The State Department has been silent about what it will do about Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist and self-taught lawyer reported to have fled house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. But Chen had good reason to believe America was on his side.
Dating back years before his Thursday escape, the State Department has repeatedly and publicly demanded Chen's release while carefully documenting the Chinese government's abuses of him and his family.
Most recently, in a November speech in Honolulu, entitled, "America's Pacific Century," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out Chen's house arrest to complain about China's human rights practices.
"We have made very clear our serious concerns about China's record on human rights," she said. "When we see reports of lawyers, artists, and others who are detained or disappeared, the United States speaks up both publicly and privately. We are alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest, as well as the continued house arrest of the Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng. We continue to call on China to embrace a different path."
Clinton raised the issue of Chen's treatment directly with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during their bilateral meeting that same day, according to a senior State Department official speaking to reporters at the time.
Administration officials won't say anything right now about Chen, shown at left above with dissident Hu Jia, as rumors fly that the U.S. and Chinese governments are having top-level discussions about the case, which threatens to disrupt Clinton's trip to China next week for a major security and economic dialogue. The AP reported that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was dispatched to Beijing earlier than planned to deal with the crisis.
At Friday's State Department press briefing, Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated variations of the same phrase six times to avoid saying anything substantive about the potential asylum case. "I don't have anything for you on that subject," she said.
A senior White House official repeated that same line on a Friday afternoon conference call to preview Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiki Noda's visit to Washington on Monday. The State Department abruptly cancelled a conference call to preview Clinton's trip to China next week.
Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland to acknowledge that Clinton had spoken out several times about Chen in the past, but Nuland refused to repeat past calls for Chen's release or say anything substantive about his situation.
"I don't have anything for you on that subject," she said. "I don't have anything on this issue at all."
The State Department has used Chen as a premier example of China's human rights shortfalls, and several U.S. government reports have documented what they see as the unlawfulness and unfairness of Chen's imprisonment and house arrest.
In a press availability at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last April, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights Michael Posner criticized the Chinese government's treatment of Chen and said it was part of a much broader pattern of oppression dispensed on those whose speech or activism run afoul of the Chinese government.
"A particular concern is what seems to be a range of interferences with the work of lawyers who are often courageously working to defend others from charges or to help citizens register their concerns. Lawyers like Teng Biao who has been missing since February; Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who with his wife Yuan Weijing is under house arrest since his release from prison last year," Posner said.
"Our discussions these last two days focused on these lawyers, but also bloggers, artists, NGO activists, journalists, representatives of minority religious communities and others who were asserting their rights and calling for reform... Societies need to give their own people an opportunity to voice and pursue their aspirations."
In a January 2011 speech at the State Department, Clinton pledged to advocate for human rights progress in China despite Chinese government objections, and invoked Chen as a problematic example of Chinese repression.
"America will continue to speak out and to press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists; when religious believers, particularly those in unregistered groups, are denied full freedom of worship; when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government's positions; and when some, like Chen Guangcheng, are persecuted even after they are released," she said.
"Now, I know that many in China, not just in the government, but in the population at large resent or reject our advocacy of human rights as an intrusion on sovereignty. But as a founding member of the United Nations, China has committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens. These are universal rights recognized by the international community."
The 2011 Annual Report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China detailed the conditions of Chen's confinement and treatment by Chinese authorities.
"Hu Jia, a human rights and environmental advocate, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal advocate who publicized population planning abuses, were released from prison this year only to face, along with their families, onerous conditions of detention and abuse with little or no basis in Chinese law," the report said. "In Chen's case, authorities kept him and his wife under extralegal house arrest and allegedly beat them after video footage of their conditions was smuggled out of the house and released on an overseas Web site."
The State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report on China alleges that Chen's arrest and three year imprisonment was trumped up and politically motivated.
"On September 9, blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng was released after completing a prison sentence of three years and four months on politically motivated charges of ‘disrupting traffic,'" the State Department paper stated. "Since his release, Chen, his wife, and his mother have been under house arrest and prevented from communicating with others. Chen was not allowed to seek medical attention for a gastrointestinal condition he developed in prison."
In a shift of U.S. policy, the White House said Friday that Taiwan does have a legitimate need for new fighter planes to address a growing gap with the Chinese military and pledged to sell Taiwan an "undetermined number" new U.S.-made planes.
The new White House position could spark a new crisis in the U.S.-China relationship on the very same day that blind Chinese Activist Chen Guangcheng is rumored to have fled his house arrest to seek asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner are also slated to visit China May 3 and 4 to hold the fourth round of the U.S. China Economic and Security Dialogue.
The White House policy shift was codified in a letter sent to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) Friday as part of a deal to get the Texas senator to release his hold on the confirmation of Mark Lippert, a close confidant of President Barack Obama whose nomination to become the top Pentagon official for Asia has been held up since October over the issue of selling F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan.
"We are mindful of and share your concerns about Taiwan's growing shortfall in fighter aircraft as the F-5s are retired from service and notwithstanding the upgrade of the F-16A/Bs. We recognize that China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft, while our democratic partner Taiwan has only 490. We are committed to assisting Taiwan in addressing the disparity in numbers of aircraft through our work with Taiwan's defense ministry on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy vis-a-vis China," Robert Nabors, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote in a letter today to Cornyn.
"This work will be a high priority for a new Assistant Secretary of Defense in his dialogue on force transformation with his Taiwan counterparts. The Assistant Secretary, in consultation with the inter-agency and the Congress, will play a lead role as the Administration decides on a near-term course of action on how to address Taiwan's fighter gap, including through the sale to Taiwan of an undetermined number of new U.S.-made fighter aircraft."
The White House does not explicitly promise to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter jets, as Cornyn wants, promising only to give the matter "serious consideration." But it does pledge an "underdetermined number" of new aircraft and the White House promised that Lippert would use the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Review Talks to conduct a full review of Taiwan's long-term defense strategy.
"Our decisions will continue to be based on an assessment of Taiwan's needs, taking into account what is needed to support Taiwan's overall defense strategy vis-a-vis China," the letter stated.
Cornyn praised the letter in a statement.
the Administration for recognizing that our friend and ally Taiwan's air force
is woefully undersized and outgunned by Communist China, and their inability to
adequately defend themselves poses a threat not just to their own security, but
to that of the United States," he said. "I look forward to
continuing to work
F-16 fighter planes are largely manufactured in Cornyn's home state of Texas and assembled by Lockheed Martin of Fort Worth.
Arms sales to Taiwan, especially offensive arms like F-16s, are a major irritant in the U.S.-China relationship, as China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and a core interest. The United States has maintained a balance between arming Taiwan and trying to avoid friction with China over the issue since the Taiwan Relations Act was signed in 1979.
Last October, the Obama administration decided to sell Taiwan upgrade packages for its aging fleet of F-16 A/B model planes but the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it was still under consideration.
At Lippert's November confirmation hearing, Cornyn pressed the nominee on the issue (watch the video here) and then introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that sought to force the administration to sell Taiwan new F-16s. That amendment was voted down in the Senate.
Cornyn then wrote a letter threatening to hold the Lippert nomination unless he gets some satisfaction on the issue.
"I remain disappointed by your de facto denial of Taiwan's request to purchase 66 new F-16 C/D fighter aircraft, and I believe it sends a damaging message to nations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond that the U.S. is willing to abandon our friends in the face of Communist China's intimidation tactics," Cornyn wrote.
In the administration's Feb. 16 response to Cornyn, acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller wrote, "We believe the F-16 A/B upgrade effectively meets Taiwan's current needs." Today's letter changes that analysis.
The Lippert hold is not the first time Cornyn has used his power to hold nominees to press for selling F-16s to Taiwan. Last July, Cornyn held up the nomination of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to make a decision on selling the fighter plane to Taiwan.
Lippert's nomination had also been stalled by an objection by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who wanted details on Lippert's reported feud with former National Security Advisor Jim Jones. Lippert was confirmed by the Senate late Thursday evening.
UPDATE: National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor sent the The Cable the following statement on the sale:
The letter to Senator Cornyn is consistent with our current policy on Taiwan, which has not changed. We take very seriously our commitment to Taiwan’s defense as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act. Our commitment is reflected in our sales of $12.5 billion in arms to Taiwan in 2010 and 2011. In particular, these sales have made a significant contribution to Taiwan’s air defense capabilities including by upgrading the backbone capability of Taiwan’s air force. We do not comment on future possible foreign military sales unless formal congressional notification has taken place. We remain committed to our one China policy based on the Three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act. The new ASD Mark Lippert will play a central role in working with Taiwan's defen.se ministry on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy and a resourcing plan.
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The Republican Party appears to be deeply split on whether the United States should call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, a Senate committee vote revealed today.
The divisions were on display during a one-hour debate Thursday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), after which the Republican members of the panel remained irreconcilably divided over how aggressively the United States should work for Assad's removal.
Thursday's markup of a resolution condemning the violence in Syria, put forth by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Casey (D-PA), was the first real congressional debate over U.S. policy in Syria since protests broke out there more than a year ago. It was a heated debate, and by the time the dust settled, half of the Republicans on the committee joined with the Democrats to insist that Congress call on Assad to step down, overruling the other half of the Republicans on the panel, who argued that such language should be scuttled from the resolution.
Rubio, in a speech Wednesday at the Brookings Institution aimed at burnishing his foreign-policy credentials, explained that he was fighting against a growing isolationist trend in his own party. "I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left," he said.
Little did he know that his next battle with members of his own party on foreign policy would come only a day later.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) opened up Thursday's SFRC business meeting by warning of the dangers of Assad remaining in power.
"The stakes in Syria are very, very high. The prospects of a full-fledged civil war are very real," Kerry said, explaining that he will travel to the region during the next Senate recess, which begins tomorrow. "If Assad were to remain in power ... it would really mark a turning point in this Arab awakening and we would have a lot of difficulties dealing with that for a long time to come."
But as soon as Kerry started considering the Rubio-Casey resolution as introduced, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) objected to the paragraph that "calls upon the President to continue to provide support, including communications equipment to organizations in Syria that are representative of the people of Syria."
Corker wanted to make sure that Congress wasn't endorsing arms sales to the Syrian opposition, so the committee agreed to add the words "non-lethal" before "support." Corker also tried to make the resolution specify that no money would go to the opposition, but that was voted down by all nine committee Democrats and three of the nine committee Republicans: Rubio, Johnny Isaakson (R-GA), and John Barrasso (R-WY).
The real fireworks came when Corker tried to remove the line saying that the Senate "reaffirms that it is the policy of the United States that the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people cannot be realized so long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power and that he must step aside."
"I think it's odd to state as a national policy that we want to see Assad gone," Corker said.
Kerry pointed out that President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have all called publicly for Assad to go, so it already is national policy and the Senate would simply be endorsing that. Kerry offered to take out the phrase "he must step aside."
Ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) objected even to that. "I still feel that we should not include a reference to Assad in the paragraph," he said.
"For us to get into a situation where are making these sorts of judgments seems to be overstepping without really having a fundamental debate," said Lugar "We crept on this before during the Libya situation... and we've never really had a debate. The personalization of this resolution is not a good idea."
Rubio defended his resolution, stating he agreed with the administration. He was backed up by several Democrats, including Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
Durbin said that if the Senate passed a resolution weaker than the administration's position, the signal to the world would be that the United States is backing down. "Wouldn't this give some solace to Assad that he might be able to survive and continue?" he asked.
"Many thousands of people have been killed in Russia and China and even in Burma," Lugar responded. "The president could say [Russian President-elect Vladimir] Putin must go, or Chinese leaders, because they are committing crimes in Lhasa all the time. But we are not affirming that... This is a shift in making foreign policy that I am very uncomfortable with."
Kerry tried his best several times to find compromise language that would satisfy both sides, suggesting that the resolution call for a democratic transition decided by the Syrian people -- with the obvious implication that Syria's future would not include Assad.
"It's conceivable that diplomacy might create some transition process." Kerry said, referring to the gradual handover of power by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. "Who knows?"
Menendez was having none of that argument.
"To somehow leave in vagueness that Assad, despite his slaughter, can somehow find a way to survive, is very difficult to accept," Menendez said. "Otherwise, it undermines the purpose and the power of these resolutions and sends the wrong message to the people struggling and dying."
Ultimately, Kerry gave up and called the vote and the committee voted 12-6 to keep the call for Assad to go in the resolution. Rubio, Isaakson, and Barrasso again joined the Democrats in the vote to scuttle Corker's amendment.
