Secretary of State John Kerry may not have scored a diplomatic coup during his recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, but America's top diplomat is just beginning what will but a long push to restart the peace process, according to sources and experts.
Kerry traveled to the region for the third time in two months this week and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. After Kerry left town, Israeli newspapers published a series of anonymous quotes from senior Israeli officials stating that Israeli had rejected Kerry's proposals for using confidence-building measures as a pathway to a resumption of direct talks.
"I believe that if we can get on a track where people are working in good faith to address the bottom-line concerns, it is possible to be able to make progress and make peace," Kerry told staff at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.
The range of reported confidence-building measures that Kerry is seeking from the Israelis is long, and could include concessions related to economic development in the West Bank, the transfer of control over parts of what's known as Area C near the Dead Sea to the Palestinians, or the release of some Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. The Israeli media has also reported that Kerry is trying to restart talks on the issues of borders and security first, leaving issues like the right of return for later.
"Kerry believes that he can bring about the solution, the treaty and the salvation," a senior Israeli official told Haaretz. "He thinks that the conflict is primarily over territory ... and that is wrong."
But multiple sources told The Cable that Kerry's discussions with both parties were not so specific as to seek commitment to any particular confidence-building measures; Kerry at this stage is simply seeking Israeli buy-in to the concept of confidence-building measures as a step toward talks. But the anonymous Israeli official seemed to reject this construct as well.
"If negotiations are renewed, we will be willing to perform many gestures and steps, but they will take place as part of a process that is already underway," the official said.
Former Rep. Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable that the Israeli officials bashing Kerry on background are simply posturing ahead of what will be a protracted process that will play out over several months, if not years.
"I don't think that Secretary Kerry or the administration was rebuked. I think the Israelis are reacting to what they think is a recalcitrant Palestinian leadership and the Palestinians are reacting to what they think is a recalcitrant Israeli leadership and Secretary Kerry is in the middle," he said. "Invariably both sides will take exception to what Secretary Kerry is trying to promote and achieve. That's normal. That might be a necessary first step, what occurred this week. Not a pleasant one but a necessary one to allow Kerry to get to step two with both parties and achieve a more positive result."
Kerry and his inner circle, which includes the heavy influence of senior Middle East advisor Frank Lowenstein, are not naïve about the difficulty of the new peace process initiative they are proposing, Wexler said. They are taking a long view and are planning several more visits by Kerry to the region -- the kind of shuttle diplomacy that was taken on by special envoys in past situations.
"The way I see it, you have a secretary of state who earnestly and for all of the right reasons is trying to make sense out of a very messy situation and he is trying to infuse rationality and a degree of trust into a dynamic which is poisoned with too much irrationality and distrust," Wexler said. "It's a monumental task that Secretary Kerry is taking on... there will be continuous setbacks and he knows that."
The advantages of having the secretary of state handle the diplomacy personally outweigh the disadvantages, Wexler argued, which include distracting Kerry from other matters around the world and placing the new secretary's credibility on the line very early on in the process.
The Obama administration needs to prove to both sides that it is committed to this new peace push in order to pressure both sides to dislodge themselves from their positions of inertia, Wexler said.
"Both parties are now seeking to ascertain is how persistent is the administration going to be? How much skin is Kerry and Obama prepared to put in the game?" Wexler said. "If both sides perceive that both Kerry and Obama are willing to bleed some, then the parties will become more accommodating."
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians can be expected to resist Kerry's initiative in the press because they are both posturing ahead of a possible direct negotiation, according to Wexler.
"For the time being, their strategy will be not to agree with what Secretary Kerry is promoting," he said. "Kerry's team is developing a 2, 3, 4 year strategy, because they understand all the obstacles that will be presented. This is the only reasonable course that has any likelihood of success and that's a reflection of the dire situation that we're in."
Matty Ster/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via Getty Images
The Treasury Department released Friday the names of 18 Russian officials who will be subject to visa bans and asset freezes under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2013, which requires the U.S. government to identify Russian human rights violators.
