Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN National Security Analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. This commentary has been updated to reflect the news.
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues the President needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
Mission semi-accomplished: From do not congratulate to do not escalate
In the aftermath of the coalition strikes in Syria, we assess that the mission was only semi-accomplished. This could lead the regime to use chemical weapons again.
Publicly, the administration described this as a three-part mission: respond to the chemical weapons attack, hold Assad responsible for his actions and deter future chemical weapons use in Syria and elsewhere. But there is a fourth component – do not escalate – which we are also tracking.
- Respond to the Douma attack: This mission was accomplished. The coalition strikes were precisely aimed at punishing the Assad regime for its attack in Douma – seen as a significant escalation in its ongoing use of chemical weapons. With 105 Tomahawk missiles, our intelligence indicates that coalition strikes successfully hit the targets we had identified for engagement.
- Hold Assad responsible: This mission was not accomplished. Despite hitting our targets, it does not appear that Assad feels any responsibility – or shame – for his use of chemical weapons. Syria and its patron, Russia, have continued to deny regime involvement in the attack, and Russia called for a special UN Security Council meeting on Saturday to condemn the coalition strikes for our “aggression” against a sovereign state. It is highly likely that the Syrian regime (and Russia) will continue to deny Assad’s responsibility for using chemical weapons or, more broadly, targeting civilians and committing war crimes. Our coalition is convinced (as it has been in previous cases of chemical weapons use) that Assad was responsible, but the strikes have not changed Assad’s public posture or personal sense of responsibility.
- Deter future chemical weapons use: The success of this mission is unknowable at this juncture. The administration publicly assessed that the strikes will significantly impact the regime’s ability to develop, deploy and use chemical weapons in the future, and that the strikes set their chemical weapons program back by years. But whether the strikes levied an unbearable cost on the regime, such that it is deterred from using chemical weapons again because it doesn’t want to risk suffering similar costs, will require further time to assess. Our deterrent capability will also rely on the Syrians, and any other actors considering chemical weapons use, believing that we will act again if they use those weapons. But the administration needs a consistent message on this point to have any real deterrent effect. White House comments about a sustained mission, Defense Secretary James Mattis’ statements that this was a one-shot operation and then Ambassador Nikki Haley’s comments about the US being locked and loaded to act again undermine our deterrent ability because of their inconsistency. Any whiplash associated with trying to ascertain administration policy is not going to deter bad actors from using chemical weapons because they won’t be convinced that we’re prepared to act again.
- Do not escalate: This mission was accomplished. The administration carefully calibrated the strikes, and public comments about their scale and intent, such that we did not upset the Russians too much. Public briefings noted the narrow scope of the coalition operation – that the United States has a vital interest in preventing chemical weapons use – and hence the missile strikes. We concurrently delivered the message that the United States has no interest in engaging in the Syrian civil war, and we emphasized that the main objective of US forces in Syria remains to “defeat ISIS.” These messages were heard loud and clear in Moscow. Despite public displays of outrage, the Russians appear willing to take these strikes in stride. We have no indication that Russian air defense systems were employed against our missiles, which could indicate a Russian decision to not directly use their systems against the coalition, on the calculation that they didn’t want to risk direct confrontation with our forces. In other words, Russia will voice discontent publicly and even use trolls and other means to amplify false information about the attack in Douma and the coalition response, but we shouldn’t be too concerned.
We do assess that the missile strikes and subsequent statements by the coalition may have left Assad feeling more empowered to use other means of violence against civilians. Because we repeatedly emphasized our narrow focus on countering ISIS and chemical weapon use – and not, for example, preventing a regime tactic of using barrel bombs against civilian – the regime may continue to target and murder civilians by other means.
Abe visit: No golfing but maybe some war gaming
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is visiting Mar-a-Lago this week, and while we assess that he is coming to the United States with private concerns over some US policy initiatives, it is highly likely that he will want to continue to showcase the health of the bilateral relationship.
The domestic Japanese backdrop for this meeting is notable: US favorability in Japan has decreased. Recent polling shows that 62% of Japanese name US power and influence as a major threat to Japan (up 10 percentage points in the past year). And while a majority of Japanese (57%) hold a favorable view of the United States, this is down 15 points from 2016. Abe has invested a lot of personal time and attention in your relationship so will want a “win” of a visit.
During the Abe visit, it will be important to send a signal about the strength of our alliance. This visit is not happening in a vacuum: Our friends and our enemies around the world will be watching closely. Perceptions of how the administration views alliances have likely been impacted after some mixed messages about the US commitment to the principle of collective defense under our NATO alliance commitments, strained relations with our ally Mexico over the border wall and public comments by leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel that our alliances are not as steadfast as they once were. A firm public show of unity will signal that American allies can disagree with us, but we will still hold strong to our alliance.
Abe last visited Mar-a-Lago in February when North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, and you stopped in Tokyo during your trip to Asia. The bromance narrative between you and Abe can be nurtured even while you discuss two areas where you may have policy difference: North Korea and trade.
Abe is worried about any softening in the US position on North Korea, including any indications the United States will apply less pressure to the regime than before. Abe is likely pleased that John Bolton, who has called for military action against North Korea, is now national security adviser, and he will likely want a reassurance that even if a meeting with Kim does occur, nothing will change until Kim takes real steps to curb illegal weapons programs and human rights abuses.
Abe has said that “dialogue for the sake of dialogue is meaningless” and there are reports that Japan feels out of the loop on North Korea, so a private reassurance that the United States remains committed to denuclearization before lifting pressure – coupled with a public statement related to the United States and Japan working together to counter North Korea – is probably what will go furthest in strengthening the relationship between our two countries.
Trade is also going to be a sore subject. Japan did not get an exemption – like other major US allies did – under the new a steel and aluminum tariffs, (Japan is the largest foreign supplier to be excluded) which undoubtedly hurt not just Abe’s feelings but his credibility back home in Japan.
The door is still open, or at least ajar, for Japan to get an exemption. Countries that didn’t initially get a waiver could “discuss” ways to address US concerns, and Japan’s trade minister did state publicly that there was a “high chance” that some of its steel and aluminum products would be exempted.
But Abe may also be hoping to discuss a multilateral trade deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership, after you instructed your staff to examine the United States re-entering the TPP.
Japan is a member of the 11-nation trade agreement, and Abe has viewed the deal as a way to spur growth in Japan. If the United States (re)joined and (re)added our economic clout, Abe can go back home touting additional economic benefits for Japan.
Abe took a big bet domestically when he announced Japan’s desire to join the TPP back in 2013 (there were some domestic forces opposed to the agreement) and is probably hoping that you’ll take a bet on multilateralization this time around. But Japan has already drawn a line in the sand over any US efforts to renegotiate the TPP, saying it would be extremely difficult to renegotiate the agreement.