In the final vote to approve the resolution, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) voted in favor by proxy, making the final vote 13-6. Four Republicans voted for the resolution, five against. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) broke ranks with the Democrats and voted against the resolution by proxy.
"The committee is split on Syria but I think you'll find a different result when we get to the floor," Rubio told The Cable in a short interview. "I think there will be much more support for it from Republicans than the committee's vote reflected."
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Today, Vice President Joe Biden delivered a speech defending the Obama administration's foreign policy and attacking the foreign policy views of Mitt Romney in New York. Back in Washington, Biden took on a new top staffer to advise him on national security and foreign policy going forward.
As part of a set of ongoing staffing changes in the national security leadership at the White House, Biden will get a new deputy national security advisor Monday, Pentagon official Julianne Smith. Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller announced Smith's move in a Thursday note to staff, obtained by The Cable.
"I am writing to announce that Julie Smith, who has served brilliantly as principal director for Europe and NATO policy for the last three years, has been selected as deputy national security adviser to the vice president. Julie will start in her new position on Monday April 30," Miller wrote. "We will greatly miss Julie in OSD Policy, but very much look forward to continuing to work closely with her in her new role."
Smith replaces Brian McKeon, who moved over in March to become deputy assistant to the president, executive secretary, and chief of staff of the National Security Staff (NSS). McKeon replaced two senior staffers. The position of executive secretary had been held by Nate Tibbits, and the position of chief of staff had been held by Ambassador Brooke Anderson, who left government and moved to Bozeman, Montana, according to a White House press release last month.
The jobs of NSS executive secretary and chief of staff were merged into one position for McKeon, "creating a more integrated approach to the management of the NSS," the White House said.
Smith had been serving as the Pentagon policy shop's principal director for Europe and NATO policy for the last three years. Part of that job will be immediately filled by Evelyn Farkas, who will take over Smith's role as special assistant to the Secretary of Defense for the NATO Summit next month in Chicago. Farkas has served for the past two years as senior advisor to EUCOM Commander and Supreme Allied Commander Europe Adm. Jim Stavridis.
The Pentagon's regional director for Europe and NATO Chris Skaluba will be taking over Smith's duties as principal director of the Europe/NATO office on an acting basis, while the Pentagon looks for someone to fill that position permanently, Miller wrote. Col. Sean Scott will fill in for Skaluba as acting director of the Europe/NATO regional directorate.
According to Politico's Playbook, Smith previously worked as director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Europe Program and also has worked at the German Marshall Fund, the British American Security Information Council, and the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Germany.
"Please join me in wishing Julie and Evelyn, and Chris and Sean, all the best in their new roles. I am confident that they will all continue do great work in support of our national security," Miller wrote.
Two top Obama administration officials said today that the diplomatic initiative to end the violence in Syria, led by U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, "is failing."
Under intense questioning during Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, both Kathleen Hicks, the current deputy under secretary of defense for policy, and Derek Chollet, National Security Council senior director for strategy, said that the Annan plan was headed toward collapse and that new options for confronting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were being prepared.
Asked by the committee's ranking Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, if Assad had complied with the six points of the Annan plan for Syria, which charts a path away from violence toward political negotiations, Chollet acknowledged that violence is actually increasing.
"Do you believe the Annan plan has succeeded or failed?" McCain asked both officials.
"I would say it is failing," Chollet said.
"I would say it is failing and that Annan himself is extremely worried about the plan," Hicks concurred.
Annan lamented reports of increased violence Wednesday but said he still wanted to increase the number of monitors on the ground.
"If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible," said Annan."Equally, a credible political process is required if we are to sustain any long-term calm on the ground."
As The Cable reported last week, Chollet was added recently to the senior leadership of the Syria policy team and is coordinating the interagency process to look for a "Plan B" for U.S. policy for if and when the diplomatic initiatives break down.
Several times during the hearing, McCain complained that the United States was not leading in Syria, waiting for others to request more assertive action and hiding behind the excuse that there was no international consensus on the way forward.
"My view is that the United States is leading diplomatically," said Hicks, pointing to the Friends of Syria group of countries that meets periodically to discuss the issue as well as repeated action at the U.N. Security Council.
"Actually, we have not led the Friends of Syria, at least according to the Friends of Syria, because I have met with them, so that's not a fact," McCain said.
The Pentagon is planning for the possibility that the U.S. military might be called upon to participate in a mission to establish safe zones along the Turkey-Syria border, according to Hicks.
"We are doing a significant amount of planning for a wide range of scenarios, including our ability to assist allies and partners along the borders," she said.
But Chollet said that Turkey has not yet requested a discussion within NATO about setting up safe zones inside Syria, which would require military support. He added that if Turkey did request such a discussion, NATO would be obliged to take up the matter.
"I am unaware of any official or any serious discussions for that matter about how NATO might help Turkey in that regard," Chollet said.
McCain said that expanding the U.N. observer mission, which only has 15 people on the ground right now, would likely not solve the problem. He referred to Thursday's Washington Post editorial, "Where U.N. monitors go in Syria, killings follow."
The editorial noted reports that the Assad regime is sweeping into villages and towns as soon as the monitors leave, killing civilians and punishing those who are suspected of cooperating with the U.N. mission.
McCain was scolding and sometimes sarcastic about what he regards as a feckless U.S. Syria policy.
"I'm glad to hear that we are playing such a ‘leadership role'," McCain said. "I can guarantee you nobody in the Middle East thinks that. I can guarantee you that this is a shameful situation where people are being slaughtered. We are talking about economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions. We should be helping these people."
Hicks has been nominated to be principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, succeeding acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, and Chollet has been nominated to be assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, succeeding Sandy Vershbow, who is now NATO's deputy secretary-general.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe raised the idea of intervening militarily against the Assad regime in Syria and said that the Security Council might have to consider a Chapter 7 resolution, which could authorize the use of force. "We cannot allow the [Assad] regime to defy us," he said.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
The House Appropriations Committee proposed cutting the State Department and foreign operations budget by more than $5 billion next year, in its annual allocations released Tuesday.
The Obama administration actually requested modest increases in funding for the State Department and USAID for fiscal 2013 when it released its budget request in February. While the Congress doesn't divide up the accounts the same way as the administration, in an apples-to-apples comparison, the House Appropriations Committees' allocation for State and foreign operations for fiscal 2013, $48.4 billion, would represent a 12 percent cut from the administration's $54.71 billion request for the same accounts.
The House proposed fully funding the president's $8.2 billion request for State Department funding related to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. Therefore, the remainder of the funding proposed by the House, $40.1 billion for the base budget, would represent a 14 percent cut to the administration's request for non-war related diplomatic and development activities.
The House proposal would also be a $5 billion or 9 percent cut from the funding levels enacted in fiscal 2012. The Senate Appropriations Committee, in its own allocations, proposed giving the State and foreign operations accounts $53 billion, roughly equal to fiscal 2012 levels, although the Senate proposed shifting $5 billion from the OCO account to the base budget.
Non-governmental organizations that focus on international affairs funding were quick to criticize the House Appropriations Committee's actions.
"Retreat from our engagement in the world is not an option for the sake of our national security, but these cuts to the International Affairs Budget represent just that," said retired Marine Corps Gen. Mike Hagee, co-chair of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition's National Security Advisory Council. "The International Affairs Budget is absolutely critical to our nation's security and economic interests, and the programs it funds are cost-effective ways to prevent conflicts that will eventually require us to put our brave men and women in uniform in harm's way."
The allocations released Tuesday are just the first step in a long appropriations process. Next, the subcommittees will write up appropriations bills to fit within the allocation limits, after which both chambers will ostensibly begin marking up appropriations bills and moving them through the legislative process.
Practically, nobody expects the Congress to actually pass appropriations bills this year through both chambers due to the hyper partisanship of the presidential election season. But the spade work done by the committees could influence what ends up getting funded in the catch-all emergency stop gap spending bill that Congress will have to pass when the fiscal year expires Sept. 30 in order to keep the lights on throughout the government.
The House's proposal could also be just the first step in a multi-year effort by the GOP to steadily reduce funding for diplomacy and development, as is spelled out in the 99 page "Path to Prosperity" document put for by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).
"I am committed to working together with the Chairman and with our colleagues across the aisle to make sure that we continue to support our critical national security priorities and that there is proper oversight and accountability for all of our foreign assistance," State and foreign ops Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX) told The Cable in a statement.
Subcommittee ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY) criticized the cuts in her own statement to The Cable.
"I am disappointed by this short-sighted allocation and the Republicans' decision to ignore bipartisan funding levels agreed to in the Budget Control Act," she said. "We must not make cuts that fundamentally weaken our national security interests."
The Pentagon sent officials to brief Senate Armed Services Committee leaders on the military's involvement in the Cartagena prostitution scandal that is roiling the Secret Service, but the lead Republican on the committee ripped the briefers Wednesday for their unpreparedness.
"Chairman [Carl] Levin and I met today with representatives of the Joint Staff with the expectation of receiving information on the ongoing investigation into possible misconduct involving military personnel during the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. We requested this briefing to inform us as to any national security implications resulting from such misconduct," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said in statement.
"Unfortunately, nearly two weeks after the events in Colombia, the briefers sent by the Department of Defense were woefully unprepared to answer even the most basic questions about what happened in Cartagena, and provided appallingly little new information other than the mechanics and timeline of the ongoing investigation."
The DOD briefers did not even know the date President Barack Obama arrived or the name of the senior military commander on the ground in Cartagena, McCain said. The military has to protect the rights of service members, but Congress needs to be able to do oversight as well, he added.
"We need to know the facts. We need to know the impact of this potential misconduct, which occurred less than a day, or perhaps hours, before the president arrived in Cartagena, on the performance of the military Joint Task Force charged with his security. Yet, we are being denied access to the information we need in order to make informed judgments or take needed actions. This is entirely unacceptable," he said.
McCain pledged to explore other means for the committee to get the information they are seeking from the administration. Reuters reported Tuesday that 12 military members are now associated with the scandal, the latest being attached to the White House communications team. Twelve Secret Service personnel are also implicated, six of whom have already left the agency.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was in Colombia this week on a previously scheduled visit. He said he had already suspended security clearances for those involved and promised to punish those found to be guilty of infractions.
"We expect our people, wherever they are, whether they are in Colombia or any other country ... to behave at the highest standards of conduct," Panetta told reporters at Colombia's Tolemaida military base. "If these investigators find that there have been violations ... those individuals will be held accountable.
Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller announced to his staff last Friday that Vikram Singh is the new deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia (SSEA).
"Vikram will be responsible for overseeing the development of policy for South and Southeast Asia, to include key relationships with Allies such as Australia, Thailand, Philippines and strategic partners such as India and Singapore," Miller wrote in the note, obtained by The Cable. "Vikram will play a critical role in leading defense engagement with multilateral institutions in the Asia-Pacific region."
Singh is already hitting the ground running. This week he is leading the U.S. delegation to the ASEAN defense senior officials meeting (ADSOM+) in Cambodia.
Since October 2011, Singh served in the Pentagon policy shop as a senior advisor for Asian and Pacific security affairs, where he led an internal review on the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Prior to that, he had been detailed from the Pentagon to the State Department as a deputy special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, serving under ambassadors Richard Holbrooke and Marc Grossman. Brig. Gen. Rich Simcock, who had been the acting DASD for SSEA since Bob Scher moved over to be DASD for Plans, will return to his role as principal director for SSEA, now under Singh.
Before joining the Obama administration in 2009, Singh was a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, the think tank founded by former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. His other jobs have included a stint managing a Ford Foundation project on South Asian minority rights at International Center for Ethnic Studies in Colombo and as a reporter in Sri Lanka and South Africa for Voice of America.
The Singh appointment fills one of the many vacancies atop the Pentagon's Asia policy shop. The office is still led by Peter Lavoy, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense (PDAS) for Asian and Pacific affairs, while the confirmation of Mark Lippert to be assistant secretary remains held up by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) over the issue of F-16 sales to Taiwan. We're told by Hill sources that the White House has finally reached out to Cornyn to negotiate over the hold, but that the administration's initial offer of sending a mid-level Air Force official to Taiwan for a short visit fell far short of what Cornyn wanted.
There's also still no DASD for East Asia, following Michael Schiffer's move to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Principal Director Dave Helvey is the acting in that capacity.
"I am very pleased to have Vikram on the policy team as the deputy assistant secretary for South and Southeast Asia. He brings a wealth of Asia policy experience -- both in and out of government -- to this position," Miller said in a statement to The Cable.
