Even as Washington debates whether suspected chemical weapons use in Syria should provoke direct intervention, Secretary of State John Kerry stepped back from the Obama administration's longstanding position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs to leave power.
"[I]t's impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place," Kerry said at a press conference yesterday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, where the two officials laid out a plan for an international conference to reach a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict. "But ... I'm not going to decide that tonight, and I'm not going to decide that in the end."
Kerry's remarks came on the same day that President Barack Obama repeated his administration's stance that Assad must leave power. In a White House statement, Obama called on the Assad regime to end its "violent war" and "step aside to allow a political transition in Syria." Obama first called on Assad to resign in August 2011, saying that it should be done "[f]or the sake of the Syrian people."
The U.S. insistence on Assad's exit has long been a sticking point in its attempts to find common ground with Russia on the Syrian issue. The two sides now seem to be trying to bridge this gap: Lavrov said that he was "not interested in the fate of certain persons" when it comes time to determine who sits in a transitional government.
Kerry framed his refusal to say that Assad should step down as in line with the June 2011 Geneva communiqué, which was supposed to provide a roadmap for a negotiated settlement in Syria. The communiqué, which was agreed to by both Russia and the United States, ducked the issue of Assad's future by saying that each side -- the Syrian opposition and the regime -- would be able to veto candidates for an interim government who they found unacceptable. Presumably, the opposition would veto Assad while the regime would veto radical Islamist groups like the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
Washington and Moscow seem prepared to move quickly to get both sides to the negotiating table. Kerry said that Russia would try to arrange a conference as early as this month.
A failure to reach a compromise, Kerry argued, would mean that the bloodshed in Syria would only worsen. "The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss, and into chaos," he said. "The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow. The alternative is that there may be the break-up of Syria or ethnic attacks, ethnic cleansing."
Update: A State Department official, speaking on background to FP, clarified the U.S. position on Syria after this post was published. The official said that the U.S. position that Assad "has lost all legitimacy and must step aside" was unchanged, and that the United States also believes that Syrians must negotiate the makeup of a transitional government themselves.
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There are growing indications that the Syrian uprising is turning violent, according to U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who today called on the Syrian's opposition to enunciate a clearer vision for the future of Syria.
Ford, appearing via videoconference to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stressed that the vast majority of the Syrian protest movement remains peaceful, but said that frequent denials by Syrians that the country could descend into civil war "reminds me of what I heard in Iraq in 2004" -- right before sectarian bloodletting seized the country. Ford served as political counselor to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006.
Syrians -- including defectors from the army -- are increasingly taking up arms against their own government, Ford said, referring to ambushes of buses containing Syrian soldiers and the Oct. 2 murder of the mufti of Aleppo's son as evidence. Ford noted that no one knows the true extent of the armed presence.
At the event, which also featured Washington Institute fellow Andrew Tabler, Ford said that the real change in the protest movement -- which has now gripped Syria for seven months -- is that more demonstrators are openly questioning whether to use violence to achieve their aims.
Ford was adamant that the United States government opposes a militarization of the Syrian protest movement, saying that it was not only the morally wrong decision but a tactical mistake as well.
"The Syrian security forces "are still very strong, and there is not an armed opposition that is capable of overthrowing the Syrian government," Ford said.
In response to the deteriorating situation in Syria, Ford said that the United States was pushing Syria to allow a U.N. fact-finding mission into the country, to grant more visas for international media, and to invite international monitors into Syria to ensure that human rights are being respected.
Ford also said that he has met recently with Ali Farzat and Riad Seif, two prominent members of the opposition who were recently assaulted by security forces loyal to the regime, to "send a message that the international community is watching."
Ford has repeatedly reached out to opposition activists, a practice that has led to several scrapes with violence with Syrians loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. He was attacked on Sept. 29 while meeting with veteran politician Hassan Abdul Azim, and attended a funeral of a slain activist shortly before it was broken up by security forces.
Asked whether the merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo was wavering in its support of the regime, Ford noted that sanctions implemented by the United States and the European Union -- which recently sanctioned the Syrian Central Bank -- have had a dramatic effect on the Syrian economy, resulting in rising frustration among Syrian businessmen.