16 of the officials named were directly involved in the case of Magnistky, an anti-corruption lawyer who died in Russian prison, allegedly after being tortured by his captors.
We'll have more on this later today, but for now, here's the list in its entirety:
Let no one say Secretary of State John Kerry hasn't scored any diplomatic victories in his short time in office - today in London Kerry won a case of beer from Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird.
The case of Molson Canadian was Baird's way of settling a bet with Kerry over the world women's hockey championship game April 9, in which the U.S. narrowly defeated Canada by a score of 3-2. Kerry and Baird exchanged the beer during a break in the G8 ministerial meetings in London.
This is the second time Baird has lost a hockey bet to the U.S. secretary of state. He was forced to don a New York Rangers' jersey after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's team defeated the Ottawa Senators in the NHL championships last year.
The State Department put out the photos of the beer exchange on its own Tumblr, which is subtitled "Diplomacy in action." Commenters felt the choice of beer could have been better.
"Molson Canadian? Who really won and who really lost here?" read one comment.
"They could have at least given him a decent beer. A Boreale at the least," read another.
There was also another bet on the game betwee White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Canadian Prime Minister Spokesman Andrew MacDougall that played out on Twitter.
The United States must work to counter the rising tide of extremism inside Syria, the U.S. ambassador to Syria will testify in the Senate Thursday.
Ambassador Robert Ford, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones, and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Daniel Glaser are set to testify Thursday afternoon at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-TN). Their testimony comes one day after al Qaeda in Iraq announced it was joining forces with the leading extremist coalition in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, a group the U.S. government has classified as a foreign terrorism organization.
The Cable has obtained copies of the testimony of all three officials ahead of the hearing.
"The Assad regime has created an environment that fuels the growth of extremism, and al-Qaeda linked groups are working to exploit the situation for their own benefit. There is a real competition now between extremists and moderates in Syria and we need to weigh in on behalf of those who promote freedom and tolerance," Ford will testify, according to his prepared remarks.
"With each passing day, the regime is shrinking, as its grip on power and territory weakens. But
the opposition's progress on the ground comes at a terrible cost," he will say. "Saving the Syrian state from humanitarian disaster, extremist influences, or state fragmentation, will not be easy, but it is critical to protect our interests and those of our partners in the region.
Ford will testify that the Syrian opposition must chart a path of inclusiveness and pluralism when designing the new shape of the future Syrian state, assuring minority groups that were favored by the regime that they will be safe in Syria after the fall of President Bashar al-Assad.
He will also tout U.S. efforts to help the Syrian opposition through the provision of communications equipment and training of local political and civil society leaders operating in rebel-controlled areas.
Ford will not mention in his opening remarks whether reports are true that U.S. President Barak Obama has approved an interagency recommendation to begin providing the armed Syrian opposition with non-lethal military items such as body armor and night-vision goggles.
Jones will testify that although Assad's grip on power is weakening, March was the deadliest month in the two year long conflict, with more than 6,000 dead. She will also warn about the extremist influence coming from both inside and outside Syria.
"In addition to the devastating human toll, we face an expanding extremist threat, and a few days ago al Qaeda announced the extension of its ‘Islamic State' in Syria," Jones will testify. "Iran's role in perpetuating the bloodshed inside Syria is well known. Through its ongoing provision of personnel, guidance, and material and financial assistance, Iran is helping the Assad regime continue its repression and systematic violence against the Syrian people. Iran is joined in this effort by Hizballah, which also provides strong operational support to Assad."
The United States is still focused on a political solution to the Syria crisis to be negotiated between the regime and the opposition, based on the plan announced in Geneva last year, according to Jones.
"We believe that the best way to end the Syrian crisis is through a negotiated political solution. The regime and its supporters will fight to the last person standing. To get to a sustainable peace, Syrians need a political solution that assures all citizens of their rights," she will say.
Glaser will outline to the committee the sanctions Treasury has imposed on both the regime and its enablers abroad.
