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:
A French Kiss, with some strings attached
French President Emmanuel Macron has made no secret of his efforts to seduce you. He's been after you since your first meeting in Brussels, Belgium, last year and followed up that encounter with your invitation to France for Bastille Day. He wants a serious relationship, but when he arrives in Washington on Monday -- the first state visit of a foreign leader for this administration -- he's coming with a hefty personal and political agenda.
He's up against strong headwinds in France; his domestic approval ratings are at their lowest point since he took office with only 40% of the French population saying they have a favorable opinion of Macron, a drop of 12 percentage points from December. His approval rating has dwindled as he pushes forward with politically sensitive public sector reforms.
He has described your relationship as "direct and frank" but knows you are not a popular figure in France (polls have shown that you have a 14% approval rating there). So he's going to want to come out of this visit looking like he's gotten something for investing time, effort and patience in your "unbreakable" relationship and will want to show that he, and France, are increasingly becoming the go-to powerhouse on the continent. Macron has tried to position himself as a global mediator, including with the Palestinians, Syrians and Russians, and Lebanese and on a personal level will want you to recognize his role.
Macron will have a long list of agenda items including:
- Russia - Call it like it is: Macron is not a wilting flower on Russia. He has urged dialogue with Russia over Syria and France has been vocal about Russian meddling in the French elections, ongoing illegal activities in Ukraine, and the poisoning in the United Kingdom of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Macron will likely be looking for you to join him in condemning Russia's ongoing global misbehavior while supporting dialogue to de-escalate tensions in Syria. There is more that France could be doing -- France has not sanctioned Russian oligarchs, like the administration did recently, so you could use your meetings to urge him to look into all means of pressure -- financial, diplomatic, and otherwise. Multilateralizing sanctions could move them from symbolic to impactful.
- Syria - stay in it: Macron may believe the road to Damascus leads through dialogue with Moscow, but he does not want the United States to reduce our military footprint in Syria anytime soon. At one point, he claimed credit for persuading you to keep US forces in Syria, so it's clear he wants to portray himself as calling at least some of the shots. He'll want to reaffirm the ongoing US mission in Syria, and it may be a good time to clarify -- privately before publicly -- what the coalition red lines are, in fact, on future chemical weapons use. France remains a partner in our broader counter-ISIS campaign and in private you could ask him for additional resources as needed in Syria or elsewhere, particularly as France has suffered ISIS-inspired attacks for several years.
- Iran - this deal is better than no deal: Macron has criticized your decision to unilaterally pull out of deals like the Paris climate accord, and he will push you to avoid decertifying the Iran deal on May 12. He knows that administration requests to change the deal aren't finalized with other parties and that the deadline for US certification is weeks away. He'll likely raise the Iran deal when he addresses a joint session of Congress later this week. On Sunday he admitted he has no "plan B" if we withdraw from the deal so will likely use a lot of his horsepower to convince you that this deal is better than no deal, and it's likely that he's coming to Washington armed with some new concessions from other signatories. (Germany's Angela Merkel will likely double-team on these points when she meets with you on Friday.) New European sanctions against Iran may be part of the combined European "stay in the deal" package.
- Trade - friends want benefits: After visiting Berlin on Thursday to coordinate his approach with Merkel, Macron is going to urge you to drop your proclivity for unilateral trade announcements, like the steel and aluminum tariffs that almost set off a trade war before exemptions were announced. He'll probably try to get you to agree to extend the European Union's exemption from the tariffs and will likely be looking for a public announcement to this effect.
Notably, Merkel will be with you at the White House a few days after the Macron state visit. They are likely coordinating their approach on all these points.
Kim Jong Un has a summit shopping list
After North Korea's announcement that it is suspending nuclear and missile tests and closing a nuclear site, excitement ensued, including via Twitter. We assess that this was not, at its core, a conciliatory good faith gesture. Kim made this announcement because he may no longer need tests -- he's gotten his nuclear and missile program where he wants them to be. The official North Korean statement indicated that, "Under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, midrange and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission."
While the timing of this announcement was likely meant to spark goodwill ahead of Kim's summit with South Korean President Moon later this week, it is not a North Korean white flag. In fact it could be a move to pave the way for North Korea's recognition as a nuclear power. The North Korean bottom line?
Tests -- that may no longer be needed -- are frozen, but the rest of the nuclear and missile program are not.
Add this announcement to Kim's ongoing rapprochement with Moon, from the Olympics to K-Pop, he's been making some friendly overtures. In the run-up to their Friday meeting at the Demilitarized Zone, the two Korean leaders even established a direct phone line between their offices for the first time.
