As Congress returns: foreign policy looms large

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On July 14, 2017, the House passed, with strong bipartisan support, its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY18 by a vote of 344–81. The Senate did not consider its version of the annual, must-pass defense policy bill before departing for August recess, and is set to dispense with the legislation this week. Thereafter, a conference committee will be formed to resolve the differences between the House-and Senate-passed versions. With top-line defense spending levels in each bill that exceed the $549 billion cap on base DOD spending for FY18 imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, lawmakers must raise the defense spending cap for FY18, which will inevitably require Congressional Republicans to make concessions to their Democratic colleagues on a domestic spending cap increase. A deal to increase the FY18 defense and domestic spending caps will likely be struck within the broader framework of the required short-term CR. Congress has sent the NDAA to the president every year for the past 55 consecutive years, and that streak will continue this year.

North Korea

Amidst escalating rhetoric and shows of force between North Korea and the US and its East Asian allies over North Korea’s unwavering pursuit of advancements in its nuclear capabilities and corresponding missile tests, the UN Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea on August 5, 2017, including a prohibition on key mineral and other exports from the totalitarian state. Undaunted, the Kim Jong Un regime fired a ballistic missile over the northern tip of Japan on August 29—one of the Hermit Kingdom’s most provocative acts in the past 20 years.

State-run media described the launch as “a meaningful prelude to containing Guam,” a US territory in the Western Pacific that serves as a strategic hub for US military power projection throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford, while continuing to emphasize that the US has a range of military options that are immediately deployable, insist that diplomatic engagement with the mercurial Kim regime remains the preferred option for mitigating tensions arising from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Afghanistan

President Trump campaigned on a promise to withdraw from military conflicts abroad, including Afghanistan. However, on August 20, 2017, he announced a new US plan for Afghanistan based on his administration’s policy review. Trump’s plan is to deploy more troops there, with primarily a training purpose for the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police. He also suggested the US will place even more pressure on Pakistan, which supports militants inside Afghanistan, to stop providing sanctuary, support and a platform to the Taliban. Under the Trump plan, the US will also continue its counter­terrorism mission with US Special Forces in Afghanistan.

Trump declined to indicate the amount of the troop increase, the benchmarks for success or how long US troops will stay. His plan is not altogether different from the last administration and can be viewed as a victory for Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, both of whom advocated for continued US commitment in Afghanistan to prevent the ascendancy of the Taliban and ISIS that would surely occur in the wake of a withdrawal.

The plan also calls for greater emphasis on diplomacy and economic development in Afghanistan, but these goals will be difficult to achieve with the proposed cuts to State Department and AID funding.