The State Department is still trying to convince Congress to restore funding for UNESCO, which was cut off after the U.N. cultural agency's members granted full membership to the Palestinians -- but there is little chance lawmakers will change the provision preventing U.S. funding.
State sent an unofficial memo to key congressional offices today titled, "How the Loss of U.S. Funding Will Impact Important Programs at UNESCO." The memo, which was passed to The Cable by a congressional source, argues that UNESCO programs will have to be cut back severely due to the loss of U.S. funding.
State Department spokespeople have said they are working with Congress in the hopes of amending the laws that cut off U.S. funds to any U.N. organization that admits Palestine as a full member, but there is broad bipartisan support for the funding cut-offs and no real congressional effort to change the law.
"The cut-off in U.S. funding may not directly affect extra-budgetary programs funded by other donors, but it will weaken UNESCO's presence in the field and undermine its ability to take on and manage such projects and programs," the memo stated (emphasis theirs).
UNESCO will lose $240 million of funding for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013 -- roughly 22 percent of its budget -- and will have to scale down programs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and South Sudan, the memo states.
The memo also lists several ways that UNESCO supports U.S. national security interests. These include "sustain[ing] the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring" and democratic values around the world, promoting nation-building in South Sudan, and encouraging Holocaust education in the Middle East and Africa.
Read the full memo after the jump:
Congressional Democrats on the budget-cutting "supercommittee" want to count $1 trillion that the United States will not spend fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years as "savings," even though there was never a plan to extend the wars that long in the first place.
House Assistant Democratic leader and supercommittee member James Clyburn (D-SC) mentioned this plan on Fox News Sunday, describing it as part of the supercommittee's efforts to agree on $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending cuts over 10 years before its Nov. 23 deadline. Republicans have supported this idea in the past but as of yet, not within the context of the supercommittee's deliberations.
"We believe and the CBO believes that there is around $917 billion to be saved over the next 10 years from the overseas contingency account. And we ought to count that," Clyburn said.
The problem with Clyburn's idea is that the money he is referring to -- emergency spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- was never budgeted to remain at current levels over the next ten years. The money can only be counted as "savings" when compared to CBO projections from last March, which were based on a mathematical formula -- not the actual future costs of the wars.
However, it never has been anybody's plan to maintain current troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years, so the "savings" are completely illusory.
The White House used this gimmick in September, when it released its $4.4 trillion plan to cut the deficit. The gimmick was also used by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in the plan he released last July to avert a debt-ceiling crisis. Paul Ryan's budget last April also included this savings in its deficit reduction calculation, which was supported by 235 House Republicans and 40 Senate Republicans.
Clyburn also said the supercommittee Democrats are interested in spending the war "savings."
"We ought to use that savings to plow it back in to fix Social Security, that will allow it to be sovereign for another 75 years, to plow it into job creation programs that would get people back to work, and paying taxes, and off of food stamps and off of unemployment," he said.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- which have cost more than $1 trillion since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service -- were completely funded by off-budget borrowing and classified as "emergency spending," meaning that eliminating those costs does not actually return any money to the Treasury.
"Isn't that a classic Washington budget gimmick, to count savings on money that wasn't going to be spent anyway?" asked Fox host Chris Wallace.
Clyburn responded that these savings were more realistic than counting future economic growth as revenue, which is part of the Republican approach inside the supercommittee.
"It sounds to me like you guys have a lot of work to do in 10 days," Wallace said.
White House advisor Dennis Ross, one of President Barack Obama's lead officials in handling the Middle East peace process and U.S. policy toward Iran, is leaving the administration and returning to the private sector.
"After nearly three years of serving in the administration, I am going to be leaving to return to private life," Ross said in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday. "I do so with mixed feelings. It has been an honor to work in the Obama Administration and to serve this President, particularly during a period of unprecedented change in the broader Middle East."
He will leave the administration is early December. No replacement has yet been announced.
Ross' official title was National Security Council (NSC) senior director for the "central region," which gave him authority over not just the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but also placed him in charge of NSC officials who worked on Iran, India, and other issues. He said in his statement that he promised his wife he would be in government for only two years.
"We both agreed it is time to act on my promise," Ross said.
Ross actually worked for the Obama administration for almost three years, and resigned two days after Obama was caught on a hot microphone discussing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy their mutual frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"I cannot stand him. He's a liar," Sarkozy told Obama in what the two leaders thought was a private conversation at the G-20 summit in Cannes.
"You're fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day," Obama responded.
Ross worked on Middle East issues for every administration since Jimmy Carter, except for that of former President George W. Bush, and was often seen as the Obama administration's main interlocutor with the Netanyahu team. He reportedly clashed with members of the administration who focused on other aspects of the administration's Middle East policy, such as former Special Envoy George Mitchell.
He had originally been appointed in February 2009 as special envoy to the Gulf and Southwest Asia, a job located at the State Department and focused on Iran, but was moved to his NSC position in June 2009. While there, he had been working primarily on the Middle East peace process and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney praised Ross in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday.
"Dennis Ross has an extraordinary record of public service and has been a critical member of the President's team for nearly three years," Carney said. "In light of the developments in the broader Middle East, the President appreciates his extending that by nearly a year and looks forward to being able to draw on his council periodically going forward."
The Obama administration reacted cautiously to today's International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran's nuclear weapons program and declined to say how exactly how they would respond. But across Washington, suggestions for tightening the noose on the Iranian regime were abundant.
"I'm definitely going to tell you we need time to study it," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Tuesday following the release of the IAEA report, which alleges that Iran had until 2003 an intricate and extensive program to design and build a nuclear warhead to fit atop a Shabaab-3 missile. The report also stated that Iran worked on components for such a warhead, prepared for nuclear tests, and maintained aspects of the program well past 2003 -- activities that may still be ongoing today.
"I think you know the process here: that after a report like this comes out, we also have a scheduled meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors coming up on November 18th, so Iran will be an agenda item at that meeting. So we will take the time between now and then to study this," Nuland said.
In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, two senior administration officials predicted that the Obama administration would increase sanctions on Iran in light of the report but declined to offer any specifics on what they might be.
That explanation wasn't well received by lawmakers in both parties on Tuesday, who offered plenty of specific ideas on how to ramp up pressure on Tehran and have no intention of waiting for the administration to "study" the IAEA's findings.
The Cable spoke on Tuesday with Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about the report.
"It's of enormous concern to everybody and a lot of conversations are taking place right now about how to respond," Kerry told The Cable. "It clearly means we have to ratchet up on Iran, probably tougher sanctions and other things."
Kerry declined to endorse one big idea floating around town, namely to take actions that would collapse the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and ruin the country's currency, bringing the Iranian economy to its knees.
"There are a lot of options, you want to pick them carefully and you want to be thoughtful about what's going to be effective," Kerry said.
Kirk, who co-authored a letter in August with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) calling for collapsing the CBI, and which was signed by 92 senators, tweeted today that the White House's reaction to the report Tuesday constituted "national security malpractice."
Kirk met with White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley on Monday night to give him the "hard sell" on the idea of collapsing the CBI, he told The Cable. Kirk said that the concept under consideration is to give friendly countries that are dependent on Iranian oil -- such as Japan, South Korea, and Turkey -- a time window to shift their purchases from Iran to Saudi Arabia.
Kirk and Schumer are planning to introduce a bill soon that would be a Senate companion to an amendment by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) to require the president to determine within 30 days the CBI's role in Iran's illicit activities. If the president determines that the CBI is complicit, the bill would require the administration to cut off any foreign banks doing business with the CBI from participating in the U.S. financial system.
The main risk in collapsing the CBI is that it could bring down the Iranian oil industry along with it, risking a cascading effect on world energy markets that would exacerbate the global economic crisis.
McCain told The Cable today that it's a risk he is willing to take. "Libya is cranking up their oil exports. There's always risk, but there's a greater risk when you know that they're about to become nuclear weaponized," he said.
"The first thing we should do is talk to the Russians and the Chinese and tell them to get with it and pass the increased sanctions through the U.N.," McCain said, adding that the Obama has leverage against Russian and China if it chooses to use it. "Russia wants in the WTO, China wants a lot of things. There should be consequences for their failure to act."
Graham agreed that the negative impact of collapsing the CBI was a necessary cost of ramping up pressure on Iran.
"We've got make a decision: What's the biggest threat to the world, a nuclear-armed Iran or sanctions that would hurt us and the people of Iran?" Graham told The Cable. "You've got two choices, the policy of containment or the policy of preemption. I'm in the preemption camp. I don't think containment works. The only way to stop this is to prevent this and that means changing behavior."
Graham said existing sanctions don't seem to be working, which means that the sanctions regime has to be fundamentally changed. "If that doesn't work, the other option is military force." But Graham cautioned that if there were to be a military strike on Iran, it would have to include a massive assault on Iran's counterattacking capabilities.
"You'd have to destroy their air force, sink their navy, and deal with their long-range missile threat. So you'd have to go in big," he said. "If you attack Iran you open Pandora's box. If you allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, you empty Pandora's box. So these are not good choices."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said in a statement that the threat of military force must be credible and he called for Congress to pass a new Iran sanctions bill, one that the administration previously said was unnecessary.
The House and Senate have each unveiled a version of the bill that would tighten existing sanctions, compel the administration to enforce penalties already on the books, and levy a host of new restrictions against members of Iran's regime and companies that aid Iran's energy, banking, and arms sectors. The bills are a follow-up to the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA) that Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed in July 2010.
Former Treasury Department official Matthew Levitt, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Cable that there's no consensus yet inside the administration or around the world that collapsing the CBI would be possible without doing severe damage to the world economy.
But Levitt offered several things the administration can do immediately to ramp up pressure on Iran, including pressuring countries to scale back Iranian diplomatic presence in their capitals, restricting the travel of Iranian officials around the world, and setting up a multilateral customs body to enforce sanctions against Iran, modeled after what was done in wake of the Kosovo crisis.
"The administration is not being creative enough with the tools they have," Levitt said. In the coming days, he predicted, "You are going to see scrambling as to what can be done."
A group of House lawmakers is making the case for continuing U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the Palestinian bid to seek full membership in the United Nations.
"Maintaining U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority is in the essential strategic interest of Israel and the United States," wrote 44 lawmakers, all Democrats, in a letter today to House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee heads Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY). The letter was spearheaded by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Peter Welch (D-VT).
