You could almost hear the geopolitical tectonic plates shifting as the 200-odd guests clinked their glasses of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc and Meiomi Pinot Noir in honor of Thein Sein, the reformist president of Burma and the toast of Washington this week.
Sein -- the first Burmese leader to visit the U.S. capital in 47 years -- was speaking at a swank U.S. Chamber of Commerce gala dinner put on in cooperation with the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and sponsored by a raft of American companies, including GE, Ford, P&G, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, MasterCard, ExxonMobil, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
U.S. officials Robert Hormats, the undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, and Derek Mitchell, the U.S. ambassador to Burma, credited Sein with shepherding what Hormats called "remarkable progress over the course of a couple years" in bringing one of the world's most isolated countries into the international system.
"They are tremendous partners," Mitchell said of the Burmese government.
Mitchell -- who like Hormats referred to the country by its official name, Myanmar-- noted that Sein had used his free time in Washington to visit Mt. Vernon, implicitly comparing the Burmese leader to George Washington and subtly prodding him to follow the American founding father's example by solidifying the principle of civilian control of the military.
The State Department is working assiduously to promote U.S. investment in what is currently one of the hottest growth stories in the world -- a gold rush to which Mitchell aluded, joking to the crowd, "I feel like I've hosted every single one of you over the past several months."
A GE official, James Suciu, announced at the dinner that GE is opening two offices in the next two weeks: One in Yangon and one in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital. The company expects to be doing as much as half a billion dollars in annual revenue in Burma in the next few years.
Several oil companies, including event co-sponsor Chevron, have been battling with human rights groups over a forthcoming State Department rule governing investment in Burma, a resource-rich country that was once one of the most heavily sanctioned in the world.
Sein himself said little of interest, hitting all the right buzzwords: accountability, transparency, market economy, "arbitration systems in line with international standards," and so on -- though he did surprise his audience by speaking in reasonably fluid, albeit heavily accented English.
"We want to lay the foundation for a robust middle class," he said. "We would like to invite U.S. businesses to come and invest in Myanmar."
Sein met earlier in the day with U.S. President Barack Obama, who told him, "we want you to know that the United States will make every effort to assist you on what I know is a long, and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct path to follow."
Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani on Wednesday accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons on its own people, joining Britain, France, and Israel in determining that Bashar al-Assad's forces had used deadly poison gas in violation of international norms.
Al Thani, answering questions at an event in his honor sponsored by the Brookings Institution, spoke frankly about Qatar's assertive foreign policy in the Middle East, which has thrust the tiny Gulf monarchy into the center of the region's conflicts and controversies.
The Qatari prime minister, who also serves as foreign minister, is in Washington with a delegation headed by Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has ruled Qatar since deposing his father in a 1995 coup.
"Chemicals? He used chemicals, and there is evidence," Al Thani said, referring to Assad. He described the Syrian ruler's strategy as an attempt to "test your reactions" and incrementally cross U.S. President Barack Obama's "red lines." Al Thani did not say whether Qatar had made its own independent assessment of the use of chemical weapons, or whether it was relying on other countries' reports.
The United States has not made a determination on the Syrian regime's alleged chemical-weapons use, but a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the president Wednesday pressing him to make "a public determination on this important national and international security issue."
Al Thani, whose meeting with Obama Tuesday apparently went over time, urged the president to be more aggressive, though he declined to cite any specific measures. "The United States has to do more," he said. As for Qatar, "We did not want to take the lead. We wanted to take a back seat. But we find ourselves in the front seat."
Al Thani also denied persistent charges that Qatar is finding jihadi groups in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its fealty to al Qaeda and been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization. "We did not give any aid financially or any other way to these people," he said, insisting that Qatar was working with the United States and other allies through "operation rooms" in Jordan and Turkey. He said accusations to the contrary were started by "families" in the region -- perhaps an allusion to one of Qatar's neighbors.
Al Thani described a meeting he had with Assad at the beginning of the uprising, before the Syrian leader gave his first speech on the crisis. He said he told Assad: "There is a way to rule before Bouazizi and a way to rule in our region after Bouazizi," referring to the fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the Syrian uprising. "So things have to change."
Assad made certain promises, he said, but never followed through on his commitments. Instead, Al Thani said, he appeared before the Syrian parliament "and he was joking ... there was blood in the street, people being killed."
"He has only one way," Al Thani said. "Kill and kill and kill until you win."
Iraq's national security advisor, Faleh al-Fayyad, said Monday that Qatar and other Arab countries, along with nongovernmental groups, are financing Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian jihadi group, with the acquiescence of Turkey.
"These are the same sources that finance al Qaeda," Fayyad said through a translator. "In times of crisis, some countries use al Qaeda; some countries make peace with al Qaeda," he said.
