For years, a slew of advocates - many of whom have been paid for their services -- have flooded U.S. airwaves on behalf of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime.
After months of difficult negotiations, the MEK has finally begun moving out of its secretive Iraqi home near the Iranian border, called Camp Ashraf. But the group's American advocates have now become a major obstacle in the international effort to move the MEK to a new home in Iraq and avoid a bloody clash with the Iraqi military, officials say.
U.N. special representative in Iraq Martin Kobler, with help from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and the State Department, has organized efforts to relocate the MEK to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport. The first convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived there last month. The second convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived Thursday at Camp Liberty, Reuters reported.
The United Nations and the U.S. government have worked tirelessly in recent months to avoid a violent clash between the MEK and the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which is determined to oust the MEK from Camp Ashraf, where more than 3,000 members of the group, many of them suspected to be armed, have lived for years. Two previous attempts by the Iraqi government to enter the camp resulted in bloody confrontations.
But the U.N. and the State Department's efforts have been made exponentially more difficult due to the MEK's surprisingly strong base of support in Washington. In recent weeks, retired U.S. officials and politicians -- many of whom admit to being paid by the MEK or one of its many affiliates -- have mounted a sophisticated media campaign accusing the U.N. and the U.S. government of forcing the group to live in subhuman conditions against its will at Camp Liberty, an accusation U.S. officials say is as inaccurate as it is unhelpful.
"This is tough enough without paid advocates making it worse," one official told The Cable.
"Camp Liberty: A Prison For Iranian Dissidents in Iraq," reads a March 3 full-page ad in the New York Times, leveling the surprising accusation that the former U.S. military base is unfit for human occupation. The ad quotes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani calling Camp Liberty "a concentration camp" -- a charge Giuliani made at an MEK-sponsored conference late last month in Paris. The ad also quotes former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont Governor Howard Dean, former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz trashing Camp Liberty.
However, according to an Obama administration official who works on the issue, it's actually the MEK that is trashing Camp Liberty -- literally. According to this official, the U.N. has reported that MEK members at Camp Liberty have been sabotaging the camp, littering garbage and manipulating the utilities to make things look worse than they really are. While there are some legitimate problems at the camp, the official admitted, the U.N. has been monitoring Camp Liberty's water, sewage, and food systems on a daily basis and the conditions are better than the MEK is portraying.
The New York Times ad is only the latest in a years-long, multi-million dollar campaign by the MEK and its supporters to enlist famous U.S. politicians and policymakers in their efforts to get the group removed from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations and resist Iraqi attempts to close Camp Ashraf, which the new government sees as a militarized cult compound on its sovereign territory.
The campaign has included huge rallies outside the State Department, massive sit-ins at congressional hearings, and an ongoing vigil outside the State Department's C Street entrance. MEK supporters there tout the support of a long list of officials, including Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, and former Sen. Evan Bayh.
The administration official told The Cable that, as delicate negotiations between the U.N., the United States, the Iraqis, and the MEK continue, the role of these often paid advocates is becoming even more unhelpful and potentially dangerous.
"The Americans who ought to know better and claim to be on the side of good solutions are really damaging it. Either they are too lazy or too arrogant to actually do their homework. They don't spend the time to learn facts, they just pop off. They accept the MEK line without question and then they posture," the official said. "We have a plan that has a chance to work and the Iraqis want it to work. The MEK ... it's not clear. And in this situation they are being badly advised by the people whose names appear in these ads."
"Whether the MEK wants a resolution or wants a confrontation is something we're still debating. It's that bad," the official said.
The relationship between the American advocates and the MEK leadership, led by the Paris-based Maryam Rajavi, has led both to pursue strategies that neglect the dire risks of sabotaging the move from Camp Liberty to Camp Ashraf, the official said. Rajavi is said to have created a cult of personality around herself and to rule the MEK as a unchallenged monarch.
"The not-too-stable Queen [Rajavi] hired a bunch of court flatterers to tell her that she's great, which is fine, except that she has now forgotten that these are hired court flatterers. She thinks they are actual advisors," the official said. "Meanwhile her wise counselors are being marginalized by those who are saying ‘Oh Queen, your magnificence will cause your enemies to fall on their knees.' And she's beginning to believe them."
"By enabling Rajavi to indulge her worst instincts and encouraging her to think she has more power and leverage she does, they may precipitate a crisis, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid," the official said.
Another example of the American advisors' unhelpfulness was the MEK's recent public call to be relocated en masse to Jordan, an idea the U.S. official said came from the group's American friends. There was just one problem: Nobody had asked the Jordanians.
"To announce it publicly as a demand without checking with the Jordanians is the sort of thing you do to destroy it," the official said. "Why the hell should the Jordanians buy trouble like this by giving these people an autonomous militarized camp?"
U.N. and U.S. officials had been hoping to keep discussions open with Jordan about the possibility of hosting some MEK members in the event of an emergency, such as a renewed outbreak of violence. But U.S. officials now think that the MEK's actions have made that much more difficult.
"Whoever advised them has done actual demonstrable damage to a possible humanitarian solution. They're not helping. It's remarkable," the official said.
The arrival at Camp Liberty Thursday of the second convoy may signal that the MEK is coming around to the realization that the Iraqi government will never allow it to stay at Camp Ashraf. But the U.S. official warned that the group may have more tricks up its sleeve.
"The MEK will delay, confuse, deny, and spin until faced with an imminent disaster, and then they give only enough to avoid that disaster," the official said. "And the problem is: If you play chicken enough, eventually you will get into a head-on collision."
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
If the Obama administration wants to enter new talks with Iran, that's fine -- but they had better keep ramping up the pressure on the Islamic Republic during negotiations and not trade sanctions for piecemeal concessions from the Iranians, 12 U.S. senators said Wednesday.
"As the P-5+1 prepares to resume talks with Iran, we strongly believe that any hope for diplomatic progress with Iran depends upon a continuing and expanding campaign of U.S. and international pressure on the regime and that such pressure must continue until there is a full and complete resolution of all components of illicit Iranian nuclear activities," said Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jim Risch (R-ID), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in a joint statement Wednesday.
"As we recently wrote to President Obama, we remain extremely concerned that the Iranian government will seek to buy time or otherwise dilute the focus of our diplomacy through proposals that either suspend or reverse the current momentum of the pressure track in exchange for partial measures that fail to address the totality of their nuclear program," the senators' statement continued. "Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated. For instance, we would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment."
When Iran offered to come back to talks last month, these 12 senators were quick to put together a letter outlining their precise concerns and what they wanted to see President Barack Obama's administration do.
In addition to continuing along the pressure track, they want the administration to insist that Iran suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities "for the foreseeable future," cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and resolve all outstanding questions about military dimensions of its nuclear program. The Obama administration has said repeatedly that Iran has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but these 12 senators don't agree.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, in her March 6 letter welcoming new talks, acknowledged that the P5+1 countries - Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany -- will engage in discussions over confidence-building measures to the Iranian government.
"We remain convinced that initially we could work towards the shared objective to engage in a constructive dialogue on the basis of reciprocity and a step by step approach based on practical and specific suggestions for confidence building measures," she wrote.
But the senators think that is foolish, and want to emphasize that the administration should not trade the relaxation of sanctions for partial measures by the Iranians, which they see as a delaying tactic.
"Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated," the senators wrote. "For instance, we would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment. The time for confidence building measures is over."
Top administration officials, leading lawmakers, and GOP presidential candidates have all weighed in on Sen. John McCain's proposal to launch U.S.-led airstrikes to halt the violence in Syria, but there is still no consensus on the costs and benefits of entangling the U.S. military in another armed conflict.
"Just as was the case with Libya, there is a broad consensus among regional leaders and organizations on the preferred outcome in Syria: Assad and his cronies must go. There is not, however, a consensus about how this goal could be achieved," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said at Wednesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Levin didn't say whether he was for or against a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria, but he warned of the risks and talked about the possible impact on the region.
McCain was more clear, repeating his call for foreign air power to be used against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and calling for the immediate arming of the Syrian opposition -- hopefully with international cooperation from Arab partners and European allies.
"It is understandable that the administration is reluctant to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions. Unfortunately, this policy is increasingly disconnected from the dire conditions on the ground in Syria, which has become a full state of armed conflict," McCain said.
He urged Panetta to remember his time as White House chief of staff during the NATO intervention in Bosnia and quoted President Bill Clinton as saying at the time, "There are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic strategic interests. There are still times when America and America alone can and should make the difference for peace."
McCain also quoted CENTCOM chief Gen. James Mattis, who testified Tuesday that "Assad is clearly achieving what he wants to achieve" that his military campaign is "gaining physical momentum on the battlefield." Mattis also noted that Assad's downfall would be "the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years."
In his testimony, Panetta clearly ruled out any unilateral military action by the United States in Syria, but he left the door wide open to a multilateral mission inside Syria at some later date. Yesterday, President Barack Obama said that no option in Syria has been taken off the table.
"We are reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support the efforts to protect the Syrian people, to end the violence, and ensure regional stability, including potential military options, if necessary," Panetta said. "Currently, the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than military intervention."
"We need to have a clear legal basis for any action that we take. For us to act unilaterally would be a mistake," Panetta said. "Can it happen today? Can it happen now? No. It's gonna take some work; it's going to take some time. But when we do it, we'll do it right. We will not do it in a way that will make the situation worse. That's what we have to be careful of."
Dempsey said the Pentagon has planned for several possible military actions in Syria, including delivering humanitarian relief, imposing a no-fly zone, conducting maritime interdiction, establishing humanitarian corridors, and executing limited air strikes. He said the planning was at a "commander's estimate level of detail," and that there had been briefing to the National Security Council staff but not the president directly.
"As you know, we're extraordinarily capable and we can do just about anything we're asked to do," Dempsey said. "The ability to do a single raid-like strike would be accessible to us. The ability to do a longer-term sustained campaign would be challenging, and would have to be made in the context of other commitments around the globe."
Dempsey also confirmed elements of The Cable's Tuesday story on Syria, including the fact that Russia continues to arm the Syrian regime, including with advanced air defense systems.
Panetta said he believed that NATO should start debating the issue of a military intervention in Syria. That discussion so far has not begun in Brussels, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Panetta also said the Pentagon will not begin planning for a Syria intervention in detail until directed to do so by the president.
"I don't think there's any question that we're experiencing mass atrocities there," Panetta added.
Yesterday, several top Republican politicians declined to go along with McCain's call for airstrikes on Syria now, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In a short interview Tuesday, McCain said that didn't bother him one bit.
"I couldn't care less," McCain said. "I know the difference between right and wrong. I know that people are being slaughtered as we speak."
"I refer back to Bosnia and Kosovo. Under President Clinton, we acted although there were Republicans strongly opposed to that. I think it turned out well."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who joined McCain's call for airstrikes along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), told The Cable Tuesday that he preferred a multilateral military intervention in Syria over a unilateral strike.
"The Arab League is the right vehicle," said Graham. "If they request air support I'm willing to be part of the team. But I want the Arab League and the international community to be deeply involved and I want it to be to stop the slaughter."
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) took to the Senate floor Tuesday to pick apart Mitt Romney's latest op-ed on Iran.
"The United States cannot afford to let Iran acquire nuclear weapons. Yet under Barack Obama, that is the course we are on," Romney wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post. "As president, I would move America in a different direction."
Romney said he would increase the Navy's shipbuilding rate from 9 to 15 ships per year and pledged to "press forward" with ballistic missile-defense systems aimed at Iran and North Korea. He also promised to press for "ever-tightening sanctions," to speak out in support of democracy in Iran, visit Jerusalem on his first trip as president, place aircraft carrier groups in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and increase coordination with Israel.