"Business is just terrible," he said. Ford then recounted a story of recently walking into a grocery store to buy eggs, and finding that the store was no longer carrying them. When he inquired why, the grocer responded, "People don't buy them, they're too expensive."
So far, the opposition has failed to capitalize on this opportunity because it has not won over the business community because it has not outlined its plan for a political and economic transition in the country. "The Syrian opposition needs to convince those fence-sitters that peaceful change is possible, and that peaceful change is better for them," he said.
Ford praised the formation of the Syrian National Council as "encouraging," but said that the council had still not gone far enough in developing the opposition's agenda. "They have a lot of work to do, however, in terms of organizing themselves and reaching out to people in Syria and bringing them on board," he said, adding that it "needs to focus heavily on developing greater support inside Syria."
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates's gloomy remarks about the future of NATO represent a parting shot in his long-running struggle to convince Europe to increase military spending and assume a greater role in conflicts such as Afghanistan and Libya.
In his last visit to Europe before stepping down as defense secretary, Gates told an audience at the Security and Defense Agenda, a Brussels-based think tank, that there was a "dwindling appetite and patience" among American taxpayers to expend resources, especially during a time of extreme fiscal constraints, "on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources ... to be serious and capable partners in their own defense."
This prospect led the outgoing defense secretary, who spoke following a meeting of NATO defense ministers, to warn of "a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance."
Gates has long griped about insufficient European contributions to NATO, though rarely in such a sharp words. In a February 2010 speech, he said the "demilitarization of Europe...has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st."
But not all European defense analysts see the prospect of a "demilitarized" continent as a negative development. "Time and again, we're drawn into military conflicts, often at the pressing of the U.S. and the Pentagon," said Ian Davis, founding director of NATO Watch, citing the Afghan war in particular. "It seems to be quite understandable that there's going to be reluctance from some European states to support policy decisions that are not made on a collective basis."
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Gates's frustrations stem from three issues: Europe's low defense spending, a lack of coordination of resources that encourage wasteful expenditures, and the inadequate contribution of some NATO members to the war in Libya.
Increases in European defense spending are likely off the table for the foreseeable future. With the continent still in the throes of a financial crisis, most countries are looking to make further cuts in their military budgets, not add to them. The British government, long considered the most robust U.S. ally in Europe, announced an 8 percent cut in defense spending over four years in October, and British officials have signaled that they are also considering further reductions. Germany also plans to slash the size of its army from 220,000 soldiers to 170,000.
Gates also criticized European countries, which spend a combined $300 billion on defense per year, for not better coordinating their acquisitions. "[T]he results are significantly less than the sum of the parts" when it comes to European defense spending, he said.
The idea of coordinating defense spending across Europe has made some headway in recent years. Britain and France signed a defense cooperation agreement in November that will establish a joint force between the two countries and see them share an aircraft carrier. And in May, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary announced that they would form a "battle group" led by Poland.
However, this coordination has not been sufficient to allow European countries to play a significantly larger military role. "There is concern that...if Europe doesn't succeed in being able to broaden its geopolitical footprint, that its geopolitical relevance to the United States wanes," Kupchan said.
Gates bemoaned the scant participation of NATO members in the Libya mission, saying, "the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country, yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference."
While Gates only addressed the issue of Europe's declining military strength, Kupchan said that he just as well could have been sounding the alarm about the economic and political problems facing the continent. "The European project as a whole is in trouble. It's not just the crisis of the eurozone, it's a renationalization of political life, it's a German government that is missing in action because of Merkel's weakness," he said. "I think to some extent the message from Washington is: ‘Pull it together, friends.'"
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State Department and White House officials have firmly denied reports that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is vying to become the head of the World Bank next year -- which is too bad, according to several development experts, because she'd be perfect for the job.
Despite denials from longtime Clinton aide Philippe Reines that Clinton "has expressed absolutely no interest in the job" and would not take it if offered, Reuters reaffirmed its story that Clinton has expressed interest in being the World Bank's next president. Though Clinton also later denied the story herself, two sources also told The Cable that the reports of Clinton's interest in moving to the World Bank were credible.
Clinton has said that she has no interest in staying on as secretary of state during a second Obama term, and also has no interest in another post in the administration. Whether she is under consideration for the position, several development experts said that her longstanding interest in development would make her a good fit for the World Bank. "Take a look at the background of other World Bank presidents -- she probably comes with a longer and deeper commitment to development than any of them," said George Ingram, the co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.
