With help from Christopher Miller and Daniel Lippman
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A note to all students of international relations: If you want to see “realpolitik” in action, make sure to watch two minutes of President JOE BIDEN’s news conference in Israel today.
Alex was in attendance for the event, which followed Biden’s bilateral with Israeli Prime Minister YAIR LAPID. Reporters had to be at the Waldorf Astoria two hours early, giving us time to wash down sandwiches with warm water while chatting up administration officials. All those conversations were off the record, but it’s safe to say something on all of our minds, amid the glitz and glamor of the moment, was if Biden planned to address the murder of journalist and dissident JAMAL KHASHOGGI while in Saudi Arabia.
After all, he’s headed to Jeddah on Friday, and the press hadn’t had much of a chance to speak with the president directly since he arrived on Wednesday. Plus, the slain U.S. resident’s wife, HANAN ELATR KHASHOGGI, told Fox News that the White House promised her husband’s killing would be mentioned.
Reuters’ STEVE HOLLAND, seated right behind Alex at the presser, forced the issue when he asked Biden if he would bring up Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses directly with Saudi leaders, namely Crown Prince MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN.
The president dodged.
“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear, and I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” but “the reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia, though, is much broader. It’s to promote U.S. interests,” Biden said. “We have an opportunity to reassert what I think we made a mistake of walking away from: our influence in the Middle East.”
When Holland pressed that Biden, therefore, didn’t expect to bring up Khashoggi with MBS, the president asserted that his position on the matter is “so clear. If anyone doesn’t understand it, in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven’t been around for a while.”
It was hard to hear on the livestream, but at the conclusion of the event, a reporter asked Biden if he would mention Khashoggi’s name explicitly in Jeddah. Biden either didn’t hear or ignored the question as he walked away.
Translation: We’re moving on from Khashoggi. America’s national interests matter more than continuing to badger Saudi Arabia over the grisly murder, because without Riyadh the U.S. can’t secure more oil exports, stabilize a fragile ceasefire in Yemen or aptly counter Iran.
It was as clear a distillation of the age-old IR realist argument that, ultimately, the national interest supersedes values. Former President DONALD TRUMP made the same pitch just nine days after Khashoggi’s murder, saying the U.S. couldn’t sever ties with Saudi Arabia because the kingdom kept investing billions in the American economy. Biden’s formulation was less crude, and came four years later, but it was effectively the same reasoning toward different ends.
The president’s remarks confirmed what was long suspected: His Middle East swing was primarily about bringing Saudi Arabia in from the cold and rekindling that love and feeling between Washington and Riyadh — because the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia again as Iran nears having enough enriched materials for a nuclear weapon and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dwindles energy supplies.
The president’s apparent frustration echoed that of some of his aides. In recent days, and on this trip, Alex has heard increasing complaints from administration officials about the media’s continued focus on Khashoggi. Biden has shaken the hand of Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN, for example, but that hasn’t warranted endless column inches.
And national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN couldn’t hide his irritation Wednesday on Air Force One when he chastised the media for “glossing over” Yemen, “which we regard is a massive human rights issue.” The ceasefire has lasted for three months because direct diplomacy led Riyadh to abide by it, “and that has saved a significant number of lives and improved a significant number of lives in Yemen,” he said.
We’re off to Jeddah on Friday, where Biden will find it harder to ignore the Khashoggi issue. It’ll loom over his bilateral with Saudi King SALMAN, who will be flanked by MBS. But Biden planted his flag in Israel, making clear that he’s ready to focus on larger issues in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. In fact, the president promised to carry a message for Israeli leaders: Jerusalem is ready and eager to normalize relations with regional countries — wink wink, nudge nudge.
It’s there in the Saudi coastal city, then, that Biden will face his first big test about whether the U.S. can, truly, move on from Khashoggi.