Fayyad and a delegation of Iraqi officials and members of Parliament are in Washington this week for meetings with top U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and other senior State Department and Pentagon officials.
Fayyad said his meeting with Biden was "very beneficial and useful." Iraq is hoping to bolster its relations with the United States, including via increased weapons sales and training, and attract greater investment from U.S. companies. The delegation is using this week's meetings to get acquainted with the Obama administration's second-term team.
Fayyad said that Turkey, Qatar, and other Arab countries had pushed the uprising in Syria, soon to enter its third year, toward armed conflict.
But the Iraqis were keen to stress that they bear no goodwill toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Fayyad said had caused a lot of suffering over the years in Iraq, and that they sympathized with the suffering of the Syrian people.
"Bashar al-Assad has hurt Iraq the same as Saddam Hussein," said Yassin Maijd, an Iraqi MP traveling with the delgation, noting the similarities of the two countries' Baath parties.
The Iraqis are especially concerned about the rising power of Jebhat al-Nusra, which the United States has designated a terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Very frankly, elements of al Qaeda are very active in certain parts of Syria," Fayyad said, comparing Turkey's role of hosting and facilitating armed groups to that of Syria at the height of the insurgency in Iraq.
Fayyad noted that Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki had personally warned U.S. President Barack Obama that the conflict could drag on for two years or longer.
Iraq and the United States had previously had sharp differences over Syria, Fayyad acknowledged, but said that Obama's position on Syria -- which he described as pressure aimed at bringing the warring parties to the table -- is now "really good."
Fayyad said that Iraq is willing to cooperate with the international community to find a negotiated end to the conflict in Syria, but warned that Iraq would be less willing to do so if it is not included in the discussions and that it would not tolerate a government that included jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.
"We will not accept to have the noose around our necks and allow Syria to be divided along sectarian lines," Fayyad said.
NBC News is reporting that Susan Rice has asked President Obama to withdraw her name for consideration as his next secretary of state. The network's Tracy Connor writes:
“If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly – to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities,” Rice wrote in a letter to President Obama, saying she’s saddened by the partisan politics surrounding her prospects.
“That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country...Therefore, I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time,” she wrote in the letter obtained by NBC News. [...]
“The position of secretary of state should never be politicized,” she wrote, adding, “I’m saddened that we have reached this point, even before you have decided whom to nominate. We cannot afford such an irresponsible distraction from the most pressing issues facing the American people.”
FP has obtained a PDF of the full letter, which you can read here. Rice's withdrawal would seem to clear the field for Sen. John Kerry, who is widely thought to be high on President Obama's now slightly shorter shortlist for Foggy Bottom. Coming along with Bloomberg's story today claiming the former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is likely to be nominated for the Pentagon, it looks like the president's second-term national security team is taking shape. Now we just need to figure out if Tom Donilon will remain the national security advisor, and who will fill David Petraeus's shoes at the CIA.
UPDATE: Ecclestone now says the race is a no-go due to the opposition of the racing teams. "Of course it's not on," the BBC quotes him saying.
On Friday, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the governing body for the world of motor sports, announced its decision to return the Bahrain Grand Prix to the island Gulf nation, which has been rocked by unrest, brutal human rights abuses, and a deepening sectarian divide since protests broke out on Feb. 14.
In making its decision, the FIA sent a "fact-finding mission" to Bahrain in late May to determine whether it would be safe to hold the race, which was canceled earlier this year amid the violence. According to Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, quoted in the Guardian, "The FIA sent people out there to check on the situation, they came back and reported everything is fine."
The report, a copy of which was provided to FP by the New York-based human rights group Avaaz, was signed by FIA Vice President Carlos Gracia, who traveled to Bahrain on May 30 and May 31 along with an assistant, Carlos Abella.
It appears to be a complete whitewash.
According to the report, Gracia and Abella met with several government officials, including Minister of Culture Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa, Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, Public Security Chief Maj. Gen. Tariq bin Dana, Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed R. al-Zayani, and BIC CEO Salman bin Eissa al-Khalifa -- and seem to have accepted their views uncritically.
They also met with Tariq al-Saffar of the pro-grovernment National Institute of Human Rights, who was appointed in 2010 by King Hamad. (Saffar is also managing director of advertising firm Fortune Promoseven, which lists the F1 Grand Prix as a client.)
Gracia and Abella did dine with several unnamed foreign business leaders -- a dinner arranged by their government host -- but met with zero members of the opposition or with independent rights groups, and did not tour Shiite neighborhoods that have reportedly been under siege for weeks, though they did visit a shopping mall.
Nonetheless, they concluded, "Life in Bahrain is completely normal again" -- an observation at odds with copious reporting on the state of fear that has gripped the country since Saudi troops intervened in late March.