Development experts said that Clinton has been a strong supporter of elevating development programs as a core part of U.S. foreign policy since her days as first lady. In 2010, she spearheaded the State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which granted USAID increased control over its policy planning, increased the agency's staffing, and gave it leadership over new aid initiatives.
But some observers fear that Clinton's departure from the State Department could undo some of her hard-won gains. "I think she has used her star power, as a particularly high-profile secretary of state, to focus on questions of global development," said Noam Unger, the policy director of Brookings Institution's Foreign Assistance Reform Project. "[T]he question is whether she has systemically shifted U.S. foreign policy apparatus in a way that will last beyond the force of her personality."
If Clinton was to take the position, she would be the first woman to assume the role -- but her selection would also mark a continuation of the "gentleman's agreement" between the United States and Europe that reserves the top positions at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for an American and a European, respectively. That understanding has come under increasing criticism from developing countries, particularly Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the "BRICs"), who have pressed for one of their own to assume the top spot at the world's premier international financial institutions. (The managing director position at the International Monetary Fund is also open, but France's Christine Lagarde increasingly seems to have a lock on the job.)
With or without Clinton, Unger said that developing countries' insistence on being granted a greater role makes it unlikely that the United States and Europe can sustain their "gentleman's agreement" much longer. "I think that game only has so much time to play itself out, and eventually, with the rising influence of emerging powers and developing countries, that will change," he said.
Still, those reached by The Cable said that Clinton would be one of the more effective and high-profile World Bank presidents in recent memory -- elsewhere on FP, David Rothkopf referred to the report as "one of those stories that is so good it ought to be true." And who knows, maybe all the support will convince Clinton to reconsider her denials.
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National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) head Michael Leiter is resigning from his position after almost four years on the job, the White House announced today.
"Serving in two Administrations since 2007, Mike led the National Counterterrorism Center with dedication and unwavering determination during challenging and demanding times," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "Mike has been a trusted advisor to me and to the entire national security team, providing us with an in-depth understanding of terrorist activities that affect our Nation's security.
Leiter had served as director of the NCTC since November 2007, before which was the organization's principal deputy director. The NCTC's mission is to integrate and analyze all information produced by the U.S. government's diverse intelligence-gathering agencies, "serv[ing] as the central and shared knowledge bank on terrorism information." Leiter was also responsible for conducting strategic planning for counterterrorism operations, and reported directly to Obama.
The NCTC was created following the 9/11 attacks to break down the bureaucratic barriers between intelligence agencies, but was sharply criticized for missing key pieces of information leading up to Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. In that incident, U.S. intelligence officials were unable to piece together information that al Qaeda militants in Yemen were plotting to use a Nigerian in a terrorist attack and disregarded a warning delivered directly to U.S. diplomats by Abdullmutallab's father that his son had been radicalized in Yemen.
Leiter took a White House-approved, six-day ski vacation immediately after Abdulmutallab's attempted attack. The decision attracted some criticism from U.S. officials. "People have been grumbling that he didn't let a little terrorism interrupt his vacation," one official told the New York Daily News.
A declassified Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the attempted attack singled out the NCTC for responsibility, saying that the agency "was not organized adequately to fulfill its missions." Though Congress had tasked NCTC with integrating the many streams of U.S. counterterrorism intelligence, the report stated that no agency saw itself as responsible for tracking all terrorist threats.
Despite that failure, counterterrorism experts said Leiter made significant improvements to the NCTC during his tenure. "He inherited three major problems at NCTC: The watch list system was a red tape mess, the agency had trouble pursuing specific leads in the morass of information streaming in, and state and local officials were poorly integrated [into the counterterrorism effort]," said Amy Zegart, an associate professor at UCLA's School of Public Affairs and author of Spying Blind. "He has made significant improvements in all three, especially after the Christmas Day bomb plot."
While experts said that the NCTC played a role in assembling the intelligence that led to the May 1 raid that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, Leiter was also out of the office in the crucial day leading up to the attack. He got married on April 30, though was reportedly back at work the next day during the raid itself.
The White House is considering several replacements for Leiter, but has yet to settle on a candidate.
