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Biden’s Asia policy czar the pick for State’s No. 2

From the SitRoom to the E-Ring, the inside scoop on defense, National Security and foreign policy.
Oct 19, 2023 View in browser

By Alexander Ward and Matt Berg

Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, is nearing the end of his vetting process and his nomination for the deputy secretary of State post will soon be announced. | Pool photo by Kim Hong-Ji

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With help from Maggie Miller and Daniel Lippman

After months of speculation, we now know that KURT CAMPBELL is the winner of the deputy secretary of State sweepstakes.

Loyal NatSec Daily readers will remember that after WENDY SHERMAN retired from the post this summer, deputy national security adviser JON FINER was identified as the frontrunner to take her place. But President JOE BIDEN asked Finer to stay put, restarting the search for the nation’s next second-highest diplomat.

He’s been found. Campbell, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, is nearing the end of his vetting process and his nomination will soon be announced, Alex and NAHAL TOOSI report.

He’s had a hand in virtually everything the Biden Administration has done on Asia policy. The nuclear submarine deal with the U.K. and Australia known as AUKUS was Campbell’s brainchild, and he quietly worked to make it a reality, keeping the plan hidden from many colleagues who were surprised by the deal’s formal announcement.

France, whose own submarine deal with Australia was sidelined by AUKUS, was also caught off guard, and Paris’ anger led to a diplomatic kerfuffle that Campbell’s Europe-focused colleagues had to quash.

That work, and other initiatives, stem from Campbell’s efforts as a senior State Department official guiding the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.” This included sending more U.S. troops to the region, strengthening ties with regional allies, growing partnerships with less friendly countries wary of China and taking a harder line on Beijing. Multiple U.S. officials say that the administration’s current approach toward China and the region writ large was devised by Campbell.

U.S. policy toward China should “seek to achieve not a definitive end state akin to the Cold War’s ultimate conclusion but a steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values,” he wrote in a 2019 Foreign Affairs article with Jake Sullivan, now the national security adviser, titled “Competition Without Catastrophe.”

“Coexistence means accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved,” they wrote.

One of the people familiar with Campbell’s potential move said he may use the job to further centralize U.S. competition with China in the State Department’s work.

Read the full story.

A message from Lockheed Martin:

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Many of today’s military systems and platforms were designed to operate independently. Through our 21st Century Security vision, Lockheed Martin is accelerating innovation, connecting defense and digital to enhance the performance of major platforms, to equip customers to stay ahead of emerging threats. Learn more.

The Inbox

BREAKING: A U.S. destroyer in the Middle East intercepted multiple missiles fired from Yemen.

‘BE READY’: Israel’s defense minister told troops to “be ready” for a ground invasion of Gaza, though it’s still unclear when it will start. Defense Minister YOAV GALLANT delivered the message during a meeting with infantry today.

“Whoever sees Gaza from afar now, will see it from the inside … I promise you,” he said, The Associated Press’ NAJIB JOBAIN, SAMYA KULLAB and RAVI NESSMAN report. The Defense Department is planning to send Israel tens of thousands of 155mm artillery shells, originally meant for Ukraine from U.S. emergency stocks, three Israeli officials told Axios’ BARAK RAVID.

Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that Hamas used some North Korean weapons to strike Israel, The AP’s’ HYUNG-JIN KIM, KIM TONG-HYUNG and JON GAMBRELL report. Citing a video from the militants, an analysis of weapons seized by Israel, South Korean officials and North Korean arms experts, the AP refuted Pyongyang’s denial that Hamas used its weapons, which included F-7 rocket-propelled grenades.

As intense fighting continues, Israel killed JEHAD MHEISEN, head of the Hamas-led national security forces, and members of his family in an airstrike today, Reuters’ NIDAL AL-MUGHRABI and TALA RAMADAN report, citing Hamas-run media. At least seven Palestinians were also killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank, Al Jazeera reports.