"U.S. and international sanctions are a key component of the broader U.S. and international community's effort to achieve this goal, and are designed to deprive the Assad regime of the financial means it requires to support the relentless campaign of violence against the Syrian people," Glaser will testify.
Senators at the hearing are expected to press the officials on several issues, including the reported use of chemical weapons in Aleppo and Damascus last month, the safety and security of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, and the broader reluctance of the Obama administration to increase its support to the Free Syrian Army.
The administration is also resisting congressional efforts to bolster sanctions on the Syrian regime through new legislation proposed by committee members Sens. Robert Casey (D-PA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). Casey and Rubio also joined a growing chorus of lawmakers Thursday calling for the establishment of safe zones in liberated parts of Syria.
"We also join our colleagues on both sides of the aisle who have called on the Obama administration to explore additional actions to help create space for this new transitional government to function, by defending liberated territory from the Assad regime's jets and missiles," they wrote in Politico. This may require the use of U.S. and allied military assets. Although getting involved in another conflict in the Middle East is no one's first choice, the consequences of the status quo in Syria are mounting. We must act before it is too late and we get dragged into a broader conflict on terms that are not our own."
The State Department is asking Congress for over half a billion dollars next year to help support countries struggling to emerge from the chaos of the Arab Spring - an effort that Congress failed to endorse the first time around.
The State Department and USAID fiscal 2014 budget request, now available online in full, asks for $47.8 billion for the State Department and international programs in fiscal 2014, which represents a 6 percent decrease from the $51.1 billion State will receive in fiscal 2013, due to a drastic reduction in money requested for the Iraq and Afghanistan accounts, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.
The largest new funding request is for $580 million in new money for a "Middle East and North Africa Fund, which the budget request document says "will capitalize on the opportunities presented by the Arab Spring, supporting those countries that are moving to undertake the democratic and economic reforms necessary to address citizens' demand and provide lasting stability in the region."
The fund would include the $70 million regularly appropriated to the Middle East Partnership Initiative. The fund would be managed by the Middle East Transitions Office stood up last year under the leadership of former USIP expert Bill Taylor, who ran a similar office in the 1990s for countries transitioning to democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Taylor and Deputy Secretary Tom Nides rolled out the fund the first time around last year but didn't have a lot of details of where the money would go.
"The Arab Spring has come. We need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives," Nides said at the time. "I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent, because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill."
But the House didn't include any money in their fiscal 2013 appropriations bill for the fund, citing a lack of detail from the administration. The senate placed $1 billion in their version of the appropriations bill for the fund, but the fund ultimately got no money due to the chaos of the budget process that resulted in a series of continuing resolutions.
A senior state department official told The Cable Wednesday that State is trying again with a smaller number, but there won't be much detail this time around either.
"The basic rationale for the MENA incentive fund is essentially the same as it was last year," the official said. "We're making the argument again and it's even more important now because with the demands on our budget, such as in Syria, we don't want them to crowd out other programs."
"At the end of the day, a lot of this is going to be driven by where we can make the biggest bang for the buck in terms of reform, what countries are interested in working with us, and we don't know where that's going to be and we don't know yet how to apply that to accounts," the official said. "We feel that keeping it open and keeping it as a contingency [fund] is the right way to do it and that's the argument we are going to make."
The largest single program to be cancelled in the State Department's budget is the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capabilities Fund (PCCF), which received $850 million in fiscal 2013. The administration is not requesting any money for PCCF in 2013 because the administration has decided to end the program, which was meant to support the Pakistan military's ability to fight terrorism, assuming they wanted to do so.
The State Department and the Pentagon have been battling over control over the PCCF program since 2009. Hillary Clinton took the program from the Defense Department in the fiscal 2011 budget request as part of her effort to put diplomats back in charge of foreign policy, but she then had to give the program back to the Pentagon to make room for other items in the State budget. State took control again in 2012, but now that's all over.