ANOTHER BLOW TO 2-STATE SOLUTION: Biden says and says again that a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians is “the best way” for both peoples to live in long-term peace. But a joint communiqué he signed with Israeli PM Lapid on Thursday delivered a blow to the fledging process.
“The United States and Israel commit to continuing to discuss the challenges and opportunities in Israeli-Palestinian relations,” it reads. In normal-people speak, both countries simply agreed to talk about having talks — which is weak language compared to years of strong commitment toward the project.
That line didn’t come as much of a surprise. Alex asked a senior administration official Wednesday night just how dead the two-state solution is. The answer? Pretty dead.
After the Trump administration severed ties to Palestinians and last year’s 11-day war between Hamas-led Gaza and Israel, the U.S. was “not going to come in with a top-down peace plan, because we don’t believe that that would be the best approach and it would set expectations that would probably fall flat,” a senior administration said.
The hope is that Biden can help break the ice a bit when he meets with Palestinian Authority President MAHMOUD ABBAS on Friday in the West Bank.
“We’re trying to do what we can to try to get a bit of a foundation in place to make some progress,” the official continued.
The word “foundation” jumps out: After decades of trying to broker a peace, it seems we’re back to the foundation phase of the process.
MISSILE THREAT TO AMERICANS IN UKRAINE: A deadly Russian missile strike on a civilian building in central Vinnytsia on Thursday prompted the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv to send out its first email alert to Americans in Ukraine since May, our own CHRISTOPHER MILLER wrote in. The subject line was also the first of its kind since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24: “Missile Threat Awareness.”
“Avoid large gatherings and organized events as they may serve as Russian military targets anywhere in Ukraine, including its western regions,” the email said. Advice for what to do if you should hear air raid sirens or find yourself caught in a missile barrage that followed.
“The security situation throughout Ukraine is highly volatile, and conditions may deteriorate without warning,” it continued, adding that Americans in the country should leave immediately.
The embassy in Kyiv has sent about a dozen security and travel alerts to Americans in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion. But this one took on an especially urgent tone in light of Thursday’s attack and a new trend that seems to have emerged.
Russia has stepped up long-range missile attacks far from the frontlines in eastern Ukraine over the past few weeks. In late June, a Russian missile destroyed a busy shopping mall in Kremenchuk; last weekend a missile struck an apartment building in Chasiv Yar; on Monday barrage hit a shopping center and civilian homes in Kharkiv; and then today a Vinnytsia community center known as the House of Officers, which was set to host a pop concert in the evening, was demolished.
Taken together, dozens of people were killed in attacks. Among the victims in Vinnytsia was a 3-year-old girl name Liza with Down’s syndrome who had been pushing her stroller and hamming it up in a video made with her mother just minutes before. Authorities said her mother survived but lost part of one of her legs and was fighting for her life in intensive care.
Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYYsaid the strike on Vinnytsia was “an audacious act of Russian terror.” Prime Minister DENIS SHMYHALcalled for the West to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
DEMOCRATS STYMIE F-16 SALE TO TURKEY: Democratic lawmakers are standing in the way of the administration’s plan to sell advanced U.S. fighter jets to Turkey, reports our own ANDREW DESIDERIO. The House is voting this week on a bipartisan measure to significantly restrict Biden’s ability to send the F-16s to Ankara, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair BOB MENENDEZ (D-N.J.) is already refusing to sign off on the transfer.
Menendez — one of four lawmakers whose approval is required for foreign military sales — has long opposed the sale, and he doubled down this week after Biden said at the NATO summit last month that he wanted to sell the jets to Turkey. Biden’s remarks came after Turkey dropped its opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, but the White House said his comments weren’t connected to Turkey’s reversal.
It’s the latest high-profile foreign policy dispute between Democrats in Congress and Biden officials. Taken together, the lawmakers’ effort makes it nearly impossible for the administration to follow through on its stated desire to sell the jets to a NATO ally that critics say is embracing authoritarianism and violating the sovereignty of neighboring nations.