Ever since the Palestinians began their statehood drive this summer, Congress has been attacking the $550 million of annual aid given to the PA by U.S. taxpayers. For fiscal 2011, Congress had already provided the Palestinians with about $150 million in direct budget support -- also known as cash -- but $200 million in security funding and about $200 million in humanitarian funding has been held up.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL ) released her hold on the security funding last week, but she and Granger are still holding up the non-security funding. Also, Congress is set to consider whether to allocate a whole new tranche of aid to the PA as part of the upcoming negotiations over the fiscal 2012 State and foreign ops spending bill. That bill could come up in the Senate this week or next, leading to a House-Senate conference behind closed doors to iron out a final compromise bill.
"We understand the developments that have led some to call for a suspension or termination of aid to the PA," the 44 lawmakers wrote. "However, these legitimate concerns must be weighed against the essential role that U.S. assistance to the PA plays in providing security and stability for Palestinians and Israelis as well as critical humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people - and the potential consequences if this assistance is terminated."
Currently, the House version of next year's foreign aid bill would terminate all aid to the PA unless the Palestinian government drops its statehood bid at the United Nations and enters into direct negotiations with Israel. The Senate version is less strict; it would only withdraw the funding if the Palestinians actually succeed in joining the United Nations, which isn't likely due to the U.S. veto power at the Security Council. The Senate bill would also give the president a waiver over cutting aid to the PA.
"The prospect of continued assistance depends on the actions of Palestinian leadership, which can choose to pursue a path of direct negotiations rather than a counterproductive and destabilizing push for statehood through the UN and affiliated agencies," Matthew Dennis, spokesperson for Lowey, told The Cable.
"The chairwoman takes the views of all members into consideration," said Matt Leffingwell, spokesman for Granger.
President Barack Obama's administration has been clear that it wants U.S. aid to the PA to continue, because the assistance impacts Israeli security. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, told The Cable last week that he agrees that aid to the PA is important but will fight to end it anyway because of the politics surrounding the issue.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Democratic lawmakers who are making the case for the aid, along with some non-governmental organizations such as J Street, want to make sure top appropriators know that there is some support for aid to the Palestinians in Congress.
"The Price-Welch letter puts down a marker that there is a difference of opinion on whether aid to the PA should continue in Congress," Dylan Williams, J Street's director of government affairs, told The Cable today.
Williams said that many of the letter's signers supported House Resolution 268, passed in June, which threatened to cut off aid to the PA if it continued to seek U.N. membership. But seeing as how the Palestinians were able to join UNESCO with overwhelming international support, forcing the United States to stop contributing to that organization, he said those threats no longer makes sense.
"The situation has changed since HRes 268 and the bid to keep the Palestinians away from the United Nations has failed," Williams said.
On Oct. 10, Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz dropped a bombshell: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, he alleged, had offered to replace Pakistan's military and intelligence leadership and cut ties with militant groups in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing in Abbottabad.
Ijaz also alleged in his op-ed in the Financial Times that Zardari communicated this offer by sending a top secret memo on May 10 through Ijaz himself, to be hand-delivered to Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a key official managing the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The details of the memo and the machinations Ijaz describes paint a picture of a Zardari government scrambling to save itself from an impending military coup following the raid on bin Laden's compound, and asking for U.S. support to prevent that coup before it started.
Mullen, now retired, denied this week having ever dealt with Ijaz in comments given to The Cable through his spokesman at the time, Capt. John Kirby.
"Adm. Mullen does not know Mr. Ijaz and has no recollection of receiving any correspondence from him," Kirby told The Cable. "I cannot say definitively that correspondence did not come from him -- the admiral received many missives as chairman from many people every day, some official, some not. But he does not recall one from this individual. And in any case, he did not take any action with respect to our relationship with Pakistan based on any such correspondence ... preferring to work at the relationship directly through [Pakistani Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani and inside the interagency process."
Mullen's denial represents the first official U.S. comment on the Ijaz memo, which since Oct. 10 has mushroomed into a huge controversy in Pakistan. Several parts of Pakistan's civilian government denied that Ijaz's memorandum ever existed. On Oct. 30, Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar called Ijaz's op-ed a "fantasy article" and criticized the FT for running it in the first place.
"Mansoor Ijaz's allegation is nothing more than a desperate bid by an individual, whom recognition and credibility has eluded, to seek media attention through concocted stories," Babar said. "Why would the president of Pakistan choose a private person of questionable credentials to carry a letter to U.S. officials? Since when Mansoor has become a courier of messages of the president of Pakistan?"
On Oct. 31, Ijaz issued a long statement doubling down on his claims and threatened to reveal the "senior Pakistani official" that purportedly sent him on his mission. Ijaz quoted Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, telling Zardari and his staff, "If you stop telling lies about me, I might just stop telling the truth about you."
The Pakistani press has given credence to Ijaz's story because it was published in the Financial Times. "The FT is not likely to publish something which it cannot substantiate if it was so required, so any number of denials and clarifications by our diplomats or the presidency will only be for domestic consumption and would mean nothing," wrote one prominent Pakistani commentator.
This is only the latest time that Ijaz has raised controversy concerning his alleged role as a secret international diplomat. In 1996, he was accused of trying to extort money from the Pakistani government in exchange for delivering votes in the U.S. House of Representatives on a Pakistan-related trade provision.
Ijaz, who runs the firm Crescent Investment Management LLC in New York, has been an interlocutor between U.S. officials and foreign government for years, amid constant accusations of financial conflicts of interest. He reportedly arranged meetings between U.S. officials and former Pakistani Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
He also reportedly gave over $1 million to Democratic politicians in the 1990s and attended Christmas events at former President Bill Clinton's White House. Ijaz has ties to former CIA Director James Woolsey and his investment firm partner is Reagan administration official James Alan Abrahamson.
In the mid-1990s, Ijaz traveled to Sudan several times and claimed to be relaying messages from the Sudanese regime to the Clinton administration regarding intelligence on bin Laden, who was living there at the time. Ijaz has claimed that his work gave the United States a chance to kill the al Qaeda leader but that the Clinton administration dropped the ball. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, who served under Clinton, has called Ijaz's allegations "ludicrous and irresponsible."
Then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has previously acknowledged that Ijaz brought the Clinton administration offers of counterterrorism cooperation from Sudan but said that actual cooperation never materialized.
So why is Ijaz's story so popular in Pakistan, despite his long history of antagonizing the Pakistani government with such claims? According to Mehreen Zahra-Malik, who wrote about the Ijaz scandal on Oct. 29 in Pakistan's The News, it's all part of the culture of secrecy and conspiracy in Pakistani politics that the current civilian and military leadership in Islamabad has only continued to foster.
"When secrecy and conspiracy are part of the very system of government, a vicious cycle develops. Because truth is abhorrent, it must be concealed, and because it is concealed, it becomes ever more abhorrent. Having power then becomes about the very concealment of truth, and covering up the truth becomes the very imperative of power -- and the powerful," she wrote. "The end result: a population raised on a diet of conspiracy."
Attempts to reach Ijaz for comment were unsuccessful.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
The top U.S. official at NATO said Monday that there is zero planning -- or even thinking -- going on about a military intervention in Syria.
"There has been no planning, no thought, and no discussion about any intervention into Syria. It just isn't part of the envelope of thinking, among individual countries and certainly among the 28 [full NATO members]," said Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO. "If things change, things change. But as of today, that's where the reality stands."
Daalder, speaking to an audience at the Atlantic Council, is in town along with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who will meet later today with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They will be discussing the NATO summit to be held in Chicago next May and taking a victory lap following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Daalder said that there were three overarching conditions that need to be met before the Obama administration would even consider any future military intervention such as occurred in Libya.
"The formula was that there needs to be a demonstrable need, regional support, and sound legal basis for action," said Daalder. "It's those three things we need to look for before we even think about the possibility of action. None of them apply in Syria."
Daalder also noted that there is not enough evidence that air strikes would be effective in Syria, that the opposition and the Arab League have not asked for intervention, and that the U.N. Security Council has refused to act.
Daalder said several times that the United States had not been "leading from behind" in Libya, and he offered his take on the Obama administration's foreign-policy philosophy, as implemented during the Libya intervention.
"The administration came to power with a particular view about how the world worked. And that was a view that in an age of globalization, security was no longer principally determined by geography, but developments anywhere in the world could have a major security impact at home, so as a result you had to find a way to work with others," he said. "The lynchpin of Obama foreign policy was rebuilding partnerships and alliances."
"As part of that analysis, there was also a belief that the era when the United States could decide, determine, and do everything by itself had also come to an end," he said.
The United States is conducting an exercise to examine the lessons learned during the Libya intervention. However, Daalder said that although the European countries ran short of key items such as precision missiles during the war, the United States was perfectly well-prepared and did everything basically right throughout the mission.
"I'm not sure there is a lesson we need to learn for the United States," Daalder said. "In terms of capabilities, we know where the shortfalls are, but they are European shortfalls.... We could have done this campaign by ourselves. But the wise decision was not to do something we could, because others could help too."
Daalder also acknowledged that NATO-Russia talks over missile defense cooperation are at an impasse over a dispute regarding Russian demands for written assurances that U.S. systems are incapable of being used against Russia. The United States has no intention of giving such assurances, according to Daalder.
"We have put on the table numerous proposals for cooperation, which in many ways take their proposals as the basis," he said.
"They want a written guarantee that is legally binding that says the system will be incapable and will never be directed against them," he said. "And we have said that a legal guarantee like that is not something we want nor something we could ratify."
The State Department is trying to convince Congress not to cut U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the fact that the Palestinians are defying the United States by seeking statehood at the United Nations and specialized U.N. agencies.
"Congress should be aware of the potential second and third order effects of cutting off assistance to Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority," Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Friday. "We must ask ourselves, if we are no longer their partner, who will fill the void? We must think about the other potential partners that could fill the space left behind, and that should give us pause."
When the State and Foreign Ops appropriations bill comes up in the senate, probably next week, foreign aid will be scrutinized like never before by legislators eager to find budget cuts wherever they can. Leaders in both parties have also pledged to cut U.S. aid to the PA in order to punish the Palestinians for seeking statehood outside the peace process.
Just last week, lawmakers reacted angrily to the Palestinians' successful bid to join UNESCO, which triggered a law requiring the U.S. government to halt its contributions to the organization.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee ranking Republican Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable on Nov. 1 that Congress is poised to cut off all U.S. funding for the PA, which totaled $550 million in fiscal 2011, despite the fact that he still thinks financial support for the PA is a good idea.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Cable asked Shapiro how the State Department planned to defend PA funding and what the prospects were for success.
"We are in discussions with Capitol Hill about the best way to provide support," Shapiro responded. "Hopefully we'll be able to reach an agreement with Capitol Hill that preserves our interests."
Shapiro also urged Congress not to place conditions on U.S. aid to Egypt, which includes billions in military and economic support funding each year.