"Most important, I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Only when they understand that at the end of that road lies not nuclear weapons but ruin will there be a real chance for a peaceful resolution," Romney wrote. "Either the ayatollahs will get the message, or they will learn some very painful lessons about the meaning of American resolve."
Kerry said on the floor today that Romney's op-ed troubled him and he said Romney's attack on the administration's Iran policy was "as inaccurate as it was aggressive." The timing of the op-ed, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, was additionally unfortunate, in Kerry's view.
"We should all remember that the nuclear issue with Iran is deadly serious business that should invite sobriety and serious-minded solutions, not sloganeering and sound bites. This can't become just another applause line on the Republican presidential stump," Kerry said. "Talk has consequences, and idle talk of war only helps Iran by spooking the tight oil market and increasing the price of the Iranian crude that pays for its nuclear program. And to create false differences with the president just to score political points does nothing to move Iran off a dangerous nuclear course."
"Worst of all, Governor Romney's op-ed does not even do readers the courtesy of describing how a President Romney would do anything different from what the Obama administration has already done," Kerry said. "Just look at this op-ed. From his opening paragraphs, Romney garbles history."
Kerry disputed Romney's assertion that President Jimmy Carter's efforts to negotiate the release of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1981 was "feckless," and his claim that Obama was the most "feckless" president since Carter, considering he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
"I don't know if Governor Romney has checked the definition of the word ‘feckless' lately, but that ain't it," Kerry said.
Kerry then goes point by point through Romney's op-ed to argue that Obama has basically the same Iran policy Romney is proposing. Kerry even quotes Ambassador Nick Burns, President George W. Bush's lead negotiator on Iran, who said, "The attacks on Obama basically say, ‘He's weak and we're strong.' But when you look at the specifics, you don't see any difference."
"So when you add it all up, Mitt Romney is just trying to ignore, twist, and distort the administration's policy to drive a wedge in our politics," Kerry said. "We're going to have a bruising election season. And so we should. That's how we decide big issues in the United States. We always have. But let's have an honest debate, not a contrived one. Governor Romney can debate the man in the White House instead of inventing straw men on the op-ed pages."
Obama himself criticized the GOP presidential candidates for their rhetoric on the possibility of a war with Iran during his press conference today.
"You know, those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war. I'm reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle and the impact that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy," Obama said.
"This is not a game. And there's nothing casual about it. And, you know, when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that's more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem."
If Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai doesn't change his tune fast on two key U.S. demands, the U.S. military should just pack up and go home and leave Afghanistan for good, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said today.
Graham, who has been one of the strongest congressional supporters for continuing the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan beyond 2014, said today that unless Karzai relents on his demands that the United States immediately hand over control of Afghan prisoners and end night raids against insurgents, there is no way the U.S. can achieve its objectives in Afghanistan and therefore should just end its involvement there.
"If the president of the country can't understand how irrational it is to expect us to turn over prisoners and if he doesn't understand that the night raids have been the biggest blow to the Taliban ... then there is no hope of winning. None," Graham said in the hallways of the Capitol Building just before entering the GOP caucus lunch.
"So if he insists that all the prisoners have to be turned over by March 9 and that we have to stop night raids, that means we will fail in Afghanistan and that means Lindsey Graham pulls the plug. It means that I no longer believe we can win and we might as well get out of there sooner rather than later."
Graham acknowledged that those two issues were crucial in ongoing negotiations over a U.S.-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement, which would provide the legal basis for the ongoing presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, the deadline President Barack Obama has set for transferring full control of the country back to the Afghans.
"I am going to pull the plug on Afghanistan from a personal point of view if we don't get this strategic partnership signed," Graham said. "Karzai's insistence that all detainees we have in our custody be turned over by Friday to an Afghan system that will let guys walk right out the door and start killing Americans again is a non-starter."
Graham, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations' State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, visited Kabul and met with Karzai late last month. Today he said he supports a U.S.-Afghanistan agreement for a post-2014 presence of about 20,000 U.S. troops, with three or four U.S. airbases and coordination in the military, political, and economic spheres.
"But I'm not going to support signing that agreement if Karzai insists that we end night raids, which are the biggest blow available to our forces against the enemy," he said. "If he requires that we end night raids, we'll have no hope of being successful."
Regarding the prisoners, Graham said that any follow-on U.S. force would be put at risk if U.S.-held prisoners, currently numbering over 3,000, were placed under Afghan control.
"I cannot go back home to South Carolina and tell a mother, ‘I'm sorry your son or daughter was killed today by a guy we had in custody but let go for no good reason.' We want Afghan sovereignty over prisoners but they're not there yet," he said. "That's not good governance. That hurts the Afghan villagers that have been preyed on by these people and it sure as hell puts our people at risk. I want an agreement but not at all costs."
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Coming soon from the Congress that brought you the sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran: new legislation to sanction every single Iranian bank.
Members of both the House and Senate from both parties are moving forward soon with legislation that would expand financial sanctions against Iran to include all Iranian financial institutions -- whether government-affiliated, private, inside Iran, or controlled abroad. According to multiple congressional aides who previewed the legislation for The Cable, this would effectively cut off every Iranian financial institution from the international community -- subjecting any bank that conducts transactions with an Iranian bank or holds money for an Iranian bank to risk losing its own access to the U.S. market.
Currently, only the 18 Iranian banks designated by the U.S. Treasury Department and the Central Bank of Iran are subject to such sanctions -- leaving more than 25 banks free to conduct business with the international community, which the legislations' sponsors see as a major hole in U.S. policy. According to congressional aides involved with the legislation's development, the ban on all Iranian banks would contain a humanitarian exemption, the oil exemptions built into the Menendez-Kirk amendment passed into law last December, and would provide the president with the authority to issue a national security waiver.
The legislation, being developed by the office of Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) in coordination with other offices, including Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), may be offered as early as next week as an amendment to the new Senate Iran sanctions bill that was approved by the Senate Banking Committee last month.
"This would really be a one-two punch combination if Congress extended sanctions to all Iranian financial institutions," one aide involved in the legislation told The Cable. "When you land a clear blow to a boxer's chin, you don't back off and wait to see if he'll fall -- you throw another punch and make sure he does."
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy organization in Washington, told The Cable that the new measures were necessary to prevent the Iranian regime from simply changing its banking tactics to focus on banks not yet sanctioned.
"Money is like water; it searches for cracks in a foundation exploiting even hairline cracks that provide an entry point," he said. "Existing cracks in sanctions laws are leaving entry points to the global financial system for scores of unsanctioned Iranian financial institutions. This allows the Iranian regime to shift its transactions to those still allowed access and to freely move money through the global financial system."
The full text of the new language is here.
Iran sanctions are extremely popular on Capitol Hill these days. After the Obama administration initially opposed the Kirk-Menendez amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, the Senate added that legislation to the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill by a vote of 100-0.
Meanwhile, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, replied positively via letter today to Iran's Feb. 14 letter on resuming nuclear talks with the P5+1 countries, which included the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
According to Ashton's letter, the international community is willing to resume talks with Iran. Those discussions would have to focus on Iran's nuclear program, but initial steps could focus on confidence-building measures between the two sides.
"Looking forward to a sustained aimed at producing concrete results and in order not to repeat the experience of Istanbul, I would propose that we resume our talks at a mutually convenient date and venue as soon as possible," she wrote.
The Obama administration is moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria for the first time, marking a shift in U.S. policy toward a more aggressive plan to help oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, a group of senior Obama administration officials met to finalize a package of options for aiding both the internal and external Syrian opposition, to include providing direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable. This meeting of what's known as the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council set forth a new and assertive strategy for expanding U.S. engagement with Syrian activists and providing them with the means to organize themselves, but stops short of providing any direct military assistance to the armed opposition.
For now, riskier options, such as creating a no-fly zone in Syria, using U.S. military force there, or engaging directly with the Free Syrian Army, are all still off the table. But the administration has decided not to oppose, either in public or in private, the arming of the rebels by other countries, the officials said.
"These moves are going to invest the U.S. in a much deeper sense with the opposition," one administration official said. "U.S. policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy."
The package of options will be debated by cabinet-level officials at what's known as a Principals Committee meeting as early as this afternoon, the two officials said. The principals could endorse the entire package or make some changes, the officials said, although the package does have the consensus of the interagency coming out of last week's Deputies Committee meeting.
The administration is planning to greatly expand its interactions with the external Syrian opposition, led by the Syrian National Council, as well as with internal opposition bodies to include Syrian NGOs, the Local Coordinating Councils, and the Revolutionary Councils that are increasingly becoming the de facto representation of the Syrian opposition. The Free Syrian Army works with these councils, but the administration is not ready to engage the armed rebels directly out of concern that they are still somewhat unaccountable and may have contacts with extremist elements.
As part of the new outreach, the State Department and USAID have been tasked with devising a plan to speed humanitarian and communications assistance to the internal Syrian civilian opposition, working through State's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) office. There is no concrete plan yet as to how to get the goods into Syria if the Assad regime doesn't grant access to affected areas.
"We're leaving State and USAID to work that out. That's the million-dollar question. We're working on that now," the official explained.
Meanwhile, the administration wants to bolster the new defense committee established by the SNC last week, hoping to solidify that body's prominence as the contact point for coordinating military and technical assistance to the rebels, if a decision is taken later to move in that direction. The FSA has rejected the SNC's defense committee as being part of its chain of command, but for now the Obama administration sees the SNC as a more credible organization with which to explore options to potentially provide military aid.
"The prevailing narrative is enabling the transition while keeping options open for reaching out to the armed opposition," the administration official said. "There is recognition that lethal assistance to the opposition may be necessary, but not at this time."
At last month's initial Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that arming the Syrian rebels was "an excellent idea," though there are conflicting reports as to whether and to what extent Saudi weapons and cash were already flowing into the country.
In preparation for the next Friends of Syria meeting in Turkey later this month, the Obama administration has decided not to openly oppose direct military assistance to the rebels as long as it comes from another country, not the United States, one of the administration officials said.
"The decision has been made at the next Friends of Syria meeting to not oppose any proposals to arm the FSA and we're not going to publicly or privately message on that," the official said. "We're not going to publicly or privately tell the Friends of Syria not to do this."
Inside the administration, there is still a consensus that U.S. military intervention in Syria is not wise at this time and there are still voices expressing hope that political transition could take place in Syria without all out civil war.
"It's more about what could be accomplished by intervening. So many questions haven't been answered," another administration official said, expressing the widespread internal uneasiness about involving the U.S. military in yet another war in the Middle East. "There's a chance we could get embroiled in a conflict. What does that do to our preparedness for other contingencies?"
Some in the administration still hold out hope that the Russians can be persuaded to play a more helpful role in Syria. But two officials confirmed that Russian arms deliveries to Syria are ongoing and one administration official said that the latest shipment included large amounts of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, which are meant to help Syria repel any attempt to establish a no-fly zone.
"What that says is that the Russians are doubling down on Assad. They're preparing for the next step, which is the internationalization of the conflict," one administration official said.
For the critics of Obama's Syria policy, these moves represent a step in the right direction but still fall short of what is needed for the United States to halt the violence.
"I am encouraged the Obama administration is exploring steps to provide direct assistance to Syrians inside their country, but the incremental measures reportedly under consideration still do not come to grips with the fundamental reality in Syria, which is that Bashar al-Assad, equipped and resupplied by Iran and Russia, is now waging an outright war against the Syrian people, who are outmatched, outgunned, and urgently in need of decisive international intervention," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable today.
Lieberman, along with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) came out Monday in favor of a U.S.-led intervention in Syria to begin immediately.