IT’S THURSDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.
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GRINER BACK IN COURT: American basketball star BRITTNEY GRINER was back in a Russian court Thursday to continue the so-called trial where she pleaded guilty to drug possession charges, the Associated Press’ JIM HEINTZ reported, noting that a character witness came to her defense.
“[T]he guilty plea could be an effort to expedite the court proceedings so any negotiations could move forward. A senior Russian diplomat has said no action could be taken by Moscow until the trial was over,” per the AP.
There’s been widespread speculation that Russia wants to trade Griner for VIKTOR BOUT, an infamous arms dealer known as “The Merchant of Death.” The administration has so far been reluctant to make such a deal, seeing Bout as too high a price to pay for Griner’s return.
That could change as pressure mounts on the White House and State Department to bring Griner home. But the prospects for the moment don’t look good, especially since the Kremlin likely isn’t feeling generous following the U.S.-led response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
CIA LEAKER CONVICTED: Former CIA engineer JOSHUA SCHULTE was convicted Wednesday in federal court for stealing the largest cache of classified information in the agency’s history.
“The so-called Vault 7 leak revealed how the CIA hacked Apple and Android smartphones in overseas spying operations, and efforts to turn internet-connected televisions into listening devices. Prior to his arrest, Schulte had helped create the hacking tools as a coder at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia,” the Associated Press’ LARRY NEUMEISTER and TOM HAYS reported.
Prosecutors said Schulte wanted to leak the information because he was disrespected following complaints about his work environment. They also said he tried to cover up the leak, with an assistant U.S. attorney pointing to an agenda item Schulte had: “Delete suspicious emails.”
Schulte, however, claims his innocence. “Hundreds of people had access,” to the information, he said in court. “Hundreds of people could have stolen it.”
“The government’s case is riddled with reasonable doubt,” he continued, adding: “There’s simply no motive here.”
HYPER ACTIVITY: Our friends at Morning Defense reported that the Air Force announced it conducted the second consecutive successful test of its air-launched hypersonic weapon, signaling that the missile — which failed three flight tests — may finally be ready to enter production.
The AGM-183 was supposed to be fielded this year, but Air Force Secretary FRANK KENDALL told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May that the outcome of the two scheduled flight tests this year would determine whether the project is canceled or enters production.
The service has invested more than $1.9 billion in the program since fiscal 2019. It is seeking $114 million in fiscal 2023 to continue the test program but has not set aside funding for production.
And the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency also announced Wednesday that the military completed the first flight test of a hypersonic weapon that uses a Marine Corps logistics truck as a launcher, along with Army artillery fire control systems.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY –– OSSOFF WANTS MORE EMBASSIES IN PACIFIC: Sen. JON OSSOFF (D-Ga.) wants the U.S. to build more embassies in the Pacific islands to show America’s commitment to the region and push back on China.
In a May 19 letter, which has not yet been reported, Ossoff said he wanted a line item in his $40.2 million request to go toward the construction of missions in Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tonga. China “is rapidly making inroads through infrastructure development under the Belt and Road Initiative, and recently inked a security agreement with the Solomon Islands. The United States simply does not have a sufficiently robust diplomatic presence to effectively project our strength and stand up for our values in this region. To build relationships and shore up U.S. leadership in the Pacific, we need to be physically present,” he wrote.
Ossoff’s letter, sent to Senate Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs leaders Sens. CHRIS COONS (D-Del.) and LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.), comes amid increased interest in America’s relations to the Pacific Islands as Beijing makes moves to be the dominant regional player.
To combat this, the administration appointed JOSEPH YUN as a special envoy for compact negotiations with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. KURT CAMPBELL, the NSC’s top Asia staffer, also hurried to the Solomon Islands following its signature of a national security deal with China.