Yesterday aboard Air Force One, Biden clamped down on reports that the administration signaled to Israel that American troops would back the Israel Defense Forces if Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group becomes involved in the conflict. It’s “not true,” he told Bloomberg News’ JENNIFER JACOBS.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic’s GRAEME WOOD obtained Hamas’ hostage-taking handbook. It’s chilling stuff. The hostage taking should happen “in the field” in “cleansed” areas, it says, adding that militants should “kill those expected to resist and those that pose a threat.”

On Wednesday evening, the U.S. vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would’ve called for a pause in fighting to allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. "We are on the ground doing the hard work of diplomacy," U.N. Ambassador LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD said, per Reuters’ MICHELLE NICHOLS. "We believe we need to let that diplomacy play out." The U.S. was the only member to vote against the measure, while Russia and Britain abstained.

Today, the State Department issued a worldwide travel alert, warning Americans to take precautions wherever they go due to heightened tensions.

Biden is set to make an address from the Oval Office tonight on the Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine wars as he prepares to ask Congress to send billions of dollars in assistance to the countries. The address, Biden’s most direct appeal to the American public to support the U.S. allies in months, comes fresh off his trip to Israel.

Read Alex and JONATHAN LEMIRE’s piece on what Biden did — and didn’t — accomplish during his time in the Middle East.

MORE DRONES DOWN: U.S. forces stopped two separate drone strikes in Syria, hours after U.S. forces shot down three unmanned aerial systems targeting troops in Iraq early Wednesday, a U.S. official and another person familiar with the incidents told our own LARA SELIGMAN.

U.S. forces intercepted a number of UAVs headed toward their positions at two separate bases: Al Tanf in the south and Conoco in the northern Deir al-Zor region, according to the U.S. official, who declined to say how many drones were involved.

The attempted attack was part of a spate of incidents over the last 48 hours in which drones have targeted U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon has 2,500 troops in Iraq dedicated to supporting Iraqi forces, and 900 in Syria focused on combating Islamic State terrorists with the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Scroll down to On The Hill for more on that.

CHINA’S 500 NUKES: China has far more nuclear weapons in its arsenal than previous projections, the Pentagon assesses in an explosive new report.

Beijing is in possession of 500 nuclear warheads as of May, 100 more than at the same point last year, Lara also reports. That number is likely set to double by 2030, meaning China will have 1,000 nukes at its disposal by then.

“What they’re doing now, if you compare it to what they were doing about a decade ago, it really far exceeds that in terms of scale and complexity,” a U.S. official told Lara ahead of the report’s release. “They’re expanding and investing in their land, sea and air-based nuclear delivery platforms, as well as the infrastructure that’s required to support this quite major expansion of their nuclear forces.”

The Defense Department every year releases the China Military Power Report, a much-thumbed-through document to get a sense of how Beijing is modernizing its military — and how quickly.

RUSSIA DETAINS ANOTHER U.S. REPORTER: Russian authorities have detained their second U.S. journalist of the year, escalating their campaign to hold Americans hostage as it proceeds to invade Ukraine.

ALSU KURMASHEVA is a dual U.S.-Russia national and editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S. government-funded news organization. She was detained in Kazan on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent, The New York Times’ IVAN NECHEPURENKO reports.

RFE/RL condemned Russia’s action. “She needs to be released so she can return to her family immediately," said the organization’s acting President JEFFREY GEDMIN.

Kurmasheva’s detainment will further increase suspicions that Russia is taking Americans hostage solely to trade them for Russian nationals held by the U.S.

RELIEF FOR MADURO: The Biden administration has lifted some sanct i ons off Venezuela after the country’s autocratic president, NICOLÁS MADURO, agreed to take part in a competitive election next year.

Transactions are now permitted with Venezuela’s oil, gas and gold sector, per the Treasury Department, but such business will be barred once again if Maduro doesn’t follow through on his commitment. Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN noted yesterday that the Maduro regime would also “begin the release of all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals and Venezuelan political prisoners.”

Sen. BEN CARDIN (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, applauded the move. “Today’s announcement by the Biden administration also demonstrates how the United States can leverage sanctions strategically to incentivize breakthroughs in negotiations that would otherwise be unlikely to occur,” he said Wednesday evening.

