Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Rishabh Bhandari
Monday, April 3, 2017, 11:49 AM

An explosion caused by a bomb in a St. Petersburg subway station killed ten people and injured many more, the New York Times writes. President Vladimir Putin said that authorities are investigating the explosion as a possible accident, crime, or act of terrorism, and have not ruled out any possibilities. No group has yet claimed responsibility for what may have been an attack. Officials also discovered and disarmed a second bomb in a nearby subway station.

The Wall Street Journal reports that senior U.S. officials have declared formally that Washington no longer views the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al Assad as a central objective. Instead, the White House and the State Department both have emphasized that the United States is focused on defeating the Islamic State. Remarks by both the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggest that this shift in U.S. policy is a belated recognition of how the landscape has changed since former president Barack Obama called repeatedly and publicly for Assad’s removal.

The Journal also claims that the ongoing civil war in Syria has strengthened Hezbollah, the Shiite paramilitary group closely affiliated with Iran. U.S. and regional experts predict that the Assad regime’s dependence on Hezbollah will only deepen once the war ends and the country must rebuild its fractured economy and society.

The Times tells us that North Korea is publicly signalling the growing sophistication of its nuclear program after intelligence agencies discovered an advertisement by a leading Pyongyang official to sell monthly packages of highly pure lithium 6, an important ingredient for turning an ordinary atom bomb into a hydrogen bomb. The advertisement, which listed the third secretary of the North Korean embassy in China as the seller, has led American researchers to speculate that the Hermit Kingdom is on its way to developing a thermonuclear weapon. North Korea’s nuclear program is expected to top President Donald Trump’s agenda for a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Florida beginning later this week.

The Hill relays a warning by Ash Carter, a former Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama, that a U.S. preemptive strike on North Korea could trigger a retaliatory strike against South Korea. He told Martha Raddatz on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” that Seoul’s proximity to the border meant any act could easily escalate into a destructive war.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Trump declared discloses that the United States may take unilateral actions against North Korea if China does not agree to join the United States in containing the nascent nuclear power. Trump warned that the United States could link U.S. imports of Chinese goods with Beijing’s cooperation on Pyongyang. Beijing has called for tying its efforts vis-a-vis North Korea with a halt in U.S.-South Korean military exercises, a proposal that has been decisively rebuffed by both Washington and Seoul.

The Straits Times reveals that the White House issued two executive orders on Friday following through on Trump’s campaign pledge to get tough on trade with China. The first executive order calls for tighter trade enforcement of tariffs imposed in anti-dumping and anti-subsidy trade cases while the second calls for a comprehensive review of the U.S. trade deficit, a statistic Trump often cited to make his case that China and Mexico were taking American jobs. But neither initiative will likely make a dent in U.S.-Chinese trends, unlike congressional proposals for a border adjusted tax, a proposal that would have far more weight in Beijing.

The New York Times also fills us in on how China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, has established a backdoor channel with Trump’s influential son-in-law Jared Kushner in the lead-up to Thursday’s summit. The two men first connected to mitigate the fallout after Trump took a precedent-shattering phone call with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, in early December. Trump later reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the “One China” policy, a move that Beijing has interpreted as a sign of Kushner’s centrality in this White House. Kushner’s involvement has drawn strong scrutiny surrounding both his purported financial ties with wealthy Chinese businessmen and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s influence, or lack thereof, in the Trump administration.

CNN adds that Kushner landed in Iraq on Monday at the invitation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford. A spokesman for Dunford said Kushner’s visit is a sign of Trump’s support for and commitment to the Iraqi government and U.S. personnel engaged in the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State. According to the New York Times, Kushner’s arrival comes after the U.S.-led coalition announced on Saturday that it is likely at least 229 civilians had been unintentionally killed by its military operations since August 2014. This tally does not include a March 17 strike on Mosul that reportedly killed dozens of civilians. Western-based non-governmental organizations, however, dispute these numbers. The British-based Airwars claims at least 2,831 civilians have died from the coalition’s airstrikes since August 2014.

The Washington Post informs us that Trump will host Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi on Monday, a sign that Cairo and Washington are looking to deepen a complex relationship that touches on sensitive issues ranging from the fight against Islamic fundamentalism to Israel’s security and the geopolitical instability that has engulfed the broader Middle East. An Egyptian head of state has not visited the White House since 2009, an implicit U.S. indictment of a government that has drawn harsh criticism for its authoritarian approach to suppressing dissidents and violating human rights.

Robert Kagan and Michele Dunne opine in the Post that the United States’ rapprochement with Egypt is not just immoral but also bad policy. They advise Trump to ask Sisi to take long-delayed steps to reform Egypt’s economy and reverse a repressive regime that has only stoked radicalization.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, claimed on Sunday that the White House conspired with Representative Devin Nunes, the committee’s Republican chair, to divert public attention from allegations that Moscow collaborated with top aides on the Trump presidential campaign. Nunes spun heads when he announced last month that he had received evidence showing the Obama administration were surveilling members of the Trump campaign electronically. The Guardian has more. Politico quotes Schiff’s skepticism about whether General Michael Flynn should be granted immunity. He said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that it remains ambiguous whether Flynn can add sufficient value to the ongoing investigations.

The Hill adds the laments of Republican Senator John McCain that Nunes “killed” a bipartisan effort to investigate Moscow’s interference in the presidential election. McCain called on Democrats and Republicans to work closely together on the issue and praised his colleagues, Senator Mark Warner and Senator Richard Burr, for their leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But the Post reports that Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insists Trump has not asked her to pull any punches when it comes to Russia. She also unequivocally acknowledged that Russia interfered in U.S. elections and was owed retaliation. Meanwhile, Eliana Johnson writes for Politico that Haley has become the most visible surrogate for Trump’s foreign policy. Her ascension and media availability cuts a sharp contrast to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has largely shirked the public limelight, and positions her as an attractive candidate for higher office in the future.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic posted the latest episode of The Lawfare Podcast, in which Samuel Tadros of the Hoover Institution and the Hudson Institute interviews Graeme Wood on his new book about the Islamic State.

Julian Ku showed how even a minor mistranslation can threaten to roil the fragile yet indispensable relationship between Washington and China.

Andrew Kent offered a guide regarding how we should interpret news that Michael Flynn is seeking immunity from the congressional committees.

Paul Rosenzweig followed up with his own analysis on the Flynn imbroglio.

Paul also gave his thoughts on a civil lawsuit that has been leveled against President Donald Trump in Kentucky.

In the Foreign Policy Essay, Charlie Winter described what he learned about the Islamic State’s three-pronged media strategy after he unearthed the terrorist organization’s media guide for its own operatives.

The Lawfare team broke from its April Fools tradition this Saturday on the grounds that, in this political climate, it’s hard to know what’s implausible.

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