"I know that the uncertainty of the Egyptian transition has prompted some in Congress to propose conditioning our military assistance to Egypt. The administration believes that putting conditions on our assistance to Egypt is the wrong approach," Shapiro said. "Now is not the time to add further uncertainty in the region or disrupt our relationship with Egypt. Conditioning our assistance to Egypt risks putting our relations in a contentious place at the worst possible moment."
He also addressed State Department funding of political training for parties in Egypt, even Islamic parties that may have anti-Western agendas.
"As these Arab countries are going into political transitions, a number of new people are coming into the political process, many of whom describe themselves as Islamists. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they are anti-democratic." Shapiro said. "We need to support an effort and structure to channel this energy that's coming into the political process into an understanding of what democracy means and the benefits of it, and our training on the ground is designed to do so."
The Cable also asked Shapiro to explain the State Department's latest thinking on the proposed $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, which is also facing stiff congressional opposition. State has said it will consider the report of an "independent" Bahraini human rights commission before moving forward with the sale. Shapiro said that U.S. policymakers will also consider the Bahrain government's response to the report.
"We have committed that we will not move forward with that sale until the report comes out and we are able to assess the reporting and the Bahraini government response," he said.
The war in Iraq may be ending, but the fight over who gets to oversee the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars still being spent there is just heating up.
The Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) -- led by Stuart Bowen -- has been embroiled in a fight with the State Department, which has blocked SIGIR inspectors from assessing State's multi-billion dollar Iraqi police training program.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) reported last week that SIGIR managed to complete the report, which stated that the State Department "does not have a current assessment of Iraqi police forces' capabilities ... such an assessment is essential for effective program targeting."
"The SIGIR audit berated [the State Department] in its first sentence for failing to cooperate in the investigation, which ‘resulted in limited access to key officials and documents,'" POGO noted. "The IG was still able to complete the investigation however, through ‘limited discussions' and ‘documents obtained from other sources.'"
On Tuesday, five U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to urge her department to cooperate with SIGIR and provide SIGIR with requested information and documents.
"The State Department is explicitly directed to provide whatever information or assistance is needed by SIGIR, so long as SIGIR's request is ‘practicable and not in contravention of any existing law.' In addition, State Department officials are prohibited from ‘prevent[ing] or prohibit[ing] the Inspector General from initiating, carrying out, or completing any audit' related to funds involved in Iraq reconstruction," the senators wrote. "Despite these requirements, the State Department has failed to provide SIGIR with adequate assistance and access to information and documents."
The letter's signatories were Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
"SIGIR is perfectly free ... to audit the reconstruction activities in Iraq. They are not free to audit the base element of the State Department. That is within the jurisdiction of three other entities," Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told the Wartime Contracting Commission in a hearing last month.
The senators wrote that SIGIR "has jurisdiction to audit all Iraq reconstruction funds, including those spent on contracts which may also support other State Department activities."
"It is absurd for Under Secretary Kennedy, or whoever it is, to suggest that the State Department is suffering from too much oversight in Iraq," a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable today. "He should take some time and read the Commission on Wartime Contracting report."
Full text of the senators' letter after the jump:
Former President George W. Bush's administration signed an agreement in 2008 to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, but policymakers in that administration always expected that agreement to be renegotiated to allow for an extension beyond that deadline, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Cable.
When President Barack Obama announced on Oct. 21 that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by Dec. 31, his top advisors contended that since the Bush administration had signed the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), both administrations believed that all troops should be withdrawn by the end of the year. This was part of the Obama administration's drive to de-emphasize their failed negotiations to renegotiate that agreement and frame the withdrawal as the fulfillment of a campaign promise to end the Iraq war.
"The security agreements negotiated and signed in 2008 by the Bush administration stipulated this date of December 31, 2008, as the end of the military presence. So that has been in law now or been in force now for several years," Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough told reporters on Oct. 21. "So it's difficult to rebut the proposition that this was a known date."
Rice, speaking with The Cable to promote her new book No Higher Honor, said today that when the Bush administration signed the agreement, it was understood by both the U.S. and Iraqi governments that there would be follow-up negotiations aimed at extending the deadline -- a step that would be in both the U.S. and Iraqi interest.
"There was an expectation that we would negotiate something that looked like a residual force for our training with the Iraqis," Rice said. "Everybody believed it would be better if there was some kind of residual force."
Rice said the Iraqi government, despite SOFA's Jan. 2012 end date, was not only open to a new agreement that would include an extension for U.S. troops, but expected that a new agreement would eventually be signed.
"We certainly understood that the Iraqis preserved that option and everybody believed that option was going to be exercised," Rice said.
It's been widely reported that the negotiations between the Obama administration and the Iraqi government this year broke down over the issue of immunity for U.S. troops in post-2011 Iraq. The Obama administration had demanded that immunity be granted by the Iraqi Council of Representatives, the country's primary legislative body, which was unwilling to do so for political reasons.
Rice said that she didn't understand why the Obama administration was unable to reach an agreement on immunity with the Iraqis, considering that the previous SOFA granted immunity to U.S. soldiers and was passed overwhelmingly by the Iraqi parliament at the time.
"We did manage to negotiate an immunity clause that was acceptable to the Iraqis and acceptable to the Pentagon. I don't know what happened in these negotiations," Rice said.
Overall, Rice said that while the Iraqi Army is making progress, it still has flaws that U.S. forces could help remedy, and the wholesale withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq sends the wrong signal to the region.
"They continue to need help on the counterterrorism side and it would have been a good message to Iran [to keep some U.S. forces there]," Rice said. "That would have been a preferable option."
Following the State Department's announcement that it had cut off U.S. funding from UNESCO in response to its overwhelming vote in favor of accepting the Palestinian bid for full membership, senators from both parties predicted the United States would cut funding or even withdraw from several other international organizations the Palestinians seek to join.
As The Cable reported last month, the Obama administration is required by existing U.S. law to cut off funding for any international organization that grants the Palestinians full membership. . Membership in UNESCO also grants the Palestinians membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The United States is not a member of UNIDO, but will be forced to stop contributing to WIPO.
But that's only the tip of the iceberg. The Palestinians could seek membership in more prominent international organizations, which could result in the United States defunding or even withdrawing from institutions such as the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The AP reported today that the Palestinian Authority was examining seeking membership in 16 more U.N. organizations.
While leading senators in both parties acknowledge that such an outcome would be negative for U.S. interests and influence, they have no intention of intervening to change the law. To the contrary, several top senators in both parties told The Cable they support the policy and will work to enforce it, despite the consequences.
"This could be catastrophic for the U.S.-U.N. relationship. This could be the tipping point," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee, told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.
"There's a lot of bipartisan support for cutting off funding to any political U.N. organization that would do this," he said. "What you are going to do is eventually lose congressional support for our participation in the United Nations. That's what's at risk here. That would be a great loss."
Graham said he believes it is in the U.S. interest to actively participate in these organizations. And yet, he plans to introduce a Senate resolution to formally withdraw U.S. membership in UNESCO -- a more serious action than simply cutting off funds. He intends to do the same for any other international organizations the Palestinians succeed in joining.
Graham also said that Congress is poised to cut off U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which totaled $550 million in fiscal 2011, despite the fact that he still thinks financial support for the PA is a good idea.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
But isn't the United States just spiting itself by withdrawing from organizations in order to punish them for recognizing the Palestinians?
"Not really," Graham replied. "The world has to make a decision.... If the U.N. is going to be a body that buys into Palestinian statehood ... then they suffer. It's a decision they make."
Graham is seen as the most important GOP lawmaker in the fight to maintain foreign aid and U.S. involvement in international organizations, because of his subcommittee position and his genuine support for such issues. But when it comes to the issue of Palestinian recognition, the politics just don't allow any room for compromise, he said.
"I'm the closest thing to a friend [U.N. supporters] have [in the GOP]," he said. "But if the Palestinians continue to go to more organizations, such as the World Health Organization, well -- it's just going to be politically impossible for a guy like me to support a body who's playing a destructive game with the peace process."
Most of Graham's GOP colleagues are not as conflicted as he is with the idea of U.S. withdrawal from U.N. organizations.
"They've made a decision and they will pay the consequences for their decision," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable, referring to UNESCO. "And that is that U.S. tax dollars are not going to be spent, if I have anything to do with it, on organizations that take the measures they've taken."
Will senior Senate Democrats intervene on behalf of the U.S. role in international organizations? Not likely. Democratic senators told The Cable they either support cutting funds to U.N. organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians, or at least don't plan to do anything about it.
"We've put a very clear marker down in terms of what would be the result if there was an effort to prematurely declare a Palestinian state and [the administration] is implementing what they said they would do," said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). "It was the right thing to do and they should be implementing it."
Levin said that he hoped U.S. retaliatory action would slow down the Palestinian drive for recognition, and maintained that the United States would increase its influence by carrying through on its threats. The vote in UNESCO's General Conference was 107 to 14 in favor of Palestinian membership, with 52 abstentions.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told The Cable today he was fine with the cutting off of funds to UNESCO.
"That's what the law requires. It's been there for 20 years and whether I support it or not, that's the law," he said.
The senators don't blame the Obama administration for what is happening at the United Nations, because the administration has consistently called for the Palestinians to stop their statehood bid there. But Hill staffers in both parties have complained that the administration doesn't seem to have a plan to get out of the crisis or find a way around the law.
One Senate Republican staffer close to the issue told The Cable, "The administration is behaving just like a deer frozen in the headlights on this."
Bahrain's government is under pressure -- not just from protesters in Manama, but also from parts of the Washington foreign policy community, who want to delay U.S. arms sales to the country. Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa has been in town for over a week meeting with officials and lawmakers to assuage U.S. concerns over the kingdom's domestic crackdown, and sat down for a lengthy interview with The Cable.
Khalifa's message was clear: The Bahraini government is sensitive to international concerns about its treatment of protesters, pledges to follow the recommendations of an upcoming commission report on its actions, and wants to reinforce that the international community should not lose sight of the broader security situation in the region, characterized by the Iranian threat.
"I'm here to see our friends in the administration and Congress to try to explain what's happening in Bahrain," he said. "We are just before the issuance of the commission of inquiry's report. I'm here to show our commitment to that, how we will accept it and do all that is necessary to implement it."
That report, being written by Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), was established by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and is chaired by human rights advocate and professor M. Cherif Bassiouni. It is expected to be released on Nov. 23. Bassiouni has faced some criticism for making statements that appear to be to conciliatory to the regime, but he recently promised his report will give the Bahraini government "some bitter pills to swallow."
After five U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month to protest the pending $53 million sale of armored Humvees and missiles to Bahrain, the State Department wrote a letter to Congress last week linking the arms sale directly to the BICI report.
