For decades, the United States has reserved the term "special relationship" for two countries, Britain and Israel, but Secretary of State John Kerry called for a new "special relationship" with China during his recent trip to Asia.
The U.S.-UK "special relationship" has been a hallmark of bilateral relations for decades. Kerry acknowledged it explicitly during his first trip abroad, which began in London, standing alongside British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
"When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain -- our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship -- there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that," Kerry said on Feb. 25.
Kerry again noted the U.S.-UK special relationship in an April 8 statement expressing condolences for the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
"We celebrate especially the way, with a hand outstretched across the Atlantic, Lady Thatcher strengthened the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom -- a relationship that remains a driving force for freedom, justice, and democracy," Kerry said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted that the U.S. and Israel also have a "special relationship" on his way there April 21.
"I'm going to Israel first because it is a nation that has had a very special relationship with the United States," Hagel said.
But Asia hands were taken aback when Kerry used the term to call for a "special relationship" with China during an April 13 solo press availability in Beijing.
"I do think that today's visit makes it clear that the United States wants a strong, normal, but special relationship with China, and that's a special -- because China is a great power with a great ability to affect events in the world. And we need to work together to do that," Kerry said.
Robert Zarate, policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, told The Cable that Kerry may not have realized that he was diluting the exclusivity of the term "special relationship," but that Kerry's overall tone reveals how he wants to position the United States vis-à-vis Asia's greatest rising power.
"By using that term ‘special relationship' to describe his hopes for the U.S.-China relationship's future, I think Secretary Kerry is, consciously or not, expressing the Obama administration's strong desire to accommodate China's great-power rise -- but, as America's allies and partners in Asia will tell you privately, that's a very, very problematic desire," he said.
The Cable also found an instance during the trip when Kerry called the U.S.-Japan relationship "special," although he was at that time referencing the gift of American dogwood trees to Japan in acknowledgment of Japan's gift of cherry blossom trees 100 years prior.
"At this point, the United States has a ‘special relationship' with two countries: the United Kingdom and Israel," Zarate said. "The next country we might want to add to that very short list is potentially Japan, but China, for very obvious reasons, shouldn't even be online for that list yet."
Yohsuke Mizuno-Pool/Kyodo News - Pool /Getty Image
President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday evening and thanked the Russian leader for unspecified cooperation in the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings.
As law enforcement officials surrounded the Watertown location where 19 year old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was suspected to be hiding, the White House released a read out of the Obama-Putin phone call, which referenced the United States and Russia working together on the Boston bombing issue.
"President Putin expressed his condolences on behalf of the Russian people for the tragic loss of life in Boston. President Obama thanked President Putin for those sentiments, and praised the close cooperation that the United States has received from Russia on counter-terrorism, including in the wake of the Boston attack," the statement said. "The two leaders agreed to continue our cooperation on counter-terrorism and security issues going forward."
National Security Staff Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told The Cable the White House won't say what kind of cooperation the Russians provided.
"We'll decline to provide further details at this point," she said.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan, who was killed Thursday night, were of Chechnyan ethnicity but hailed from the Russian region of Dagestan and spent several years living in Kyrgyzstan. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a naturalized American citizen on Sept. 11, 2012.
The State Department issued a report Friday that detailed widespread accusations of fraud and abuse in the March 2012 election that brought Vladimir Putin back into the Russian presidency.
U.S.-Russian relations have been in a tailspin since Putin's return as head of state in Moscow, following his four years as prime minister under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. The United States and Russia have been at odds over a U.S. list of Russian human rights violators, the Russian decision to ban U.S. adoptions of Russian children, Russian persecution of international NGOs, the expulsion from Russia of USAID, and Russia's unilateral withdrawal from the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program.
In the run-up to Putin's election, huge protests swept Moscow and Putin blamed then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for "inciting" the crowds that had protested the Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011where fraud and abuse were also widely reported.
On Friday, the State Department released its annual list of human rights reports and the section on Russia lays out extensive reporting on Putin's own election and the irregularities that surrounded it.
"Domestic and international observers described the presidential campaign as skewed in favor of the ruling party's candidate, Vladimir Putin... Procedural irregularities marred voting, with reports of vote fraud, administrative measures disadvantaging the opposition, and pressure on election monitoring groups," the report stated. "The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully in regularly scheduled national and regional elections. However, citizens could not fully exercise this right as the government limited the ability of opposition parties to organize, register candidates for public office, access the media, or conduct political campaigns."