Other questionable assertions: "Security is guaranteed" ... "visitor figures have returned to the same level -- and are even increasing -- when compared against figures in previous years" ... "atmosphere of total calm and stability" ... "the presence of military forces was limited to a few, certain, strategic points."
In perhaps their most ludicrous claim, the fact-finders found "NO indication of any problems or reason why Bahrain's F1 Grand Prix should not return to the 2011 Calendar."
Human Rights Watch Deputy Director Tom Porteous, in a May 26 letter to FIA chairman Jean Todt, urged the FIA to consider the government's harsh crackdown in making its decision.
"The government's violent suppression of all protests in mid-March, in which some two dozen persons were killed, mostly protesters or bystanders at the hands of security forces, has featured large-scale arbitrary arrests, protracted incommunicado detention, and credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment of persons in custody," Porteous wrote.
That advice seems to have been ignored.
"Formula 1 wanted to be told that everything is fine, and that's the answer they got," said Rutgers University assistant professor Toby Jones, an expert on Bahrain.
The Bahraini regime has presented the return of the Grand Prix as a major victory, a stamp of approval from an international community that has largely condemned the crackdown.
But holding the race may have been a miscalculation, warned Jones, "because it gives the protesters a date to rally around."
The race is now scheduled for October 30, but a change of heart by Ecclestone and growing opposition from racing teams could see it canceled yet again.
President Obama was due to meet Bahrain's crown prince on Tuesday.
DOHA, Qatar — The State Department's top Middle East official, Jeffrey Feltman, said Thursday that he was personally "inspired" by the youth-led revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and that the uprisings roiling the Arab world showed "there's a fundamental shift in the relationship of how people in the region view their rulers."
Feltman, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, was in Qatar on one of several stops in the Persian Gulf, where the United States is seeking to reassure nervous allies even as it urges them to embrace meaningful political reform. He was a speaking at a town-hall meeting hosted by Northwestern University in Qatar and billed as a forum on media and Internet freedom in the Arab world.
His remarks in Doha come at a time of great upheaval in the Middle East, and most dramatically now in Libya, where anti-government protesters have seized huge swaths of the country and are vowing to march on the capital Tripoli to finish the job.
As Muammar al-Qaddafi again took to the airwaves to accuse the protesters of taking drugs and carrying out al Qaeda's agenda -- while forces loyal to the embattled Libyan leader reportedly continued their campaign of terror in and around Tripoli -- Feltman said it was "not clear that Qaddafi is listening to anybody."
"It's appalling what's happening now in Libya. It's really, really appalling," Feltman said with obvious emotion. But, he noted, echoing remarks made by President Barack Obama on Wednesday evening, that the United States had "a responsibility to our own citizens" in Libya that took immediate precedence over "a general obligation to protect Libyan citizens."
Asked whether the United States could do more in Libya to prevent civilian deaths, he said, "I don't have any answers for you right now, what the right approach is."
The U.S. State Department has just released the full transcript of your humble Cable guy's interview with Secretary Hillary Clinton:
SECRETARY CLINTON: How are you doing?
QUESTION: Excellent, excellent. I was in Doha yesterday and there was a big celebration there, unfortunately at our expense, but --
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, but (inaudible). I think clearly, the FIFA organization has a plan to expand the sort of global reach of the World Cup. I mean, South Africa never had it, Russia never had it, and obviously Qatar and this region has never had it. It makes sense. I mean, Brazil will have it next. I mean, obviously, we were disappointed because, look, we could do it tomorrow. I mean, we've got the facilities already filled, we don't have to air condition stadiums, and we can do it tomorrow. But it does make a certain logic to kind of expand the global region and give people who love football more than we do - soccer football, not football football --
SECRETARY CLINTON: -- a chance to have their moment.
QUESTION: Excellent, excellent. Well, I know your time is short, so let me --
SECRETARY CLINTON: Sure.
QUESTION: -- start right in. As you can see, I'm wearing my U.S.-Iran flag pin today, which I --
SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) I've never seen one before.
QUESTION: I purchased this at the State Department gift shop. It's made in China. It's okay.
SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) Love that, Josh.
QUESTION: So we're here and all of the Arab leaders are here and we're two days before the first big engagement with Iran in a long time. So first of all, I'd like to ask you, what is your message at Manama to all of these leaders about Iran? What do you want to say to them about what's about to happen?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I'll be speaking there. Are you coming tonight?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Okay. I'll be speaking tonight and I want, very directly, to let Iran understand that we are serious about this engagement. We were serious from the beginning of the Obama Administration. The door remains open. And we hope that the negotiations in Geneva bear some results.
But at the same time, we're realists, and we know that they're probably coming back to the table because sanctions are working. And I don't think they believed that we could ever put together the international coalition we did for sanctions. And from all that we hear from people in this region and beyond, they're worried about the impact. And so they're returning to Geneva and we hope that they're returning, willing to negotiate.