With Leon Panetta's departure at the CIA, Zegart pointed out that Leiter's departure means that two of the most important intelligence agencies will be experiencing leadership transitions at the same time. "For Obama, the timing is terrible," she said.
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It may only be a tiny grammatical shift, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's latest statement could have huge consequences for the U.S. relationship with the Libyan rebel government based in Benghazi.
"The United States views the Transitional National Council as the legitimate interlocutor for the Libyan people during this interim period," Clinton said during a June 9 speech at a meeting of the Libya Contact Group in the United Arab Emirates (emphasis added).
The Obama administration has supported the Libyan rebels in their revolt against the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, but has so far refused to extend official diplomatic recognition to the Transitional National Council (TNC). National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon described the TNC as "a legitimate and credible interlocutor of the Libyan people" during a meeting with TNC Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril on May 13, according to the White House's readout of the conversation.
U.S. officials have justified their reluctance to recognize the TNC by pointing to legal difficulties associated with the shift. Following a visit of Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman to Benghazi in May, the TNC announced that it would soon open an office in Washington to better liaise with the U.S. government.
A number of countries, including France, Italy, and Qatar, have already extended official diplomatic recognition to the Transitional National Council.
Clinton's use of the definite article was not the only gift that Libya's rebels received during today's meeting of the Libya Contact Group, which is composed of Western and Arab supporters of the Libyan rebels. The delegations present set up a mechanism to channel aid to the TNC, and pledged a total of at least $1 billion in assistance.
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President Barack Obama has nominated Earl Anthony Wayne to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to Mexico. But it's a position fraught with more than a few pitfalls.
If confirmed, Wayne will replace Carlos Pascual, who was forced to step down after WikiLeaks published diplomatic cables in which he was harshly critical of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs. It probably also didn't help that Pascual was dating the daughter of a senior member of the country's main opposition party.
Wayne is a career Foreign Service officer and the current deputy U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. From 2006 to 2009, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Argentina. Prior to that posting, he was assistant secretary for economic and business affairs at the State Department.
Wayne's previous posting may be a source of friction with Mexico's government. Soon after Pascual was appointed ambassador, some U.S. officials highlighted his work on failed states as a reason that he was a good fit for the post -- an implication that Latin America experts said Mexican officials found insulting.
"Knowing the Mexicans, they probably won't like the fact that the U.S. is sending them their man in Afghanistan," said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former vice president of Costa Rica. If they didn't like [Pascual's expertise in failed states], I can't see them liking the fact that Wayne comes straight from Kabul."
With presidential elections scheduled in both Mexico and the United States in 2012, the next U.S. ambassador is also going to have his hands full trying to achieve progress in the war on drugs during campaign season. "The United States is likely to put more pressure on reform of the police, reform of the judiciary system -- that's going to be very difficult to do, especially in the context of an election year," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
The likelihood that hot-button issues such as immigration, border crime, and drugs will be raised in the U.S. elections could also pose a challenge for Wayne, if he is confirmed. "The next U.S. ambassador is going to have a huge task in just explaining to authorities what's going on in the United States, and trying to minimize any potential damages to the relations from the passions that should be expected, especially given our economic situation," Shifter said.
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Outgoing CIA Director Leon Panetta warned about the continuing threat from al Qaeda in Iraq before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to replace Robert Gates as defense secretary.
"I have to tell you there are 1,000 al Qaeda that are still in Iraq," Panetta said, in what was generally a warm reception from the assembled senators.
The U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement requires that all U.S. forces should leave Iraq by the end of 2011, though Gates has urged Iraqi political leaders to allow forces to remain longer to secure the country's recent security gains. Panetta's comment was one of the most specific examples of the threats that the United States perceives in Iraq that could be unleashed by a quick withdrawal of the remaining 45,000 U.S. troops.
Over 500 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives in terrorist attacks so far in 2011, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index, as well as approximately 30 U.S. troops. Five American soldiers were killed in Baghdad on Monday, marking the most deadly attack on U.S. troops in over two years.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon, who helps produce the Iraq Index, said that "the pace of attacks suggests a number roughly in the range" of Panetta's estimate of 1,000 al Qaeda fighters in Iraq.
In a performance seen as something of an homage to Gates's sober style, Panetta also reiterated the United States' willingness to keep a residual force in Iraq, if asked by the Iraqi government.
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.