In the period leading up to the election, international observers pointed out that Putin had unfair access to the media and some press outlets were harassed or otherwise warned to cover pro-Putin rallies favorably. Opposition candidates were prevented from appearing in the media.
"Prior to the elections, independent observers, media, and opposition parties reported widespread irregularities, including abuse of administrative resources such as pressuring students, state budget employees, employees of state-owned companies, and others to vote for the ruling party," said the report. "On election day, March 4, independent election monitors observed procedural irregularities in one-third of the polling stations they visited."
During the election period and the period of Putin's inauguration, some media and civil society groups were the victims of cyberattacks, preventing those groups from spreading information about political developments including protests. Targeted sites included the radio station Ekho Moskvy, the newspapers Novaya Gazeta and Kommersant, independent election monitoring organization Golos, the Internet television station Dozhd, and live-event broadcaster UStream.
Voters were added to voter lists just before or on election day and "special polling stations" were established at the last minute in some places through a process that was not transparent.
The elections results themselves were suspect. According to Russia's own Central Election Commission, the North Caucasus region, where Russia has been fighting a bitter insurgency, was the region that submitted the most votes for Putin and had extremely high turnout.
"In Chechnya, where recorded turnout was 99.59 percent, Putin won 99.82 percent of the vote. In Dagestan, where recorded turnout was 91 percent, Putin won almost 93 percent of the vote. In Ingushetia, recorded voter turnout was 86 percent, and Putin garnered 92 percent of the vote. In Karachay-Cherkessia, Putin won 91 percent of the vote, while in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria, Putin received 78 percent of the vote," the report said.
Protests erupted in Moscow following Putin's election, including a huge protest that included 30,000 protesters on May 6 in Bolotnaya Square. Four hundred protesters were arrested that day. After the elections, independent monitoring organizations reported they were receiving pressure from the Russian government as they attempted to publicize the results of their monitoring. One monitoring group, Golos, was particularly harassed.
"Golos was evicted from its central office in Moscow when the landlord terminated its lease early. In January Roskomnadzor began monitoring Golos' newspaper. Several of Golos' regional divisions were subjected to unscheduled audits of their financial records. On January 18, Aleksander Kalashnikov, the head of the FSB in the Komi Republic, called Golos and Memorial ‘extremist organizations... directed from abroad, often financed by foreign NGO funding, and designed to transform the political system of the Russian Federation.' He also asserted that Golos' main goal was to disrupt the presidential elections in the country," the State Department report said.
The election irregularities were only one subset of the many types of human rights abuses reported in Russia in 2012.
"Other problems reported during the year included: allegations of torture and excessive force by law enforcement officials; life-threatening prison conditions; interference in the judiciary and the right to a fair trial; abridgement of the right to privacy; restrictions on minority religions; widespread corruption; societal and official intimidation of civil society and labor activists; limitations on the rights of workers; trafficking in persons; attacks on migrants and select religious and ethnic minorities; and discrimination against and limitation of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons," said the report. "The government failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Turkey and Europe this weekend and will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a meeting in Brussels.
In Istanbul, Kerry is meeting Saturday with members of the Syrian opposition coalition and representatives from other countries who support the Syrian opposition. The goal is to "further explore ways that the international community can support the opposition and accelerate a Syrian-led political transition," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
There had been reports that President Barack Obama had approved an interagency recommendation to authorize the provision of non-lethal military assistance to the Syrian rebels, including things like body armor and night-vision goggles, but Kerry made no mention of such a move in his testimony to several congressional committees this week.
"President Obama has said and directed me to go out and try to find the ways to implement this, to change -- we need to change President Assad's calculation, that's clear," Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. "Right now, he is sitting there with support from Iran, with support from Hezbollah, with support from Russia, with artillery and an army, and believing that he can continue to fight it out using his air power, his Scuds, his artillery and his tanks. So that equation somehow has to change, and we all understand that,"
Kerry said he had reached out to the Russian to try to find a way to work together to implement the principles of the Geneva plan, which include that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition must mutually agree to choose new individuals to create a transitional government ahead of new elections in Syria.
"[The Russians] are now arguing that Assad doesn't necessarily have to leave immediately or upfront, and they believe that the Syrian opposition is pushing away from the negotiations," Kerry said.
After leaving Turkey, Kerry will travel to Brussels from April 22 to 24, where he will participate in the NATO foreign ministers' meeting and a meeting of the NATO-Russian Council. Kerry said he will meet with Lavrov on the sidelines of those meetings.
"My hope is still that the Russians can be constructive in this process and we can find a way to negotiate," he said.