This past weekend, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was denied entry into Afghanistan due to objections from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Today, in an interview with The Cable, Rohrabacher recounted the episode, his longstanding feud with Karzai, and the personal intervention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that kept him from flying to Kabul.
Last Wednesday, Rohrabacher was added as a last minute addition to the congressional delegation led by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and including Reps. John Carter (R-TX), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), and Michele Bachmann (R-MN). Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) had to drop out at the last minute, so Rohrabacher took the spot. He didn't think there would be a problem.
Following a 13-hour flight to Dubai (Rohrabacher had to fly coach because of the last minute arrangements), he and the rest of the delegation prepared to board a military transport to Kabul. But the military staff on the ground wouldn't let him get on the plane.
"I was informed that the military plane was prohibited from taking off if I was on board," he said. "The State Department had asked the Defense Department not to fly me there."
Rohrabacher, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, didn't need the administration's approval to go to Afghanistan, so he and his staff began searching for commercial flights to Kabul. That's when Clinton called.
"She made the request of me saying that Karzai was personally upset with me and doesn't want me in his country. She said that if I went, there was a real possibility there would be a real crisis on their hands," Rohrabacher said.
Clinton mentioned the recent accidental burning of Qurans on a U.S. military base and the murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier. She told Rohrabacher that she feared Karzai might provoke another minor crisis in the relationship if the congressman went there, and asked him not to go.
"The secretary of state was asking me in a reasonable way so I said I would comply. If she thinks it's better for our country, I would forgo this trip, but not all trips," he said. "She was afraid that Karzai might try to get some of his people out on the streets and start targeting me, so she didn't need that."
The rest of the delegation went on to Kabul and met with embassy staff and members of the leadership of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, but not with Karzai. Meanwhile, Rohrabacher hung back in the United Arab Emirates and met with the emir of Abu Dhabi, the leader of the UAE military, and the UAE's minister of energy. When the delegation got back to Dubai, the representatives went on the Qatar for additional meetings before arriving back in Washington Tuesday afternoon.
Rohrabacher explained that his feud with Karzai goes back years, if not decades, and is based on Rohrabacher's longstanding and vocal support for a decentralization of power in Afghanistan and removal of U.S. financial and diplomatic support for Karzai, whom he sees as a corrupt and illegitimate leader.
Rohrabacher has been traveling to Afghanistan since the 1980s, when he worked in the Reagan White House. In 1988 he even picked up a machine gun and fought alongside the mujahideen on against the Russians near the Afghan city of Jalalabad. During the reign of the Taliban, Rohrabacher, by then a congressman, traveled to Afghanistan several times to meet with the groups that would eventually come to be known as the Northern Alliance.
The latest action to anger Karzai came when Rohrabacher traveled to an Aspen Institute conference in January with Gohmert, Steve King (R-IA), and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), and met with the Northern Alliance to strategize on the way forward in Afghanistan.
"Serious efforts were made by the U.S. State Department to prevent this exchange of views from taking place," Rohrabacher said in a press release at the time.
It probably hasn't helped relations that Rohrabacher's subcommittee is working on an investigation strategy to bring to light the details of how Karzai and his family have enriched themselves of the last few years.
"Mr. Karzai is a very wealthy man and the tooth fairy didn't leave it under his pillow. If we don't do anything, the Taliban will take over that country and Karzai will disappear and emerge in Csota Rica with suitcases filled with money," he said. "Or even worse, our current government may push Karzai into a coalition government with the Taliban, and that would be a catastrophe and a horrible waste of American lives and resources over the last 10 years."
Rohrabacher said he didn't care much what Karzai thought about him one way or the other and promised to travel to Afghanistan again at a later time. He also claimed that Karzai is trying to prevent any members of the Afghan opposition from having direct contact with members of Congress.
"I think the reason that Karzai singled me out is that when I say something about Afghanistan people take it seriously because of my decades of experience in Afghanistan," he said. "There are few members of Congress who understand how little right Karzai has to the leadership of that government."
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The United States and Japan are nearing completion of a new basing agreement for U.S. troops in Okinawa, but three top senators want to make sure that Congress has a seat at the table before anything is set in stone.
"We have been advised informally that the United States and Japan are preparing to announce an agreement regarding basing issues on Okinawa and Guam as early as this Wednesday, April 25, in advance of Prime Minister Noda's coming visit to the United States," Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI), John McCain (R-AZ), and Jim Webb (D-VA) wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today. "While we have been strongly encouraging a resolution of this complex and troubling issue, we feel compelled to emphasize that no new basing proposal can be considered final until it has the support of Congress, which has important oversight and funding responsibilities."
The 2006 U.S.-Japan agreement to relocate 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and move the Futenma Air Station to a different part of Okinawa has been stalled for years due to the Tokyo government's failure to secure the buy-in of local Okinawan officials and communities for the new location of the airbase.
Last July, Levin, McCain, and Webb came out with strong objections to the plan due to the upward spiraling costs of the Guam part of the project. They added language to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act to require a independent study to rethink the whole arrangement. That study is now being conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a non-partisan Washington think tank.
The bill requires the Department of Defense to study the feasibility of relocating some of the Air Force assets at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to other bases in Japan or to Guam, and moving Marine Corps aviation assets currently at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Kadena Air Base rather than building an expensive replacement facility at Camp Schwab, another base located on Okinawa. This idea is extremely unpopular in Japan.
In February, the United States and Japan announced they would delink the troop location from the base relocation in the hopes of moving at least part of the agreement forward. The senators' letter today said that a new announcement is expected this week in advance of the Japanese prime minister's April 30 visit to Washington. According to Bloomberg, the new announcement will include a drastic scaling back of the number of troops headed to Guam, diverting about half of the 8,000 slated to leave Japan to Australia, Hawaii, or the Philippines.
The senators aren't necessarily opposed to such a plan, but say they haven't been briefed on the announcement and haven't been able to determine if the new plan addresses their concerns as laid out in the legislation last year. The independent assessment hasn't been completed, they pointed out. The bill also prevents any spending on the project until various conditions are met and those conditions have not been met, the senators wrote.
"Based on the information we have received about this emerging agreement, we have many questions that have not been fully addressed," the senators wrote. "We require additional information regarding how this proposal relates to the broader strategic concept of operations in the region, the Marine Corps' concept of operations, master plans, and alternatives to base realignments on Guam and Okinawa, as well as the positioning of U.S. Air Force units in the Asia-Pacific region. We also remain concerned about the absence of firm cost estimates informed by basing plans, an analysis of logistical requirements, and environmental studies related to this new agreement."
The senators said they were mindful of how sensitive basing issues are in the U.S.-Japanese relationship (some say the Obama administration's battles with former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama contributed to Hatoyama's downfall). They also said they support a robust U.S. military presence in the region and a strong U.S.-Japanese security alliance. But they want the administration to delay the announcement nonetheless.
"We remain committed to working with the Administration to resolve this matter to the benefit of both the United States and Japan. But, for the reasons given above, it is our position that any announcement on this critical matter that goes beyond an agreement in principle at this time would be premature and could have the unintended consequences of creating more difficulties for our important alliance," they wrote.
Noda will visit the White House and meet with President Barack Obama on April 30 but he will not get a state dinner like his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.
"The President looks forward to holding discussions with the Prime Minister on a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues, including the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, economic and trade issues, and deepening bilateral cooperation. The two leaders will also discuss regional and global security concerns," the White House said in a statement.
A bill to sanction Russian human rights violators will not be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week after the Obama administration urged Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) to keep it off the committee's agenda, The Cable has learned.
Last month, Kerry indicated that the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 would be brought up for a vote at the April 26 SFRC business meeting and he also endorsed the idea of combining the Magnitsky bill with a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law. "In good faith, we will move as rapidly as we can, hopefully the minute we're back, but certainly shortly thereafter," Kerry said March 27, just before the last Senate recess.
But after what several Senate aides described as intense lobbying from top Obama administration officials, including Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Kerry decided not to put the bill on the agenda of the next business meeting, delaying consideration of the bill until May at the earliest, after the visit to the U.S. of Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin.
In a statement to The Cable, Kerry said he still supports quick passage of the Magnitsky bill and its linkage to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, but that he needed more time to iron out differences over the details of the legislation.
"I support this effort and, as I said at the last business meeting, passing the Magnitsky legislation out of our committee is not a question of if, only when. I've been trying to get everyone on the same page because that's how you get the best legislative result, and everyone was explicitly very comfortable with where we were. My goal here is to get the best result," Kerry said.
But several aides told The Cable that not everybody was comfortable with the delay. The Cable obtained an e-mail sent late last week from the staff of committee Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) to several Democratic Senate offices including that of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the bill's main sponsor, in which Lugar protests the delay strongly.
"We want to reiterate Senator Lugar's position, as he stated at the last business meeting, that he strongly supports having the Magnitsky Act taken up at the next business meeting (i.e. next week)," the e-mail reads.
"As we understand the situation, the White House and State Department have been frantic over the last 24 hours in trying to head off consideration of the bill next week by contacting numerous Democratic offices," Lugar's staff wrote. "Thus, our position remains as it has been: Senator Lugar supports immediate consideration of the Magnitsky bill-next week. If Senators Kerry and/or Cardin do not wish to have it taken up then, that is prerogative of the SFRC Majority, but it is not the position of Senator Lugar."
The Obama administration is on the record opposing the Magnitsky bill and believes that its passage could imperil U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of issues. The Russian government has even threatened to scuttle the New START nuclear reductions treaty if the Magnitsky bill is passed, which would erase the signature accomplishment of the administration's U.S.-Russia reset policy.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the administration said in its official comments on the bill last July. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."
Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak said Monday at a lunch with reporters in Washington that passage of the Magnitsky bill would have a "significant negative impact" on the U.S.-Russia relationship and said it was unacceptable for the United States to interfere in the Magnitsky case, which he said was an internal Russian issue.
"It's artificially attached to the whole issue of Jackson Vanik... It's politically motivated," he said. "We do not want to be told what to do within the limits of Russian law."
Kislyak then said there were human rights violations in the United States that Russia could raise in the context of trade negotiations, but chooses not to.
"I could bring up one example that is very much on our minds. Three years of long investigation of the killing of children adopted from Russia, with absolute immunity, but we do not bring that issue into the economic realm," he said.
Cardin, meanwhile, has been working with administration behind the scenes to make changes to the Magnitsky bill, and even came up with a new draft version of the legislation last week, before the delay. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill.
For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create. In the previous version, any member of Congress could request to add the name of an alleged human rights violator to the bill. In the new version, both the chair and ranking member of a relevant committee must jointly request someone be added to the list, a high bar in a partisan Congress.
Cardin is caught by between his desire to see his legislation passed without being gutted and his desire to work with the administration. In a brief interview with The Cable last week, he insisted he still wants the Magnitsky bill joined with the legislation that will repeal Jackson-Vanik and grant Russia PNTR.
"There's a growing support in the Senate to make sure it's part of the PNTR debate," he said. "We'd like SFRC to mark it up and then take it to the Senate Finance Committee and make it part of the PNTR bill."
The exact logistics for how the Magnitsky bill is moved in conjunction with the PNTR bill are up in the air. It could be joined in the Senate Finance Committee, or on the Senate floor, or just passed at the same time. But what's clear is that there are several senators ready to hold up PNTR for Russia if the Magnitsky bill isn't considered in conjunction.
Among Capitol Hill staffers, there's also concern that the administration may be negotiating to water down the Magnitsky bill now, only to ultimately oppose it later. A similar dynamic played out over sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran last December. Then, it was Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who carried water for the administration before discovering they would ultimately oppose the bill no matter what. Menendez was livid. That bill passed the Senate 100-0.
"The last thing the Obama administration wants is Magnitsky to pass and not PNTR, but at the rate they are going, it could be likely that neither moves," one senior Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "The administration's strategy is to delay as long as possible any SFRC consideration, in hopes that in a year with few legislative days the window for Magnitsky passage narrows and disappears."
UPDATE: Tuesday afternoon, Kerry's Communications Director Jodi Seth sent the following statement on the delay to The Cable:
"The decision not to put the Magnitsky bill on the agenda for the business meeting on April 26 was made only after consultations with relevant committee offices. At no time during the decision-making process did Lugar staff raise any objection to not adding the bill to the agenda."
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In a speech introducing U.S. President Barack Obama today, Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called on the world to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from committing atrocities against civilians.
At a ceremony at Washington's Holocaust museum, Wiesel compared Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the villains who perpetrated the murder of millions of innocent civilians during World War II and asked why America and the international community didn't do more to stop the bloodshed. He then compared the world's inaction then to its failure to stop Assad and Ahmadinejad now.