By having embassies in specific Pacific island countries, though, Ossoff hopes America can improve its regional position. “Expanding our diplomatic presence in this vital region would allow our diplomats and development experts to more securely and effectively deepen relationships and counter the influence of the Chinese government,” he wrote.
On Tuesday, Vice President KAMALA HARRIS said that the U.S. is looking to open new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati as a way to improve regional relations.
HOUSE MOVES TO MAKE UFO REPORTING EASIER: The House on Wednesday passed a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would create a secure government system for reporting UFOs and compel officials to reveal what they might know about the mysterious phenomena by promising to protect them from reprisal, report our own BRYAN BENDER and LAWRENCE UKENYE.
The measure by Reps. MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.) and RUBÉN GALLEGO (D-Ariz.) is part of an aggressive effort to exert more oversight over an enduring intelligence-gathering challenge that has gained more attention in recent years.
Congress has mandated that the Defense Department and intelligence agencies more aggressively investigate UFOs, including unexplained sightings of highly advanced aircraft violating protected military airspace. But lawmakers still express frustration that the Pentagon effort isn’t robust enough, and officials complain that the national security agencies have more information that isn’t being reported up the chain or shared with Congress.
MURPHY: DON’T APPEASE SAUDI ARABIA: As Biden is making the case for getting back to normal with Saudi Arabia, one of his biggest allies in the Senate is telling him to do the opposite.
“Over and over again, the Saudi government acts in ways that are directly contrary to U.S. security interests, and over and over again, the United States just looks the other way,” Sen. CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.) wrote in Foreign Policy. “Speculation abounds that Biden’s long-awaited trip to Riyadh could finally convince Saudi Arabia to expand oil production. But why must it take an emergency visit from a U.S. president to get Saudi leaders to choose their ally? Hasn’t the whole point of our decision to look the other way—from the war crimes, the bone saws, and the beheadings—been to make sure that when the United States needed Saudi Arabia, it would be there for us?”
Murphy has long been a critic of Saudi Arabia, arguing overly friendly ties with Riyadh isn’t necessarily in the U.S. strategic interest. In fact, he says that if the U.S. stopped being so cozy with the kingdom, then it would have no choice but to improve ties with Iran.
The senator goes on to say that Riyadh has effectively sided with Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine, so why should Biden reward the kingdom?
“Often, Saudi and U.S. interests align. And when they do, we should be partners. But at this moment—in this national emergency—Saudi Arabia’s clear decision to choose our adversary over us is more than enough proof that our relationship must change,” he wrote.
— SCOTT SUOZZI has joined the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition as director of military outreach. He is a retired U.S. Navy commander who previously was an adviser at the Gary Sinise Foundation and an associate dean at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.
— DAN TOMANELLI has joined Voyager as director of national security space. He most recently was a public sector manager at Orbital Insight.
— BRIAN WHITING has joined Blue Star Families as chief transformation officer. He previously was CEO of the USO of Metropolitan New York.
— RAND PAUL, The American Conservative: “Should NATO Admit Sweden and Finland?”
— KATE SNOW and ALICIA VICTORIA LOZANO, NBC News: “Before Brittney Griner, an American Israeli Woman Was Held in a Russian Prison for Having Cannabis”
— REEMA BANDAR ALSAUD, POLITICO Magazine: “Opinion: A New Shape for U.S-Saudi Relations”
— Biden will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He also will deliver remarks at Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem and visit the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank before traveling to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
— The State Department, 10:30 a.m.: “Release of the 2022 Elie Wiesel Act Report to Congress and the First-Ever U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities — with ISOBEL COLEMAN, WENDY SHERMAN and ANNE WITKOWSKY”
— Politics and Prose, 7 p.m.: “They Want to Kill Americans: The Militias, Terrorists, and Deranged Ideology of the Trump Insurgency — with ZERLINA MAXWELL and MALCOLM NANCE”
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And thanks to our editor, John Yearwood, who has no “top-down peace plan” to repair the relationship between Alex and Quint.