Khalifa said his government has been alarmed by congressional opposition to the arms sale, but said that he trusts the Obama administration to judge the outcome of the commission's report fairly. He also argued that a delay in completing the arms sale would not be in the interest of regional security.
"What worries us is that we don't need to delay any requirement for the necessary architecture to protect the region. Bahrain is a cornerstone of that," he said. "That's what I'm talking about here and I'm finding very listening ears."
Of course, one component of that emerging regional security architecture is the Peninsula Shield Force, made up of dozens of tanks and approximately 40,000 troops that came to Bahrain via Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE during the height of the unrest in March. Those forces are still there but are "purely to deter external threats," Khalifa maintains.
Opposition groups claim that 30 protesters have been killed by the government during its domestic crackdown, and more than 1,000 have been arrested. Independent organizations such as Human Rights Watch have reported that the government has employed brutal tactics, including using masked thugs to sweep up lawyers and other activists in nighttime raids.
The Obama administration has several interests in Bahrain, the fact that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed there being chief among them. Bahrain is also a client state of Saudi Arabia and policymakers have voiced fears that a victory by the protest movement would strengthen Iranian influence in the country.
Khalifa didn't meet with any of the senators who signed the letter, but he did meet with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH).
Rubio, a strong supporter of the U.S.-Bahrain relationship, sent his own letter to Clinton arguing that the administration should delay the sale of the Humvees, but not the missiles. Rubio wrote that the administration should delay the sale of "any items within the proposed weapons package that could be used to disrupt peaceful dissent."
Khalifa told The Cable that no military hardware has been used against protestors. "Our soldiers did help the police under the banner of the police... but no military hardware was used," he said. Several videos have surfaced of armored troop carriers allegedly firing on protesters and journalists.
So what is the urgency of the U.S. arms sale? Khalifa said that if the United States wants to advance deepening security ties with the Arab Gulf states, any delays would only send the wrong signal to the region's adversaries, principally Iran.
"The claims of torture, that is in the hands of the commission of inquiry," Khalifa said. He said that all government police are clearing identified and sometimes they use overwhelming force during arrests because of the chaotic situation in some Bahraini towns. "If the arrest happens at night, some of the villages are not in a very orderly place. So maybe the arrest was to minimize chaos," he explained.
Khalifa said he didn't have any information on the specific case of Jaleela al-Saman, vice president of the Bahrain Teachers Association, who was reportedly arrested for the second time last week in a night-time raid. Khalifa said that any federal employee who was unfairly dismissed will be rehired.
Khalifa acknowledged that dozens of Shiite mosques and other religious structures have been destroyed by the government in recent months, a step that President Barack Obama condemned in his May 19 speech on the Arab uprisings. However, he said that the structures were demolished for violating building codes or infringing on property that didn't belong to them, not as part of a crackdown on protestors.
"What wasn't helpful was the timing of that happening," he said. "Why were those structures targeted during the national safety situation? That's a serious question. It was ill-timing. It should not have happened in association with restoring law and order in Bahrain."
He added that some Sunni religious structures were also destroyed, and he pledged that the government will pay for the cost of rebuilding structures if they are in adherence with laws and codes, and that "will start soon."
It's too early to tell if Khalifa's charm offensive has had any impact. Rubio spoke with The Cable after meeting with the foreign minister, and said he hadn't changed his view on the arms sales package ... yet.
"We have a special obligation to our allies to encourage them on the road to democracy. I don't expect them to get there overnight," Rubio said. "Bahrain is a country that is friendly and helpful to us, but I believe that their status quo politically is unsustainable and in the long term undermines their ability to resist the pressures put on them not just internally, but also from Iran."
The Obama administration, meanwhile, continues to point to the BICI report as a key element that will inform the next steps in its relations with the kingdom. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated that mantra today following Khalifa's meeting at the State Department with Clinton.
"This investigation, we hope, will speak not only to individual incidents, but also to systemic changes that can be made to prevent future such abuses," Nuland said. "And we will look not only for a full, transparent, independent report, but also for the government to take steps to redress shortcomings that are found."
Khalifa struck a confident note that, in the end, it will all work out between the United States and Bahrain.
"We're allies, we're friends. If your friends don't give you advice, what kind of friends are they?" he said. "I think definitely, with commitment, we will sail through this."
The State Department has brought U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford back to Washington for an indeterminate period of time either because he was under threat of attack or for consultations, or both, depending on which State Department spokesman you listen to.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner sent out an e-mail early Monday morning announcing Ford had left Damascus on Oct. 22 due to threats of violence against him.
"Ambassador Robert Ford was brought back to Washington as a result of credible threats against his personal safety in Syria," Toner said. "At this point, we can't say when he will return to Syria. It will depend on our assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground... This decision was based solely on the need to ensure his safety, a matter we take extremely seriously."
Ford has been assaulted at least twice while venturing out to engage the opposition in Syria over the recent months, and Syrian state media has been waging a media campaign against him. Toner's statement seemed to indicate a new, specific threat, but no details were provided and requests for more information were not answered.
By Monday afternoon, when lead spokesperson Victoria Nuland took the podium at today's press briefing, the reasons given for Ford's return to Washington had changed. Nuland said that Ford was called back for "consultations," and to give him a rest from the stressful situation in Syria.
"Let me correct a misimpression in the media. Ambassador Ford has been asked to come home for consultations. He has not been withdrawn; he has not been recalled. He's been asked to come home for consultations," Nuland said.
"First of all, we want a chance to consult with him, talk to him about how he sees the situation in Damascus. It's also the case that, you know, the situation there is quite tense, and we want to give him a little bit of a break."
Nuland also said the State Department is "concerned about a campaign of regime-led incitement targeted personally at Ambassador Ford by the state-run media of the government of Syria, and we're concerned about the security situation that that has created."
But she would not acknowledge that there any specific new threats against Ford's safety and refused to discuss what, if any, intelligence led to the decision to bring him home for an indeterminate period of time.
"I want to say that we do expect Ambassador Ford will be returning to Damascus after his consultations are completed," Nuland said, declining to say what criteria would be used to determined when Ford could return to Damascus.
The reporters at the briefing noted that Nuland's remarks seemed to be walking back Toner's Monday morning statement, which only mentioned the "credible threats" against Ford.
Nuland, however, stuck to her guns. "Are we finished with Syria? Have we exhausted Syria? I'm exhausted; I don't know about you guys," she said at one point in the questioning on the topic.
Nuland also rejected the comments of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who said in Jordan that the United States may consider military options inside Syria.
"The vast majority of the Syrian opposition continues to speak in favor of peaceful, nonviolent protests and against foreign intervention of any kind, and particularly foreign military intervention, into the situation in Syria, and we respect that," she said.
The Obama administration is claiming it always intended to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, in line with the president's announcement today, but in fact several parts of the administration appeared to try hard to negotiate a deal for thousands of troops to remain -- and failed.
"I can report that as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over," President Barack Obama said today, after speaking with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their held -- heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America's military efforts in Iraq will end."
Deputy National Security Advisors Denis McDonough and Tony Blinken said in a White House briefing that this was always the plan.
"What we were looking for was an Iraq that was secure, stable, and self reliant, and that's what we got here, so there's no question that was a success," said McDonough, who traveled to Iraq last week.
But what about the extensive negotiations the administration has been engaged in for months, regarding U.S. offers to leave thousands of uniformed soldiers in Iraq past the deadline? It has been well reported that those negotiations, led by U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and White House official Brett McGurk, had been stalled over the U.S. demand that the remaining troops receive immunity from Iraqi courts.
"What the president preferred was for the best relationship for the United States and Iraq going forward. That's exactly what we have now," McDonough said, barely acknowledging the administration's intensive negotiations.
"We talked about immunities, there's no question about that.... But the bottom line is that the decision you heard the president talk about today is reflective of his view and the prime minister's view of the kind of relationship we want to have going forward. That relationship is a normal relationship," he said.
Of course, the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is anything but normal. Following nine years of war, the death of over 4,000 Americans and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the disbursement of at least hundreds of billions of dollars of American taxpayer' money, the United States now stands to have significantly less influence in Iraq than if the administration had been able to come to terms with Iraq over a troop extension, according to experts and officials.
"Iraq is not a normal country, the security environment is not normal, the embassy is not a normal embassy," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, managing director at the Institute for the Study of War, who traveled to Iraq this summer and has been sounding the alarm about what she saw as the mishandling of the negotiations ever since.
For more evidence that the administration actually wanted to extend the troop presence in Iraq, despite today's words by Obama and McDonough, one only has to look at the statements of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
In July, Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to, "Dammit, make a decision" about the U.S. troop extension. In August, he told reporters that, "My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes.'" On Oct. 17, he was still pushing for the extension and said, "At the present time I'm not discouraged because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis."
Sullivan was one of 40 conservative foreign policy professionals who wrote to Obama in September to warn that even a residual force of 4,000 troops would "leave the country more vulnerable to internal and external threats, thus imperiling the hard-fought gains in security and governance made in recent years at significant cost to the United States."
She said that the administration's negotiating strategy was flawed for a number of reasons: it failed to take into account Iraqi politics, failed to reach out to a broad enough group of Iraqi political leaders, and sent contradictory messages on the troop extension throughout the process.
"From the beginning, the talks unfolded in a way where they largely driven by domestic political concerns, both in Washington and Baghdad. Both sides let politics drive the process, rather than security concerns," said Sullivan.
As recently as August, Maliki's office was discussing allowing 8,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops to remain until next year, Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie said in an interview with The Cable. He told us that there was widespread support in Iraq for such an extension, but the Obama administration was demanding that immunity for U.S. troops be endorsed by the Iraqi Council of Representatives, which was never really possible.
Administration sources and Hill staffers also tell The Cable that the demand that the troop immunity go through the Council of Representatives was a decision made by the State Department lawyers and there were other options available to the administration, such as putting the remaining troops on the embassy's diplomatic rolls, which would automatically give them immunity.
"An obvious fix for troop immunity is to put them all on the diplomatic list; that's done by notification to the Iraqi foreign ministry," said one former senior Hill staffer. "If State says that this requires a treaty or a specific agreement by the Iraqi parliament as opposed to a statement by the Iraqi foreign ministry, it has its head up its ass."
The main Iraqi opposition party Iraqiya, led by former U.S. ally and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, decided to tie that vote to two non-related issues. It said they would not vote for the troop extension unless Maliki agreed give them control of a high-level policy council and let them choose the minister of defense from their ranks. Maliki wasn't about to do either.
"It was clear from the beginning that Maliki wasn't going to make a move without the support of the other parties behind him," Sullivan explained, adding that the Obama administration focused on Maliki and neglected other actors, such as Allawi. "There was a misunderstanding of how negotiations were unfolding in Iraq. The negotiations got started in earnest far too late."