"It could have been prevented. The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, ‘40, ‘41, ‘42. Each time, in Berlin, Geobbels and the others always wanted to see what would be the reaction in Washington and London and Rome, and there was no reaction so they felt they could continue," Wiesel said.
"So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the No. 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state."
"Have we not learned? We must know that evil has power. It is almost too late," he said. "Preventative measures are important. We must use those measures to prevent another catastrophe. And when other communities are threatened by anyone, we must not allow them to do what they intend doing."
Wiesel's speech was reminiscent of another speech he made at the Holocaust museum in 1993, at the opening of the complex, when he called on then President Bill Clinton to take action to stop the atrocities against civilians in Bosnia.
Similarly, that speech came at a time when the Clinton administration was resisting getting entangled in a foreign civil war but was under growing pressure to intervene.
"Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something," Wiesel told Clinton then. "I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done."
In his own remarks, Obama touted the fact that his administration determined that the prevention of mass atrocities was a core national security interest of the United States and listed several bureaucratic changes the government was making to address the problem. His board to examine the problem meets today for the first time.
Obama touted his administration's efforts in South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Libya, and Uganda, pledging to extend the limited deployment of U.S. military advisors to help track down remnants of the Lord's Resistance Army. But Obama said that governments are not wholly responsible for preventing mass atrocities.
"You don't just count on officials; you don't just count on governments. You count on people mobilizing their conscience," Obama said. "'Never again' is a challenge to nations. It's a bitter truth: Too often the world has failed to halt the killing of innocents on a massive scale and we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save."
When Obama spoke about Syria, he said the United States would continue increasing diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on the Assad regime, but said the U.S. commitment to end atrocities "does not mean we intervene militarily every time there is an injustice in the world."
"The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up. So with partners and allies we will keep increasing the pressure so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet."
Obama announced new financial sanctions against Syrian and Iranian leaders who use information technology to suppress civilian dissent, barring those guilty from entering or doing business in the United States.
"In short, we need to do everything we can to prevent these kinds of atrocities, because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your own people," Obama said. "Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing."
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
The White House is unhappy with the options it's been given on Syria and is searching for a new strategy for removing President Bashar al-Assad, The Cable has learned.
"There was a fundamental decision made at the highest level that we need a real Syria policy with more options for the president," one administration official with knowledge of the internal deliberations said. "Our allies were coming back to us and saying ‘What's your next move?,' and we were forced to admit we didn't have one."
The new push includes adjustments in personnel handling the portfolio. Before March, National Security Council Director Steve Simon headed up the internal interagency process. Now, multiple officials confirm that NSC Senior Director for Strategy Derek Chollet has been added to the leadership of the Syria policy team and has been coordinating the interagency process for several weeks. Simon, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, State Dept. Special Advisor Fred Hof, and Ambassador Robert Ford are still very active on the Syria portfolio.
Simon, Feltman, and Hof have been traveling all week and will be with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris Thursday. There she will attend an ad-hoc meeting of foreign ministers where "core" members of the Friends of Syria group will confer on next steps.
Chollet, the former deputy to Anne-Marie Slaughter at the State Department's Policy Planning shop, has also been nominated to be the next assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, replacing Sandy Vershbow, who is now deputy secretary general of NATO. Chollet has taken on the day-to-day management of the interagency process while he awaits confirmation.
New options are now being considered internally, including another discussion of setting up buffer zones inside Syria, one administration official confirmed. The administration has also authorized direct contact with the internal Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and at least one State Department official has met with the FSA's nominal leaders in Turkey.
The rethink comes eight months after Obama explicitly demanded the Syrian leader's removal, saying, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside."
His administration is still struggling to come up with a way to make that call a reality.
There's a growing consensus inside the administration that the violence in Syria is not abating and that multinational diplomatic initiatives such as the plan put forth by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan are not convincing Assad to enter into a political process to transition to democracy, much less yield power and step down.
Clinton hinted Wednesday that fresh options are under discussion.
"We are at a crucial turning point," Clinton said, speaking from Brussels. "Either we succeed in pushing forward with Kofi Annan's plan in accordance with the Security Council direction, with the help of monitors steadily broadening and deepening a zone of non-conflict and peace, or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered."
The potential shift in U.S. policy predates the Annan plan, however.
Following a failed effort to convince Russia and China to endorse a resolution condemning Assad in February and the subsequent attempts to convince Russia to play a more constructive role following Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency in March, top levels of the Obama administration began exploring other options, according to multiple U.S. officials, congressional officials, and experts briefed on the discussions.
One administration official said that the hope that Russia could be convinced to reign in Assad has now faded, as has the notion that Turkey and the Arab Gulf states would be willing to bankroll the Syrian opposition and even arm the FSA while the United States largely confined itself to a diplomatic role.
The administration's position had been to look the other way while Arab states armed the Syrian opposition, but pledges of aid by Gulf states have not materialized and the Turkish government, which has committed to an anti-Assad position and is hosting the FSA, is waiting for the United States to chart a clear way forward.
"They are not thinking two steps ahead. That's why there is a demand for a plan B," the administration official said, referring to the White House. "The position they took at the last Friends of Syria meeting is not sustainable."
The United States has pledged $25 million in humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and communications equipment to the internal opposition. But lawmakers who met with internal opposition leaders last week said that they hadn't gotten that assistance.
"The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad's forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable in an interview.
Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent their Senate recess on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, meeting with Turkish officials, FSA leaders, and refugees.
"What they want us to do is to lead. They want us to lead the Friends of Syria, who have given them increasingly sympathetic rhetoric but not the wherewithal to defend themselves," he said.
The Syrian internal opposition is buying weapons and ammunition on the black market at exorbitant prices and claims that large parts of the Syrian military are demoralized but are unwilling to break with the government until they see the opposition has real international support.
"They are all waiting for the U.S. to say ‘We're in this,'" Lieberman said.
There was at least one State Department official inside the McCain-Lieberman meeting with leaders of the FSA, Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh and Col. Riad al-Asaad, two U.S. officials confirmed. The FSA leaders asked the United States to provide RPGs, anti-aircraft guns, and ammunition. The FSA leaders also said they have proof that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships to attack civilians in the city of Idlib, as apparently shown in this YouTube video.
Turkish officials told McCain and Lieberman that they were willing to let weapons flow over their borders and consider other more aggressive steps to help the internal Syrian opposition, but that they won't do so unless Washington leads the way.
The Turks told the senators there are currently 25,000 registered Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, although the registrations have not kept pace with the flow of refugees across the border so the actual number could be much higher. The Turks also said that if the refugee total tops 50,000, they will require help.
"They Turks want American leadership and they know American leadership is totally absent. The Turks say they may -- if this flood of refugees continues -- they may need international assistance," McCain said. "Every place we talked to, they want American leadership. It's just disgraceful that they haven't acted so far."
The administration official explained that the White House does not want to become so heavily involved in the Syria conflict, for example by directly arming opposition fighters, because it puts the United States on the hook for their success and would probably require increased levels of commitment as the conflict drags on.
"They've got this half-pregnant position that is offensive to the sensibilities of the people on the ground and confusing to the Turks," the official said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
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A new set of sanctions against Iran is pending in the Senate, but the Obama administration refuses to say whether or not it supports the legislation as negotiations with Tehran resume.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said today that he still intends to move as soon as possible to pass the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named for Finance Committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), that was approved by the committee in February. The bill would pile on more punitive measures against Iran's energy, shipping, and mining sectors, while punishing a broader range of Iranian government officials for their involvement in human rights violations.
Before the latest Senate recess, Reid attempted to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but Republicans objected because several senators want to offer amendments to strengthen the bill. Lawmakers from both chambers and both sides of the aisle want the bill to go through the regular legislative process so that changes can be made before passage, but Reid says the bill should be passed as is.
Reid told reporters today that his staff would be meeting today "to see if something could be worked out," regarding a way forward for the legislation. (After the meeting, a Reid spokesman told The Cable that "nothing" was worked out at today's meeting and there is no definitive schedule for moving ahead with the bill.)
"I think the best thing to do is to move forward with the bill that was reported out of committee on a bipartisan basis, unless we can get agreement from basically everyone," Reid said. "Each day that goes by without Iran feeling more of our sanctions, that's too bad for the world and helpful to Iran. We need to move forward on this as soon as possible."
The Obama administration hasn't said anything positive or negative about the legislation, even though it has been vocal about other Iran sanctions bills being debated in Congress. Administration officials met with Iranian negotiators as part of the P5+1 group in Turkey last weekend and more talks are scheduled for next month in Baghdad.
If the administration supports the new sanctions, it risks upsetting the new negotiations just as they are beginning. If the administration doesn't support the new sanctions, it leaves them open to GOP allegations of weakness towards Iran in the midst of the presidential election season.
National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment today on whether or not the White House supports quick passage of the Johnson-Shelby bill. Late last month, a senior administration official told The Cable, "We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point."
House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told The Cable Monday that he supports moving forward with the bill quickly.
"I think it's perfectly appropriate to keep up pressure with the sanctions. I think you've got to keep ramping up the pressure," he said. "If we want to add to the options the president has, I think that's a good idea."
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) said today that without the administration's green light, the bill probably would not move quickly through Congress.
"Unless the administration advocates for that, I think it's less likely," he said.
China may be helping North Korea develop long range ballistic missiles that could reach the United States, and one Republican congressman wants the Obama administration to do something about it.
"As you have likely seen, the press is reporting that North Korea unveiled a new mobile missile at a military parade in Pyongyang in honor of the founder of that dictatorship, Kim Il Sung," Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), wrote in an April 17 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, obtained by The Cable. Turner is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee.
"Whether this missile is the new road mobile intercontinental missile (ICBM) the administration has been warning about is, as yet, unclear based on these public reports," Turner wrote. "Of deeper concern, however, are allegations that the missile, unveiled at the recent military parade in Pyongyang, is based on Chinese technology, in violation of international obligations and a threat to the national security interest of the United States."
Turner wrote that the photographs of the missile "suggest cooperation and support" by the Chinese government and he quotes missile-technology expert Richard Fisher as saying that the 16-wheel transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) was "very likely" a Chinese design and that there was a "possibility" it was actually manufactured in China for North Korea's use.
Turner asked Clinton and Clapper to report back to Congress if the U.S. government has any evidence that China or Chinese companies are helping North Korea acquires mobile launchers for ICBMs. He also wants to know whether the administration has done anything to confront China on the issue, whether the administration believes China is helping North Korea with ballistic missiles at all, and whether the administration will sanction Chinese entities for aiding the North Korean missile program.
"Indeed, the possibility of such cooperation undermines the administration's entire policy of investing China with the responsibility of getting tough on North Korea," Turner wrote.
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
Former National Security Advisor Jim Jones took on yet another job last week when he was named the chief executive officer of the U.S.-Kurdistan Business Council, a new trade association in charge of advocating for U.S. companies in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
"General Jones is exceptionally knowledgeable about Kurdistan and about the history and importance of U.S. engagement with the region. His long experience will be an asset to the U.S. business community interested in Kurdistan and its important investment opportunities," said Alex Cranberg, chairman of USKBC founding member company Aspect Holdings, in a Monday press release.
The council is brand new. It was launched this month with a reception last week held in honor of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Mahmoud Barzani, who was in Washington to meet with top administration officials. Jones was announced as its first CEO at the event.
"The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is very pleased and proud to recognize the launching of the USKBC," Qubad Talabani, the KRG representative to the United States, said. "I expect this U.S. trade group will provide American companies with a new and important platform to do business in Iraqi Kurdistan."
"Founding members" can join for only $30,000 per year, "associate members" can join with fewer privileges for $10,000 a year, and NGOs can apply for "affiliate membership," which is free.
"The USKBC is dedicated to facilitating trade and commerce for U.S. companies in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and to strengthening ties between the private sector in the U.S. and Kurdistan Region," the organization's website reads. "With one of the most liberal investment laws in the Middle East and significant needs in almost every industry sector, the Kurdistan Region presents untapped business opportunities for U.S. companies."
Kurdistan's oil reserves are vast, and new pockets of oil resources are being discovered on a regular basis. But the KRG is embroiled in a fight with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over who controls the rights to Kurdistan's oil and who can sign contracts with foreign firms for exploration and extraction.
For Jones, this is just the latest in a list of private-sector jobs he has taken on since leaving government. He is also a fellow at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a member of the board of directors of General Dynamics, and a senior advisor at Deloitte Consulting.
The United Nations and the State Department have been struggling to convince the Iranian exile group the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) to move to a former U.S. military base in Iraq, but the real need is for third countries to accept MEK "refugees" on a permanent basis, according to the top U.N. representative in Iraq.