"PCCF is one of those programs that we're ending," the official said, noting that Congress didn't fund it in the last continuing resolution anyway. "As part of a general clear eyed view of what we are doing in these countries, we just felt this was not money we could use and the idea between us and DOD was that we should wind it down."
Congress probably wouldn't have funded it in fiscal 2014, the official said. Pakistan would still get $1.2 billion in U.S. funds under the new budget, about $860 million in economic assistance and about $300 million in foreign military financing.
The State Department's budget, like the rest of the president's budget, does not account for sequestration because it is part of the president's overall deficit reduction plan and if implemented would subvert the need for arbitrary cuts under sequestration, the official said.
"As we put together our fiscal 2014 budget we did not assume we would be under a sequester order," another senior State Department official said.
The budget also includes a request for $59.9 million for the office of Secretary of State John Kerry, a 20 percent increase over fiscal 2013 levels. A senior State Department official said Kerry is getting 6 extra staffers to address issues such as cyber security and there is also new money there for other programs.
"When you are looking at the office of the secretary, it's a lot broader than just the secretary and the people that are in the secretary's area. It is a very large organization," the official said.
Another oficial told The Cable the increase for the secretary's office is make of $5.1 million for the office of global women's issues, $3.55 million for the office of foriegn assistance resources, and $967,000 for the office of the coordinator for cyber issues.
"There is no increase in staffing or funding requested in FY2014 for the Secretary's Executive Office," the official said.
A former congresswoman and top State Department official has signed on to the political action committee preparing for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential race, should the former secretary of state decide to run.
Ellen Tauscher served as Clinton's undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2009 until January 2012, when she stepped down following a successful battle with esophageal cancer. Before joining the Clinton State Department, Tauscher represented California's 10th district in the U.S. Congress for 12 years. She would be well positioned to take on a major national security role in a potential Clinton campaign or presidency.
On Wednesday, Tauscher announced her support for "Ready for Hillary" the Super PAC that held its first public rally in Washington last week. Tauscher is advising the PAC and will begin writing to its supporters.
"Having worked with Hillary in Congress, and having served with her at the State Department, I know that she would make a fantastic president," Tauscher said. "I hope she runs and will work my heart out for her if she does, but Hillary supporters like me shouldn't just cross their fingers; we should show our support and get organized for 2016. This is the incredibly important work that Ready for Hillary is doing, and I'm glad to be a part of the effort."
The State Department will have a greatly reduced role in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal 2014, according to new budget details released by the White House Wednesday.
President Barack Obama is requesting $47.8 billion for the State Department and international programs in fiscal 2014, which represents a 6 percent decrease from the $51.1 billion State will receive in fiscal 2013, due to a drastic reduction in money requested for the Iraq and Afghanistan accounts, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) part of the budget.
If Congress goes along with the president's proposal, the State Department would receive $3.8 billion OCO funds in fiscal 2013, a 67 percent reduction from the $11.2 billion State received for the same accounts in fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2013.
The State Department's piece of the president's budget includes a request of $2.1 billion for Iraq, which houses the largest U.S. embassy in the world, $3.4 billion for Afghanistan, and $1.4 billion for Pakistan, but the majority of those funds are now requested in the regular part of the budget, not the OCO section.
"The Budget prioritizes core diplomatic and development activities to ensure strong, lasting partnerships with these countries and to promote stability," the White House fact sheet on the State Department's budget stated.
"The Budget continues to support U.S. security, diplomatic, and development goals in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq while scaling down funding for operations and assistance, consistent with U.S. policy... OCO funding provides for near-term development assistance related to stabilization and counterinsurgency programs, extraordinary costs of operating in a high-threat environment, protection of civilian personnel, and oversight activities of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan."
For countries affected by the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, the fact sheet says that the State Department request includes $580 million "to assist countries in transition and create incentives for long-term economic, political, and trade reforms, building on substantial investments since the Arab Spring."
Last year, the State Department's Middle East Transition Fund was the featured item in the State Department's budget request. That $770 million request was never funded by Congress.