QUESTION: Excellent. So we had a dual track, engagement and pressure. We focused on engagement for about a year, then we were focused on pressure, now we're going back to engagement. How long are we going to focus on engagement again before we start focusing again on pressure? Is it another year? Is that the thinking or what?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I don't think we can - I don't think we would put timetables on it. I think this is more of a day-by-day assessment. We know where we're headed, and that is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. We know we have the vast majority of the world with us on that.
SECRETARY CLINTON: But I think we'll have to take stock of where we are after Geneva. We'll have to see how the Iranians respond on other things we've engaged with them on, like the two hikers that are still in prison and Mr. Levinson, who --
SECRETARY CLINTON: -- also is in Iran, in our opinion. So let's see where it goes.
QUESTION: Okay. So how do we know if it's progressing or not? What is the metric? What - how do --
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, for example, the IAEA has concluded that Iran's nuclear program has had some difficulties. So I think that's given us a little bit of a breathing space. I mean, if they're having difficulties, maybe they'll be more responsible. We won't know until we test it. So it's - in negotiation, we know where our goal is, and we had a very clear set of milestones which we reached. Now, we've always wanted to get them back to see whether there was any potential there. And as we go along, we're going to keep the goal in sight, keep the international coalition together, keep the pressure on Iran. The pressure is not lifting because they're coming to the table in Geneva. And then we'll take it step by step.
QUESTION: Understood. And you're not going to see Foreign Minister Mottaki. He's going to be here two days later, so --
SECRETARY CLINTON: I think he's here tonight.
QUESTION: He's here tonight. So you're going to see him or you're not going to see him?
SECRETARY CLINTON: If he comes to dinner, I'll probably see him.
QUESTION: So what do you - what's your message to him?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, he doesn't talk to me.
QUESTION: I see.
SECRETARY CLINTON: I mean --
QUESTION: So, he - you can talk to him through me; so what would you like to say?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Hear my speech tonight.
QUESTION: Okay. Are you optimistic that this round of negotiations --
SECRETARY CLINTON: I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I think that it's like - I know, we got to (inaudible).
QUESTION: Okay. Look for --
SECRETARY CLINTON: I can talk with you, Josh.
QUESTION: Sure, sure.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Sorry.
QUESTION: No problem.
SECRETARY CLINTON: We have to see what attitude they bring. I mean, part of the problem was that they had their own internal debate --
SECRETARY CLINTON: -- how to handle all of this.
SECRETARY CLINTON: And it wasn't until recently that they were willing to come back and talk. So you're dealing with a regime that has been badly shaken by the events of June '09, the election, and the decision-making apparatus was kind of knocked off kilter, which meant that trying to get any action step out of them was more difficult than it would have been prior to '09.
QUESTION: That's right, true.
SECRETARY CLINTON: So it's not that - nothing - none of this is a static situation. There are so many moving parts. And we have to watch it all, and we do, trying to evaluate what they're doing, what their decision making is, what the economic pressures are --
SECRETARY CLINTON: -- what the international community's opinions are. So all of that moves kind of in a bunch.
QUESTION: I understand. That's so interesting. I'm going to lose you right now, so let me ask you one final question.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I'm told that there is a deal on New START with the Republicans. I'm told that they will bring it up December 13th. I'm wondering, could I have your comment? Is this a success of your promise to bring it up during the lame duck session? It seems like it's really going to happen.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Josh, it's like a no-hit game, and I can't talk about it because we have made a lot of progress, but it's not done till it's done.
SECRETARY CLINTON: And we have been encouraged by the positive response we've received from a number of Republicans. But they're also telling us it depends on what else happens in the session. And I believe that we have enough votes to recognize the national security importance of doing this. But I'm not counting any chickens until they vote. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I understand. Thank you so much.
Speaking at an event Monday previewing Sergio, HBO's forthcoming film about the life and tragic death of U.N. diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke took what appeared to be an unplanned sideswipe at Kai Eide, the former head of the U.N. mission in Kabul.
"A few days ago I was in Kabul with General Petraeus, and we had 300 people gathered in a conference room at the airport to discuss civilian military relations in Afghanistan going forward," Holbrooke said.
"And we had the U.N. representative there with us, Staffan de Mistura, who had come from Iraq ... a very good man, and we're very fortunate to have him. He's a substantial step forward over what preceded him."
"And the issue came up in the meeting of what to do about the elections coming up in Afghanistan. And the issue was: If there's a piece of bad news to give to the government, who will give it? And de Mistura said something that I thought kind of reflected the dilemma that the U.N. [faces]. ... He said, ‘We get paid to get blamed for delivering the bad news on behalf of everyone else.' I think it's a line he's used before."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.