Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By William Ford
Monday, March 12, 2018, 4:15 PM

British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that it was “highly likely” that the Kremlin poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent, the BBC . The nerve agent, according to May, was of “a type developed by Russia.” The British Foreign Office called on the Russian ambassador to the U.K. to explain the assassination attempt. May noted that if Russia did not provide a “credible response” by the close of Tuesday, the British government would consider the attempt “an unlawful use of force.” 

The National People’s Congress of China voted on Sunday to abolish term limits for the presidency, allowing President Xi Jinping to remain in that office indefinitely, the Washington Post . The Chinese Communist Party first announced the constitutional change two weeks ago, rendering yesterday’s vote  largely symbolic. The abolition of term limits cements Xi’s place at the heart of Chinese politics and confirms his role as the strongman that the party wants to lead it forward as China continues to  grow its role in international affairs. The change also marks the end of the reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s in an effort to prevent the rise of a second Mao Zedong, who led the Communist Party from 1949 until his death in 1976.

Japan and South Korea agreed to maintain maximum pressure on North Korea on Monday in an effort to compel Pyongyang to take “concrete action” to downsize its missile and nuclear weapons programs or to denuclearize altogether, Reuters . Taro Kono, the Japanese foreign minister, declined to define what he meant by “concrete action” and refused to say if Tokyo still considered action a prerequisite for talks with Pyongyang. The foreign minister added that his government would help subsidize IAEA inspections of North Korean facilities if necessary. In Geneva on Monday, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the North Korea, said that humanitarian dialogue must accompany denuclearization talks, Reuters . Ojea Quintana argued that the “momentum is there” to discuss human rights; he urged North Korean officials to let him to visit the country for an assessment. Pyongyang denies accusations that it violates the human rights of its citizens.

A spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry for Reunification noted on Monday that it had not yet received a response from North Korea regarding talks with the U.S., the BBC . The spokesperson added that the North’s silence seems to indicate that Pyongyang is approaching talks “with caution” and needs time to formulate the regime’s stance. During a press conference in Nigeria on Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the administration’s discussions about the potential meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un remain “in the very early stages,” Politico .

Defense Secretary Mattis said that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that Russia has developed nuclear weapons that can circumvent any U.S. missile defense system do not change the Defense Department’s plan to counter the Kremlin, the Post . Mattis noted that the Russian people will feel the real cost of Moscow’s race to enhance its nuclear capabilities, not the U.S. The defense secretary added that American missile defense systems focus not on countering Russia but on countering Iran and North Korea. In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, CIA director Mike Pompeo offered similar talking points, stating that Putin’s claims were unsurprising and that the agency continues to monitor developments related to Russia’s nuclear arsenal closely. Pompeo added that the agency will continue to keep the American people safe.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will return to Washington from Africa on Monday evening “due to pressing demands in the U.S.,” ending his five-country tour on the continent a day early, the Wall Street Journal . Two major administration policy shifts prompted the secretary’s return: the president’s steel and aluminum import tariffs and his announcement that he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.


As he concluded his trip on Monday, Tillerson noted that the administration is considering ending the travel ban on Chad, an important ally in the fight against terrorism in West Africa, Reuters . The secretary specified that Chad’s efforts to increase domestic security and control over its passports prompted the administration’s reconsideration of the ban on travel from Chad to the United States. President Trump will review a report on Chad’s progress next month and decide whether to lift the travel ban then. Throughout his trip to Africa, Secretary Tillerson stressed the importance of cooperation in the ongoing fight against terrorism on the continent; he warned against borrowing excessively from China in an effort to develop state infrastructure.

The Syrian government, with support from Russia and foreign Shiite militias, has wrested control of more than half of Eastern Ghouta from rebel forces, the Journal . The regime’s offensive on Eastern Ghouta has killed more than 800 civilians during intense bombardments and chemical weapons attacks over the last three weeks. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has characterized the merciless assault on Ghouta as a campaign aimed at returning stability to the country; he denies targeting civilians, instead characterizing the people on the ground as terrorists, and refuses to admit to using chemical weapons. The Journal notes that the regime’s advances in Eastern Ghouta make its “recapture possibly imminent.” Eastern Ghouta is home to almost 400,000 Syrians. The regime has systematically denied them food and medical supplies for several years. A U.N. Security Council resolution mandating a 30-day ceasefire failed despite at least nominal unanimous support.

ICYMI: This Weekend on Lawfare

Matthew Kahn the Lawfare Podcast, a conversation between Benjamin Wittes and Yascha Mounk on Mounk’s new book, “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.”

Austin Long the vulnerability of submarines in the event of a nuclear war, finding that they are difficult to target and highly likely to survive.

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