"The actions don't match the words here," said Sullivan. "It's in the administration's interest to make this look not like they failed to reach an agreement and that they fulfilled a campaign promise. But it was very clear that Panetta and [former Defense Secretary Robert] Gates wanted an agreement."
So what's the consequence of the failed negotiations? One consequence could be a security vacuum in Iraq that will be filled by Iran.
"It's particularly troubling because having some sort of presence there would have really facilitated our policy vis-a-vis the Iranians and what's going on in Syria. The Iranian influence is going up in Iraq," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It makes it harder for us to play our cards, and that's a real setback. We've spent a lot of blood and treasure in Iraq. And these days, stability in that region is not what it used to be."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) echoed those sentiments in a statement today and expressed skepticism that Iraq is as "safe, stable, and self reliant" as the White House claims.
"Multiple experts have testified before my committee that the Iraqis still lack important capacities in their ability to maintain their internal stability and territorial integrity," McKeon said. "These shortcomings could reverse the decade of hard work and sacrifice both countries have endured to build a free Iraq."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), in his own Friday statement, backed up the administration's argument that the lack of a troop extension was in the best interest of the United States and Iraq.
"The United States is fulfilling our agreement with an Iraqi government that wants to shape its own future," he said. "The President is also following through on his commitment to end both the conflict in Iraq and our military presence... These moves appropriately reflect the changes on the ground. American troops in Iraq will be coming home, having served with honor and enormous skill."
UPDATE: This article was amended after a White House official called in to say that it was not the "White House" that was pushing for an extension of U.S. troops.
"The White House has always seen the president's pledge to get all troops out of Iraq as a core commitment, period," the White House official said.
Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) will begin its handover of power and set up elections following the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Libyan ambassador to Washington told The Cable.
"That's what they declared before and that's what they have to do now. Now they have to start work for the election and the institution building for the new Libya," said Ambassador Ali Aujali today.
Aujali also outlined the help that Libya was seeking from the U.S. government and the American business community in the wake of Qaddafi's death. The NTC wants U.S. assistance in training its military, protecting its borders, and setting up the foundations of the new government and civil society. He invited American companies to participate in the reconstruction of Libya.
"Qaddafi was the one who was always an issue and an obstacle to a relationship based on confidence and mutual interest," Aujali said.
He specifically called for U.S. medical aid for injured Libyan fighters, a proposal that senators such as John McCain (R-AZ) have also supported. Medical assistance was part of the $11 million aid package that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on her visit to Tripoli earlier this week.
(Clinton learned of Qaddafi's death over her Blackberry during a stop in Afghanistan earlier on Thursday.)
Aujali said that Qaddafi was killed by rebel militias and his death was not related to any NATO airstrike missions. He also said that he had heard, but could not independently confirm, that Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam was dead.
"These types of regimes always end in tragedy," he said.
The Libyan embassy in Washington is tasked with expressing the NTC's gratitude to its American interlocutors for the role the United States played in the months-long struggle against the Qaddafi regime.
"Thanks to the U.S. and NATO and the Arab countries that supported us and came forward to help the Libyan people," Aujali said.
President Barack Obama made brief remarks about Qaddafi's death at the White House this afternoon and called for a quick formation of an interim government and a stable transition to Libya's first free and fair elections.
"You have won your revolution and now we will be a partner as you forge a future that provides dignity, freedom, and opportunity," he said "For the region, today's events prove once more that rule by an iron fist inevitably comes to an end."
The death of deposed Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi vindicates the Obama administration's multilateral military strategy in Libya, according to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"The United States demonstrated clear-eyed leadership, patience, and foresight by pushing the international community into action after Qaddafi promised a massacre," Kerry said in a statement. "Though the administration was criticized both for moving too quickly and for not moving quickly enough, it is undeniable that the NATO campaign prevented a massacre and contributed mightily to Qaddafi's undoing without deploying boots on the ground or suffering a single American fatality."
Some have argued that the Obama administration was pushed into military intervention in Libya by the international community, led by the French and the British. Regardless, Kerry emphasized that he was one of the voices that supported the intervention.
"This is a victory for multilateralism and successful coalition-building in defiance of those who derided NATO and predicted a very different outcome," he said.
Kerry's statement also referenced his Wall Street Journal op-ed published in March, in which he defended the NATO-led action and made clear that it never had the goal of forcing Qaddafi from power.
"The military intervention was not directly intended to force Qaddafi from power, but the international community will remain united in maintaining diplomatic and economic pressure on a thug who has lost any legitimacy he ever possessed," Kerry wrote at the time.
Kerry's counterpart, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), expressed hope that the new Libyan government's foreign policy would be more Western-leaning.
"If Qaddafi is confirmed dead and his loyalists defeated, it marks a critical moment for the Libyan people to turn their nation away from its grim past as a rogue state and toward a future of freedom marked by alliances with the United States, Israel, European democracies, and other responsible nations," she said in her own statement.
Both Kerry and Ros-Lehtinen urged the National Transitional Council government to adhere to standards of political inclusion, transparency, and move quickly toward establishing a democracy.
"The Libyan people must seize this opportunity to realize their democratic aspirations and not squander it through factional fighting over the political spoils," Ros-Lehtinen said. "The new leaders must demonstrate a commitment to working with the U.S., and to securing control over dangerous weapons and rooting out extremist groups."
Tonight, when Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad comes to Washington to speak at the annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), he will be endorsing an organization that is punching well above its weight in the U.S. policy debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
ATFP, a non-profit, moderate pro-Palestinian organization that has been in existence since 2003, has only five permanent staff members in its downtown D.C. office, but has managed to vault itself to the fore of the Washington foreign policy discussion over the Middle East peace process. "They've been critical in getting sustained and high levels of support from both Republican and Democratic administrations," an administration official told The Cable. "They have pretty high access, they can pass messages, they can work quietly with the Hill, they're not media attention seekers, they are trusted and they try to work behind the scenes."
ATFP's willingness to play the Washington game, on Washington's terms, has earned it both praise and scorn, but there is no doubt that it has given the organization a prominence in the Israeli-Palestinian debate that other pro-Palestinian groups have failed to achieve over the years.
The group is led by president and founder Dr. Ziad J. Asali, Ghaith Al-Omari, a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Senior Fellow Hussein Ibish. The trio has managed to attract high-level administration favor (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton keynoted their gala last year) and praise from the pro-Israel community. The downside of their strategy, however, has been a notable absence of grassroots Palestinian support and a recent backlash from parts of the Palestinian establishment, including a break in relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington.
"We have chosen to work within the establishment," Omari said in an interview with The Cable. "Basically we believe the two-state solution is in the U.S. national interest. When we came up with this mission nine years ago it was groundbreaking. Now it is policy."
Omari noted that ATFP has framed its policies in terms of the U.S. national interest and its willingness to engage with parts of the Washington establishment that other pro-Palestinian groups have neglected.
"What we have discovered, much to our surprise, is that we were knocking on open doors," Omari said. He coined the strategy as one of "mainstreaming Palestine."
Some media reports have compared the group to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) because of ATFP's lobbying tenacity on Capitol Hill and its interwoven relationships with administration officials and Washington interest groups on all sides of the political divide. But Omari rejects that comparison.
"We are very different from AIPAC. We're not lobbyists, we're a non-profit organization," he said. "I wish we had the Palestinian-American community as such an organized political presence."
ATFP's policy positions often deviate from the orthodoxy within the Palestinian community. The group's board narrowly voted to stay neutral on the issue of Abbas's bid to seek member state status for Palestine at the United Nations (a bid Fayyad was rumored to oppose). It also doesn't currently support the idea of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Omari said.
But can ATFP help defend against congressional cuts in U.S. funding for Palestinian institutions? That's the main mission of the group right now, he said.
"There are tons of pro-Israel organizations in Washington that engage in the debate; in the pro-Palestinian community I could argue we are the only one," he said. "There is a hunger in this town for a voice that understands the Palestinians and can speak about their interests in a way that takes into account the way that Washington operates."
ATFP's clash with the Palestinian establishment has come into public view in recent weeks. Board member Daoud Kuttab broke ties with the group after it refused to endorse Abbas's U.N. strategy.
"The paternalistic attitude that Americans including American Palestinians know what is best for Palestinians and their leadership is an arrogant attitude that I can't agree to be part of," he wrote. "Whenever a lobbying organization reaches the position that it has to worry about its own existence and how the local powers consider it, that is the day that such an organization has lost its mission statement."
Then, last week, Politico reported that the PLO mission in Washington led by Maen Rashid Areikat had sent a letter to ATFP announcing that the mission was severing all ties to the group.
In an interview, Ibish confirmed the existence of the letter but said it didn't make sense to him because ATFP never had formal ties to the PLO mission in the first place.
"Why the PLO sent us this cryptic letter and gives no context whatsoever is really something that I can't explain," Ibish said.
Like Omari, Ibish rejected the comparison to AIPAC. "It's in a sense flattering. I think if we had the kind of resources they do, we'd probably look more like WINEP [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] than AIPAC."
Ibish said that the majority of ATFP's funding comes from Arab sources, but he acknowledged that the organization has Jewish donors as well, who are welcome to give as long as they support ATFP's goal of a two-state solution.
Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC, said that ATFP is respected in Washington policy-making circles, including the pro-Israel community, "because they are seen as serious players with ideas and access -- on the Hill, with the White House, and in the region."
"One of the things that distinguishes them from the other actors in the Arab pro-Palestinian camp is their willingness to challenge corruption, condemn terrorism without equivocation and meet with other stakeholders without precondition," he said. "Credibility in Washington is hard to come by, and Ziad Asali has certainly earned it."
Even Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who would have attended tonight's gala if not for the fact that he was observing the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, had kind words for the group.
"We interact very frequently and on a friendly basis with the ATFP," he said. "We view them as partners and as friends."
And if you are at the gala tonight, stop by and say hello to your humble Cable guy. I'm usually seated somewhere near the back of the room.
The Israeli government is proud of the agreement it struck that led to the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit today after five years of imprisonment, but don't expect any change in its approach to Hamas, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren told The Cable today.
"Hamas remains a terrorist organization. It doesn't meet any of the Quartet's criteria for negotiating. Its charter still calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and the annihilation of the Jewish people worldwide. It's a genocidal organization," Oren said in an interview. "Hamas itself is not saying it's a partner for peace talks. That's not in the bargain."
The deal to trade Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners was mediated by the Egyptian government and German mediators; no further deals or indirect interactions between the Israeli government and Hamas are in the works.
Those prisoners included Nasser Yateima, who was imprisoned for his role in a 2002 suicide bombing at an Israeli hotel on Passover, Walid Abdel-Hadi, who was involved in several attacks including a 2002 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem cafe that killed 11, and Ahlam Tamimi, who participated in bombing of a Sbarro's restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001 where 16 died.