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee Thursday, Kerry said he would also press Lavrov on the Russian ban on American adoptions, instituted abruptly last December.
"I've already raised this issue with Foreign Minister Lavrov. We've talked about it several times actually, and I've agreed with him to try to do certain things to see if we can't try to break the impasse with the Russians, where just some families' hearts are being broken who were all prepared to receive children and that has stopped," Kerry said.
Kerry noted that the Russians are concerned that 27 out of the 60,000 or so Russian orphans in the United States have died while in the care of their host families. He said that issue has to be addressed as well.
"[The Russians] are very concerned about it and the press is very focused on it and we need to work through, and I have ideas about how to do that," he said.
Overall, Kerry is optimistic about the U.S. Russian relationship, despite differences over Syria, adoptions, the Magnitsky list of Russian human rights violators, and Russian actions against international NGOs.
"Have we gone down into a lower moment of that relationship? The answer is yes," Kerry testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee April 17. "But on big issues, I want everybody to take notice that Russia has cooperated with us with respect to Afghanistan and the northern route, which has been critical. Russia has cooperated with us on the WTO, cooperated with us on Iran, Iran sanctions, on the U.N. resolution, cooperated with us on the DPRK and cooperated with us on the START treaty. Those are big-ticket items. So even though there have been some bumps in the road, I am very hopeful that we can move this relationship back to a more visibly completely constructive place, and we need to work at it."
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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19 year old being hunted by law enforcement in Boston Friday, became a naturalized U.S. citizen only last year, an administration official confirmed to The Cable.
Tsarnaev came to the United States in 2002 and requested asylum for "family reunification" and was placed in a program that allowed him to stay, the official said. He applied for citizenship in 2007 and finally was granted American citizenship in 2012. His older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, age 26, was not a citizen but had applied for legal permanent resident status. He was killed in a shootout with police overnight.
The brothers' uncle Ruslan Tsarni told reporters Monday that they had come to the United States seeking asylum. Both hail from Chenchnya originally but reports have also said they may have lived in Kyrgyzstan before coming to the United States.
UPDATE: NBC News is reporting that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a U.S. citizen on Sept. 11, 2012.
John Kerry unsuccessfully tried to prevent the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and now the uncertainty in the Palestinian leadership is adding uncertainty to the U.S. secretary of state's larger effort to kickstart new peace negotiations.
Fayyad, who is well known in the West and credited for gains in establishing relatively stability and prosperity in the West Bank, will continue on as a caretaker prime minister following his resignation announcement earlier this month. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has broad leeway in choosing Fayyad's replacement; he could choose himself or select a new interim prime minister ahead of new elections, but the schedule for those elections is totally unclear.
Before Fayyad resigned, Kerry made multiple efforts to convince the technocratic Palestinian prime minister to stay and to convince Abbas to keep him around, close associates of Fayyad say. Kerry implored both leaders to put aside their longstanding differences and continue to work together during his recent trip to the region. Kerry also placed a phone call to Abbas urging him to reject Fayyad's resignation.
"John Kerry has had a great relationship with Fayyad and wanted him to stay and asked him to stay and asked the Palestinian president not to accept his resignation," Ziad Asali, the president and founder of the American Task Force for Palestine, told The Cable.
But rather than heed Kerry's advice, members of Abbas's Fatah faction turned Kerry's plea into a criticism of Kerry, according to Asali.
"A lot of people in Fatah accused the U.S. of applying pressure on Abbas not to accept Fayyad's resignation," Asali said. "This was considered an insult to the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people and an humiliation because it was an American interference in internal Palestinian politics."
Fatah leader Sufian Abu Zayda said that U.S. "stupidity" had contributed to Fayyad's resignation.
"Fayyad did not want to be seen as someone who has been imposed on the Palestinians and Fatah by the Americans," Abu Zayda said. "On the other hand, Abbas cannot afford to be seen as someone who succumbed to U.S. pressure."
Fatah leader Azzam al-Ahmad described Kerry's call to Abbas as "a humiliating and degrading interference by the United States in internal Palestinian affairs."
Asali rejected those assertions and said that Kerry had every right to try to keep Fayyad in place, not only because Fayyad had great relationships with several Western countries, but also because he was seen as a reliable steward for the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid the PA receives from international donors.
"I think it was perfectly OK for Kerry to do what he did. Everybody interferes with Palestinian affairs. It has been the case for decades. That's Palestinian politics," he said. "Salam Fayyad is the person who was at ease in the international community."
