Today's D Brief: Milley looks ahead; New ‘Anti-China alliance’; US drawing down in Iraq; Havana syndrome latest; And a bit more.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley says there was nothing perilous about those phone calls to his Chinese counterpart in the last days of the Trump administration—calls that were made public this week (see CNN and the Washington Post, e.g.) by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa as they promoted their new book, “Peril.”
Just now catching up? “The new book says Milley, fearful of Trump’s actions late in his term, twice called his Chinese counterpart to assure him that the U.S. was not going to attack China,” the Associated Press reminds us. “One call took place on Oct. 30, four days before the American election. The second call was on Jan. 8, less than two weeks before Biden’s inauguration and two days after the insurrection at the Capitol by supporters of Trump.”
Milley: The calls were “routine” and meant “to reassure both allies and adversaries in this case in order to ensure strategic stability,” the Joint Chiefs Chairman told Lita Baldor of the Associated Press and Gordon Lubold of the Wall Street Journal. He didn’t elaborate a great deal further, but said he certainly expects he will be asked to in an upcoming hearing on Capitol Hill scheduled for Sept. 28.
“I’ll go into any level of detail Congress wants to go into in a couple of weeks,” he told Baldor and Lubold. “I think it’s best that I reserve my comments on the record until I do that in front of the lawmakers who have the lawful responsibility to oversee the U.S. military.”
What’s really going on, in one wonky tweet (via Loren DeJonge Schulman): “We seem to have a minor civ-mil crisis because Bob Woodward struggles with context.”
- “Milley’s China Calls During Trump Defeat Were ‘Lawful,’ Conveyed Reassurance, Pentagon Says,” via Defense One’s Tara Copp and Jacqueline Feldscher;
- And don’t miss, “Regrettable: The troubling things I learned when I re-reported Bob Woodward’s book on John Belushi,” by Tanner Colby, writing for Slate in March 2013. (Credit where it’s due on this pull: hat tip to War on the Rocks founder Ryan Evans)
From Defense One
The Marines Are Looking for a Few Older People // Caitlin M. Kenney: The Corps’ shift to a lighter, distributed force requires skills and judgment that may be easier to recruit than build, training chief says.
Generals Should Not Have to Break the Rules to Prevent Nuclear War // Tom Z. Collina: Rather than criticizing Milley, we need to change the policy that put him in an impossible spot.
America’s New Anti-China Alliance // Tom McTague, The Atlantic: The White House wants to build a new world order, all in an effort to preserve the old one.
Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1849, Harriet Tubman and her two brothers, Ben and Henry, escaped from the Poplar Neck enslaved labor farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The brothers, however, had growing reservations about their success and decided to turn back. Harriet eventually made it to Philadelphia several weeks later. Thirteen years later, she’d help lead a U.S. Army mission to free more than 700 enslaved people in a single day from the marshes and rice fields of South Carolina.
The U.S. military will reduce its deployed troops at two Iraqi bases—Ain al-Asad and Erbil—by the end of the month, Baghdad’s military announced Friday on Twitter.
There are currently about 2,500 US troops in Iraq, including in the Kurdistan Region,” Kurdistan’s Rudaw news reports. And current plans involve shifting all those troops to a “non-combat” role by the end of the year, according to Baghdad.
ICYMI six days ago (Sept. 11), two bomb-laden “suicide drones” were intercepted by coalition air defenses at Erbil International Airport, in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to the Washington Institute’s Hamdi Malik and Michael Knights, it was likely an anti-U.S. attack Iran allowed its linked militiamen to carry out to mark 9/11. And it was seemingly an exception to recent attacks, which frequently featured a barrage of rockets as opposed to fixed-wing drones.
“While adopting a ‘wait-and-see’ approach towards the level of U.S. military withdrawal from by the end of the year,” Malik and Knights wrote on Tuesday, “the militias also need to be seen to be ‘resisting’ the United States, and they will primarily create this impression with elevated levels of claimed attacks on trucks that are identified by militias as supplying the U.S.-led coalition.” Read on, here.
Related: The U.S. Treasury Department just sanctioned several alleged Iranian- and Hezbollah-linked businessmen and money launderers—including one man based in China, and others working out of Kuwait, the UAE, and Lebanon. One network alone involves “nearly 20 individuals and front companies, located in multiple countries and jurisdictions, that facilitates the movement and sale of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of gold, electronics, and foreign currency in support of Hizballah and [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force],” according to the Treasury Department. Details here.
The White House is preparing to sanction Ethiopia’s Prime Minister as well as Eritrean officials for prolonging conflict in the Tigray region, which began in Nov. 2020 and has led to the deaths of thousands of people, according to the BBC. The U.S. is also looking into sanctions on officials with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front for its involvement in what the White House called “one of the worst humanitarian and human rights crises in the world, with over 5 million people requiring humanitarian assistance and nearly one million living in famine-like conditions.”
Why this matters: “The 10-month conflict in Tigray has grown from a political dispute into a more serious war threatening stability in Ethiopia, the second-most populous country in Africa and a key U.S. security ally in the region,” the Associated Press reports. “The fighting, which involved various forces and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, has triggered the world’s largest hunger crisis in a decade.”
Some ways forward, according to White House officials, could include “African Union-led mediation” toward some sort of “negotiated ceasefire.” Meanwhile, the ravages of war need to be addressed, officials said; and that involves “authorizing daily convoys of trucks carrying humanitarian supplies to travel overland to reach at-risk populations; reducing delays for humanitarian convoys; and restoring basic services such as electricity, telecommunications, and financial services.” A bit more to all that, here.
“The global climate crisis” is on President Biden’s mind today. He’s calling a meeting of what's known as the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate—or, MEF—in order “to galvanize efforts to confront the global climate crisis” and “emphasize both the urgency and the economic benefits of stronger climate action,” according to the president’s public schedule.
ICYMI: “Climate Change Is Already Disrupting the Military. It Will Get Worse, Officials Say,” via Defense One Science and Tech Editor Patrick Tucker, reporting in August.
For your ears only: Defense One Radio Ep. 87: “Climate change vs. everyone,” and Ep. 41: “Climate Change vs. the US Military”
And lastly this week: Pentagon officials are concerned about possible cases of the so-called Havana syndrome, an unexplained illness that has sickened diplomats and CIA officers at the U.S. embassy in Cuba. And they’re asking troops and civilian employees to seek help and report symptoms if they have them, according to the New York Times.
SecDef Lloyd Austin sent a memo to the military’s 2.9 million troops and civilians on Sept. 15 that flagged possible symptoms, including “sudden and troubling sensory events such as sounds, pressure or heat” at the same time or shortly before developing “headaches, pain, nausea, or disequilibrium (unsteadiness or vertigo).” He also warned employees who experience a similar event to move away from the area immediately and report the incident. Find that memo, here. Read more at the Times, here.
Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!