Moon undoubtedly wants the intra-Korean summit to be a win; he's invested a lot personally in this diplomatic "breakthrough." But with all this seemingly positive momentum, the question still remains, what does Kim Jong Un want?
It is dangerous to assume that a leader as deeply paranoid as Kim Jong Un -- and a leader engaged in so many malign activities -- had an epiphany and has suddenly decided to open up his country to the world for nothing. Even if he does in fact believe that focusing on economic growth and improving the national economy is the best path forward, everything is a negotiation, and everyone wants something, including Kim Jong Un.
He probably views his summit with Moon and his summit with you, Mr. President, as part of a larger sequence, and so we have to assess what's on his combined summit shopping list:
- Kim puts Kim first: First and foremost, Kim Jong Un cares about himself and confidence that he's safe from regime change (or worse) is going to be the prerequisite for him seriously engaging in any way. And even if he actually intends to denuclearize, he's going to want an ironclad assurance that this all isn't a ruse to get him out of power. Remember that we don't think he even left North Korea from 2011 until his recent trip to Beijing because of deep-seated paranoia about assassination attempts. If Mike Pompeo didn't deliver a security assurance to Kim when they met over Easter weekend, Kim's going to be shopping for one before he makes any real concessions.
- He wants to be Nuclear Prom King: We've seen Kim's love affair with the spotlight play out since his publicity tour kicked off in January, and it's clear he desperately craves attention. International recognition as a nuclear power has been on his shopping list for a while, and if he is going to agree to the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of his nuclear program, he's going to first want the world to acknowledge that, despite incredible constraints, he was able to achieve the nuclear capability that has eluded so many others. He's not going to give up the goods before we acknowledge that he was able to build them.
- He wants to pad his bank account: There is no doubt that international sanctions, led by the administration, have had a bite and have limited Kim's ability to spend and finance new projects. Billions of dollars of trade has been put on ice, and Kim has expensive spending habits, including on luxury goods and on his military. In a country where 70% of the country's 25.1 million population is "food insecure" and chronic malnutrition is endemic, Kim spends a disproportionate amount of money on defense spending. The latest North Korean budget (which is likely more propaganda than actual budgeting) puts defense spending at 15.8% of GDP, but analysts put the actual figure much higher; North Korea has one of the largest conventional militaries in the world.
He's also talked about pursuing reforms like opening special economic zones where he needs to attract foreign investors (sanctions make that impossible). Kim's going to want at least some sanctions lifted -- and, in their place, direct economic assistance -- so he can continue his personal life of luxury and feed his favorite pet projects -- from the military to ski resorts and celebrity visits.
- He wants to be Unifier in Chief: Kim has talked about reunifying the peninsula in the past (perhaps in his own macabre image), and as he heads into the intra-Korean summit and later meets with you, we assess that he'll take steps to bring the two Koreas closer. These steps could include more reunions between families separated by the Korean War and a formal end to the war itself. In keeping with his need for accolades and adoration, it is likely Kim will want public recognition as the unifier of the Korean Peninsula.
No Cuban cigar
On the surface, Cubans witnessed a historic transfer of power last week. Raul Castro turned over the presidency to his hand-picked successor, Miguel D-az-Canel, who was elected by the Cuban National Assembly (his victory wasn't hard fought -- he was the only candidate on the ticket.) But this is a paper tiger: Raul Castro isn't going anywhere. He still holds the most important position in the country: head of the Communist Party, so the end of a Castro-as-President era does not mean that Castro-as-President policies will be thrown by the wayside. The head of the Communist Party in Cuba is the "leading force of society and of the state." The party -- not the President -- calls the shots.
In his farewell speech (a mere 90 minutes compared to the lengthy monologues his brother Fidel preferred), Castro said that D-az-Canel would serve two five-year terms and then take over as President of the Communist Party in 2021 -- so we could be facing, at minimum, another few years of Castro holding the Communist Party reins.
D-az-Canel and most members of government bodies have close ties to Castro, so we shouldn't expect any bold moves by D-az-Canel absent Castro's consent. His ties to the Castros go back decades -- he even served on their security detail during the Cold War.
Castro did see Cuba through some reforms, including allowing Cubans to travel, a diplomatic opening with the United States under then-President Obama, and some blossoms of free enterprise in the socialist state were allowed to bloom. These reforms -- as well as any future ones -- had to be approved by the Communist Party. So even if D-az-Canel wanted to go out on a limb, the party will remain a check on any of his ambitions.
Despite the transfer of power, the future of the Cuban people still rests with a Castro. The ongoing question is whether Raul Castro himself will agree to any political or economic liberalization or moves toward actual rule of law. Absent his approval, D-az-Canel will not have the political capital, clout or runway to pursue anything different than what we're already seeing.