The MEK is a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime that has been living in a closed compound in Iraq called Camp Ashraf for years. The Iraqi government has pledged to close Camp Ashraf, using force if necessary, so the U.N. and the State Department are slowly but surely cajoling Ashraf's 3,200 residents to move to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport.
But that's only a temporary solution. Unless other countries start accepting MEK members for relocation, they could face the prospect of being returned to Iran, where they could face retribution from the Iranian regime they have been fighting for decades.
"I have the feeling that the Camp Ashraf residents have made peace with the idea to go to Camp Liberty and they've made peace with the idea that there is no future in Iraq and they will leave Iraq," Martin Kobler, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), told The Cable.
But finding homes for the MEK members when they leave Iraq "is the most difficult part of the story," he said. "The whole process only will succeed if all the 3,200 find countries who will take them into their borders."
The U.N. held a resettlement conference on March 27 in Geneva and the response was "not overwhelming, to say the least," Kobler said.
Part of the difficulty of dealing with the MEK group members at Camp Ashraf is that they have been cut off from the world for years and little is known about their individual histories or whether they would qualify for refugee status. Some reports say that MEK members are still conducting violent attacks inside Iran at the behest of the Israeli government.
The United States is legally barred from accepting any refugees from members of a foreign terrorist organization. There is also no plan for what happens to those MEK members who do not qualify for refugee status.
"We will find a solution then," Kobler said. "Everybody has Iranian nationality and on a voluntary basis can go back to Iran... The question is what happens to them then."
Kobler disputed the claims made by the MEK and its long list of American advocates that the Camp Liberty site is not fit for human occupation.
"Camp Liberty is a place where 5,500 American soldiers lived for many, many years... What worked for 5,500 people should also work humanitarian wise for 3,200 Camp Ashraf residents," he said.
Kobler declined to comment on reports that the MEK is involved in ongoing attacks on the Iranian nuclear program and its personnel inside Iran. He also declined to confirm that U.N. reports have stated that MEK members were intentionally sabotaging the facilities in Camp Liberty in order to make the camp look worse than it is, saying only, "There were big initial difficulties and a lack of cooperation. However this has improved over the last weeks."
Some advocates of the MEK, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have called Camp Ashraf a "concentration camp," a reference Kobler said is insulting and offensive.
"I am a German citizen. To compare the situation of Camp Ashraf residents to the systematic extermination of European Jews during Nazi dictatorship, this is not only historically totally absurd but is an insult to the victims," he said.
"My message to these supporters is, spend your energies not so much on attacking the United Nations or others. Spend your energies to convince your governments to take them into your countries," he said.
While in Washington, Kobler met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, Population, and Migration Anne Richards, and Ambassador Daniel Fried, the State Department official in charge of the Camp Ashraf issue.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Barak Obama's push for engagement with North Korea, which was effectively ended by yesterday's missile launch, was not a failure and actually shows that this administration is tougher on Pyongyang than its predecessor, a top White House official said today.
"What this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past," said Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes, speaking to reporters on Air Force One Friday.
The Cable detailed yesterday the Obama team's extensive efforts over the past year to enter into a new round of negotiations with the North Korean regime, which included offering North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid and asking the North Koreans to refrain from enriching uranium and firing off any missiles. The deal fell through Thursday when North Korea launched an Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached.
Rhodes argued that the Obama administration's stance was tougher than George W. Bush's, given that Bush's top negotiator Chris Hill held several rounds of protracted negotiations with North Korea and even got North Korea to sign an agreement in 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security and economic guarantees from the West.
"Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea. North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions. Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," Rhodes said.
He also seemed to abandon the administration's claim that the food aid was not "linked" to the nuclear and missile discussions, a claim most observers scoffed at because the two issues were negotiated at the same time by the same people and because the food aid was cancelled after North Korea announced the missile launch.
"When this new regime took power after the death of Kim Jong Il, we had discussions with them about potentially an agreement where they would freeze their enrichment activities and take some other steps towards denuclearization, and that we as a part of that might provide food assistance," Rhodes said. (Emphasis added.)
He also repeated the administration's contention that North Korea could not be trusted to deliver the food aid to its people because the regime in Pyongyang could not be trusted to uphold its international commitments.
Rhodes said the United States would discuss with its allies and partners "additional steps" that might be taken to punish North Korea for its latest provocation, but he couldn't name any specific steps that under consideration. He also said there was concern that North Korea could conduct another nuclear test soon.
The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Friday condemning North Korea for the launch but no new punitive measures were announced. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said it was "premature ... to predict or characterize the form of the reaction."
Speaking to reporters, Rhodes also criticized North Korea for inviting journalists to visit, saying, "The North Korea government is trying to put on this propaganda show over the course of the last several days, inviting journalists in to take a look at this particular rocket launch."
After three years of practicing "strategic patience" with North Korea, which basically amounted to ignoring Pyongyang, the Obama team took a political risk by engaging with the North Korean regime and then announcing an "agreement" even though there was no single set of items that the two sides actually agreed upon. Each side issued its own unilateral statements about what it thought the deal included.
Republicans are already pouncing on what they portray as a naïve mistake by the administration.
"Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived. At the same time, he has cut critical U.S. missile defense programs and continues to underfund them," GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in statement. "This incompetence from the Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and our allies."
The Obama administration requested $7.75 billion for missile defense in fiscal 2013, which is $810 million less than Congress appropriated for the program this year.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) piled on.
"Once again, Pyongyang has demonstrated its complete disregard for international sanctions and its proclivity for worthless commitments. Moreover, North Korea's actions and gathering of global media to witness the launch make a mockery of the recent ‘Leap Day agreement' with the Obama administration," he said in his own statement. "The administration should abandon its naive negotiations with North Korea (and Iran), and instead focus on fully funding missile defenses that can protect the United States from ballistic missile threats."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Canada is upset that Washington special-interest groups are thwarting the Keystone XL pipeline, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told The Cable, forcing the country to move forward to find other customers for its oil.
"There's a great deal of frustration, less with the administration and more that the future prosperity of our country could lie in the hands of some radical environmentalists and special interests," Baird said in a Thursday interview in Washington. "That causes us great concern, so we want to look to diversify our markets, whether that be with Japan, Korea, or China, which has expressed a great interest."
U.S. President Barack Obama rejected TransCanada's permit application to build the pipeline in January after being compelled to issue a quick decision on the application by congressional legislation. He had received pressure from environmental groups, which had organized protests around the country opposing the construction of the pipeline.
No decision is expected on the pipeline this year, although Obama did announce last month that he intends to approve the southern piece of the pipeline soon. On Wednesday, Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill to re-launch a review of the pipeline route.
But Ottawa isn't waiting around for the United States to make a decision. The Canadia government is proceeding to build its "Northern Gateway" pipeline that would end in British Columbia, where the oil could be shipped directly to East Asia.
"It was certainly driven home to the energy sector in Canada that being captive to a special interest can have huge consequences on the future prosperity of our country. That's certainly known and accepted in a way that it wasn't last fall," Baird said.
Canada also knows how to deal with environmental groups, said Baird. The Canadian government has eliminated environmental impact studies for 90 percent of projects and has sped up the approval process, he said.
According to Baird, the United States is losing jobs due to the delay of the pipeline approval in Washington. But in a way, Canada stands to benefit from the impasse.
"Oil sands oil currently sells at a discount because we are a captive market, and if we could diversify that market, that discount could end," said Baird.
"If you look at all the oil around the world, there's precious little of it that is found in stable economies and stable democracies, and we want to share that resource with our closest partner," he said. "We're going to work hard to see the project approved, hopefully early next year."
Baird came to Washington for the G-8 foreign minister's meeting, which focused on the crises in Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Canada supports humanitarian and medical aid to the Syrian people but not arms for the Syrian opposition, Baird said. He also said there's no talk right now within NATO about establishing buffer zones inside Syria using NATO assets.
After Syrian troops fired over the Turkish border this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Turkey might invoke NATO Article 5, which provides for common defense of any threatened NATO country. Baird said the red line was if Syrian troops actually enter Turkey.
"There will be strong international support for Turkey if Syrian forces cross the border," he said. "Canada is a member of NATO, and if Syria wants to conduct military operations in a NATO country, they will get a strong reaction."
He didn't clarify what that strong reaction might entail.
Baird also shared news of a bet he made Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the NHL playoff series between the Ottawa Senators and the New York Rangers. If the Senators win, Clinton must wear their jersey. If the Rangers win, Baird will sport a Rangers sweater.
"After the Ottawa Senators win, she'll look great in red," he said, noting that in Canada, unlike in the United States, red is the liberal color.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
North Korea's apparently unsuccessful launch of an Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached marks not only the 100th birthday of the country's founder Kim Il Sung, but also the end of the Obama administration's year-long effort to open up a new path for negotiations with the Hermit Kingdom.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned earlier Thursday that the promised launch by North Korea would scuttle the deal the Obama administration negotiated with Pyongyang and announced on Leap Day Feb. 29, which would have provided North Korea with 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance over the next year. She lamented that the North Koreans had thrown away the progress made.
"If Pyongyang goes forward, we will all be back in the Security Council to take further action. And it is regrettable because, as you know, we had worked through an agreement that would have benefited the North Korean people with the provision of food aid," she said. "But in the current atmosphere, we would not be able to go forward with that, and other actions that other countries had been considering would also be on hold."
The Obama administration worked behind the scenes for months on the deal, and had been set to announce it last December, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died the day before the announcement was set to be made. In February, administration officials traveled to Beijing to try again and proudly announced on Feb. 29 that Pyongyang had agreed to a host of concessions, including a missile-test moratorium.
Since then, there has been much debate in Washington over whether or not the administration knew that the North Koreans planned all along to go ahead with their "satellite" launch, which had been scheduled before Kim Jong Il's death. The fact that the two sides issued separate statements on Feb. 29, neither of which addressed the issue of a satellite launch, led many close observers to believe the administration erred by not getting Pyongyang to commit to canceling the launch in writing.
Arms Control expert Jeffrey Lewis explained at length how U.S. negotiators Glyn Davies and Clifford Hart might have flubbed the negotiations by assuming that telling the North Koreans a satellite launch would scuttle the deal and hearing the North Koreans acknowledge the U.S. position was tantamount to an agreement.
"Administration officials are screaming to high heaven that Davies told the North Koreans that a space launch was a missile launch...The problem is that telling the DPRK is not the same thing as the DPRK agreed," Lewis wrote.
Regardless, while the North Koreans surely knew that the U.S. side viewed a missile launch as a deal breaker, it's not clear that the North Korean officials sent to negotiate with the United States had the authority to stop a missile launch ordered by the Dear (dead) Leader Kim Jong Il.
It's also true that the North Koreans sent a letter to the Obama administration asking for a resumption of talks following the planned launch and the administration rejected that proposal. In between Feb. 29 and today's launch, U.S. experts and North Korean officials also met for three unofficial "Track 2" meetings to try to salvage the deal, none of which produced any progress.
Lewis participated in one of the Track 2 meetings, held in late March in London. Another Track 2 meeting was held in New York and included experts Victor Cha, Tom Hubbard, Scott Snyder, Evans Revere, Don Zagoria, Frank Jannuzi, and Keith Luse. A separate Track 2 meeting in Germany included Jannuzi, Tom Pickering, Bob Carlin, and Nick Eberstadt.
No progress was made at any of those meetings, partially because neither the U.S. experts nor their North Korean interlocutors were empowered to negotiate.
"Track 2 is useful for what it can do. What it can't do is negotiations. North Korean delegations at that level are on an incredibly short leash. They are at best letter deliverers and receptors of comments," Eberstadt told The Cable.
And so the launch went forward, and despite its failure, the United States and North Korea now find themselves returning to a familiar pattern of diplomatic tit for tat that will lead to another stalemate and crush the prospects of further bilateral negotiations, much less a return to any multilateral discussions such as the defunct six-party talks.
"The North Koreans will stick to the view that it is their sovereign right to launch a peaceful satellite test and let all the rest of the legal argumentation go where it will," said Eberstadt. "The North Korean government is trying to get the world used to treating the DPRK as a nuclear weapons power. So each time they break an agreement we twitch a little bit less than we did the time before."
Cha told The Cable Thursday, before the launch, that there's little the United States or the international community could do about North Korea's missile test aside from going through the motions at the U.N.
"The administration will condemn it and they'll go the United Nations Security Council to try to get a [presidential] statement, not a resolution. That will be it, and it will look horrible," he said. "And privately they will press hard on China to finally play ball and put real pressure on Pyongyang."
