jailed in immigration detention centers and entered into deportation proceedings. In others, they are stuck in Mexico, their passports suddenly revoked when they tried to reenter the United States.”
U.S. officials say it’s just business as usual, but: “cases identified by The Washington Post and interviews with immigration attorneys suggest a dramatic shift in both passport issuance and immigration enforcement.”
Why? “The government alleges that from the 1950s through the 1990s, some midwives and physicians along the Texas-Mexico border provided U.S. birth certificates to babies who were actually born in Mexico.”
Not holding up in court. Passport applicants who can afford the legal fees are suing the government over the passport denials. “Typically, the applicants eventually win those cases, after government attorneys raise a series of sometimes bizarre questions about their birth.” Read on, here.  

Hard to put $1.5 trillion into perspective, but the Pentagon now estimates the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have collectively cost U.S. taxpayers more than that, according to the Defense Department's "Quarter 2 Cost of War Update as of March 31, 2018," shared Wednesday on Twitter by Stephen Schwartz of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
This $1.5 trillion figure is actually in line with a Pentagon estimate from last year, reported by Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber at the time.
What’s more, adds Schwartz: “An independent 2017 estimate, which took into account costs for which DOD is not responsible and therefore ignores—including care for veterans, Homeland Security, and interest paid to borrow money to pay for wars—pegged the total cost at $5.6 trillion.” Find that Brown University study, here.  

A closer look: What an “end to the Afghan war” means to both the U.S. and the Taliban. It’s important that we understand it is not the same thing, The Long War Journal’s Thomas Joscelyn reminded folks Wednesday.
His start point: The day prior, on Tuesday, "Secretary of Defense Mattis trumpeted a recent statement by Taliban emir Hibatullah Akhundzada as evidence the Taliban is willing to negotiate 'an end to the war.'” Writes Joscelyn, “Mattis's take is a gross mischaracterization."
The difference, in short:  The Taliban wants an end to the "American occupation." However, Joscelyn emphases, "the chief goal of the negotiations referenced by Mattis is for the Taliban to reconcile with the Afghan government” — a government that the Taliban perceive as “corrupt” and “forced upon the Afghan people at the expense of [a] huge American military.”
So where does this leave us? With very little “hope for the reconciliation plan Mattis envisions,” at least publicly. Read Joscelyn’s entire thread on the topic, here.  

Finally this morning — On our podcast this week: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Defense One contributor and author of “Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” She recently returned from a trip to northeastern Syria, and she’ll tell us all about what signs of optimism she saw there, expanding on her report in Defense One on Wednesday. We’ll also dive into a lengthy discussion with Gayle on the possible futures of Afghanistan — before pivoting to Austin, Texas, for the opening of the U.S. Army’s new Futures Command. Subscribe on iTunes, Overcast or Google Play to catch that episode when its released on Friday...

A sample of Gayle’s report on what she saw: “Joy. Pure joy. Joy contagious enough to crush any tired war-observer’s cynicism. There was dancing. The spirit of possibility. The blaring music. The mix of people, men and women, young and old. The place. This is Raqqa today. That was the first surprise.” Read on, here.