Oren said the reason that the Israeli government took the risk of releasing so many dangerous prisoners was due to the unwritten social contract between the state and the people that Israel will do everything in its power to recover captured citizens.
"This deal goes to the very heart of the relationship between the State of Israel and the army of Israel. At the end of the day, yes, there's a heavy price to pay here, but as a result of Gilad Shalit's release, are we more motivated to go out and defend our country? Unquestionably, yes," he said. "That's the true strategic value, not just the humanitarian value, of what we've done."
But why did Hamas make the deal, in Oren's view?
"I think they're weak, weakened by the situation in Syria. They have been weakened by the situation in Gaza, where there's been a complete implosion of support for them in Gaza, where the economic situation is deplorable," he said.
Oren said that this weakened position led to a steady decline in Hamas' demands over the past two and a half years, which created a situation that made the terms of the deal amenable to Israel. Oren argued that the success of the deal does not strengthen Hamas, either in Gaza or with regard to their competition with the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
"They may celebrate for a few hours, but the people in Gaza are going to wake up tomorrow in the same position that were in today, and that's not a very favorable position at all," Oren said. "There's no obscuring that fact.... It's not a victory for them."
Despite some criticism inside Israel against the government for striking the deal, Oren said that the takeaway lesson of today's events is that the current Israeli government is capable of making hard and painful decisions -- and can deliver if there's a fair deal on the table. He also said that the reaction of the Palestinians to the deal highlights a fundamental difference between the two peoples.
"Today's events really showed a gap between Israeli society and Palestinian society. We celebrated life. They celebrated death," Oren said. "They celebrated the release of people who have killed dozens of men, women, and children. And it's a huge ethical difference."
The Obama administration's negotiations with the government of Iraq regarding a post-2011 U.S. troop presence are ongoing, but the prospects of reaching an agreement are dwindling fast, according to close observers of the process.
"I would just say that, despite some of the reports that you may have seen over the weekend, that no final decisions have been made," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters today in response to several reports over the weekend that the negotiations to keep thousands of U.S. military personnel in Iraq past 2011 have broken down.
"At the present time I'm not discouraged because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday.
Discussions with the Iraqis have focused on the administration's demand that U.S. troops remaining in Iraq have immunity from Iraqi courts. In August, Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie told The Cable that a deal on immunity was in the works and that the Iraqis would formally request an extension of thousands of U.S. troops' presence "in our own sweet time."
But the current U.S.-Iraq bilateral agreements dictate that all U.S. troops must withdraw by the end of the year, and as time runs out, the chances of a deal on immunity are fading fast.
Ramzy Mardini, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of War who traveled to Iraq in July, said that the reason a deal isn't likely is because, though there is a consensus among Iraqi leaders of the necessity for a post-2011 U.S. military presence, State Department lawyers determined that the immunity is necessary and can only be ensured if the Iraqi parliament formally endorsed it.
That's impossible for an Iraqi legislature that is not strong enough to publicly support what many Iraqis will view as an extension of the American occupation, Mardini said, and the Obama administration won't budge from this condition.
"That's the red line for the U.S., and unfortunately that's the red line for the Iraqis as well," he said. "Now the talk has gone to a new phase where it doesn't seem that we're going to get the immunities that are needed, and that's a deal breaker for the U.S."
The Iraqi parliament is actually on holiday right now and returns to work Nov. 20. Upon returning, its next adjournment will be Dec. 5, so that constitutes the window of opportunity for a measure to offer immunity. But nobody thinks that is likely.
The Iraqi government has always wanted the immunity to be granted through a government-to- government memorandum of understanding. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Al-Masar television station on Monday, "The immunity we had said is not possible, and from the beginning we have said that it can't get the approval from the parliament."
Officially, the U.S.-Iraq bilateral negotiations are led by U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey and Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. But the key interlocutor on the immunity issue is Brett McGurk, who served on the National Security Council during the Bush and Obama administrations and was brought back in by Obama to renegotiate the Bush-era agreements.
For observers like Mardini, the entire episode is symbolic of the Iraqi government's fragility and its inability to make decisions, as well as of the Obama administration's failure to adequately transition from a military to a diplomatic strategy in Iraq.
"The Obama administration came into office with the wrong mindset in Iraq. From the get-go, it was a hands-off diplomatic approach," he said. "We had all our eggs in the military and security baskets, and when that's gone, there won't be much left to sustain. The reality on the ground is that the U.S. is at risk of losing its influence in Iraq."
The Treasury Department sanctioned the Iranian commercial airline Mahan Air as part of the U.S. government response to the alleged Iranian-backed assassination plot on the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Treasury announced in a press release early on Wednesday that Mahan Air would be sanctioned due to its financial, material, and technological support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF). On Tuesday, Treasury announced sanctions on four IRGC-QF officials who it alleges were involved in the plot to hire a Mexican cartel to bomb a Washington restaurant in order to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir.
"Mahan Air's close coordination with the IRGC-QF -- secretly ferrying operatives, weapons and funds on its flights -- reveals yet another facet of the IRGC's extensive infiltration of Iran's commercial sector to facilitate its support for terrorism," said Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen, in a statement. "Following the revelation about the IRGC-QF's use of the international financial system to fund its murder-for-hire plot, today's action highlights further the undeniable risks of doing business with Iran."
The new sanctions make it illegal for any Americans to do business with Mahan Air and freeze the airline's assets in the United States. The airline also provides assistance to the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, the Treasury Department alleged.
Further retaliatory measures from the U.S. government are expected. The State Department has been reaching out to several countries to explore options for tightening multilateral sanctions. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are demanding tougher measures to punish Iran for its role in the alleged plot. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is calling for Treasury to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, which he says would collapse the bank and cripple the Iranian currency.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that, in addition to the plan to kill the Saudi envoy, the Iranian agents -- who were working with a DEA informant they believed was a representative of Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas -- also discussed plans to bomb the Israeli embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Argentina.
Attorney General Eric Holder pledged on Tuesday that, "The United States is committed to holding Iran responsible for its actions."
The Obama administration is scrambling right now to find a way around the fact that existing U.S. law could force the United States to stop participating in the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO if the Palestinians are given member state status, setting a precedent that could repeat itself in a host of other U.N. organizations.
The administration is contending with a 1994 law (P.L. 103-236, Title IV), which would bar U.S. contributions "to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood."
Another law (P.L. 101-246, Title IV), from 1990, states that, "No funds authorized to be appropriated by this act or any other act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states."
The Palestinians cleared a hurdle this week when the UNESCO executive board approved their bid to join the organization, sending the matter to a vote by UNESCO's 193-nation General Conference. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized UNESCO on Wednesday for taking up the issue.
"I think that that is a very odd procedure indeed and would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote," Clinton told reporters in the Dominican Republic.
She acknowledged the "strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition."
The U.S. has not yet paid their bills on UNESCO for 2011, about $80 million, which is 22 percent of UNESCO's budget. If the law is triggered and the U.S. does not pay in 2012, the U.S. would lose its vote in the organization. Plus, UNESCO officials have told the U.S. that if U.S. funds are not expected over the next two years, they may have to initiate massive layoffs beginning in January to account for the shortfall in funds.
Palestinian membership in UNESCO would also grant them immediate membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The U.S. would have to stop contributing to WIPO but America is not a member of UNIDO.
We're told that the State Department is currently having their attorneys draft a legal opinion on how U.S. laws would affect U.S. participations in U.N. bodies that grant the Palestinians member state status. Their ruling will have ramifications not only for UNESCO, but for all other U.N. specialized agencies that the PLO is expected to submit their application to, such as the IAEA, WTO, WHO, World Bank, and others.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the administration was "still working" on what the legislative triggers regarding funding would mean. But a State Department official said that the administration has not been able to find a way around the law.
"We have a suicide vest padlocked around our torso and the Palestinians have the remote control," the State Department official said. "They get to decide whether they blow us up or not. It's 100 percent up to them."
Meanwhile, Congress is ratcheting up its own involvement on the issue. Later today, 10 House appropriators will call on UNESCO not to move forward with consideration of Palestinian membership, in a letter to UNESCO Executive Director Irina Bokova obtained by The Cable.
"We... respectfully request that you do everything in your power to ensure that the Palestine Liberation Organization's application to become a Member State does not come before the UNESCO General Conference," states the letter, prepared by the office of Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ). "Any recognition of Palestine as a Member State would not only jeopardize the hope for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but would endanger the United States' contribution to UNESCO."
Signatories of the letter include the heads of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), Jerry Lewis (R-CA), Tom Cole (R-OK), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Steve Austria (R-IL), Charles Dent (R-PA), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), and Adam Schiff (D-CA).
One senior Republican staffer pointed out the irony that it was President George W. Bush who brought the United States back into UNESCO, and now the United States might be forced to leave the organization by Obama -- a president who came to office promising to reverse what he argued was Bush's tendency to ignore the international community.
"Remember, we joined UNESCO in part because we needed them to help de-radicalize textbooks particularly in the Muslim world after 9/11 and as a platform to counter expanding anti-American attitudes in academia," the staffer said "And now, by de-funding UNESCO, we lose all the leverage we had gained."
The Cable reported yesterday that President Barack Obama waived penalties on several countries that recruit child soldiers for the second year in a row. Today, lawmakers moved to ensure that the administration won't keep funding governments that use child soldiers next year.
The administration waived penalties mandated under the Child Soldiers Protection Act (CSPA) against Yemen, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The administration didn't provide a justification for not penalizing South Sudan, because the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which was released on June 27 and triggers the penalties, names "Sudan," not "South Sudan," as an abuser. South Sudan was declared independent on July 9, 12 days after the report came out.
"South Sudan wasn't a country during the reporting period and isn't subject to the CSPA; there are no penalties to waive under the law," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
That explanation struck several congressional aides and human rights activists we spoke with today as too clever by half. After all, the TIP report was referring to use of child soldiers by the government of "Southern Sudan" and the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which hasn't stopped the practice and will receive $100 million of U.S. taxpayers' money this year.
"They're using a legal and technical loophole to continue to build up partnership with a government that needs to be reminded how serious this problem is," said Sarah Margon, associate director for sustainable security and peace building at the Center for American Progress. "It's exactly how not to establish the message that they need to set up their government with full respect for human rights and transparency."
"At the time the TIP report came out, it was obvious South Sudan was going to be an independent country so any responsible person would have taken that into consideration," one senior House aide told The Cable. "Apart from the law, the White House still had discretion to address the issue as a policy matter and it chose not to condition any of the aid on the SPLA completing its demobilization of child soldiers."