China could indeed do more, such as increasing inspections on its border with North Korea to clamp down on proliferation, Cha said. But in the end, no matter what the Obama administration does, there's no politically viable strategy that can solve the problem.
If the administration plays down the launch and tries to act as if it's not significant, it may look incompetent. If it tries to go back to the negotiating table, conservative critics will cry appeasement. If it presses for more sanctions, it will look ineffective and risk wasting political capital needed to press for international sanctions on Iran and Syria.
"All the options are equally bad for the administration," said Cha. "We have to either accept that they are a nuclear-weapons state and figure out how to try to live with it, or we have to go in the other direction and find a way to take this regime down."
The launch destroys the previously held conventional wisdom that North Korea avoids provocative actions while sitting at the negotiating table, Cha said, and whatever strategy the administration had to deal with North Korea has now been overtaken by events.
"This requires a complete reset in how we deal with North Korea," said Cha. "We got ourselves into this and there isn't an easy way to get out of it."
UPDATE: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's statement on the launch:
Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea's provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments. While this action is not surprising given North Korea's pattern of aggressive behavior, any missile activity by North Korea is of concern to the international community. The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations, and is fully committed to the security our allies in the region.
The President has been clear that he is prepared to engage constructively with North Korea. However, he has also insisted that North Korea live up to its own commitments, adhere to its international obligations and deal peacefully with its neighbors.
North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry. North Korea's long-standing development of missiles and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not brought it security - and never will. North Korea will only show strength and find security by abiding by international law, living up to its obligations, and by working to feed its citizens, to educate its children, and to win the trust of its neighbors.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
As North Korea prepares to launch a missile, the Asia team in the Obama administration is working around the clock. But over at the Pentagon, several top Asia policy positions are completely vacant, forcing lower-level officials to pick up the slack.
The most glaring vacancy atop the Asia team at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy, the position of assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, has been empty for a year. Last April, Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson left that job unceremoniously and President Obama nominated his close confidant Mark Lippert soon after. Lippert's nomination is stalled indefinitely, first due to a hold by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that was lifted in February and now due to a hold by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) that remains in place. Cornyn said last month the White House won't even deal with him on the Lippert hold, so that job will remain vacant unless the White House changes its tune or pulls the Lippert nomination and nominates somebody else.
Below that level, former intelligence official Peter Lavoy serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense (PDAS) for Asian and Pacific affairs. He does not hold the title of "acting" assistant secretary but is performing the duties of an acting assistant secretary, such as testifying on Capitol Hill, while also doing the day-to-day management that befalls a PDAS. (Asia hands have praised Lavoy for his handling of the two jobs.) Meanwhile, his PDAS predecessor Derek Mitchell is set to be named the next U.S. ambassador to Burma.
Lavoy's job is made more difficult by the fact that two of the three deputy assistant secretaries under him have left their posts in recent weeks. Former DASD for East Asia Michael Schiffer moved to the Hill to take a job as a senior advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. DASD for South and Southeast Asia Bob Scher moved out of the Asia shop to become DASD for Plans under Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Kathleen Hicks, replacing Janine Davidson. That leaves David Sedney as the only sitting DASD for Asia. He covers Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
Both Schiffer and Scher's jobs are being covered by capable career officials who worked under them. Principal Director Dave Helvey is the acting DASD for East Asia and Brig. Gen. Rich Simcock, the principal director under Scher, is now acting DASD for South and Southeast Asia. But while capable, they are pulling double duty: holding down their old jobs while tackling the work that should be going to political appointees yet to be named, without getting the added benefits.
The Asia shop isn't the only place with vacancies at OSD policy. Jim Miller is serving as the acting under secretary of defense for policy, overseeing the entire staff while still holding the title of principle deputy under secretary until he gets confirmed by the Senate. Hicks has been chosen to succeed Miller as principal deputy under secretary, a position that needs no confirmation, and is said to be doing the job on a day-to-day basis. But she can't take that title or even be named acting principal deputy under secretary until or unless Miller officially vacates the post.
The departure of Sandy Vershbow from the post of assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs -- he's now Fogh Rasmussen's top deputy at NATO -- has left another senior vacancy in the Pentagon's policy leadership. NSC Senior Director for Strategy Derek Chollet has been nominated for that job, but his nomination sits on the pile with dozens of other senior national security nominations awaiting action by the Senate.
These vacancies often accumulate toward the end of a presidential term as officials tire out and the leadership searches for new blood. Some of the blame can be laid at feet of the Senate, according to critics of the current nominating process, which they say abuses its power to hold nominees over unrelated issues.
But the Asia shop at the Pentagon is suffering from a lack of senior personnel not found in other crucial national security offices, especially at a time when the United States is "pivoting" toward Asia, which includes new U.S. basing in Australia, a renewed focus on Pacific naval power, increased military ties with Southeast Asian countries, and a revitalization of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is not filling the political slots left vacant by the recent departures at OSD, which insiders say sends the wrong message to the region and to those who watch Asia, and tips the balance of power inside the administration from the Pentagon to the State Department, for better or worse.
Over at State, former senior advisor Nirav Patel has started work as the deputy assistant secretary of State in the bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs for strategy and multinational affairs, a newly created position.
UPDATE: Pentagon Press Secretary George Little sent The Cable the following statement:
"There are highly qualified nominees who are ready to take on policy roles for this important regional portfolio, and while we await their confirmation, there's a strong team in place that is doing great work to guide the Department's work in this area."
U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Colombia this weekend, but they won't give any ground on the demand by several regional leaders to move toward a different approach in the war on drugs.
The issue of decriminalizing and perhaps even legalizing cocaine, heroin, and marijuana after decades of fighting a bitter and bloody war on drug cartels in the region will be the "gorilla in the room" when regional leaders meet April 14 and 15 in Cartagena, Colombia for the first Summit of the Americas since 2009, according to regional experts. The issue is not on the official agenda, but several regional leaders plan to raise it, much to the chagrin of the Obama administration.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina demanded a more public debate over Latin American drug policy in January, calling for a regional strategy for decriminalization "as soon as possible." In an April 7 editorial, Perez said, "Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions. And legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without controls."
Several other regional leaders have followed suit, seeking to adjust what they see as a failed policy and shift more responsibility toward the world's number one drug consuming country, the United States. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is hosting the summit, agrees that a having a new drug strategy must be on the agenda.
"Colombia, and I myself, have put this issue on the table, because if there is any country that has suffered more from drug trafficking, that has shed more blood, it's Colombia," he said in a speech last month.
But a White House official said Wednesday that the Obama administration is only willing to discuss law enforcement and drug education, not a wholesale reform of the current approach to drugs.
"U.S. policy on this is very clear. The president doesn't support decriminalization, but he does consider this is a legitimate debate. And it's a legitimate debate because it helps to demystify this as an option," said Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council's senior director for Latin America, on a Wednesday conference call with reporters.
Restrepo referred back to last month's comments by Vice President Joe Biden, who traveled to Mexico and Honduras and said that a drug policy debate was "legitimate" but not likely to change the U.S. position. He also said drug consumption is not just a U.S. problem.
"As the consumption of drugs spreads throughout the Americas, the responsibility to address this challenge needs to spread," he said. "This is a shared responsibility... Brazil is the second largest cocaine consuming country in the world."
According to the 2011 World Drug Report, prepared by the U.N. office of drugs and crime, Brazil has about 900,000 cocaine users, roughly 0.7 percent of adults aged 15-64. In the United States, about 2.4 percent of adults in that age range use cocaine, a total of 5 million people.
Restrepo said the United States would be willing to discuss how to reduce crime and violence surrounding drugs, but not decriminalization or legalization. He also said there was no consensus on the issue in the region one way or the other.
"This is not a debate where one country is standing in a very different place than all the other countries," he said. "The United States is among the countries who does not see this as a solution and does not see this as a viable option because of the problems that come with it and because it won't end transnational crimes."
(The website InSight Crime has put together a map of the drug decriminalization and legalization positions of all the countries in the region.)
On the call, Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes tried to dispel the notion widely held around the region that the president has neglected Latin America and failed to live up to promises he made early in his presidency, such as progress in relations with Cuba and Venezuela.
"Over the course of the last three years, President Obama has significantly bolstered the image of the United States in the region and U.S. leadership, in survey after survey, is far more welcome and respected throughout the Americas," he said. "And we believe that has opened the door to greater economic and security cooperation with the countries of the region."
Cuba's Fidel Castro won't be at the Colombia Summit; Cuba is banned from participating. Venezuelan ailing President Hugo Chávez will be there, but don't expect Obama to shake his hand, as he did at the last summit in 2009. The only U.S. senator confirmed to attend is Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).
On the way to the summit, Obama will give a speech at the port of Tampa, FL, to talk about trade and export opportunities between the United States and Latin America. He arrives in Cartagena the evening of the 13th and will have dinner with the other regional leaders. On Saturday, Obama will attend a "CEO Summit of the Americas" with Santos and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
The summit plenary sessions will run through the afternoon of the 14th. On the morning of the 15th, there will be a leaders' retreat, but not before the official photo is taken. Many are watching to see if Obama dons one of the signature "guayaberas" that are being tailored specifically for him to wear on his visit.
Before heading home, Obama will meet with Caribbean leaders and then have a bilateral meeting with Santos, a press conference, and one final event at a local church.
Clinton will stay on in the region, traveling to Brasilia April 16 and 17. On April 16, she will lead the U.S. delegation for the third U.S.-Brazil Global Partnership Dialogue. On April 17, Clinton will join with Rousseff at the first annual high-level meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which is an effort to share technology that reduces government corruption.
Clinton will then go directly to Brussels April 18 and 19 to participate in a joint meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers and to hold a bilateral meeting with Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders. She will also participate in a foreign ministers' meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on April 19.
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In an escalation of the United Arab Emirates' crackdown on foreign NGOs, the UAE government has detained foreign employees of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and is preventing at least one of them from leaving the country.
Late Wednesday, the director of NDI's Dubai office, Patricia Davis, an American, and her deputy director Slobodon Milic, a Serbian national, were stopped at the Dubai airport by UAE government authorities as they tried to leave the country, according to three sources briefed on the incident. Davis was eventually allowed to leave the UAE, but Milic was not. He was detained by authorities, and subsequently released but is still barred from leaving the UAE. The UAE government has also notified NDI that they plan to file criminal indictments against foreign NGO workers in the UAE for foreign interference in political affairs, the sources said.
"We understand that the deputy director for NDI in the UAE was briefly detained and then released. We are seeking more information from the government of the UAE on the matter," a State Department official told The Cable. "As the Secretary has said many times, we believe NGOs play a valuable and legitimate role in a country's political and economic development. They should be able to operate consistent with regulations and standards and without constraints."
"We will continue to support civil society in the UAE and across the region. NDI is a respected organization that has been working across the region and beyond to promote civil society development and democratic values. The State Department is a firm supporter of NDI's activities," the official said.
The move mirrors the actions taken by the Egyptian government over the past three months, which included barring over a dozen foreign workers from leaving Egypt -- including Americans working for NDI, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House -- and subsequently indicting them on criminal charges.
The U.S. government paid $5 million in "bail" money to secure the March 1 release of American NGO workers trapped in Egypt, including Sam LaHood, the Cairo director of the IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then waived congressional restrictions on the $1.5 billion of annual U.S. aid to Egypt, which would have required that the State Department certify that Egypt was moving toward democracy and upholding civil rights.
Several of the American NGO workers who were indicted by the Egyptian government were not in Egypt at the time, and the National Journal reported Wednesday that the Egyptian government has asked Interpol to issue international arrest warrants for those NGO workers. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is trying to convince Interpol to reject those requests.
The UAE government shut down and revoked the license of the NDI office in Dubai last week, just days before Clinton visited the region and raised the issue in a meeting with Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
"We very much regret it," Clinton said after the meeting. "We are as you know, as anyone who has visited the United States, strong believers in a vibrant civil society ... I expect our discussions on this issue to continue."
A U.S. congressional staff delegation has been in the UAE this week as well, and has been raising the NDI issue with both UAE and American officials on the ground. One congressional staffer in Dubai told The Cable Wednesday that UAE officials argued to the staff delegation that NDI was operating without a license, had no legal right to be operating in UAE, and was writing things that weren't true.
NDI Middle East Director Les Campbell said last week that his organization has no programs in the UAE, and the office "was simply a regional hub which supported programmes in places like Qatar and Kuwait."