Still, Kerry's critics in Washington maintain that the effort to save Fayyad represented a diplomatic setback. Several reports said that Fayyad had attempted to resign in late February, before President Barack Obama's trip to the region, but the administration convinced him to hold off. But ultimately, the Abbas-Fayyad split was irreparable.
"Fayyad's departure was an unfortunate early defeat for Secretary Kerry. Kerry and President Obama did everything they could to keep Fayyad there, but it was too late. The divisions between the two Palestinian figures were too deep," said Jonathan Schanzer, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "Kerry's intervention was not a mistake. The problem was that these efforts came too late. For the last four years, the administration has elected to work with Abbas at the expense of Fayyad."
Not only will Fayyad's departure hurt international donor confidence but it also may bode poorly for America's ability to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table with Israel and prevent the Palestinians from pursuing greater recognition at U.N. organizations, an effort spearheaded by Abbas against U.S. wishes, Schanzer said.
A big part of Kerry's new Mideast peace push is to promote economic development in the West Bank, a process that would run parallel to a political process but that could serve to build confidence between the Israeli and Palestinian governments. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said this week that the U.S. government would still move forward with that initiative despite Fayyad's departure.
"He's been a key partner of ours. He's someone we've worked very well with, the international community has worked very well with, and he's been highly effective at helping to move forward the Palestinian economy and build institutions," said Ventrell. "Having said that, he's one individual... the Palestinian people and the work of the Palestinian Authority are bigger than any one individual, and we're committed to moving forward with economic and institution-building efforts in the West Bank, and we'll make that clear to Congress as well."
Asked if the State Department was worried that Congress might be less willing to give the PA money now that Fayyad is gone, Ventrell said, "We are not concerned."
Speaking at a Brookings Institution luncheon Thursday, former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams said that Fayyad's departure would mean that Palestinian security forces, which had become increasingly professional, would once again become "Fatah goon squads."
Asali said the ball is now in Abbas's court and that the Palestinian leader must choose a replacement for Fayyad who can attempt to fill Fayyad's role both at home and abroad.
"The perception of the international community that their conditions for continued donation would have to include a transparent and accountable administration, so in that sense, if they are not satisfied they will not donate," he said. "In an ideal world Abbas would have to have to get someone credible and competent and someone who would get the support of the donor community as well as the Palestinian people."
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Every year the State Department issues a report on human trafficking abroad, and this year it faces an awkward challenge in deciding how to deal with two huge countries with poor trafficking records -- China and Russia.
In last year's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, both China and Russia were on what's known as the Tier 2 Watch List, which is the second-worst rating a country can receive. The rating is reserved for those countries that fail to meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and also have a high number of trafficking victims and fail to show evidence that that they are working to improve their actions on human trafficking.
Countries cannot stay on the Tier 2 Watch List forever, and this year the State Department must either promote Russia and China to Tier 2 status or demote those countries to Tier 3, the lowest classification, which is shared by the likes of Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Tier 3 status opens those countries to sanctions from the U.S. government.
"I am particularly concerned about the government of China's record," Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) said a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Thursday. "The government of China has been on the Tier 2 Watch List for eight consecutive years in large part because its plan to fight human trafficking is inadequate, unevenly implemented, and the government of China has not been making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards."
An "automatic downgrade" from the Tier 2 Watch List was added by Congress to the law in 2008. A country can remain on the Tier 2 Watch List for two years, after which the president can waive a downgrade to Tier 3 for two more years. Both China and Russia have now reached that limit.
"China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Azerbaijan have now had at least four full years of warning that they would face downgrade to Tier 3 if they did not make significant efforts to prosecute traffickers, protect victims, and prevent trafficking. Now their time on the Tier 2 Watch List is up," said Smith.
Smith has been a longstanding opponent of China's one child policy, which has resulted in gender imbalances throughout China that create a magnet for the trafficking of women from all over Asia. China also forcibly repatriates North Korean trafficking victims who face severe punishment or death when they are returned to the DPRK.
"The government of China is failing not only to address its own trafficking problems, but is creating an incentive for human trafficking problems in the whole region," he said.
Russia doesn't have procedures in place to identify and deal with trafficking victims not does it have an overall plan to deal with trafficking, Smith added.
"Russia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children who are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking," the State Department's 2011 report stated. "The Government of the Russian Federation does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Despite these efforts, however, the government failed to demonstrate evidence of increasing efforts to address human trafficking over the previous reporting period."
China has been on the Tier 2 Watch List for a total of 7 consecutive years; Russia has been on the watch list for 8 years.