"To me this should begin with medical and military assistance for the opposition, including tactical intelligence and weapons, and ultimately should include targeted airstrikes against Assad's bases and forces," Lieberman said. "The United States should help organize such support for the Syrian opposition, but it should be international and include our concerned allies in the Arab League, the GCC, NATO, and the EU."
Lieberman, McCain, and Graham will all have a chance to question the administration on these new moves Wednesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joints Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the administration's internal deliberations.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
Airstrikes against Syria are tempting but ultimately not a good idea, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told The Cable today, reacting to the Monday call for airstrikes from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), also first reported here.
It's not easy these days to be more hawkish than Ros-Lehtinen, but that's where McCain ended up today after he called for the United States to lead an international military intervention in Syria to halt the killing of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower," McCain said Monday. "To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country."
We caught up with Ros-Lehtinen, who has been vocally opposed to any outreach to the Assad regime since 2009, on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference, where she had just finished her appearance on a panel calling for more Iran sanctions.
Ros-Lehtinen told us she wants the United States to do more to stop the bloodshed there, but active military involvement at this juncture was just a bridge too far.
"Senator McCain's heart is always in the right place. He was right on Egypt and Libya. But I believe that we've got to get our allies involved and get them committed," she said. "So my heart agrees with him, but my head says no."
Ros-Lehtinen said the American people, following decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to finally be winding down, are war weary.
"The American people and the constituents that I represent, they are cautious about getting involved in another military operation," she said. "I understand the humanitarian issues involved... But I hear people saying, ‘Who's going to enforce the no-fly zone? Who's going to do all of this? Is it always the U.S.?'"
Attacks on Syria now could also create a "domino effect" that could lead to a hot war with Iran, which considers Syria a client state, Ros-Lehtinen warned.
"Senator McCain has been right, but I worry the Syria operation may be harder because of its tie-ins to Iran and what will Iran do militarily," she said.
She said her committee will mark up a new Syria sanctions bill she co-sponsored with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) March 8. The bill imposes mandatory sanctions against persons that transfer or retransfer goods or technology that can aid Syria's efforts to obtain WMDs and their delivery systems. Further, the legislation mandates extensive sanctions, including asset freezes and a travel ban, on senior officials of the Syrian regime.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Later today, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, will become the first U.S. senator to publicly call for U.S. led air strikes to halt the violence and atrocities being committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"After a year of bloodshed, the crisis in Syria has reached a decisive moment," McCain will say Monday afternoon in a speech on the Senate floor, according to excerpts obtained in advance by The Cable.
"What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad's tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Homs is lost for now, but Idlib, and Hama, and Qusayr, and Deraa, and other cities in Syria could still be saved," McCain will say. "But time is running out. Assad's forces are on the march. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower."
The Obama administration's stance thus far has been to clearly communicate that international military intervention is not on the table in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is willing to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria immediately... but only if Assad agrees to provide access to affected areas.
McCain, referring directly to the requests for more direct assistance from the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and Local Coordinating Committees inside Syria, will call for the United States to lead an international effort to protect civilian population centers in northern Syria through airstrikes on Assad's forces.
"To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country," McCain will say. "The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance -- including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign partners."
McCain will point out that more than 7,500 lives have now been lost in Syria and that the United Nations has declared that Syrian security forces are guilty of crimes against humanity, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the execution of defectors, and the widespread torture of prisoners.
"Increasingly, the question for U.S. policy is not whether foreign forces will intervene militarily in Syria. We can be confident that Syria's neighbors will do so eventually, if they have not already. Some kind of intervention will happen, with us or without us. So the real question for U.S. policy is whether we will participate in this next phase of the conflict in Syria, and thereby increase our ability to shape an outcome that is beneficial to the Syrian people, and to us. I believe we must."
He will also drive home the point that the situation in Syria is now as dire as the situation was in Libya before the U.S. led a NATO intervention there last year.
"The kinds of mass atrocities that NATO intervened in Libya to prevent in Benghazi are now a reality in Homs. Indeed, Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since Milosevic's war crimes in the Balkans, or Russia's annihilation of the Chechen city of Grozny," McCain will say.
McCain will then point out that President Barack Obama characterized the prevention of mass atrocities as "a core national security interest" when speaking about Libya and has committed the credibility of the United States to his repeated calls for Assad to step aide.
"If Assad manages to cling to power -- or even if he manages to sustain his slaughter for months to come, with all of the human and geopolitical costs that entails -- it would be a strategic and moral defeat for the United States. We cannot, we must not, allow this to happen," McCain will say.
"Rather than closing off the prospects for some kind of a negotiated transition that is acceptable to the Syrian opposition, foreign military intervention is now the necessary factor to preserve this option. Assad needs to see that he will not win."
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
Vice President Joe Biden is in Mexico today to meet with all three candidates in that country's presidential election, but the White House isn't taking any sides.
Biden left Washington Sunday night and is in Mexico today, meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. But Calderon is barred from running for reelection in July, so Biden is taking the opportunity to visit with his possible successors. On Tuesday, Biden will travel to Honduras to meet with President Pepe Lobo.
"This trip is the latest chapter in the administration's sustained, high-level engagement with our partners in the Americas. The economic security, familial, historic and cultural ties we share with the Americas and particularly with Mexico and Central America, are among the most consequential we have as a country," said Biden's National Tony Blinken on a conference call with reporters.
"The ongoing challenge posed by the drug cartels and transnational criminal organizations is one critical shared responsibility. We strongly support Mexico's efforts in dealing with this challenge, and the United States and Mexico are collaborating as never before."
"He'll underscore to each that the United States will continuing working with President Calderon and his administration until the final day that they're in office, and that we look very much forward to working with whomever the Mexican people elect as their next president," Blinken said.
Blinken wouldn't comment on the statements by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) questioning whether one of the Mexican presidential candidates would continue Calderon's commitment to the increased tempo and aggressiveness of the campaign against the Mexican drug cartels.
In a February hearing with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, McCain asked Clapper whether the next Mexican president would keep up the campaign that Calderon began in Dec. 2006. Clapper said yes.
"Well, I might suggest you focus on that question a little more closely, Mr. Director, because I don't believe that's the case, at least with respect to one of the candidates," McCain said, not identifying which candidate he was talking about.
On Tuesday, after meeting with Lobo, Biden will attend a working lunch to prepare for the upcoming Summit of the Americas. At that lunch will be several regional leaders, including the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama.
At that meeting, drug policy is set to be discussed as well, including the increasingly popular proposal in Central America of decriminalizing drug use and altering the current policy regarding fighting the cartels. But the Obama administration is not on board with what would be seen in the United States as a radical departure from longstanding U.S. drug policy.
"The Obama administration has been quite clear in our opposition to decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs," said NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Restrepo. "At the same time, we've also been very open -- the president has said it on numerous occasions, in meetings with leaders and publicly -- of our willingness, our interest, in engaging in a robust dialogue with our partners to determine how we can be most effective in confronting the transnational criminal organizations, and, as in the case in Central America, the gangs that are adversely affecting people's daily lives and daily routines."
One day before the AIPAC conference kicks off in Washington, an anti-Obama pro-Israel group is widening its criticism of President Barack Obama's record on Israel -- while the White House defends its treatment of the relationship.
The trailer for a new 30-minute video, entitled "Daylight: The Story of Obama and Israel," cuts together clips of Obama quotes and outside commentary to put forth the narrative that Obama has made statements and taken actions as president that have put him out of step with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters.
(UPDATE: Now you can watch the entire 30 minute video here.)
"We believe that that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines," Obama is shown saying, a reference to his May, 2011 speech, where he for the first time explicitly defined U.S. policy as supporting the 1967 borders with agreed swaps as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
"He didn't quite have a full grasp of what the full region looks like," conservative journalist Lee Smith is shown saying in the video. "This is not how you treat an ally."
The ad goes beyond the Israeli issue to suggest that the president is too solicitous of Muslim concerns. The end of the trailer shows Obama saying, "I want to make sure we end before the call to prayer," a clip from his town hall meeting with Turkish students in Istanbul in April 2009.
The video was produced by the group the Emergency Committee for Israel, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its pre-AIPAC publicity campaign, including posters and billboards all over Washington that question Obama's commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"He says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Do you believe him?" the posters read. Then, next to a picture of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, it says, "Do they?"
ECI is run by executive director Noah Pollak and Michael Goldfarb, a former McCain-Palin staffer now working at the consulting firm Orion Strategies and as chairman of the board of the Washington Free Beacon, an new conservative website.
"Obama says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable," Pollak told The Cable today. "We hope he means what he says, but the recent statements from his administration, his contentious relationship with the Israeli government, and his consistent efforts to weaken congressional sanctions don't inspire confidence."
The ECI board is comprised of Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, Gary Bauer, who has endorsed Rick Santorum, and Rachel Abrams, the wife of former NSC official Elliott Abrams, and the author of the controversial Israel-focused blog "Bad Rachel." The group is also the only Israel-focused advocacy organization to have formed a SuperPAC in the run up to the 2012 election.
As part of its pre-AIPAC activity, ECI took out a full page ad in the New York Times yesterday calling out donors for supporting two liberal advocacy organizations in Washington, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, and accusing those donors of "funding bigotry and anti-Israel extremism."
Pollak also said that the video, billboards, and ads happen to refute a pre-AIPAC interview Obama gave to The Atlantic, in which Obama expressed frustration with the attacks coming from conservative lawmakers and groups like ECI that claim he is not pro-Israel.
"Every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept," Obama said. "Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?"
"Obama said today he doesn't understand why there are questions about his record of support for Israel," Pollak said. "We think this movie will set the record straight, and remind pro-Israel Americans of the facts of this administration's failure to stand with Israel at some critical moments."
Here is the full video:
If the international community gave the Syrian rebels arms, communications equipment, and intelligence, that would help speed President Bashar al-Assad's removal from power, the top U.S. military official in Europe said Thursday.
Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, told the Senate Armed Services that NATO is not doing any "detailed planning" for ways to aid the Syrian opposition or protect Syrian civilians. But under intense questioning from the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Stavridis admitted he believed that giving material aid to the rebels would help them get better organized and push forward the process of getting the Assad to step down.
"Yesterday the secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, told The Cable, quote, ‘We haven't had any discussions about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance,'" McCain said, referring directly to our Feb. 29 exclusive interview with Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"Is it true that NATO is doing no contingency planning of any kind with respect to Syria, including for the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance?" McCain asked Stavridis.
"We're not doing any detailed contingency planning at this point, senator, and there's a reason for that. Within the NATO command structure, there has to be an authorization from the North Atlantic Council before we can conduct detailed planning," Stavridis said. The North Atlantic Council is the body charged with making NATO policy decisions.
After getting Stavridis to confirm he believes the Syrian crisis is now an armed conflict between government and opposition forces, McCain then asked Stavridis if the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence would help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power.
"I would think it would. Yes, sir," Stavridis replied.
McCain contrasted NATO's reluctance to intervene in Syria with previous NATO missions to halt massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) seconded that comparison at the hearing.
"This does remind me of experiences we had in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s," Lieberman said. "It actually took quite a while for us to build the political will, both here and in Europe, to get involved there. And while we were doing that, a lot of people got killed, and the same is happening in Syria now. I hope it doesn't take us so long."
Just down the hall from the SASC hearing, two top State Department officials were giving an entirely different take on the efficacy of arming the rebels. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration just doesn't think that arming the Syria rebels is a good idea.
"We've been very hesitant about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set," Feltman testified Thursday. "So we're very cautious about this whole area of questioning and that's why we have worked with this international consensus on political tracks, on economic tracks, on diplomatic tracks, in order to get to the tipping point we were talking about earlier."