The congressional staffers pressed the UAE officials to comment on the rumors that the UAE government was acting on behalf of the Saudi government, which is said to object to NDI's programs for Saudi women. But the UAE officials denied any knowledge of Saudi interference or pressure to the congressional staffers.
The staffer also said U.S. Ambassador to the UAE Michael Corbin downplayed the UAE government's actions in his meeting with the congressional delegation.
"Even more troublesome was [the U.S.] ambassador's statement in response to questions we raised about the shutdown in a meeting on Tuesday. He essentially suggested that it wasn't that big of a deal since NDI doesn't do any work in the UAE," the staffer said. "Moreover, he seemed to sympathize with their concerns given the changing situation in the Middle East and he characterized work that organizations like NDI do as ‘fomenting' political change."
Officials at NDI's Washington office and the UAE embassy in Washington declined to comment.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
The State Department went to lengths today to explain why it issued a $10 million bounty for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) founder Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, only to have Saeed appear in public and mock the United States for it.
On Monday, Saeed became only the fifth wanted criminal to warrant the top-dollar bounty in the State Department's Rewards for Justice Program. "Saeed is suspected of masterminding numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which resulted in the deaths of 166 people, including six American citizens," the State Department says in its reward notice.
In response, Saeed held a Wednesday press conference in Pakistan to make fun of the bounty.
"I am here, I am visible. America should give that reward money to me," he said. "I will be in Lahore tomorrow. America can contact me whenever it wants to."
At Wednesday State Department press briefing, Spokesman Mark Toner explained that of course the U.S. government knows where Saeed is ... and that wasn't the point of the bounty.
"Just to clarify, the $10 million is for information not about his location but information that leads to an arrest or conviction. And this is information that could withstand judicial scrutiny. So I think what's important here is we're not seeking this guy's location," Toner said. "We all know where he is. Every journalist in Pakistan and in the region knows how to find him. But we're looking for information that can be usable to convict him in a court of law."
Reporters at the briefing pointed out that Saeed has already been indicted in India so presumably the Indians have plenty of evidence to convict him.
"Look, I think we're trying to, you know, get information that can be used to put this gentleman behind bars," Toner said. "There is information, there's intelligence that, you know, is not necessarily usable in a court of law."
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it needed "concrete evidence" before the Pakistani government would move to arrest Saeed. Toner said such evidence is exactly what the bounty is meant to elicit and should not be an irritant in the already troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
"This is about a process in and of itself, separate and apart from our ongoing bilateral relations with Pakistan," he said.
Outside experts doubt that this separation is either clear or tenable.
"This adds more fire to a relationship that can be called severely dysfunctional," said Bruce Riedel, a former senior National Security Council official now at the Brookings Institution. "I assume the administration believes this bounty will put more pressure on the government of Pakistan to do something about it. It ratchets up the pressure on LeT a little bit. It ratchets up the pressure on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship more."
Saeed deserved the bounty due to his role in the 2008 Mumbai bombings and various other terrorist activities, Reidel said, and the bounty is part of a steady stream of actions against Saeed that included a U.N. special designation in 2008 and a Treasury Department sanctions designation in 2010.
The Pakistani government isn't likely to hand over Saeed any time soon, however, so the administration has added yet another point of contention to an already contentious relationship.
"The next time the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence travels to Washington, the U.S. official now have the obligation to raise this will them. I hope the administration has a plan for what happens when the Pakistanis say no," Riedel said, referring to Pakistan's top intelligence agency, the ISI.
The State Department maintains that the timing of the bounty, more than three and a half years after the Mumbai attack, was simply the result of the bureaucratic process. Riedel isn't so sure. He pointed out that new information about Saeed's links to al Qaeda was discovered in the material retrieved from Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad hideout.
Saeed's ties to the al Qaeda leader go back decades. Bin Laden helped fund the creation of LeT in the 1980s. On the Friday after bin Laden was killed, Saeed gave a very public eulogy praising him.
"If the administration is going to be putting out more of the Abbottabad material, if one of the things they found was more linkage between Saeed and bin Laden, it's quite plausible and that may have been the spark that pushed them over the edge regarding the bounty," Riedel said. "Like everybody else, I'm waiting to see what their plan is for the day after."
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
When NATO countries meet for their summit in Chicago this May, four countries will be vying for membership in the transatlantic alliance. For the small Balkan country of Macedonia, the only thing holding it back is its name.
Bosnia still has some constitutional reforms to enact before it can be eligible for NATO membership. Georgia, recent named an "aspirant" NATO member, has its bid tied up by the Russian occupation of two of its territories. Montenegro has been granted its NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), the final step before membership, and is moving towards accession at a steady pace. But for Macedonia, which was granted MAP status way back in 1999, there likely won't be any formal membership invitation in Chicago because NATO member Greece is still demanding that the Republic of Macedonia change its name.
"Macedonia's bid was blocked by Greece because of a 17-year row over the country's name," the BBC reported at the time of NATO's 2008 summit in Bucharest. "Athens says it implies a territorial claim on its northern province -- also called Macedonia -- and wants the former Yugoslav republic to change its name to New or Upper Macedonia."
Now, four years later, the dispute is no closer to being solved. Tuesday, 54 members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama to ask him to break the logjam.
"We strongly urge your administration to make sure that NATO finally offers the Republic of Macedonia its well deserved formal invitation to join the alliance during the Chicago summit," reads the letter, led by Reps. Candice Miller (R-MI) and Mike Turner (R-OH).
The letter points out that Macedonia has achieved all membership criteria to merit a NATO membership invitation and quotes Obama as saying in April 2009: "I look forward to the day when we can welcome Macedonia into the alliance."
Macedonia was the staging area for NATO operations in Kosovo in 1990, offered refuge to 360,000 Kosovars, and has fought alongside NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the letter states. "If Macedonia can protect the tent of NATO, Macedonia should be able to sleep in the tent of NATO," it reads.
Congressional support for Macedoniaa's accession is also codified two bills in Congress. The Senate's version of the NATO Enhancement Act of 2012 was introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) and the House version was introduced by Turner.
But the dispute over the name of the country is still standing in the way.
Vice President Joseph Biden met with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski in Washington in February 2011, after which the White House said in a statement, "The Vice President expressed the hope that Macedonia and Greece resolve together the longstanding ‘name issue' so that Macedonia can move forward on seeking NATO membership and fulfilling its Euro-Atlantic aspirations."
Last December, advocates of Macedonia's NATO accession thought they had found the solution, when the International Court of Justice ruled by a 15-1 vote that Greece had breached its international obligations by objecting to NATO membership for the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," a name the Macedonians believe is a reasonable compromise.
But for the Obama administration, that ruling hasn't changed the state of the dispute. Asked for comment by The Cable, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor referred to the following statement issued at the 2008 Bucharest summit:
We recognise the hard work and the commitment demonstrated by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to NATO values and Alliance operations. We commend them for their efforts to build a multi-ethnic society. Within the framework of the UN, many actors have worked hard to resolve the name issue, but the Alliance has noted with regret that these talks have not produced a successful outcome. Therefore we agreed that an invitation to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will be extended as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached. We encourage the negotiations to be resumed without delay and expect them to be concluded as soon as possible.
"Allies remain committed to this position," Vietor said.
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Several top members of the House of Representatives are fighting for expanded sanctions on Iran, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opposes any changes to the bill currently before the Senate.
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has joined with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) to introduce a bill of Iran sanctions measures they want to see added to the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, which is currently pending before the Senate. Reid has said there is no time to debate or consider amendments to the bill and wants to pass it as is. But Ros-Lehtinen, Sherman, and a slew of senators including Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are urging Reid to allow lawmakers to offer amendments that would strengthen the bill.
Ros-Lehtinen and Sherman's bill, the Iran Financial Sanctions Improvement Act, contains many of the sanctions measures that Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is recovering from a stroke, included in his proposed amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill. The Ros-Lehtinen Sherman bill would expand financial sanctions to all Iranian banks, authorize the president to sanction any entity that works with any Iranian bank, expand sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran beyond oil, and expand sanctions on the Iranian insurance sector.
"In particular, I urge Senate leadership to allow a version of an amendment authored by Senator Kirk to be considered by the Senate," Sherman said in Tuesday statement. "After the current district work period the Senate should pass the toughest possible Iran legislation, and it is critical that the Kirk-Sherman language be part of the bill when it leaves the Senate."
Senators come back from their "state work period" on April 16.
Last week, Ros-Lehtinen publicly called on Reid to open up the Senate bill to amendments. The Senate GOP leadership is also calling on Reid to allow limited amendments to the Johnson-Shelby bill.
Today, in a statement to The Cable, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) said he also supports the Kirk amendmnet.
" I support any proposal, including the Kirk amendment, to tighten sanctions on Iran that will contribute to preventing the regime from developing a nuclear weapons capability - an urgent national security priority for the United States," Berman said.
Other measures found in the Kirk amendment were included by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in a bill they introduced last week called the Iranian Energy Sector and Proliferation Sanctions Act. That bill would expand energy-sector sanctions on Iran by declaring the country a "zone of proliferation concern," thus barring any businesses or service providers from dealing with the Iranian petroleum sector in any way.
"As the Mullahs face an unprecedented level of economic pressure and international isolation, now is the time to intensify this pressure," Deutch said in a statement, referring to Iran's clerical leaders. "This legislation will put the world on notice that Iran's entire energy sector is off limits so long as this regime continues to defy the international community in pursuit of an illicit nuclear weapons program."
Last December, the House passed another Iran sanctions bill, the Iran Threat Reductions Act, which was sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen and Berman. That bill contains a host of sanctions, including another piece of the Kirk amendment that stipulates the president must investigate allegations of sanctions violations made by U.S. government organizations such as the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the Energy Information Agency.
The Ros-Lehtinen Berman bill could be combined with the Johnson-Shelby bill in a House-Senate conference, if and when the Senate passes its bill. The language from these various other House bills that seek to add more Iran sanctions into the mix could be added in conference, but they have a much better chance of becoming part of the final law if they are added to the Senate bill as part of an amendment and through a vote.
Senator Reid's office told The Cable that despite the growing number of lawmakers calling for votes on measures to amend the Johnson-Shelby bill, he has no plans to alter his position.
"Sounds like enough House members to round out a research document from a Republican office like Senator Kirk's, but not enough to change Senator Reid's stance on this issue," said Reid's Communications Director Adam Jentleson.
The Obama administration has no position on the Johnson-Shelby bill and no position on the Kirk amendment, a senior administration official told The Cable. Kirk's office is hoping that by the time the Senate gets back to town, Reid will decide to open up the bill to debate.
"Senator Kirk remains committed to a bipartisan process that would allow Democrats and Republicans to come together to strengthen our sanctions against Iran," said Kirk's spokesperson Kate Dickens.
For years, the Washington debate over Georgia has focused on its quarrels with Russia and its aspirations to join NATO. This month, the well-heeled Georgian opposition has succeeded -- with help from a large team of D.C. lobbyists -- in opening the debate to include the Georgian government's handling of human rights and democracy inside the country.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) brought simmering congressional interest in internal Georgian politics into the public discussion last week by introducing the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," which declares in its list of findings that "Democracy in Georgia is facing serious challenges and political freedom and fair competition between political parties is under assault."
"For example, the government has increased detaining members of the political opposition and civil society nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), limited freedom of the press, undermined the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and stopped opposition groups from holding demonstrations -- often by violent means," the bill states.
The bill goes on to accuse the Georgian government, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, of harassing billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom the bill identifies as a Georgian businessman who has launched a new political party called Georgian Dream, "in an effort to unify the Georgian opposition parties and challenge Saakashvili's increasingly dictatorial control over Georgia's government."
The legislation accuses Saakasvili of stripping Ivanishvili of his Georgia citizenship and initiating a campaign of punishing and detaining his supporters in the lead up to the October 2012 Georgian parliamentary elections. The bill seeks an end to U.S. aid to Georgia if the elections are not free and fair or if Ivanishvili and his party are not allowed to fully participate.
"This bill will help shed light on the suppression that has been intensifying in Georgia. I know Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle share my growing concern over the suppression of political parties, nongovernmental organizations and workers in Georgia," McDermott said in a press release.
McDermott has not been known in Congress as being particularly active on the Georgia issue or on foreign policy in general. His last major foray into international diplomacy was a late 2002 trip to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein just before the U.S. invasion, a trip that was later discovered to be financed by Saddam's intelligence agencies.
But he is not the only lawmaker who has become recently interested in the internal politics in Georgia. Several senators brought up the issue at the March 21 nomination hearing for the new U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, who was confirmed late last week.