But not everyone is happy. Sen. LISA MURKOWSKI (R-Alaska) called the move “beyond absurd.”

(There remains a Democratic and Republican back and forth on this issue).

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 X at @alexbward and @mattberg33.

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VIVEK AGAINST $100B FUNDING AND GAZA INVASION: Republican president candidate VIVEK RAMASWAMY railed against the administration’s expected $100 billion funding request for partners like Ukraine and Israel.

“This is a sideshow, when there is now discussion in Congress about a combined $100 billion for foreign wars we shouldn’t be in,” the entrepreneur told NatSec Daily in response to a question about the expected congressional measure. “The other Republican candidates are too scared to talk about the real elephant in the room: the disastrous ground invasion into Gaza that’s now imminent which will advance neither Israel’s interests nor ours.”

We asked Ramaswamy why he considered a ground invasion “disastrous” but didn’t hear back. But he wrote the following on X: “Mark my words: a ground invasion into Gaza without a clear objective will be a disaster…Some will call me ‘anti-Israel’ for saying this, yet forcing a true debate on the merits is by far the most *pro-Israel* thing we can do right now.”

Ramaswamy, who said as president he would ensure the U.S. remained a close ally of Israel, has been among the vocal critics in the Republican field. At one point in the campaign he floated phasing out continued aid to Israel, leading his opponents to pounce on that comment.

DESANTIS’ VETERANS PLAN: Florida Gov. RON DeSANTIS released his plan for veterans’ care today, vowing to do better by former and retired military personnel than the Biden administration.

DeSantis, a veteran himself, outlines multiple components to his plans’ five main goals, which are:

— “Transcend bureaucracy and modernize VA systems and infrastructure”

— ”Combat veteran suicide, substance abuse and homelessness”

— ”Focus on care, end delays and denials and expand access and benefits”

— ”Prioritize lethality, readiness and cohesion to reverse Biden's recruitment crisis”

— “Restore accountability at the VA”

Expect Biden-aligned groups to focus on this specific element of the plan, which references critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion programs, among other politically charged issues: “Rescind left-wing policies not aligned with the VA's core mission, such as CRT, DEI, paid leave/travel for abortion, sex reassignment surgeries and hormone therapies.”


TRACKING HAMAS IN CYBERSPACE: An effort to disseminate pro-Hamas efforts online may have been affiliated with Iranian threat actors, according to a report out today from cyber intelligence group Recorded Future, our own MAGGIE MILLER writes in.

Analysts found that an application claiming to be affiliated with Hamas leadership, known as “alqassam[.]ps,” was used on Telegram around the same time that Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7. This application was used to point to Hamas websites and showed associations with not only a Hamas-linked cyber threat group, but also to an “Iran nexus.”

The report concludes that “infrastructure likely operated by the same threat actors revealed an Iran nexus based on subdomain naming registration conventions.”

While the conflict between Israel and Hamas has not involved major cyberattacks so far, the finding highlights that threat groups online are involved in pushing various narratives forward online. A top official for cyber group Mandiant told reporters last week that the company had already tracked Iranian and Chinese-linked disinformation efforts around the conflict, and hacktivists have increasingly waded in to take aim at various organizations.

Read: U.S. lashes out at social media companies over Israel-Hamas content, as EU acts by our own REBECCA KERN


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The Complex

PICK UP THE PACE: The Defense Department has launched a new effort to quickly find more precision weapons and artillery shells to rush to Israel as the Middle Eastern country conducts hundreds of strikes a day against Hamas targets in Gaza, our own PAUL McLEARY reports.

A newly formed team inside the Pentagon has been tasked with scouring U.S. stockpiles, searching for ammunition to resupply Israel as it fires off munitions at a frantic pace, three people familiar with the effort told Paul.