The administration made the case that Chad has made sufficient progress on the child soldiers issue, and is no longer subject to penalties. "We've seen the government take concrete steps over the last year to implement policies and mechanisms to prohibit and prevent future government or government-supported use of child soldiers," Vietor said.
"The U.N.'s Chad Country Task Force has reported no verified cases of child soldiers in 2011, and Chad has put in place safeguards to prevent further use or recruitment of child soldiers. The president's reinstatement of assistance to Chad reflects this progress," he explained.
But several activists noted that the United Nations and State Department both kept Chad on their list of countries violating international standards for child recruitment this year, and that international monitors' limited access in Chad calls into question anybody's ability to verify whether the government has stopped using child soldiers.
Several aides and activists were angry at the administration for failing to adequately consult or even inform them of the waivers before they were announced. Administration officials briefed congressional staffers and NGO leaders yesterday, and journalists not at all.
"It also says something about the State Department's willingness to engage with civil society actors," said Margon. "It's a black mark on them in their ability to work with friends and allies on these issues. Why alienate the people who want to work with you on this stuff? It just doesn't make any sense."
Congress has no intention of letting this scenario play out again next year. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, successfully added an amendment to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act reauthorization bill today that would force the administration to give Congress 15 days notice before issuing waivers for the child-soldier penalties.
The amendment would also expand the law to include peacekeeping funds given to violator countries (such as Somalia), and force the White House to show that countries are making progress toward eliminating the use of child soldiers before receiving a waiver. Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and John Boozman (R-AR) have already introduced a companion measure in the Senate.
Not all Capitol Hill staffers were completely unsympathetic to the administration's arguments, however.
One Senate aide referred to the progress noted by the Obama administration in Chad and the partial cut of U.S. military assistance in the DRC as "welcome steps -- steps that might not have occurred without the force of the Child Soldier Prevention Act," noting that they "will require serious follow up attention."
But overall, the administration's roll out of the decision was panned by the NGO and human rights communities, which see the administration's action as undermining the intent of the legislation.
"At a time when Congress is locked in one of the most difficult budget battles I've ever seen, it is shameful that a portion of federal funding continues to help support governments who are abusing children," said Jesse Eaves, World Vision's policy advisor for children in crisis. "This is a very weak decision by an administration paralyzed with inaction. And the worst part is that thousands of children around the world -- not the politicians in the White House or the State Department -- are the ones who will suffer."
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Congress and the NGO community are gearing up to fight the Obama administration's plan to sell $53 million worth of weapons to Bahrain, which is proceeding on schedule despite that country's crackdown on protesters.
The State Department argued in its Sept. 14 notification to Congress that the proposed sale will contribute to U.S. national security "by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East."
The administration is planning to sell Bahrain 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles, 50 of which are bunker-buster missiles similar to those sold secretly to Israel in 2009.
"Bahrain will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense," the notification reads.
But the government of Bahrain, led by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has been engaged in a months-long struggle with a predominantly Shiite protest movement. Opposition groups claim that 30 protesters have been killed by the government and more than 1,000 have been arrested. The government also called in a Saudi-led force in March that included dozens of tanks to bolster their position, effectively putting the country on lockdown.
Independent organizations such as Human Rights Watch have reported that the Bahrain government has used brutal tactics, including using masked thugs to sweep up lawyers and other activists in nighttime raids. Today, the government announced new trials for 20 medics whose long jail sentences provoked outrage in the international community.
"In Bahrain, steps have been taken toward reform and accountability,
but more are required,"
President Obama said in his Sept. 21 speech at the U.N. "America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc - the Wifaq - to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people."
The Obama administration has several interests in Bahrain, the fact that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed there being chief among them. Bahrain is also a client state of Saudi Arabia and policymakers have voiced fears that a victory by the protest movement would strengthen Iranian influence in the country.
Regardless, a growing group of lawmakers and non-governmental organizations are gearing up to oppose the State Department's plan to sell weapons to Bahrain. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) are circulating a resolution that would stop the sale from going through.
"Providing arms to a government that is actively committing human rights violations against peaceful protestors is at odds with United States foreign policy goals," Wyden told The Cable. "We should be promoting democracy and human rights in the region and not rewarding a regime that is jailing and in some cases killing those who choose to peacefully protest their government and anyone who supports them. This resolution will prevent the U.S. from providing the Kingdom of Bahrain with weaponry until they show a real commitment to respecting human rights."
"The Humvees are particularly worrisome for a regime that is quashing protests," said one Senate aide who works on the issue. "But the overall principle of selling arms to this regime as they use live ammunition to kill protesters is just awful and we're going to do what we can to try to stop it."
Other senior senators are just becoming aware of the issue, but their initial reactions are a mixture of concern and criticism of the Bahrain government.
"I'm cautious about empowering this regime now in Bahrain. The internal conflict in Bahrain needs to be settled," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable. "I'm not so sure I would go down that road right now [in terms of arms sales]."
"I didn't even we were doing that until you told me," Graham admitted, thanking your humble Cable guy for bringing the issue to his attention.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) also seemed conflicted about the idea of selling more weapons to Bahrain but declined to outright oppose the idea.
"I'm troubled by what's happened in Bahrain, but Bahrain has been a wonderful ally and our 5th Fleet there is critical to the security of the whole region," he told The Cable. "I'd be hesitant to cut off sales, but it is awkward now."
Senate Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) also said he was concerned about the violence against protesters in Bahrain but didn't want to commit to a position about the arms sales either way.
"We're looking at it, because we want to do everything we can to hold a country like that to high standards," Casey told The Cable.
The big question is what Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) thinks. Kerry's committee has first crack at any resolution to oppose the sale, and the resolution's backers want his support. But -- despite Kerry's denials that he is seeking the secretary of state job -- he rarely picks fights with the White House in public. His office did not answer requests for comments on the topic.
Human Rights First, an international human rights organization, wrote an open letter to Kerry last month calling on him to oppose further arms sales to Bahrain.
"Stopping this arms sale to a country currently abusing the rights of its citizens is in step with your long record of opposition to arming tyrants," the letter states. "Arms sales to Bahrain at this time would contradict the United States' twin interests of regional stability and peaceful reform. If the United States aspires to be a global human rights leader... it should not reward the current repression with weapons."
The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) also drafted a letter to Congress, signed by a dozen organizations including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, urging Congress "to take immediate action to block a proposed arms sale to Bahrain until it ends abuses against peaceful protesters and takes meaningful steps toward political reform and accountability for recent and ongoing serious human rights violation."
Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for POMED, told The Cable that the arms sale will have a devastating effect on U.S. credibility in the Arab world.
"The sale will unquestionably be perceived by both the government of Bahrain and those in the opposition as a green light for the government to continue its brutal repression," he said. "In the broader picture of the Arab Spring, this further erodes the credibility of U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the region."
UPDATE: Wyden introduced his resolution Thursday, a copy of which can be found here.
What a difference a year makes. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was confirmed by the Senate on Monday evening after serving under a recess appointment because the Senate would not confirm him the first time around.
It didn't take much to win the Senate's approval. All Ford had to do was get attacked by pro-regime thugs while attending a meeting of Syrian lawyers, attend a funeral of a Syrian activist right before it was attacked by Syrian government forces, and get his car pelted with eggs, tomatoes, concrete blocks, and iron bars as he was chased by a violent mob after visiting a Syrian politician.
In short, the Senate finally saw that Ford was more of an irritant to the Syrian regime than a concession to them, and so the GOP foreign policy brain trust reversed itself and supported his confirmation.
After Ford's latest run in with violent pro-regime Syrians, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the incident to make a push for his confirmation.
"Ambassador Ford has shown admirable courage putting himself on the line to bear witness to the situation on the ground in Syria. He is a vital advocate for the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people now under siege by the Asad regime," Clinton said Sept. 29. "I encourage the United States Senate to show our support for Ambassador Ford by confirming him as soon as possible, so he can continue, fully confirmed, his critical and courageous work."
White House spokesman Jay Carney piled on the same day.
"Day after day, Ambassador Ford puts himself at great personal risk to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," he said at the Sept. 29 briefing. "And I'd like to make this point: that we urge the Senate to show Ambassador Ford its support by confirming him and allowing his courageous work to continue."
Ford described the latest attack in his most recent Facebook post.
"Protesters threw concrete blocks at the windows and hit the cars with iron bars. One person jumped on the hood of the car, tried to kick in the windshield and then jumped on the roof. Another person held the roof railing and tried to break the car's side window. When the embassy car moved through the crowd, the man fell off the car," he wrote.
"Americans understand that we are seeing the ugly side of the Syrian regime which uses brutal force, repression and intimidation to stay in power."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford confirmed to The Cable widely held suspicions that the Syrian government is arresting and torturing Syrians whose family members have spoken out against the regime here in the United States.
The FBI is investigating claims that the Syrian embassy staff in Washington has been collecting information on Syrian-Americans in and around Washington, especially those who dare to protest against the regime. That embassy is led by Ambassador Imad Moustapha, who has updated his blog only intermittently since the outbreak of violence in Syria.
Ford did not directly accuse Moustapha of spying on American citizens and transmitting that information back to the regime, to be used to punish family members as part of an organized campaign of fear and intimidation. But he said that those families are being tortured.
"We know of families here in Syria who have been arrested, who have been beaten, whose homes have been broken into, because of activities against the Syrian government - participation in marches, for example - by family members in the United States," Ford said in a phone call from his post in Damascus.
Ford said he couldn't comment on the Moustapha investigation specifically, but confirmed that the State Department is tracking these cases and has evidence of multiple instances of retribution against Syrian-Americans by the Assad regime.
"We know of at least three instances of that. How does the Syrian government know about [the Syrian-Americans' activities]? You and I can speculate," Ford said. "We do know of families that were attacked here. It's really serious."
Without directly accusing the Syrian embassy in Washington of spying, Ford said, "It is entirely unacceptable for any foreign embassy in the United States to facilitate the harassment of American citizens."
The Wall Street Journal has reported on several claims by activists of retribution brought down on their Syrian-based family members. Ford's comments represent the highest level public acknowledgment of these activities to date.
At Ford's confirmation hearing in August, Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) spoke about how the regime treats those Syrians who try to maintain contacts in the United States.
"The terrible reach of this regime has directly affected constituents in my home state of Pennsylvania," said Casey, who told the story of Sakher Hallak, a Syrian who traveled to the United States to attend a medical conference with his brother Hazem Hallak, a Syrian-American living near Philadelphia.
"Upon his return to Syria, Sakher was missing. His wife contacted the authority to confirm that he was in their custody but would be released shortly," Casey said. "Two days later, his body was discovered in a village 20 miles south of Aleppo. The authorities then denied that he was ever in their custody and claimed that they found his body in a ditch, by the side of the road."