As Ben Smith in Politico reported Thursday, the Syria issue has divided Congress on traditional party and ideological lines -- lines that were muddled during the debate over intervention in Libya because of internal Republican disagreement. Most GOP senators and leading congressmen, along with all the GOP presidential candidates, are urging the Obama administration to begin directly aiding the Syrian rebels now.
Leading congressional Democrats, to the extent they have commented on the issue, have been more reluctant to get more involved in the Syria crisis. House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told reporters Thursday, "If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try. Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
"It is critical that we all proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open," SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said at the Thursday hearing. "There are serious questions to be answered about the Free Syrian Army, but it is not too soon to think about how the international community could shape its thinking or encourage restraint."
The debate in Congress over aiding the Syrian rebels will ramp up next week, with a March 6 SASC hearing with Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and a March 7 SASC hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Fifteen foreign NGO workers were allowed to leave Egypt Thursday in what U.S. officials said was a positive step toward the resolution of a simmering crisis. But all sides warn that the crisis is still far from being resolved.
The Egyptian government removed the travel ban on foreign employees of several Cairo-based NGOs that were raided last December, allowing 8 Americans, 3 Serbs, 2 Germans, 1 Norwegian, and 1 Palestinian to speed to the Cairo airport and fly out Thursday. The Americans include Sam LaHood, director of the International Republican Institute and son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood. Other American- funded NGOs -- including the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House -- have been harassed and had their staffs charged with crimes. Several Egyptian NGOs have also been targeted.
"We are very pleased that the Egyptian courts have now
lifted the travel ban on our NGO employees. The U.S. government has provided a
plane to facilitate their departure and they have left the country. They are
currently en route home," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.
But she indicated that the United States and Egypt still have some differences to iron out.
"The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," Nuland said. "We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process, and we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues."
Behind the scenes, the administration and several unlikely allies in Congress have been scrambling in recent days to urge the Egyptian government to produce some tangible progress on the issue before the Americans were dragged into Egyptian courts for trial and before the U.S. Congress moved to cut off Egypt's $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, $1.3 billion of which goes to the Egyptian military.
According to officials and staffers close to the issue, the bulk of the credit for the progress thus far goes to the administration and first of all Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, who has been working furiously to resolved the crisis in Cairo. Other key officials involved were Brooke Anderson, the National Security Council chief of staff, who was the White House point person on the issue, and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. The Justice Department and State Department Counselor Harold Koh have also been heavily involved, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey visited Cairo earlier this month and discussed the issue at length.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met twice with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr on the issue last weekend, once on the sidelines of the Somalia conference in London and once on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Tunis. The State Department also sent a delegation of lawyers to Tunis, an official said on background basis.
According to sources close to the negotiations, in the end the key Egyptian figures who facilitated the deal to were Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Justice Minister Mohamed Abdel Aziz Ibrahim. In fact, U.S. officials believed they finalized the outlines of a deal with those two leaders last week, whereby the judge presiding over the NGO trials would lift the travel ban when the trials opened on Feb. 26.
When the time came, that presiding judge refused to follow through, according to sources, and Ibrahim stepped in to remove him from the case, effectively placing Ibrahim himself in charge of the decision. Ibrahim then lifted the travel ban. The U.S. side agreed to pay $5 million in "bail" money as part of the arrangement.
Two Republican senators who rarely have any nice words about the administration's foreign policy, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), also pitched in. They traveled to Cairo last weekend with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and John Hoeven (R-ND) and met with a series of Egyptian interlocutors, including Tantawi and representatives of Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The FJP, which holds the largest share of seats in the Egyptian Parliament, issued a public statement on the heels of the McCain-Graham visit, which said the party was unhappy with the current NGO law in Egypt, a relic of the Mubarak era. The FJP statement acknowledged that the foreign NGO workers had played a constructive role in Egypt over the years and described the prosecutions of the NGO workers as "politically motivated."
In a statement Thursday, the four U.S. senators acknowledged the Muslim Brotherhood's cooperation. "We are encouraged by the constructive role played over the past week by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Their statement of February 20 was important in helping to resolve the recent crisis," the senators said.
The American lawmakers had help from the Senate floor, where McCain and Graham were working hard this week to prevent a vote on an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would have cut off all U.S. aid to Egypt immediately. McCain and Graham successfully prevented the amendment from reaching the Senate floor, but were unsure how long they could continue to do so before affecting other Senate business. This created a sense of urgency that was communicated directly to the Egyptians.
David Kramer, president of Freedom House, said in an interview today that the FJP statement was important because it allowed the SCAF and elements of Egypt's civilian government to lift the travel ban without fearing a domestic political backlash.
"It provided political cover to the authorities that if they took the step they took today, the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't attack them in the press," he said.
But Kramer emphasized that the government's persecution of NGOs is ongoing. The cases against the Americans haven't been dismissed, and the SCAF has failed to provide an open and transparent system for domestic civil society to operate.
"No Egyptians got on a plane today, just the foreigners," Kramer noted. Several Egyptian Freedom House staffers are still charged with crimes. "This is a very important first step, but there are many steps along the way here. We have to get the investigations closed down. We have to be allowed to reopen and engage in our activities, like we were doing before. The pressure needs to be maintained."
"Today's action helps take away one element of tension. It wasn't helpful to have the focus be on Americans imprisoned in Egypt," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "That was taking the focus away from the real problem, which is the Egyptian government's assault on its own civil society."
The threat of a cutoff of U.S. aid to Egypt still remains, Malinowski noted. That prospect was always based on the most recent U.S. appropriations bill, which requires Secretary Clinton to certify that Egypt is making progress on, among other things, protecting freedom of association and moving toward true democracy.
"This is not enough for Hillary Clinton to certify progress under that law, although it might make it easier for her to use her national security waiver," Malinowski argued. A decision by Clinton could be put off until April, he added.
But the crisis has at least suggested that Congress and the Islamists in the new Egyptian legislature can work together, despite their differences in outlook.
"The Muslim Brotherhood will be the leading organization politically. It is up to them to create an environment where the world feels welcome," Graham said on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon. "Maybe we've learned our lesson, that you can't just have partnerships without basic principles. And so, we look forward to working with the Egyptian parliament and people."
As Syrian tanks consolidated their hold on the restive city of Homs, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that the United States should not provide any direct assistance to the Syrian people at this time.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke Thursday morning in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, mostly about the defense budget and military acquisitions programs. The Cable asked Smith whether or not the United States has any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria and whether he would support any direct assistance there, be it humanitarian, medical, communications, intelligence, or even military support to the people under attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Smith said no to both questions. On the issue of "responsibility to protect," the humanitarian doctrine often cited as a rational for foreign intervention, Smith said it's not a workable policy.
"There are a whole lot of people around the world suffering in a variety of different ways and it would be wrong to say that under no circumstances do we bear any responsibility for that ... But there are more people suffering and more problems in the world than we could possibly solve or even come close to attending to," he said. "Do we say if there is suffering anywhere we as the United States of America have a responsibility to try and fix it? ‘No,' is the answer to that question, because it's a challenge we can't possibly meet."
Regarding Syria specifically, Smith said there are just no good options, and definitely none that would make a difference without costing the United States too much.
"If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try," Smith said. "Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
Syria is different than Libya because the opposition is spread throughout the country, and doesn't hold any territory, according to Smith. Assisting Syrians would therefore be logistically problematic, he said.
"In Syria, it's a mess ... it would be very difficult to act in the first place in a way that would make a difference," he said.
Smith also cited the lack of an international mandate for direct assistance in Syria.
"If that broad international support came together, you know, if there was a clearer military mission that could be achievable, I think it's something that if I were the president I would be looking at every day," said Smith. "Is the situation changing or evolving in a way that puts us in a position to help? I don't think it's there right now."
Smith's comments closely track those of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told The Cable in an interview Wednesday that NATO has no intention of intervening in Syria or providing direct aid to the opposition in any way.
"The guiding question should be: Would it bring a sustainable solution to the problem if we decided to intervene, if we had the legal basis, if we had support from the region?" Rasmussen said, arguing that any intervention mission simply wouldn't have a high likelihood of success.
The Obama administration has clearly stated several times it does not favor any military intervention in Syria or providing arms to the Syrian rebels, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is interested in providing humanitarian assistance if the Assad regime consents.
The Cable also asked Smith what the U.S. reaction should be if Israel conducts a unilateral military strike on Iran's nuclear program.
"We should have a policy, we should not talk about it publicly, because that would not help the overall situation," Smith said. "To state a policy that says, ‘If Israel attacks...' will only fuel the fire and make people think ‘Well, [the U.S.] must know that they're going to attack."
Office of Rep. Adam Smith
The United States and North Korea have each issued statements about the results of last week's meetings in China, but the two sides seem to be reading from two different sheets of paper.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies and Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks Clifford Hart traveled to Beijing for meetings with top DPRK officials Feb. 23 and 24, including North Korea's top nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan. These were the first U.S.-DPRK direct talks since the December death of Kim Jong Il. Today, the State Department sent out its statement on the meetings as well as the DPRK's official news agency's readout of what was agreed. Apparently, something was lost in translation, because the two readouts just don't match.
"[T]he DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities," the U.S. statement said. "The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities."
Regarding the pending deal to give North Korea 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance, the U.S. readout explained, "We have agreed to meet with the DPRK to finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with our proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance along with the intensive monitoring required for the delivery of such assistance."
The United States has always maintained that nuclear negotiations and food assistance were not linked and the Obama administration must appear it is not being lured into the time-honored tradition of what critics see as "bribing" North Korea to talk. But the State Department admitted last week that the food-assistance issue might come up during the nuclear talks, and in fact, it did.
The State Department didn't say anything meaningful about sanctions on North Korea in its statement, only promising to increase people-to-people exchanges in areas such as sports and pledging that "U.S. sanctions against the DPRK are not targeted against the livelihood of the DPRK people."
And what about Pyongyang's interpretation?
If you read the North Korean statement on the meetings, which hasn't yet been posted on the KCNA website but was sent around to reporters Wednesday morning, you would have a somewhat different idea of what happened in Beijing.
"The U.S. promised to offer 240,000 metric tons of
nutritional assistance with the prospect of additional food assistance, for
which both the DPRK and the U.S. would finalize the administrative details in
the immediate future," the North Koreans said. "Once the six-party talks are
resumed, priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the
lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors."
The United States hasn't publicly discussed the idea of providing light-water nuclear reactors to North Korea since the KEDO project terminated its activity in 2006, due to what U.S. officials say is North Korea's failure to live up to the deal under which KEDO was begun.
As recently as Feb. 27, the State Department was insisting that no decision has been made on providing food assistance to North Korea, which is opposed by many in Congress.
"As they always do, the North Korean side also raised the nutritional assistance, so we did discuss that," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said about the Beijing meetings. "As you know, the United States does not link these issues. There's no deal to be had here. But we did continue to discuss the questions that the U.S. has with regard to need, with regard to how we might monitor nutritional assistance if we are to go forward with it. So no decisions have been made either on the six-party talks side or on the nutritional assistance side."
Former Pentagon Asia official Dan Blumenthal, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the confusion over the meeting was due to a lack of a clear strategy for achieving U.S. goals in North Korea beyond just scheduling more talks.
He also said that North Korea is never likely to give up its nuclear weapons, which is the stated U.S. goal, so the basis for the negotiations is flawed from the outset.
"The DPRK statement is just the public rhetoric part of their strategy, which is to get accepted by the U.S. and others as a nuclear power and meanwhile to extract other concessions that alleviate their economic problems," Blumenthal said.
But other analysts saw the deal as an incremental step forward and left open the possibility for real progress.