The group leading the effort is composed of officials from across the Pentagon, including the acquisition and policy offices, as well as the armed services. They seek to replicate the efforts of another team of Defense and State Department officials that has been working on military aid for Ukraine, the people said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is sending artillery shells to Israel that were last ordered sent to Ukraine, Axios' BARAK RAVID reports. "The ammunition that had been designated for Ukraine was part of a U.S. weapons stockpile that is kept in Israel as part of an agreement between the countries," he wrote.

On the Hill

I PROMISE: Biden’s nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Egypt, HERRO MUSTAFA GARG, vowed at her Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday to help secure humanitarian aid flows to Gaza amid its conflict with Israel, and to press Cairo on human rights.

WARNING IRAN: Sen. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.) urged the Biden administration to tell Iran that the U.S. doesn’t want conflict with the country following recent attacks on American military bases in the region.

This week, a pair of drones targeted an airbase used by U.S. troops in western Iraq, and another was aimed at a base in northern Iraq, a U.S. official told The Associated Press’ ABBY SEWELL, TARA COPP and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA. One drone injured coalition forces at the western base, while the other two were shot down.

Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have threatened to attack American positions in the country because of Washington’s support for Israel, raising U.S. officials’ concerns about the war potentially spreading.

“It is REALLY IMPORTANT that the Biden Admin communicate to Iran that we do not seek to start a war with them,” Rubio tweeted today. “But we will have no choice but to regard attacks by their proxies against Americans as an attack by the govt of Iran on the U.S. requiring a direct retaliatory response.”

ICYMI — Senate sense of Israel's needs grows clearer as chamber eyes aid package by our own URSULA PERANO



STATE YOUR DISMAY: A State Department official left his post on Wednesday after citing “shortsighted decisions” by the Biden administration that contributed to him making an unbearable moral compromise, our own ANDREW ZHANG reported.

“In my 11 years I have made more moral compromises than I can recall, each heavily, but each with my promise to myself in mind, and intact,” the official, JOSH PAUL, wrote in a post explaining his decision. “I am leaving today because I believe that in our current course with regards to the continued — indeed, expanded and expedited — provision of lethal arms to Israel — I have reached the end of that bargain.”

Paul worked for State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which manages defense relationships with U.S. allies and oversees the transfers of weapons and arms. His decision comes as the Biden administration has been surging weapons and munitions to Israel amid its war against Hamas.

“Good riddance to another Deep Stater who put America last. There are many more unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats just like him out there. They all need to go,” Sen. TOM COTTON (R-Ark.) tweeted today.


— LOREN DEALY MAHLER has joined Invariant as a senior director in the strategic communications and public affairs team. Mahler was director for legislative affairs in the NSC and had stints at DOD and HASC in communications roles.

— RICK ROSSOW has been named to the global board of directors of the U.S.-India Business Council. He is senior adviser and chair for U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and managing director for India and South Asia at McLarty Associates.

What to Read

— Sens. ELIZABETH WARREN and ROGER MARSHALL, The Wall Street Journal: Cryptocurrency feeds Hamas’s terrorism

— MATTHEW DUSS, Foreign Policy: The end of Biden’s Middle East mirage

— STEVEN COOK, The Atlantic: Egypt’s Gaza problem

Tomorrow Today

— The Center for a New American Security, 10 a.m.: Congress and the conflict in Gaza: A conversation with Rep. ADAM SMITH (D-Wash.)

— The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, 2 p.m.: Book discussion on War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the path to Russia's invasion of Ukraine

— The Atlantic Council, 3 p.m.: A strategic posture for a new era: Introducing the Congressional Strategic Posture report

Thanks to our editor, Heidi Vogt, who we would never pick for any leadership role.

We also thank our producer, Gregory Svirnovskiy, who we would name Galactic Emperor.

A message from Lockheed Martin:

Our mission is to prepare you for the future by engineering advanced capabilities today.

Many of today’s military systems and platforms were designed to operate independently. Through our 21st Century Security vision, Lockheed Martin is accelerating innovation, connecting defense and digital to enhance the performance of major platforms, to equip customers to stay ahead of emerging threats. Learn more.


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