The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: There’s No Such Thing as a Bilateral Spat

The week ahead in national security. Plus: The U.S. says Iran is “lashing out,” but even if the two nations aren’t headed for war, the conflict is now ensnaring other countries.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meet in Tehran on June 13.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meet in Tehran on June 13. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

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The Top Story

(ISNA / Handout / Reuters)

Response and Responsibility

After weeks of heat between Washington and Tehran, two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman this week, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran was to blame.

The escalation doesn’t just involve the United States and Iran, Kathy Gilsinan reports. Thursday’s attack—which appeared similar to an attack on Saudi, Emirati, and Norwegian tankers last month—showed how the conflict is growing and ensnaring many more countries. There’s Panama and the Marshall Islands, where the tankers are chartered; Singapore and Taiwan, where the ships were bringing their cargo; and Japan, which is home to a company that owns one of the tankers.

At the time, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Iran meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Abe said Khamenei told him that he has no intention of making or using nuclear weapons.

Pompeo said “Iran is lashing out” because it wants Washington’s “successful maximum-pressure campaign lifted.” But despite the severity and the clear economic effect of sanctions, Ali Vaez argues the campaign won’t work: “The one thing Tehran would find more intolerable than the crushing impact of sanctions is raising the white flag because of them.” But even as Pompeo called Iran’s attacks a threat to international peace and security, he still emphasized diplomatic and economic options—rather than military options—as the path forward.

In an interview with The Atlantic, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter responded directly to Pompeo’s statement: “I would nevertheless be at least preparing options for a military response.” But he refused to set a red line for the point at which the United States should act militarily.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently gave Europe a deadline of July 7 to set new terms of the 2015 nuclear accord or else deal with Tehran not following through on its commitments. As that date approaches, will Iran and its proxies in the Middle East—including Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are ramping up attacks on Saudi targets—give in to American threats and cease their campaign of hostility? Donald Trump says it’s “too soon” for the United States to even consider making a deal with Iran. Yet few other options remain.

🗓 The Week Ahead in National Security

Monday, June 17: Forty-seven years ago, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate building. You know what happened in the following two years.

Tuesday, June 18: U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer testifies at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Trump’s trade-policy agenda and the proposed free-trade deal that would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. What kind of a negotiator is he? Certainly “no one’s idea of an optimist.”

Wednesday, June 19: Hope Hicks will testify before the House Judiciary Committee as part of a closed-door session.

The United States has now been out of the United Nations Human Rights Council for a full year, officially withdrawing last June due to what then-Ambassador Nikki Haley called its “chronic anti-Israel bias.” Here’s how Haley defended her values-driven foreign policy to Uri Friedman before she stepped down.

Thursday, June 20: The U.S. Border Patrol chief and a top Defense Department official appear at a Homeland Security Committee hearing examining the Defense Department’s deployment to the U.S.-Mexico border. (This is a story of the journey of one Mexican migrant, who learned the perils of crossing the border—legally.)

Friday, June 21: Roger Stone appears in court for a hearing related to the obstruction charges against him.

🚨threat assessment
Donald Trump, Melania Trump, Andrzej Duda, and Agata Kornhauser-Duda watch a flyover of an F-35 Lightning II jet at the White House.

The Trumps watch a flyover of an F-35 Lightning II jet at the White House with Polish President Andrzej Duda and his wife, Agata Kornhauser-Duda. (Alex Brandon / AP)

Is Russia a friend or foe?: With Poland’s far-right president, Andrzej Duda, at the White House this week, Trump announced that the United States plans to send an additional 1,000 troops to Poland. The plan is ostensibly to counter a big bad Russia bearing down on territories such as in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, though it’s not clear what purpose a mere 1,000 troops will serve.

Duda found himself in the strange position of being one of several foreign leaders conveying to Trump that Russia is a threat. “Russia again is showing its very unkind, unpleasant imperial face,” Duda told Trump during a meeting at the White House. Trump responded that he hopes “Poland is going to have a great relationship with Russia.”

A day later, Trump said something else that floored the intelligence community: He said he would accept foreign assistance if it were to help him in the 2020 election. Maybe he was thinking of his son, Don Jr. Maybe he simply doesn’t recognize why election interference from foreign actors is problematic. In any case, the lessons of 2016 were not clearly learned.

Ignoring American intel: The public learned this week that Kim Jong Un’s half-brother—killed in a 2017 chemical-weapons attack at the Kuala Lumpur airport—was a CIA informant. When asked about it, Trump first noted that he had received “a very beautiful letter from Kim Jong Un,” and then said, “I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices.”

The White House neither confirmed nor denied the revelation, nor did Trump come to the defense of the reportedly murdered American asset. “By saying he wouldn’t allow American intelligence to cultivate an asset so close to Kim,” David Graham argues, “he’s saying he wouldn’t use spying to better understand the country’s biggest overseas challenge.”

This also happened: Congressional Democrats are planning a major legislative initiative focused on election security. (Mike DeBonis and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post)


America’s borderless War on Drugs: When four Jamaican fishermen turned up on the shores of Miami more than a month after going missing in 2017, they were covered in bruises and blisters, according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU alleging that the Coast Guard held the men unlawfully. The men maintain that they never had any drugs, nor were they convicted of any drug crimes; instead, the suit claims, they were pressured to plead guilty to lying to investigators.

The Coast Guard has been hugely successful in its maritime War on Drugs. But it’s a battle often waged out of sight, over millions of square miles of open sea, Gilsinan reports.

Foreign-policy primary: National-security concerns don’t often make the list of topics that the 23 current Democratic 2020 candidates use to get a crowd fired up. Pete Buttigieg tried to change that this week. In a nearly hour-long speech, he argued that Washington needs to return to a values-based foreign policy. He rattled off global crises and conflicts like a laundry list: Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, artificial intelligence, climate change, etc., etc.

His vision stands in contrast to that of the only other two top contenders who have given dedicated foreign-policy addresses: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who advocate a less interventionist worldview. “Progressives will be tempted to criticize him,” argues Thomas Wright, but Buttigieg could fairly respond: “Do they propose never to intervene?”

But Sanders and Warren don’t share identical foreign-policy ideologies. As Peter Beinart noted in November, ahead of Warren’s first major address on the topic, Sanders doesn’t think America needs to retain its global dominance. Warren does—though an American-led international order looks a lot different to her than it does to Trump.

This also happened: Turkey’s foreign minister said the country wouldn’t give in to U.S. “ultimatums” after Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan warned Ankara not to purchase a missile-defense system from Russia. (Associated Press)

About us: This edition of The Atlantic’s Politics & Policy newsletter was written by Gabby Deutch and edited by Yara Bayoumy, the national-security editor, and Shan Wang, the newsletters editor.

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