"These steps are modestly significant," said Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution. "They could indeed be an initial step on a path towards serious negotiations, negotiations that Pyongyang scuttled by its own actions. Or they could simply be a ploy to get nutritional assistance and meddle in South Korean politics. North Korea's record suggests the latter, but we shall see. I think it is safe to say that no one in Washington, Seoul, or Tokyo is holding their breath."
UPDATE: A senior administration official gave more detail on the food assistance discussions in a Wednesday background briefing with reporters. The United States put forward an offer of 20,000 tons of food assistance per month, but not the rice and grain that the North Korean government wanted, because that could be easily diverted to the military.
“And we’re talking about foods that would be appropriate for young children, in particular those under five or six years old, pregnant woman as well because we want to make sure we address the sort of the first 1,000 days as the administration has wanted to focus on,” the official said. “We’re going to have things like corn-soy blend, we will have vegetable oil, some pulses, and then there will be probably a modest amount of the ready-to-use therapeutic foods depending upon the number of children that we see with acute malnutrition.”
The official explained that monitoring mechanisms would have to be firmly in place before food aid can begin to flow. “If we are successful in finalizing the details that I’ve just laid out, this will be the most comprehensively monitored and managed program since the U.S. began assistance to the DPRK in the mid 1990s,” the official said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) asked all 435 members of Congress to join her at a meeting at the Syrian Embassy in Washington Tuesday, but in the end, she was the only one who attended.
"I invite you to join me, as Members of Congress, at the Syrian Embassy on Tuesday, February 28, 2012, to ask for an immediate cease-fire, a resumption of international mediation, and a peaceful end to this conflict," Jackson Lee wrote to all lawmakers Feb. 27. "We will show our support for the Syrian people and our rejection of the senseless killing of unarmed innocent civilians. This will be a strong diplomatic and symbolic gesture from the U.S. Congress to Syria."
"We will meet with the Syrian chargé d'affaires Zouheir Jabbour at 10:30 a.m. Together, we will express our disapproval of actions taken by President Bashar al Asad's troops against the people of Syria," read the letter, which identified Jackson Lee as the co-chair of Congressional Children's Caucus.
Jackson Lee attended the meeting, but no other lawmakers joined her, her spokesperson told The Cable.
Regardless, Jackson Lee considered the meeting a success because she was able to deliver a letter to Jabbour, this time as a "senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee," that questioned "whether the regime of President Bashar al Assad, whose actions unfortunately have veered into a realm ranging from undesirable to brutal, can handle a growing problem."
She made seven specific demands of Assad in the letter, namely that he: cease fire and cease the violence of the Syrian government, establish a safe camp for all woman and children, allow immediate access for the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross, allow immediate access for Poland to remove Western journalists stuck in Homs as well as the bodies of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, allow the removal of all other wounded, make immediate provisions for the safe arrival of medical care and food, and "for President Assad to step down as President IMMEDIATEDLY." (Emphasis in original.)
Jackson Lee also handed Jabbour an identical letter to give to Assad himself, and another copy to give to Syria's Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha. That copy might be tough to deliver because Moustapha suddenly moved to Beijing amid an FBI investigation into the embassy's alleged spying on Syrian Americans for the purpose of harassing them and their families.
So why didn't any other members of Congress join Lee? Despite the tough tone of her letter, some offices thought that Lee was simply grandstanding and that meeting with the Syrian embassy officials sent the wrong message at the wrong time.
"Essentially she's allowing herself to be used as a propaganda tool by the Assad regime," one senior congressional aide told The Cable. "It's hard to see how show your support for the people of Syria by legitimizing a regime that continues to brutalize them."
The State Department has begun coordinating with Syria's neighbors to prepare for the handling of President Bashar al-Assad's extensive weapons of mass destruction if and when his regime collapses, The Cable has learned.
This week, the State Department sent a diplomatic demarche to Syria's neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, warning them about the possibility of Syria's WMDs crossing their borders and offering U.S. government help in dealing with the problem, three Obama administration officials confirmed to The Cable. For concerned parties both inside and outside the U.S. government, the demarche signifies that the United States is increasingly developing plans to deal with the dangers of a post-Assad Syria -- while simultaneously highlighting the lack of planning for how to directly bring about Assad's downfall.
Syria is believed to have a substantial chemical weapons program, which includes mustard gas and sophisticated nerve agents, such as sarin gas, as well as biological weapons. Syria has also refused IAEA requests to make available facilities that were part of its nuclear weapons program and may still be in operation.
The State Department declined to provide access to any officials to discuss the private diplomatic communication on the record, such as the author of the demarche Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman. In a meeting with reporters earlier this year, Countryman expressed confidence that the United States knows where Syria's WMD stockpiles are, but warned that they could become a very serious security issue for Syria and the region going forward.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
Today, in response to inquiries from The Cable, a State Department official offered the following statement:
"The U.S. and our allies are monitoring Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. These weapons' presence in Syria undermines peace and security in the Middle East, and we have long called on the Syrian government to destroy its chemicals weapons arsenal and join the Chemical Weapons Convention," the State Department official said. "We believe Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control, and we will continue to work closely with like-minded countries to prevent proliferation of Syria's chemical weapons program."
The demarche made four specific points, according to other U.S. officials who offered a fuller account to The Cable. It communicated the U.S. government's recognition that there is a highly active chemical warfare program in Syria, which is complemented by ballistic-missile delivery capability. It further emphasized that that any potential political transition in Syria could raise serious questions about the regime's control over proliferation-sensitive material.
Third, the State Department wanted Syria's neighbors to know that should the Assad regime fall, the security of its WMD stockpile -- as well as its control over conventional weapons like MANPADS (shoulder-fired rocket launchers) -- could come into question and could pose a serious threat to regional security. Lastly, the demarche emphasized that the U.S. government stands ready to support neighboring countries to provide border-related security cooperation.
"It's essentially a recognition of the danger to the regional and international community of the stockpiles that the regime possesses and the importance of working with countries, given the potential fall of the regime, to prevent the proliferation of these very sensitive weapons outside of Syria's border," one administration official said. "It's an exponentially more dangerous program than Libya. We are talking about legitimate WMDs here -- this isn't Iraq. The administration is really concerned about loose WMDs. It's one of the few things you could put on the agenda and do something about without planning the fall of the regime."
The administration is also working closely with the Jordanians on the issue. A Jordanian military delegation was at the Pentagon Thursday to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
In addition to the danger of proliferation, there is a concern that Assad could actually use his WMDs if his situation becomes desperate.
"The WMD program is in play now, and that's important because it highlights the innate danger that the existence of this regime poses to U.S. security and regional interests," the administration official said. "[The demarche] puts Syria's neighbors on notice and it reflects the recognition that a dangerous Assad regime is willing to do anything to save its own skin. If they are willing to kill the country to save the regime, they might be willing to do a great deal more damage throughout the region."
Some officials inside and outside the administration see the WMD activity as helpful, but lament that such a high degree of planning is not taking place on the issue of how to precipitate the downfall of the Assad regime as quickly and as safely as possible.
Over 70 countries met in Tunis today to develop a unified message on the transition of power in Syria and urge the Assad regime to allow humanitarian access. The Saudi delegation actually walked out of the meeting, complaining of "inactivity" and urging the international community to arm the Syrian opposition.
The Obama administration has consistently rejected calls by the Syrian National Council and others to prepare for a military intervention in Syria and no real strategy exists internally to force Assad from power, another administration official said.
"Our strategic calculus can't be solely about what comes after Assad without taking a hard look at how to bring about Assad's downfall as safely as possible," said this official. "The reality is, at some point, there will be a recognition you can't plan for a post-Assad scenario without planning how to shape the downfall itself. You can't separate the two."
Concern about a gap in planning for how to oust the Assad regime is shared by some in Congress, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who issued a statement today urging the administration to start directly aiding the Syrian rebels and protecting Syrian civilians.
"Unfortunately, speeches and meetings by themselves will do nothing to stop the unacceptable slaughter in Syria, which is growing worse by the day," the senators said. "We remain deeply concerned that our international diplomacy risks becoming divorced from the reality on the ground in Syria, which is now an armed conflict between Assad's forces and the people of Syria who are struggling to defend themselves against indiscriminate attacks."
In her prepared remarks in Tunis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she supported more sanctions on the Assad regime but she declined to endorse any direct help to the Syrian opposition without the consent of the Syrian government, saying only, "We all need to look hard at what more we can do."
The Obama administration slapped new sanctions Thursday against one of Japan's largest organized crime groups, showing more resolve to fight Japanese organized crime than the Japanese government.
"Today's action casts a spotlight on key members of criminal organizations that have engaged in a wide range of serious crimes across the globe," said David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in announcing sanctions on the Yamaguchi-gumi as well as Kenichi Shinoda, its kumicho ("godfather") and its wakagashira ("deputy godfather") Kiyoshi Takayama. "Today's designations are just the first under our new our sanctions authority to target transnational criminal organizations and isolate them from the global financial system."
The Treasury Department said that Shinoda and Takayama play key roles in directing all Yakuza activities and are involved in international drug trafficking, human trafficking, extortion, prostitution, fraud, and money laundering.
"Today's action is designed to protect the integrity of the U.S. financial system, to prevent U.S. financial institutions from being used unwittingly to facilitate the unlawful activities of these groups, and to deny the named individuals and entity access to the U.S. economy," Treasury said in its statement.
The sanctions represent the first concrete implementation of an executive order President Barack Obama signed last July promising to go after transnational criminal organizations.
There's only one problem: The Japanese government doesn't seem to be on board. The National Police Agency (NPA), which is in charge of organized crime, has been uncooperative with the U.S. efforts to keep the Yakuza out of the United States and does not share its database of Yakuza bosses and associates with the FBI, DEA, or Homeland Security Investigations (formerly ICE), according to Jake Adelstein, the author of Tokyo Vice, an insider's look at the Yakuza in Japan. The NPA has also rarely acted on the hundreds of tips the United States passes along about child pornography coming out of Japan.
"The Yamaguchi-gumi is the Wal-Mart of organized crime. If you count smaller Yakuza groups under their umbrella, they are more than half of the market of Japan's 79,000 Yakuza members and associates. They also support the DPJ and ruling coalition of Japan," said Adelstein, adding that the Yamaguchi-gumi has ties to Olympus and TEPCO, two firms that operate within the United States.
"The reaction of the Japanese ministry of justice and the National Police Agency to Obama's executive order last year was one of shock and shame. This latest announcement is a slap in the face of Japan, telling them to really do something about their organized crime problem, which is spilling into international waters," he said.
Without help from Japanese officials, it's difficult for the U.S. law enforcement community to get a handle on Yakuza activities. For one thing, only the Japanese government can identify Yakuza officials, because tracking them requires knowing their names, their date of birth, their faces, and the Kanji symbols -- Japanese characters -- they use to identify themselves.
But in the Japanese system, the Yakuza are legally recognized entities that operate freely and have clear links to banks, legitimate businesses, and leading politicians.
"The Yakuza exists openly in Japan with fanzines and magazines," Adelstein explained. "They are heavily involved in the stock market and there are politicians with known Yakuza ties in national politics."
That kind of institutional corruption crosses borders, bleeding heavily into the U.S. economy. The Japanese police estimate that roughly 40 percent of foreign exchange trading companies in Japan are Yakuza-affiliated.
"With so many Japanese companies invested in the U.S. and with so many American companies investing in the Japanese stock market, which is yakuza infested, it becomes a matter of U.S. national security," Adelstein said. "Because of the yakuza's deep involvement in the Japanese economy and Japan's economic ties with the U.S., the actions of the Yakuza effect the U.S. economy, therefore it's not just a Japanese problem."