"I strongly believe that advancing our key interest in Georgia's long-term security and stability is directly linked to the government's furthering democratic reforms," said Senate Foreign Relations Europe Subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at the hearing.
In his opening remarks, Norland praised the Saakashvili government, declared U.S. support for Georgian territorial integrity, and noted Georgian contributions to U.S. national security priorities, including its contribution to the war in Afghanistan.
"As President Obama noted during President Saakashvili's visit to Washington earlier this year, Georgia has made extraordinary progress during this time in transforming itself from a fragile state to one that has succeeded in significantly reducing petty corruption, modernizing state institutions and services, and building a sovereign and democratic country," Norland said.
But then, in response to questioning from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Norland directly tied the conduct of Georgia's upcoming parliamentary elections to U.S. support for Georgia's NATO membership.
"I would just point out given Georgia's interests, Georgia's aspirations to NATO membership, and our support for those aspirations, how these elections are conducted is a very important litmus test, and we'll be watching carefully to make sure that the way these elections unfold are in keeping with NATO standards," he said.
"I just would underscore the issue of qualification of opposition candidates," Cardin said, a not too thinly veiled reference to Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party. "That's been used in too many European countries as a way of trying to block opposition opportunities, and I would just urge our presence there to have the widest possible opportunities for opposition to effectively be able to compete on a level playing field."
Norlund's comments stunned Georgia watchers because no administration official had directly linked the conduct of parliamentary elections to Georgia's NATO aspirations, and the no other administration official has used the term "litmus test" to connect the two.
The new and expansive congressional interest in Georgia's democratic development coincides with a new and expansive lobbying effort by Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream party in Washington. The effort is led by the powerful D.C. lobbying law firm Patton Boggs, which has filed disclosures for its work on behalf of Ivanishvili and his Cartu Bank under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), rather than the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), as is commonly used for Americans representing foreign politicians.
The Ivanishvili lobbying team also includes several other D.C. firms, including National Strategies, which also filed under the LDA and declared on its form that it is not representing a "foreign entity." Working with National Strategies is the firm of Downy McGrath, which did say it is representing a "foreign entity" in its disclosure forms and stated it is working on behalf of "democratic elections in the Republic of Georgia." The firm of Parry, Romani, Deconcini, Symms is also working on the Ivanishvili lobbying team, according to its own disclosure forms.
Some firms appear to be working on Ivanishvili's behalf even though they haven't registered at all. The firms KGlobal and Peter Mirijanian Public Affairs have been sending e-mails to reporters touting the McDermott bill.
The only firm to register under FARA as representing Ivanishvili is BGR Group, whose disclosure forms for its business representing Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream movement can be found here, here, here and here. BGR also represents leading Georgian opposition politician Irakli Alasania and his Free Democrats party, according to their own FARA disclosure forms. Alasania's political efforts are supported and funded by Ivanishvili, the disclosure forms reveal.
Lobbying firms often prefer to register under LDA rather than FARA because the disclosure requirements are more lenient. The legality of such filings, according to FARA lawyers, depends on whether the client is actively involved in foreign politics and whether U.S. lobbyists are actively involved in lobbying U.S. officials for specific policies related to said politics.
Ivanishvili's critics paint him as a Russia-funded oligarch whose agenda is anti-Western and therefore anti-American. They point to his seemingly soft stance on Russia, such as when he said of once and future President Vladimir Putin, "the Russian people like this man" and that Russia "is not the worst example of an undemocratic state." He has also blamed Saakashvili for the outbreak of war with Russia in 2008.
Ivanishvili's economic ties to Russia run deep. He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, and still maintains at least a 1 percent stake in Gazprom, the state-controlled energy behemoth. (The Russian Federation and Gazprom are represented in Washington by Ketchum).
In an interview last week with Der Spiegel, Ivanishvili spelled out the goals of his new and expensive lobbying effort, namely to get the U.S. government to end its support for Saakashvili.
"America has chosen Georgia as a junior partner. The United States believes that Saakashvili is creating a democratic Georgia, but these are merely facades," he said. "I want to show the Americans his true face. Saakashvili is pulling the wool over their eyes."
For now, the U.S. government is treading carefully on the issue. In his written responses to questions from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-ID), Norland disputed some of Ivanishvili and McDermott's assertions, but did not dismiss their concerns outright.
"We are not aware of any opposition supporters being detained, although there have been some credible reports of their harassment. In addition, there are indications that Georgia's new campaign finance law is being implemented in a manner which is curbing political speech," he said. "Our focus is on the process and ensuring that all qualified candidates and political parties are able to compete on equal terms; the administration does not support any particular party or candidate."
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President Barack Obama issued a determination Friday that there are enough sources of oil around the world to allow all Iran's customers to stop buying its crude.
The decision was required by a section of the latest defense authorization bill, which included new sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran and any other country that does business with Iran. Countries can be exempted from those sanctions if they "significantly reduce" their oil business with Iran, and the president was required to decide if the world oil market could absorb that demand before the sanctions could be fully implemented.
"[A]fter carefully considering the report submitted to the Congress by the Energy Information Administration on February 29, 2012, and other relevant information, and given current global economic conditions, increased production by certain countries, the level of spare capacity, and the existence of strategic reserves, among other factors, I determine, pursuant to section 1245(d)(4)(B) and (C) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, Pub1ic Law 112-81, that there is a sufficient supply of petroleum and petroleum products from countries other than Iran to permit a significant reduction in the volume of petroleum andpetroleum products purchased from Iran by or through foreign financial institutions," Obama wrote in a Friday memorandum.
"I will closely monitor this situation to assure that the market can continue to accommodate a reduction in purchases of petroleum and petroleum products from Iran."
The State Department exempted 11 countries from the Central Bank sanctions earlier this month and has until June 28 to decide whether to sanction the other 12 countries that buy crude oil from Iran, a list that includes China, India, South Korea, and Turkey. This determination allows that process to continue moving forward.
Today's determination was not a surprise. A Feb. 29 report from the Energy Information Agency stated that Saudi Arabia was pumping more oil than usual but also found that spare capacity in the oil market was modest by historical standards. Energy Secretary Steven Chu seemed to preview the determination March 1 when he said, "There is spare capacity and we believe -- we'll see -- but I think there is sufficient spare capacity."
In a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, two senior administration officials touted the administration's effort to use the sanctions to persuade other countries to wean themselves off of Iranian oil and said the administration expected South Korea to move away from Iranian oil purchases soon and Turkey announced related moves today.
"It's our belief that these sanctions are having a significant impact on the Iranian government and the Iranian economy and that therefore they present the strongest pressure we've placed to date to effect Iran's political calculus about pursuit of nuclear program, particularly as we move toward P5+1 negotiations," one senior administration official said.
The official neglected to mention that the administration publicly opposed the legislation that created the sanctions, written by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), which was added to the defense authorization bill over administration objections and passed by the Senate by a vote of 100-0.
In a statement Friday, Menendez praised Obama's determination.
"Today, we put on notice all nations that continue to import petroleum or petroleum products from Iran that they have 3 months to significantly reduce those purchases or risk the imposition of sanctions on their financial institutions," Menendez said. "It is my opinion that most countries will significantly reduce their purchases by the June 28 deadline -- either because of the sanctions or because they share the U.S., EU, and IAEA's grave concerns about Iran's verified effort to acquire nuclear weapons capability."
The Cable asked the officials whether they supported the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) tried to speed through the Senate this week without any debate or amendments.
"We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point," the official said.
We then asked whether the administration had a position on the right of senators to offer amendments to the Johnson-Shelby bill, in light of Reid's position that there is simply no time to offer amendments to the legislation.
"We've not made any specific determinations with regard to that amendment," the official said.
We didn't ask about any specific amendment, but it's possible the official was referring to a new amendment from the office of Kirk, which would expand sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to include all Iranian banks and would threaten sanctions on any international firms that facilitate those banks' transactions, including the EU-based international transactions facilitator SWIFT and Clearstream, a firm that works with SWIFT to process worldwide money exchanges. Swift announced it would stop processing transactions with Iran's Central Bank earlier this month.
Kirk's new amendment would also target the Iranian insurance industry, expand sanctions against the Iranian energy sector, target Iran's high-tech and telecommunications sectors, and try to narrow the conditions under which the administration can exempt third countries who are still buying oil from Iran from existing sanctions.
"We welcome the president's determination and applaud the administration's faithful implementation of the Menendez-Kirk amendment," a Kirk spokesperson told The Cable. "To build on this momentum, we hope the Senate will consider amendments to the pending Iran sanctions bill that would continue to increase the economic pressure on the Iranian regime."
Just before heading out of town, the Senate confirmed dozens of Obama administration appointments, including a host of ambassadors and several top officials at Foggy Bottom.
Among the newly confirmed appointees are Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Claire Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Frederick Barton, and Director General of the Foreign Service Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
The Senate also confirmed new U.S. ambassadors to the Togolese Republic, Barbados, Cambodia, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Haiti, India, Kosovo, Latvia, Libya, Malta, Nicaragua, Panama, Tunisia, and Uruguay.
Other notable administration officials confirmed include Rebecca Blank as deputy secretary of commerce, Mary John Miller as undersecretary of the Treasury, Alastair Fitzpayne as deputy undersecretary of the Treasury, Elizabeth Cousens as U.S. representative on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, and Earl Gast as assistant administrator of USAID for Africa.
The Senate also passed by unanimous consent a group of foreign policy-related resolutions, including a resolution expressing support for the people of Tibet, a resolution condemning violence by the government of Syria against journalists, a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate in support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the NATO summit to be held in Chicago, and a resolution promoting peace and stability in Sudan.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) came out strongly this week for a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators and urged his committee counterpart John Kerry (D-MA) to stop stalling action on the bill.
At the March 27 SFRC business meeting, Lugar read aloud a long statement in support of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. Several senators, now including Lugar, have said publicly that unless the Magnitsky bill can become law, they will oppose the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that currently stands as the only U.S. law specifically aimed at holding the Russian government accountable for its human rights record.
Without repeal of Jackson-Vanik, the United States can't grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and U.S. businesses can't take full advantage of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. But the senators believe that the Magnitsky bill is needed to ensure the Russian government is not let off the hook for its deteriorating record on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
"Mr. Chairman, several committee members have urged committee consideration of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Act. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Senator [Ben] Cardin (D-MD) for his hard work on the Magnitsky Act. This bill has been pending before the Foreign Relations Committee for nearly a year, and we held a hearing on the bill last December. My office has worked with Senator Cardin's staff to develop a revised version of the bill, which I strongly support. Therefore, I would look forward to the opportunity for the committee to consider this legislation at the next business meeting," Lugar said.
The next SFRC business meeting should be in mid-April. If the committee approves the bill, which is likely, it would then be sent to the Senate floor. Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee is working on a bill to grant Russia PNTR status and repeal Jackson-Vanik. Finance committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MO) traveled to Russia last month on the issue and a finance committee staff delegation leaves for Russia March 31.
If both bills are reported out of their respective committees successfully, supporters of the Magnitsky Act would then advocate for the two bills to be joined together or voted on in rapid succession, so that they would be sent to the president's desk as a package.
The administration opposes the Magnitsky bill and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul recently called it "redundant" because the State Department has already issued visa restrictions for the officials it believes are guilty in the Magnitsky case. But leading Russian opposition figures argue that the repeal of Jackson-Vanik without some replacement human rights legislation would undermine the fight for human rights in Russia.
Behind the scenes, the administration is negotiating with Cardin, the bill's main sponsor, on changes to the Magnitsky bill that would actually expand it to cover all countries around the globe, not just Russia, two congressional aides close to the issue told The Cable.
The benefit of such a change for the administration would be that the bill could not be seen as targeting Russia only. The risk, according to aides, is that such a change could create conflicts with several other governments whose officials might falls under the bill's definition of human rights violators.
Publicly, McFaul has called for Jackson-Vanik to be replaced by a new democracy fund for Russia. He has said the administration requested to use leftover money -- about $150 million -- from an expired Russia enterprise fund to set up the new democracy initiative.
According to several congressional aides, that request is being held up by two Republican offices, Lugar's and the office of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Lugar supports the democracy fund, although not exactly as the administration envisions it. Ros-Lehtinen wants the money to be returned to the U.S. Treasury.
Either way, supporters of the Magnitsky bill on Capitol Hill aren't keen on the idea and want to wait and see whether their drive to join the Magnitsky bill to the PNTR bill can succeed.
"Momentum is building for Magnitsky and people aren't really interested in setting up something new," a senior GOP Senate aide said. "We want to see where Magnitsky goes."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.