Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Yes, it happened: U.S. President Joe Biden tested positive for COVID-19 on the heels of his trip to the Middle East, the White House said Thursday, but he is experiencing only mild symptoms.
And lucky for you, we have a reading list to keep you socially distanced all summer long.
Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: SitRep’s top beach reads are revealed, the Taliban briefly detain an FP columnist, the CIA is worried that Vladimir Putin is too healthy, and Ukraine has a new battle anthem for U.S.-provided rocket artillery.
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The Summer Reading List for NatSec Wonks
It’s mid-July, officially the dog days of summer, and that means it’s well past time to catch up on your reading for the year.
Your SitRep hosts have been working their little fingers to the bone culling through online book deliveries, little free libraries, and stacks of advance book copies at FP’s (now reopened) office to find you beach reads that are so riveting, you won’t even notice how sunburned you are.
Here are our favorite picks, starting with new releases and working our way back through time.
River of the Gods: Genius, Courage and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile by Candice Millard
Millard has already proved herself to be a master of narrative nonfiction through her previous books, and her latest is no exception. River of the Gods follows an East African and two British explorers as they embark on a yearslong quest to find the source of the Nile River. It is jampacked with action and adventure and is a compelling new portrait of British imperial hubris and folly.—Robbie
Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, From Barack Obama to Donald Trump by Michael Gordon
Most Americans likely missed the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State, save for a few key moments, such as the liberation of Mosul and former President Donald Trump leaving the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to fend for themselves against a Turkish onslaught. Gordon, who chronicled the U.S. wars in Iraq post-1991 with retired Marine Gen. Bernard Trainor, covers all that and more in his latest book on the counter-Islamic State campaign, taking the war from a napkin sketch in the minds of Pentagon planners all the way to the end of Trump’s presidency.—Jack
Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II by Alex Kershaw
It’s hard to think of a topic more overcovered in the world of nonfiction than World War II, but Kershaw continues to find fresh ways to look at the war. Against All Odds follows four of the most decorated American soldiers in the war and the long scars that the war left on them long after the Allied victory. I burned through this book in about two days. It’s the perfect summer read for any military history buff.—Robbie
The oldies but goldies:
The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam
I started this classic tome on the Korean War during my 15-hour flight to Seoul for a reporting trip this summer, and it was tough to put down even when the jet lag set in. Halberstam’s exhaustive research on the “forgotten conflict” in U.S. history spans from the corridors of power in Washington to the unsung heroism of young Marine corporals on the battlefield during the legendary Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Given how profoundly the conflict shaped China and the Korean Peninsula, it’s a wonder more policymakers in Washington aren’t closely studying the conflict today.—Robbie
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy
You’re not in for a Dan Brown-style page turner or a Barbara Kingsolver whodunit when you pick up Plokhy, Harvard University’s top professor of Ukrainian history. But you will be rewarded for your patience, as Plokhy takes readers on a swashbuckling survey through Ukraine’s history, from the ninth-century vikings of Kyivan Rus, whose statues dot the modern hills of Kyiv, to the Nazi occupation and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Grab your vyshyvanka out of the closet, and start turning pages.—Jack
For the true wonks:
China, the U.N., and Human Protection: Beliefs, Power, Image by Rosemary Foot
Throw a stone at random in Washington, and you’ll likely hit someone giving a speech on the threat China poses to the international order. But it’s not just an academic question. Foot, a scholar at the University of Oxford, has written a meticulous book on how China is working to hash out its own rival vision of the global order at the United Nations, and it’s well worth a read. For U.S. policymakers, it’s both a study and a warning.—Robbie
The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today by Hal Brands
To the writers of the National Security Strategy: Here’s your handbook. Brands provides the academic architecture for how the last great-power competition—between the United States and the Soviet Union—was won. The interesting takeaway is that many of the attempts at long-range strategic thinking were messy: Early efforts to centralize planning, such as the State Department’s policy planning shop under George Kennan, withered on the vine; President Richard Nixon’s detente policy eventually gave way to some of the most severe superpower tensions of the Cold War. Even a slow-grinding national security establishment such as Biden’s would do well to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks.—Jack
P.S. Any great books you think we missed? Send us an email, and we’ll include some reader recommendations in future SitReps!
Former Trump National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien is now the chairman of the board at the Richard Nixon Foundation.
What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.
Not a good idea. U.S. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the U.S. Defense Department is advising House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not to travel to Taiwan as part of a congressional delegation. “I think that the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” said Biden on Wednesday.
The visit by Pelosi, who is third in line to the presidency, could further upset the long-standing U.S. “One China” policy, after Biden has repeatedly suggested that the United States would get involved militarily to defend Taiwan—remarks that were later walked back by his administration.
Unquiet on the Western front. While Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine has focused on consolidating power in the country’s east, it is likely setting its sights farther west for the next phase of the war, more specifically with an eye to capture the key Black Sea port city of Odesa, Western officials told us this week.
Odesa’s loss would cut off Ukraine from its entire Black Sea coast and represent a stunning loss for Kyiv’s war efforts—but that’s only if Russia can take it. Defense experts say Ukraine has a good chance of fending off any Russian attack on the port, thanks in part to high-end Western weapons systems. Either way, any major attack on the port will undoubtedly disrupt the flow of staple commodity exports from Ukraine, disruptions that have already wreaked havoc on the global food supply chain.
Time to use the T-word. Congress is ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to formally label Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered a message to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to do so before Congress takes matters into its own hands, as our friends at Politico scooped.
What exactly does an SST designation mean, and why is the Biden administration dragging its heels on the move? Don’t worry, we have you covered here.
“The Taliban Detained Me for Doing My Job. I Can Never Go Back.” FP columnist Lynne O’Donnell was briefly detained by the Taliban this week as part of a sweeping campaign against free press in Afghanistan. After safely getting out of the country, O’Donnell wrote about her experience here, in a must-read column this week.
The upshot: “Far from achieving their goal of intimidating and undermining me, they showed me what I went to find—their true face. Their brutality, arrogance, and lack of humanity. Their self-righteousness, intolerance, and misogyny. Their incompetence and their utter lack of ability to rule. Afghanistan has fallen prey to terrorists who have not made and cannot make the transition from fighting force to governing body.”
Thursday, July 21: Lt. Gen. Michael Langley, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the next head of U.S. Africa Command, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Also getting grilled: Lt. Gen. Bryan Fenton, Biden’s pick to lead U.S. Special Operations Command.
Monday, July 25: Newly inaugurated Philippine President Bongbong Marcos is set to give his first State of the Nation Address.
“As far as we can tell, he’s entirely too healthy.”
—CIA Director William Burns, speaking of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal health, following months of speculation floating around the internet and international media that Putin may be terminally ill.
Sobering up. An entire U.S. Army brigade based in Germany was confined to their base—and barred from drinking alcohol—after five soldiers decided to take drunken joy rides on scooters over the Fourth of July weekend, as CNN reported. The ban will be lifted after the 3,000-strong 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team gets training on German drinking and driving laws.
Number one with a bullet. The U.S.-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) used by Ukrainian troops has officially passed from effective battlefield weapon to zeitgeisty internet meme. Taras Borovka, who brought you the catchy “Bayraktar” song after the Turkish drone system helped knock out Russian armored columns advancing on Kyiv early in the war, now has a follow-up song about HIMARS.