Candidate Barack Obama promised to end the time-honored American practice of appointing ambassadors who have no experience in foreign policy, but President Obama has completely ignored that promise, appointing fundraisers to dozens of ambassadorships all over the world.
Today, the State Department revealed that another fundraiser turned ambassador ran her embassy into the ground ... only to return to fundraising and leave the State Department to pick up the pieces.
According to a new State Department inspector general's report on the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas, Ambassador Nicole Avant presided over "an extended period of dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement, which has caused problems throughout the embassy" since she was appointed by the president in 2009. Prior to being America's envoy in the Caribbean, Avant was Southern California finance co-chairwoman of Obama's presidential campaign and vice president of Interior Music Publishing.
According to her glowingly positive Wikipedia page, Avant spent her time in the Bahamas "focused on five priority initiatives: Education, Alternative Energy, Economic and Small Business Development, Women's Empowerment and Raising awareness of the challenges facing people with disabilities."
But according to the State Department's internal investigation, Avant was away from the embassy an inordinate amount of time -- mainly shuttling back and forth to her home in Los Angeles -- and when she was in town, she worked from her residence most of the day.
Avant was absent from the embassy 276 days between September 2009 and November 2011, including 102 "personal" days and 77 "work travel" days to the United States, of which only 23 were on official orders.
"Her extensive travel out of country and preference to work from the Ambassador's residence for a significant portion of the work day contributed to a perception of indifference," the report states. "The frequent absences of the Ambassador contributed to poor mission management."
Avant was out of touch partly because she didn't interact often with the State Department or anyone else in Washington, according to the inspector general. She left that to her deputy chief of mission, whom the report identified as also being poor at management and administration.
"The Ambassador had not had frequent policy-level interaction with the Department or other Washington agencies. At the beginning of her tenure, she relied unduly on her former DCM to attend to day-to-day contacts with the desk and other offices in the Department," says the report. "Interviews in Washington likewise revealed that the front office of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and other Washington agencies were not in regular contact with the Ambassador about the conduct of her mission. This lack of regular contact contributed to the Ambassador's sense of isolation from the Department."
Avant did take several steps to establish the embassy's equal employment opportunity program -- but not until the inspector general's visit. The embassy's program for young Foreign Service officers was neglected, critical security upgrades were not made, and the embassy paid rent on a vacant office for two years.
One might think there aren't important issues to deal with at a tropical post like the Bahamas. But the IG begs to differ, and made clear that the 154 American and 61 locally hired staff need good leadership.
"The Bahamas is a critical partner in ongoing efforts to ensure the security of the south-east flank of the United States. As it fights drug and human trafficking with U.S. and international support, the Bahamas seeks to maintain its status as a global financial center and as an important tourist destination," the report states.
Under Avant's tenure, it goes on, "cables written in the past year show little political reporting or analysis on international crime, drug smuggling, and illegal migration or on prevention of terrorism."
The inspectors visited the embassy in September and October of 2011. Avant resigned in November.
Since resigning, Avant has been active on the campaign trail. According to a Jan. 31 White House pool report, she joined Michelle Obama at a Beverly Hills residence for a fundraiser along with her husband, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Saranados, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steve Bing, Quincy Jones, Harvey Weinstein, and other celebrities.
A Feb. 15 pool report spotted her dining with Obama at a $35,800 per plate dinner that included George Clooney, Jim Belushi, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa.
Avant is only the latest fundraiser cum ambassador who caused trouble for the boss. Fundraiser/Ambassador Howard Gutman caused a controversy in Belgium last year when he made statements appearing to blame Israel for anti-Semitism.
And fundraiser/ambassador Cynthia Stroum left the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg in a state of dysfunction after creating an environment that was ""aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating," according to a Feb. 2011 State Department investigation.
If the Obama administration is looking for a new envoy to the Bahamas who can right the ship, your humble Cable guy would like to put forth himself for the assignment ... we promise not to use up our personal days.
House Foreign Affairs Committee member Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has caused an uproar in Pakistan by introducing a congressional resolution calling for self-determination in the restive province of Baluchistan. But the 12-term California representative is unfazed by the criticism: If the Pakistanis don't like it, that's their problem, he told The Cable in an interview today.
"The purpose of the resolution was to create a much-needed dialogue about Pakistan and Baluchistan, and that's what it's done, so that's very nice," he said. "It's important to get over that phase where people are going ballistic and start getting serious discussion about an issue that's been ignored but shouldn't be ignored."
Rohrabacher said the Baluchistan issue and the human rights violations there have been ignored in Washington out of a fear of offending the Pakistani establishment, but that strategy isn't working.
"It's one of those issues that's been ignored as to not upset the Pakistanis because they are fragile friends," he said. "Well, they're not fragile friends, they are hard-core, two-faced enemies of the United States."
Rohrabacher isn't shy about his anger with the Pakistani government, its attitude toward the United States, and its actions related to America's war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. In fact, the discovery that Osama bin Laden was hiding for years in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad was direct motivation for his Baluchistan initiative, he said.
"What made me really determined to get involved to the point where I was willing to author resolutions like this was when Osama bin Laden was discovered in an area which made it clear that Pakistanis had for eight years taken billions in U.S. foreign aid while giving safe haven to the monster that slaughtered 3,000 Americans on 9/11," he said. "At that point I felt, no more walking on egg shells around Pakistan."
Baluchistan is the largest of Pakistan's four provinces and is home to about 8 million people, many from the Baloch tribes, which have Persian and Kurdish origins. Nationalist movements there have fought the Pakistani government intermittently for independence over the past decades, with the most recent skirmishes in 2006.
There's no love lost for Rohrabacher on the Pakistani side of the relationship, either. There were street protests against the resolution and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said, "This resolution violates our sovereignty and we condemn it." A visiting U.S. congressional delegation in Islamabad had to distance itself from Rohrabacher's resolution.
"I can see why the prime minister of Pakistan wouldn't fully understand why people in various countries -- especially elected officials -- are free to comment on any policies they see fit in any country they see fit," Rohrabacher said. "That's what freedom is all about, but perhaps that's why they don't understand it."
One theory that became popular in the Pakistani press following Rohrabacher's Feb. 8 hearing on the resolution was that Rohrabacher was working with the CIA to try to pressure Pakistan to allow U.S. intelligence agencies to put listening posts in Baluchistan aimed at Iran.
"Anyone who believes that is totally out of touch with reality," Rohrabacher responded. "I've had no discussions with anyone in the CIA about this whatsoever and my guess is that if I did, they would be doing somersaults trying to prevent me from doing this."
In fact, he didn't even bother to confer with the Obama administration about the resolution at all, he said, and has not heard from any administration officials.
"It was my resolution and not theirs," he said of the administration. "Unlike our friends in Pakistan, they understand that in a democracy people elected to the legislative branch have the right to propose any legislation they want. I can see why the Pakistani government wouldn't understand that."
Rohrabacher compared the struggle of the people of Baluchistan to the struggle of the American colonies against the British Empire. "Like in the United States, where we gave a declaration of independence, we have a right to a country separate from Great Britain. That's what self-determination is," he said.
Beyond Baluchistan, Rohrabacher's top priority is preventing Pakistan from influencing the Afghanistan reconciliation talks to the benefit of the Taliban. He promises to fight giving U.S. aid to Pakistan if that's the case.
"The most important thing now is not to permit Pakistan to think they can do anything they want and there will never be any repercussions and they can side with any enemy of the West and still think we're going to pour money into their pockets," he said. "That ain't gonna happen."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The first even "Friends of Syria" meeting Friday in Tunis will focus on ensuring humanitarian access and a possible short-term ceasefire, according to State Department officials traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in London.
Clinton had several meetings with European and Arab leaders on the sidelines of the London conference on Somalia to prepare for "Friends of Syria" event, where dozens of countries will meet to determine what steps the international community can take to bring relief to the communities under siege from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"There is a lot of concern, of course, about what's happening in places like Homs, the horrific conditions in which people [find themselves], and how do we get the right type of humanitarian and medical assistance [into Syria] that people need," a State Department official told reporters traveling with Clinton in London.
"And [there is] general agreement that while all of us have been working with various humanitarian well-known organizations, U.N. organizations on the ground, that the real challenge is the access issue. And it is going to be up to the Syrian government to be -- the Syrian authorities, the Syrian regime -- to respond to the international community's real commitment to provide the type of assistance."
The Tunis meeting should result in concrete proposal for speeding humanitarian and medical assistance to the civilians inside Syria, but all would require the agreement of the Assad regime, the official said.
The second main focus of the Tunis meeting will be to coalesce around a plan to transition toward democracy in Syria. Members of the Syrian National Council, the opposition group composed mostly of people living outside Syria, has its own plan for transition that it will present at the Tunis meeting. That plan and the Arab League backed plan for transition are not mutually exclusive, the State Department official said.
"Everybody is backing the Arab League transition plan who's at the conference tomorrow, but it's incumbent upon the Syrian National Council to talk about how they would translate that transition plan into action on the ground and for them to articulate it in a compelling way that's comprehensible, understandable to Syrians inside and out," said the official.
The third focus of the Tunis meeting will be how the international community can coordinate sanctions to bring maximum pressure and isolation on the Assad regime.
How does the "Friends of Syria" group plan to incentivize Assad to go along with any of these ideas? According to a report by the Associated Press, Clinton and the other leaders are considering issuing Assad a 72-hour ultimatum whereby he would have to agree to a ceasefire and grant humanitarian access or face as yet unspecified additional penalties. The ceasefire could be granted in 2 hour per day increments, as the International Committee for the Red Cross has suggested.
"Clinton met Thursday in London with foreign ministers and senior officials from about a dozen countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates," the AP reported.
Representatives from Syria's internal opposition groups will not be at the conference. One administration official told The Cable that Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had urged in internal discussions that opposition council leaders from Damascus and Homs be included in the Tunis meeting but ultimately they were not invited.
The Obama administration has focused on interacting with the external opposition and avoiding direct contact with the Free Syrian Army, which is working closely with the local rebel councils inside Syria, the administration official said.
But the State Department official speaking with reporters in London said the administration was confident that the SNC was adequately representing the array of opposition groups inside and outside Syria.
"It's a very complicated political situation that they face that the Syrian opposition members, whether they're inside or outside, have a hard time communicating with each other given the restrictions that are put on to the -- onto the Internet, onto movement, given the horrific conditions under which people are living and operating inside Syria," the State Department official said. "The opposition has done a fairly good job of reaching out, being able to synthesize views from across Syria. And I think that all of us are favorably impressed with the direction in which they're moving. But we'll hear from them tomorrow in terms of specific needs."
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich may be slipping in the polls, but he will deliver a speech at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, a spokesman for AIPAC confirmed today.
Gingrich's speech will be on the morning on March 5, one day after U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the conference and before the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will speak that evening. Obama and Netanyahu will meet in the Oval Office that day.
Last December, Gingrich made news when he called the Israeli-Palestinian peace process "delusional" and called the Palestinians an "invented" people. He also said the Palestinian Authority and Hamas share "an enormous desire to destroy Israel."
"If I'm even-handed between a civilian democracy that obeys the rule of law and a group of terrorists who are firing missiles every day, that's not even-handed. That's favoring the terrorists," Gingrich said.
Gingrich's campaign has benefited from more than $10 million in donations to a Gingrich-supporting Super PAC from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a close ally of Netanyahu and owner of the daily Israel Hayom.
In addition to Gingrich, Obama, and Netanyahu, the current list of confirmed speakers now includes: Israeli President Shimon Peres, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), President of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Jane Harman, CNN Contributor Paul Begala, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Fox News contributor Liz Cheney, editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol, and political analyst for NBC News Mike Murphy.