The new budget request also requests more than $4 billion to secure overseas diplomatic personnel and facilities, including $2.2 billion in embassy security construction, $1.65 billion for maintaining the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, $2.9 billion to go to the Treasury Department to fulfill U.S. obligations to the multilateral development banks, $909 million in "strategic investments" in climate change related programs, and includes an initiative to transfer U.S. food assistance away from U.S. farmers and toward local food procurement.
The president's request for the Global Fund was greeted favorably Wednesday morning by aid advocates, including Bono, the lead singer of U2 and co-founder of ONE.
"President Obama's budget puts the world on a winning path to finally beat AIDS, TB and malaria. These killer diseases aren't quite on the ropes but they are teetering; now, thanks to this budget, we're closer than ever to delivering the knockout punch," Bono said.
Details of the State Department's budget are embargoed until 1:30 p.m., so watch this space for more budget news throughout the day.
The French mission to Mali is winding down but the international forces preparing to take up the slack need American military assistance the Obama administration is unwilling to provide, according to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who just returned from a trip to Africa.
McCain traveled over the congressional recess to Mali, Libya, and Tunisia, and told The Cable in an interview that a lack of U.S. attention to North Africa and the Sahel region is exacerbating the instability there and hurting those countries' ability to fight the growing threat of extremists, including those linked to al Qaeda. McCain is calling on President Barack Obama to remove a restriction that is preventing the Department of Defense from providing direct assistance to Mali's military.
"We need to have DOD assistance as much as feasible and necessary to prevent Mali from deteriorating further into a chaotic situation," McCain said. "A lot of these al Qaeda types melted into the population or into the mountains and the French by no means eliminated them, although they did eliminate a lot of them."
There's a restriction in U.S. law that prevents the State Department from assisting any government that has come to power via a military coup, as was the situation in Mali. But the Obama administration has decided on its own to extend that restriction to the Pentagon, and that decision is reversible, McCain will tell Obama in a forthcoming letter, he said.
"Unfortunately the White House has interpreted the law as not allowing DOD to provide that kind of assistance. I am strongly urging the administration to provide them with the support that could be important," McCain said.
Without putting U.S. boots on the ground, the Pentagon could help Mali's indigenous forces with logistics, intelligence, training, advisory services, and material assistance, he said. But the Obama administration doesn't want to get too deeply involved, McCain explained.
"It's the overall light-footprint policy of this administration," he said. "There's a lack of cohesiveness coming from the United States."
McCain sparred with two Defense Department officials about Mali at a Tuesday Senate Armed Services Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). The two officials, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Michael Sheehan and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Derek Chollet, said they didn't think U.S. help for the Mali military was necessary at this time.
"Right now we don't need the Malian army per se," said Sheehan. "The French are working with the Malian army in the north, helping them to take on their security responsibilities. And it's a very weak army, notwithstanding all the aid that we provided them over the last five years or so. It's an organization -- because of the coup and because of [coup leader] Captain Sanogo and his thugs that are still hanging around the margins of this army -- it remains to be seen how it will evolve and develop into a professional force. The EU has taken on the mission of retraining and re- professionalizing them. We have policy restrictions against that."
Sheehan noted that the after the French depart, security will be in the hands of the ECOWAS mission, which he admitted "hasn't been really up to the task." McCain asked Sheehan if al Qaeda will reconstitute itself in Mali after French forces leave.
"They are leaving, and we'll see whether AQIM will be able to establish a strategic capability from there over the years ahead," Sheehan said, using the common acronym for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group's North Africa affiliate.
McCain also pressed Sheehan and Chollet to say whether or not they believed "the tide of war is receding," as President Obama often says. Both Sheehan and Chollet tried to dodge the question but McCain kept pressing them, for example when Chollet talked about the situation in Iraq.
"I think Iraq is more stable today than many thought several years ago," Chollet said.
"Really? You really think that?" McCain said.
"I do," Chollet responded.
"Then you're uninformed," McCain shot back.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.