Mark Lagon, the State Department's former ambassador-at-large for trafficking in persons, testified that China is the country to watch most out of the 6 countries currently on the Tier 2 Watch List. He said that a huge number of Chinese suffer in the laogai, or "reeducation through labor" prison camps, in China.
"Some local authorities compel children to perform manual labor in farms or factories in so-called ‘work-study' programs-again notably applied to Uighurs," he said. "Onerous child labor in brick kilns is often left unfound or undisturbed by authorities. Absent addressing a number of these problems, China deserves to finally be placed on Tier 3 after eight years on a so-called ‘Watch List.'"
Logon also said that of all the countries being discussed as possible candidates for downgrade to Tier 3, "Russia is the one which clearly is moving backward, not forward, on addressing human trafficking, despite active U.S. efforts."
The TIP report is set to come out in June. The State Department's Office of Monitoring and Combating Trafficking in Persons is run ably by Amb. Luis CdeBaca, but the position of undersecretary of state for civil society, democracy and human rights, which sits above that office, is vacant. That means the final tier evaluations might be adjudicated by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Lagon said
"Burns was particularly kind and frank when I came to Russia in 2008 as ambassador-at-large and he was ambassador to that nation. He confirmed Russian authorities did not look at human trafficking as a human rights matter, instead seeing it as only a security and immigration enforcement matter," he said. "Russia is backsliding, and he should note that."
U.S. aid to Israel will be cut next year if the sequester goes into effect again, Secretary of State John Kerry testified Wednesday.
"Israel got a plus-up in the budget, I think to $3.1 billion total. But that is subject to sequester, as is everything, and we're not able to undo that," Kerry testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "So there will be a plus-up, but then there will be a reduction from the plus-up. It's still a net plus-up, but there is a sequester that will apply to everything, including Jordan, Egypt, Israel."
Kerry's math didn't match the State Department's fiscal 2014 budget request, released last week, which stated that the $3.1 billion requested for aid to Israel in fiscal 2014 is only $25 million more than was appropriated for the same account in fiscal 2012, before the sequester existed. A Congressional Research Service report from March 2012 states that the fiscal 2014 request is exactly the same as the fiscal 2013 request. How much aid to Israel would be cut due to the sequester is unclear.
The State Department's fiscal 2014 budget request doesn't account for the sequester because President Barack Obama included his own deficit reduction plan in the budget request, which is meant to avoid the need for the sequester. But if Congress doesn't go along with the president's plan, the sequester will kick in again next year and force cuts across the board at State.
"Sequester, folks, was not supposed to happen. That was the theory," said Kerry, who was on the supercommittee in 2011 that failed to achieve a bipartisan compromise on deficit reduction to avoid the sequester. "And we're living with it, and so we have cuts that we don't want. And that's the absence of making the policy choice itself. So, yes, there will be cuts under sequester."
The State Department's new budget request also includes $370 million for the West Bank and Gaza, which the State Department said "will help advance a negotiated, two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by working with the Palestinian Authority (PA) to build the institutions of a future Palestinian state and deliver services to the Palestinian people."
Kerry, who has traveled to the Middle East three times in his first two months as secretary, defended the aid the PA and asked Congress to give him a chance to "find out what is possible" with regards to restarting the Middle East peace process. He warned this might be the last chance for the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach a negotiated peace agreement.
"I'm not going to come here today and lay out to you a schedule or define the process, because we're in the process of working that out with the critical parties. But in my meetings on both sides, I have found a seriousness of purpose, a commitment to explore how we actually get to a negotiation, and we all have some homework to do. We're doing that homework," he said. "But I can guarantee you that I am committed to this because I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting. I think we have some period of time, in a year to year-and-a-half to two years, or it's over."
Kerry also lamented the ongoing confusion atop the PA, which included the resignation last week of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Fayyad will stay on as a "caretaker" for a period and will remain involved in Palestinian affairs, Kerry said, but his departure creates confusion for everyone working on the peace process revival.
"Somebody here has got to tell me who's going to take the place of either Salam Fayyad -- and now that's up for grabs -- or Abu Mazen," Kerry said, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose future is also unclear.
Neither Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is currently convinced that the other side is going to make the concessions necessary for peace, but a recent breakthrough on economic development in the West Bank is a positive sign, Kerry said. He was clear to say that the economic cooperation was progressing on a parallel track to the political cooperation, rather than being all part of one process.
"So everybody needs to kind of not react the normal sort of tit- for-tat, stereotypical way, give peace a chance by providing some opening here for the politics and the diplomacy to work," said Kerry. "That's what both sides need to do. That's what I believe both sides are prepared to do. And the proof will be in the pudding."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.