Kristol is on the board of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a group that has sponsored several ad campaigns accusing Obama of being "not pro-Israel." The group is also the only Israel-focused advocacy organization to have formed a SuperPAC in the run up to the 2012 election. The other two board members of ECI are Gary Bauer, who today endorsed Rick Santorum, and Rachel Abrams, the wife of former NSC official Elliott Abrams, and the author of the controversial Israel-focused blog "Bad Rachel."
WILLIAM PHILPOTT/AFP/Getty Images
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is on his way back from Russia after meeting with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in anticipation of a coming congressional debate on giving Russia Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) status.
The visit was closely coordinated with the Obama administration, according to a Baucus aide. Baucus is anticipating a debate over granting Russia PNTR, which would also require the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law, sometime this spring or summer. By then, Russia will be a full member of the World Trade Organization and U.S. businesses would be disadvantaged from doing business in Russia if the PNTR issue is not resolved, according to Baucus.
But the Baucus camp was keen to stress that the senator's focus went well beyond economic access for American companies.
"Baucus wanted to learn more and prepare himself for this year's debate to prepare himself and other members as he did last year with Colombia before the free trade debate," his aide told The Cable. "Baucus definitely stressed democracy and human rights concerns with Medvedev as he did with several other senior Russian officials on the trip. He also met at length with civil society activists -- democracy, human rights and environmental activists -- as well as another meeting with leading transparency and anti-corruption advocates."
Some GOP offices want to link the issues of human rights and corruption in Russia to the granting of PNTR status. Those offices are pushing for passage of Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, named for the anti-corruption lawyer who was allegedly tortured and died in a Russian prison exactly two years ago today.
These Republicans -- who include House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) -- want passage of the Magnitsky bill to be the cost of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which prevents Russia from getting PNTR status. The administration would prefer not to link Magnitsky to this trade status, because it would cause the Russians to take retaliatory measures against the U.S. in other areas of bilateral cooperation. Administration officials are proposing a fund to support a new democracy and human rights foundation in Russia instead, but Republicans are cool on that idea.
The Russians staunchly oppose the Magnitsky bill. In fact, the Russian government is moving forward with the prosecution of Magnitsky on criminal tax charges, even though he is dead.
In a press release before his trip, Baucus argued that granting PNTR status for Russia could result in a doubling of U.S. exports to Russia, which now stand at about $9 billion per year. He also argued that a package of concessions Russia made to the United States before being invited to join the WTO would result in benefits for U.S. animal and agricultural industries and will result in Russia tamping down its own domestic agricultural subsidies.
"Opening doors overseas in countries like Russia will propel our economic recovery forward and create jobs across the United States," Baucus said. "Holding Russia to its promises as it enters the WTO and seeking a greater share of the Russian market is a one-way economic benefit for the United States and an absolute no-brainer."
Baucus' home state of Montana is a major beef exporter and Russia is currently the fifth largest importer of American beef. Baucus has touted Russia's agreement to reduce beef tariffs as part of its WTO accession.
On Feb. 20, in addition to Medvedev, Baucus met with First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Russia's top official on economic and trade issues, and Minister of Economic Development Elvira Nabiullina. On Monday, Baucus also met with Russian Minister of Agriculture Yelena Skrynnik and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"Meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, Baucus pushed for Russia to reevaluate the positions it has taken on Syria and Iran. He asked what steps Russia is willing to take to halt the violence in Syria, given that every effort to date has failed, and discussed Russia's response to Iran's nuclear program," his office said Tuesday. There was no word about Lavrov's response to those questions.
Now that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has lifted his hold on Obama confidant Mark Lippert to become the next top Pentagon official for Asia, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has stepped in with a hold of his own, over the issue of selling F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.
"Earlier today Senator Cornyn placed a hold on the nomination of Mark W. Lippert, a former aide to President Obama, to be assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs," said Cornyn spokesman Drew Brandewie. "In November Senator Cornyn sent a letter to the president requesting a plan to address Taiwan's aging fleet of fighter jets. The administration finally responded yesterday, but failed to adequately address Senator Cornyn's underlying concern."
The Lippert hold, first reported by the Washington Free Beacon, is not the first time Cornyn has used his power to hold nominees to press his advocacy 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.
In October, the administration decided to sell Taiwan upgrade packages for its aging fleet of F-15 A/B model planes but the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it is still under consideration.
At Lippert's November confirmation hearing, Cornyn pressed Lippert on the issue (watch the video here) and then introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that seeks to force the administration to sell Taiwan new F-16s. That amendment had been voted down in the Senate once before.
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 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. "I hope to be able to support the confirmation of this nominee [Lippert]. However, I ask that you decide on a near term course of action to address Taiwan's looming fighter shortfall and provide me with the specific actions you plan to take."
In the administration's Feb. 16 response to Cornyn, acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller wrote, "We believe the F-16 A/B upgrade effectively meets Taiwan's current needs."
Miller would be Lippert's boss at OSD if Lippert does eventually get confirmed. Miller also faces a confirmation vote in the Senate as he seeks to permanently replace the now-departed Michèle Flournoy.
Fifty-six leading conservative foreign-policy experts wrote an open letter Friday to U.S. President Barack Obama calling on him to directly aid the Syrian opposition and protect the lives of Syrian civilians.
"For eleven months now, the Syrian people have been dying on a daily basis at the hands of their government as they seek to topple the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. As the recent events in the city of Homs-in which hundreds of Syrians have been killed in a matter of days-have shown, Assad will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power," wrote the experts.
"Unless the United States takes the lead and acts, either individually or in concert with like-minded nations, thousands of additional Syrian civilians will likely die, and the emerging civil war in Syria will likely ignite wider instability in the Middle East."
The letter was organized jointly by the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, both conservative policy organizations in Washington, D.C. Signees included Max Boot, Paul Bremer, Elizabeth Cheney, Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, John Hannah, William Inboden, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, Clifford May, Robert McFarlane, Martin Peretz, Danielle Pletka, John Podhoretz, Stephen Rademaker, Karl Rove, Randy Scheunemann, Dan Senor, James Woolsey, Dov Zakheim, and Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council.
The letter calls on Obama to immediately establish safe zones within Syrian territory, establish contacts with and provide assistance to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), give communications and logistical assistance to the Syrian opposition, and enact further sanctions on the Syrian regime and its leaders.
The letter comes one day before the first "Friends of Syria" contact-group meeting in Tunisia and on the same day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton in Washington.
On Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the government sponsored violence in Syria, but the letter argues that multilateral efforts to protect civilians in Syria have thus far failed.
"The Syrian people are asking for international assistance," it reads. "It is apparent that American leadership is required to ensure the quickest end to the Assad regime's brutal reign, and to clearly show the Syrian people that, as you said on February 4, 2012, the people of the free world stand with them as they seek to realize their aspirations."
Read the full letter after the jump:
A major new cybersecurity bill set to move through Congress this month would enable the secretary of state to condition foreign aid on countries' action to counter cybercrime and cyberespionage.
On Feb. 15, senators introduced the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, a massive piece of legislation that represents the culmination of years of work in Congress to put together a new regime for public-private cooperation on combating the growing threats on the Internet. The main thrust of the bill is to identify those parts of the private sector that constitute "critical infrastructure" and to charge the Department of Homeland Security with working with the private sector to institute and enforce higher cybersecurity measures for those companies.
But one section of the bill directly links cybercrime in foreign countries to U.S. foreign assistance to those governments.
"The Secretary of State is authorized to accord priority in foreign assistance to programs designed to combat cybercrime in a region or program of significance in order to better combat cybercrime by, among other things, improving the effectiveness and capacity of the legal and judicial systems and the capabilities of law enforcement agencies with respect to cybercrime," the bill reads.
It continues: "It is the sense of Congress that the Secretary of State should include programs designed to combat cybercrime in relevant bilateral or multilateral assistance programs administered or supported by the United States Government."
In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, Senate staffers who worked on the bill said that in addition to trying to build foreign countries' capacity to fight cybercrime, the goal is also to empower the State Department to use foreign aid as leverage to get countries to get active on fighting cybercrime and stop cyberespionage.
"There is a concern that some countries are not taking the issue seriously enough and we ought to do more to try to push them do so," said a Senate Democratic aide. "If there are cases where we are giving foreign assistance to countries that are turning around and being complicit in cyber crimes launched against the United States, maybe we need to take that into consideration as we are working on our foreign assistance package."
The provision was written by Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) and was based on a bill she had written with former Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT).
"There isn't a mandate for State. It's not telling them they have to tie foreign assistance to countries' actions on cybercrime, but it's giving them a tool both to help build capacity in countries who want to do the right thing and pressure countries who do not want to do the right thing," the aide said.
The bill also calls on the secretary of state to work with international partners to ensure lawful behavior in cyberspace, develop a strategy for promoting norms in cyber behavior, and quotes Clinton as saying, "Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society, or any other, pose a threat to our economy, our government, and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation. In an Internet-connected world, an attack on one nation's networks can be an attack on all. And by reinforcing that message, we can create norms of behavior among states and encourage respect for the global networked commons."
Another Senate democratic aide predicted that once the bill reaches the Senate floor, probably later this month, senators will try to add language that increases protections against products coming into the United States from foreign companies that have ties to authoritarian regimes or their armies.
It's what's known as "the Huawei problem," named after the Chinese computer technology company that just happens to be run by former high-ranking members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.
"What we call ‘the Huawei problem' is a really difficult one to get your hands around because it is the quintessential 21st-century problem where you have a global telecommunications conglomerate that is a commercial entity but has close connections to a very important nation state which has very sophisticated and aggressive cyber espionage capabilities and intent," another Senate Democratic aide said.
Right now the bill seeks to prevent purchases of any products that are believed to be compromised and there are provisions to protect the government acquisitions supply chain, but multiple senators are expected to try to strengthen the bill's approach to such companies through amendments, the aide said.
"That's a needle you have to thread because it implicates global trade policy and WTO requirements, but we've got to make sure that ‘the Huawei problem' is not overlooked."
A group of 32 senators from both parties unveiled a new Senate resolution Thursday that would establish the sense of the Congress that containing a nuclear Iran is not an option.
The resolution, which will be formally introduced later today, "strongly supports U.S. policy to prevent the Iranian government from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and rejects any policy that would rely on efforts to ‘contain' a nuclear weapons capable Iran," and "urges the president to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat."
A group of senators held a press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill to explain the thinking behind the resolution and reinforce its bipartisan character, including Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Bob Casey (D-PA), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
"There are so many things that we disagree on, but we found something we can be united about and I hope the American people will take comfort in the fact that Republican and Democratic senators are joining forces to stand behind President Obama on one very important issue," said Graham. "We agree with you and we have your back Mr. President. President Obama is absolutely right that it is absolutely unacceptable for the Iranian theocracy to obtain nuclear capability."
Lieberman emphasized that he doesn't want to foreclose diplomatic options, but said that if Obama decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, he would have strong bipartisan support in Congress.
"I know that containment might have been viable for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but it's not going to work with the current fanatical Islamist regime in Tehran," said Lieberman, referring to Iran's sponsorship of international terrorism, its record of proliferation, and its statements calling for the destruction of Israel. He called containment of a nuclear Iran a "dangerous and deadly illusion."
Casey, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East Subcommittee, said the resolution is meant to address what he sees as a lack of clarity as to American policy regarding the possibility of living with a nuclear Iran.
"[The resolution] makes it very clear that containment is not good enough, that containment is not a fallback position here. If we say we're going to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, we have to mean it," said Casey, adding that there needed to be a greater sense of urgency on the issue as well.
Ayotte referred to the Thursday morning testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who told her that Iran represented a "grave threat" to U.S. national security and the security of U.S. allies.
Senators from both parties said Thursday that a diplomatic solution was still the goal and they believed the sanctions on Iran were working, but that a containment strategy was less preferable than a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if all else fails.
"This is a deadly serious moment," said Coons. "We hope for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution, but we are determined to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability."
The senators sought to present their resolution as perfectly in line with the administration's stance. "I'm not here to criticize the president... the only thing I would say is ‘Do it faster if you can,'" said Graham.
What's not clear is what, exactly, would constitute Iran crossing the red line of achieving a "nuclear capability," in the eyes of the administration, or for that matter, in the eyes of the Congress.
"To me, nuclear weapons capability means that they are capable of breaking out and producing a nuclear weapon -- in other words, that they have all the components necessary to do that," Lieberman said. "It's a standard that is higher than saying ‘The red line is when they actually have nuclear weapons.'"
The resolution itself currently has 16 Democratic sponsors and 16 Republican sponsors. Behind the scenes, there were intense negotiations over the language to create a resolution that was acceptable to the broadest range of senators.
Graham admitted that an earlier version had included a clause, later removed, that would have affirmed that the United States has the power and capability to prevent the government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability. That clause was removed in order to build a bipartisan consensus.
"This is not an authorization for military force... if military force is the option to be chosen, that is a debate for another day, that is another discussion," he said.
At the press conference, Graham showed poster-sized photos of an Iranian missile in a parade with the words "Israel must be uprooted and erased from history" written on it. He then showed another poster-sized photo of an Iranian banner saying, "Israel should be wiped out of the face of the world."
"They could work on their grammar, but we all get the message," Graham said. "What we're all saying in a bipartisan fashion that we don't want to contain or contend with a nuclear Iran because we think the whole world would go into darkness."
On Friday, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton will meet in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss Iran's letter proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
At Thursday's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that a more formal response from all the P5+1 countries would be coming and that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman had held two rounds of consultations about the letter.
"I don't expect we're going to have a formal reaction to the letter before early next week," said Nuland. "What we want to do is not only react to the words on the page, but be in agreement about what the implications are for the potential for diplomacy further on."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is leading a congressional delegation to Egypt this weekend and will meet with the head of the Egyptian military in an effort to resolve the crisis over the prosecution of American NGO workers in Cairo, he said Wednesday.
McCain said he will meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a man he has known for 25 years, but insisted he was "not Bill Richardson," the former New Mexico governor who has periodically served as an unofficial envoy, swooping in to foreign capitals to rescue Americans held by hostile governments.
McCain explained that he had no intention of demanding the NGO workers' immediate release or negotiating with the Egyptian government directly. Instead, he plans to express the seriousness of the issue to Egyptian military leaders and explain that the organizations are not sowing unrest, as they have been accused of doing, but rather helping Egypt develop civic institutions. He will also try to explain the congressional politics of the moment and the real possibility that Congress will cut off U.S. aid to Egypt over the crisis.
McCain said he realizes that the generals may not be in control of the situation and may not be able to solve the NGO crisis even if they wanted to. That opinion is shared by the State Department, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, as The Cable reported last week. That's why McCain is also seeking meetings with Egyptian parliamentarians, civic leaders, and representatives of liberal, secular, and even Islamic groups.
That analysis seemed to be reinforced last weekend when Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey traveled to Cairo and was unable to secure the release of the NGO workers despite meeting with Tantawi for over six hours. There's a realization in the U.S. government and in Congress that the Egyptian government can't make concessions during or immediately after a high-level U.S. visit because the optics of such a move would be politically damaging for them domestically, multiple Senate aides said.
McCain said the issue was probably being driven by Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga, a longtime Mubarak loyalist suspected to be driving the effort to prosecute the aid workers.
McCain is the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute, one of the three U.S. NGOs affected by the prosecutions. The others are the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. Several Egyptian NGOs are also being targeted by the Egyptian government.
IRI President Lorne Craner testified at the House Foreign Affairs Committee's hearing on the situation in Egypt Thursday morning.
"Taken in total, the events we are seeing reflect not only an attack on American democracy implementers like IRI, but more importantly, are the tip of the iceberg in an ongoing effort to silence independent Egyptian civil society voices that have been under increasing assault since last fall. The rhetoric employed by Egyptian authorities in doing so is increasingly reminiscent of Mubarak-era propaganda," said Craner.
"The announcement of evidence against those implicated in the investigation by the judges and public statements made by Egyptian decision-makers, including the minister of justice and Minister of International Cooperation Abul-Naga, appear to be a direct violation of Egyptian law."
Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said at the hearing that the SCAF and the ministry run by Abul-Naga should be pressured on the issue.
"While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces bears ultimate responsibility for this strain in relations, the minister of international cooperation should not be exempt from punitive actions," she said. "This is not about 'sovereignty,' but about patronage and corruption. Therefore, no further U.S. assistance should be provided to any ministry that is controlled by the minister of international cooperation."
Ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not to certify that Egypt can receive its $1.3 billion in military aid unless the NGO situation is resolved.
"Current law requires that, as a condition for the disbursal of military assistance to Egypt, the secretary of state must certify that Egypt is implementing policies that protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and rule of law. And, although the law allows for a waiver, I cannot imagine the secretary could either make that certification or waive the requirement, as long as this NGO case moves forward -- and I would not encourage her to do so," Berman said.
The first confrontation over the aid could come this week when a transportation-related bill comes to the Senate floor. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is trying to add an amendment that would immediately cut off aid to Egypt, ahead of the State Department's certification.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, McCain said that the Paul amendment was not helpful at this time and that he would fight to oppose it.
"I want to assure you that we are discussing that and ways to certainly avoid that action at this time," McCain said. He urged the administration to "explain to the rulers who are the military and leftovers from the Mubarak regime that this situation is really not acceptable to the American people."
His delegation, which will include Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and several other senators, will also visit other countries in the region.
The Pentagon's new budget request moves $3 billion of military pay and benefits out of the base budget into the war budget in an accounting maneuver experts and congressional staffers say is meant to get around legally mandated budget caps and bolster the administration's plan to cut the size of the Army and Marines.
According to the military personnel section of the Pentagon's fiscal 2013 budget request, released Feb. 13, the cost of pay and benefits for the military next year will go down by $6 billion in the "base budget," which is meant to fund the ongoing costs not related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the war-funding section of the budget request, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, next year's request for military personnel goes up by $3 billion, even though the actual costs of paying for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would have no reason to rise as the United States withdraws.
What the Pentagon did was simply to move $3 billion from its regular budget to the war budget, where it does not count against the discretionary spending caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and where it does not count against the deficit.
It's a $3 billion accounting trick that allows the Pentagon to wiggle out of the spending caps by manipulating the war budgets, as it has done for years, said Gordon Adams, the former head of national security budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, now a professor at American University.
"It's just too much temptation to resist," he said. "Just a little budgetary slight of hand, as DOD tries to create pockets of room for things shrinking budgets make it hard to afford. We've been pouring programs back and forth between the OCO account and the base [budget] for a decade."
Overall, military personnel spending in 2012 totaled $141.8 billion in the base budget and $11.3 billion in the war budget. In the fiscal 2013 request, the Pentagon is asking for $135.1 billion in the base budget and $14.1 billion in the war budget for the same accounts.
Adams said the administration is acting as if its recently released strategy, which would cut the size of the Army and Marines by 67,100 and 15,200 troops, respectively, has already been implemented. The actual troop reductions would take three years to complete and face stiff opposition in Congress, but the administration is trying to cut their pay and benefits out of the base budget now.
"It means pocketing savings from reducing the size of the force by taking them early in the base budget, while the force is only shrinking over three years," he said. "The administration clearly intends to cut end strength by 2015, but scoop out room in the base budget by the slight of hand of jiving the continuing payroll costs over into the war budget."
The accounting manuever does track the amount of money that would be saved by cutting the number of troops in the Army and Marines, as the new strategy envisions. In fiscal 2012 Army personal costs totaled about $53 billion, with about $7 billion in the OCO account. For fiscal 2013, the Pentagon is requesting $52 billion, but this time, $9.4 billion is in the OCO section of the budget.
For the Marines, the fiscal 2013 OCO budget request for military personnel would result in an increase of about $1 billion.
In response to questions from The Cable, Pentagon spokesman George Little confirmed that troops above the level envisioned in the new strategy would now be funded in the war budget, but he disputed that this was an abuse of the war budgeting mechanism or an accounting trick.
"Now that we have clearly identified a long-term end state level for our ground forces, we can more clearly delineate the cost of our current forces in excess of that level, and as a result we do have more funding budgeted for personnel in FY2013 in OCO than we did in FY2012... That is completely consistent with, not an abuse of, the concept of using OCO funds to budget for costs you would not be incurring were it not for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Little.
"People cost what they cost, and the total cost of all Army and Marine Corps personnel, base and OCO combined, is what it is. Even if someone takes issue with our categorization of those costs between the base and OCO budgets, our request to Congress is a comprehensive one that includes both base and OCO funds," Little said. "We are not hiding the costs, either in the base budget or the OCO side. The total size of the defense budget request is not affected by the categorization of these costs."
For military staffers on Capitol Hill, especially those gearing up to fight the troop cuts when Congress tackles the Pentagon budget, the administration is trying to have it both ways by playing games with the money and by shrinking the force in a way that can't easily be reversed.
"The real world requires a large force to meet insurgent threats on the ground -- the defense strategy only has room for a small force to deter neatly drawn challenges. The temporary answer seems to be to push the troops you need and the real conflict you are fighting off the books into OCO," one GOP congressional aide close to the issue said.
"Should the president decide to accelerate withdrawal from Afghanistan, there won't be room to pay for these troops in the base budget. Future presidents will pay for that folly in the years to come, but the troops who get shoved prematurely into the unemployment line will have to pay for it much sooner."
Russia and Iran are continuing to send arms to the Syrian regime that can be used against protesters, a top State Department official said today.
"Iran is resupplying Syria and through Syria has supplied weapons to Hezbollah," said Tom Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, at a Wednesday morning breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
Countryman's bureau plays a major role in monitoring international compliance with nonproliferation and arms control rules. He declined to go into specifics on what arms Iran and Russia are giving the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but he confirmed that both countries are still supplying arms that can be used to attack civilians and opposition groups inside Syria, who are engaged in an increasingly bloody struggle with the government.
"We do not believe that Russian shipments of weapons to Syria are in the interests of Russia or Syria," he said.
According to Countryman, the Iranian weapons being funneled through the Syrian government to Hezbollah are not being used by Hezbollah inside Syria, but are being transferred to Hezbollah groups inside Syria's neighbor Lebanon.
Countryman also said the U.S. government is working with allies to try to get a handle on the stores of conventional, biological, and chemical weapons inside Syria, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands if and when the Assad regime collapses.
There are "tens of thousands" of MANPADS - shoulder-fired missile systems -- in Syria and nobody really knows where they all are, Countryman said. Unlike Libya, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so there is no official reporting on its store of those weapons, but the effort to locate them is underway.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
He also commented on the news that Iran has sent a letter to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
"This would be a good day for [Iran] to answer a letter sent four months ago," Countryman said, but what Iran really needs to do is open up fully to IAEA inspectors and directly address all of the questions about its nuclear program.
"There is a path forward where Iran can pursue peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.
Former National Security Council Senior Director Dennis Ross argued in a New York Times op-ed today that the window for diplomacy with Iran is now open again because of the pressure wrought on Iran by international sanctions.
"The Obama administration has now created a situation in which diplomacy has a chance to succeed," wrote Ross. "It remains an open question whether it will."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.