"Sakher's body was subjected to brutal torture. His bones were broken and his body was mutilated in unspeakable ways," said Casey. "Sakher was not a political activist. He was not involved in the demonstrations. His sole offense appears to be his visit to the medical conference and his visit with his brother in the United States of America."
If the Syrian regime's intention was to intimidate Hazem Hallak, their strategy surely backfired. He became an outspoken and fierce critic of the regime in response to his brother's death.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded tonight to criticisms leveled on Thursday by former President Bill Clinton, who blamed Netanyahu for creating obstacles to a Middle East peace deal.
"The two great tragedies in modern Middle Eastern politics, which make you wonder if God wants Middle East peace or not, were [Yitzhak] Rabin's assassination and [Ariel] Sharon's stroke," Clinton said on Thursday, in remarks reported exclusively on The Cable.
Clinton said that Netanyahu moved the goalposts and made reaching a comprehensive peace deal more difficult upon taking office.
"The Israelis always wanted two things that once it turned out they had, it didn't seem so appealing to Mr. Netanyahu," Clinton said, referring to what he called fair offers from the Palestinian government and the other Arab nations. "Now that they have those things, they don't seem so important to this current Israeli government."
Clinton also said that the Palestinians have offered Netanyahu the same deal the two sides almost agreed to in 2000 at Camp David, but Netanyahu refuses now to accept it.
Netanyahu shot back at Clinton when asked about the remarks in an interview with ABC News.
"I respectfully disagree," Netanyahu said. "The Palestinians are basically trying to shortcut this. They're trying to get a state without giving us peace, without giving us security."
"President Clinton knows very well [that] in 2000 at Camp David ... who really made the generous offer and the Palestinians refused to come," he said. "I'm sure that President Bush can tell you what happened at Camp David a few years later, when another Israeli prime minister made a generous offer, and the Palestinians refused to come."
When asked if he had moved the goalposts, Netanyahu said, "Not at all."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late on Thursday praised a new statement issued by the Middle East Quartet calling for new negotiations, a statement neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have endorsed.
"The Quartet proposal represents the firm conviction of the international community that a just and lasting peace can only come through negotiations between the parties," she said. "Therefore, we urge both parties to take advantage of this opportunity to get back to talks, and the United States pledges our support as the parties themselves take the important next steps for a two-state solution, which is what all of us are hoping to achieve."
Top Obama administration officials here in New York are working hard with Quartet members, including Russia, to come up with language for a new statement on the Middle East Peace Process, one that would be viable no matter what happens with the Palestinian drive to seek member-state status at the U.N. this week.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday evening on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly and the Palestinian U.N. gambit was a major part of their conversation. Following the meeting, State Department officials said that Clinton was focused on the longer-term diplomatic picture.
"Both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Clinton agreed that the Quartet envoys should continue working to find a way forward among the Quartet in the form of a statement that can help establish a pathway back to negotiations over time," a senior State Department official told reporters in a read out of the meeting.
But when pressed, the official could not note any progress or agreement between the U.S. and Russia on the contents of the statement. The official said, however, that the meeting was only the first of what will be several U.S.-Russian interactions on this issue this week.
"They talked about what the purpose or nature of a Quartet statement and product would look like and the desire by both of them to have the Quartet play a constructive role in producing a pathway that could lead back towards negotiations," the official said. "And they also talked about what some of the elements might look like in a statement that could provide a useful framework or context for negotiations between the two sides. And then they agreed that the envoys should continue working."
The Cable reported last week that among the issues under consideration within the discussions over a Quartet statement were two specific items: modified language to acknowledge the Jewish identity of the State of Israel and a U.S.-proposed timeline for resuming direct negotiations within four to six weeks.
But Clinton and Lavrov didn't get to that level of details on Monday evening. "Their conversation tonight was at more of a strategic level than at a level of text," the official said, adding that Clinton affirmed the U.S. position opposing the Palestinians move at the U.N., a move the Russian government is publicly supporting.
The official's briefing seemed to signal that the Obama administration has somewhat resigned itself to the fact that the Palestinians plan to move forward at the U.N. this week and that the administration is now looking over the horizon to minimize the damage to the peace process and focus on what happens after all parties leave New York.
"And so the question is: How do you deal with all the elements that are at play in the discussions here in New York in a way that can produce a pathway when people leave New York back to negotiations and then have those negotiations ultimately yield the two-state solution that everybody wants," the official said.
The reporters at the briefing repeatedly noted the administration change of emphasis away from criticizing the Palestinian U.N. activity and toward a diplomatic path that would begin after the General Assembly ends.
The official acknowledged that in Clinton's meeting with Lavrov, she didn't spend a lot of time trying to convince the Russians not to support the Palestinian statehood bid.
"I think she laid out her position on why she believes that action at the United Nations is not the best way forward, and she spent the bulk of her time encouraging the foreign minister to work with her on finding a way forward that would get the two parties back into negotiations."
The United States is in discussions with the National Transitional Council (NTC) about a possible role for international forces in military training and counterterrorism in the new Libya, according to Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman.
Feltman conducted a press call on Wednesday following his visit to Tripoli, where he met with NTC Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, and civil society representatives. There are four U.S. military troops on the ground in Libya now, trying to figure out how to secure the battered U.S. embassy, but Feltman said there's a possibility of more U.S. military cooperation with the new Libyan government.
"There are a number of countries including the U.S. that would look favorably on such as a request.... The Libyans themselves have to make clear what they are comfortable with," Feltman said. "We think the Libyans should find a way to define these missions in a way that are respectful for Libyan sovereignty and independence and also protect Libya's security."
Feltman added that U.S. policymakers "will certainly be encouraging Libya to work with us" on counterterrorism issues, noting that there are U.S. government teams on the ground helping the NTC locate dangerous weapons, such as MANPADS and land mines.
Feltman also addressed concerns that groups associated with the new Libyan government might contain Islamist elements, which could push the new government toward an anti-Western stance.
"The Islamists, as we would probably define them, seem to be a relatively small percentage of both the leadership and the rank and file [of the NTC], as best as we can tell," said Feltman. "It is a very religiously devout population and heavily tribal. The tribal allegiances are kicking in to soften or mitigate or cancel out the more Islamic leanings, pulling those who might go astray back into the tribes."
"The debate over this whole question has shifted significantly, evolving away from the fear that some people had about is the revolution being kidnapped by others, to how do we centralize the demands of the fighters, how best do we build an inclusive system for the interim period that allows people to work out their differences," Feltman explained. "It's really a far different debate than it was even a few weeks ago."
What about the U.S. embassy in Tripoli? Feltman surveyed the scene today, and the building is not looking good.
"I think it's no secret that the building was largely looted and it's in pretty serious damage," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. "So the assessment is that it's pretty severely compromised, but no decision has been made yet on what we're going to do moving forward in establishing an embassy there."
A State Department team led by the embassy's second-in-command Joan Polaschik arrived in Tripoli this past weekend to reestablish the U.S. diplomatic presence there. Ambassador Gene Cretz remains in Washington leading the State Department's Libya Task Force and envoy to the NTC Chris Stevens remains in Benghazi.
At a press conference in Tripoli, Feltman also admitted the U.S. government worked with the regime of Muammar al Qaddafi to round up terror suspects, many of whom were reportedly tortured. Watch Feltman's explanation here:
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford keeps putting himself in harm's way. This Sunday, he attended the funeral of a Syrian activist shortly before it was attacked by Syrian security forces.
"US amb. Robert Ford shows up at the wake of slain #syria activist Giyath Matar. An hour later the funeral tent is trashed by security forces," tweeted Washington Post foreign correspondent Liz Sly Tuesday afternoon.
We found a video that shows Ford at the funeral, which took place on Sept. 11. The State Department today confirmed to The Cable that he was in attendance. We also found a video (warning: graphic) of Matar's tortured and mutilated body, posted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been meticulously documenting cases of alleged abuse against domestic protesters by the Syrian security forces.
"Security forces corpse [sic] submitted his corpse to his family and told them that you can make from his body a ‘Shawerma' sandwich!!!" the human rights organization reported.
Ford, who was installed as the U.S. envoy to Damascus in a recess appointment, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. But unless he can overcome a tough confirmation fight on the Senate floor, he will be forced to return to Washington at the end of the year.
The group also posted a video of the body of Ahmad Sulaiman Ayrut, who they allege was killed in the government attack on Matar's funeral.
The State Department condemned Matar's killing at a Monday press briefing, but only later confirmed to The Cable Ford's attendance at the funeral. So far, State has not commented on the violence at the funeral.
"This was a very high-profile human rights activist in Syria, apparently arrested on September 6th and died in custody -- again, further evidence of this regime's brutality, indiscriminate force, and absolute disregard for human life and for the human rights of its citizens," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
There was no mention of Ford's attendance on the U.S. embassy of Damascus's Facebook page. The last Facebook posting by Ford came on Sept. 8, where he references threats being made on his life by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"[Commenter] Mujtaba Xr warns me that I will face being killed if I continue my criticism of the repression in Syria. I take his post to be a perfectly good example of the kind of intolerance that has provoked such discontent in Syria," Ford wrote. "Remember that I am one of the few international observers here on the ground; if only the Syrian government would allow international media to move around the country freely like we did in Iraq!"
Ford's close call comes only two weeks after he was physically assaulted by a regime supporter while standing outside an anti-government sit-in by some lawyers at the Syrian Bar Association. The State Department didn't say anything about that incident either, until it was reported by The Cable.
Of course, it's possible that Ford is actually trying to get himself kicked out of Syria by the Assad regime. That would allow the Obama administration to spotlight Assad's intolerance and allow the State Department to avoid a fight over Ford's Senate confirmation.
The State Department has opened a brand-new office to manage U.S. policy toward countries attempting democratic transitions in the Middle East.
William Taylor, senior vice president for conflict management at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has moved over to Foggy Bottom to lead the new office, called the Middle East Transitions office, which began operations this week. His deputy is Tamara Cofman Wittes, who is now dual hatted, also continuing on deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. Taylor's chief of staff is Karen Volker, who until August was director of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is now directed by Tom Vajda. MEPI also falls under Wittes' portfolio. Taylor reports up to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.
In a Monday interview with The Cable, Taylor said his office will begin by leading State Department coordination on policy toward Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the three Middle East countries that are trying to make the shift from dictatorship to democracy.
"The idea is we want to focus energy and policy attention on how we support these three transition countries," he said. "The idea is to be sure this gets top-level attention in the department."
Taylor's office will have about 10 to 12 people, and he said he hopes to soon add a resident senior advisor from both USAID and the Pentagon. The office is meant to be permanent, and would expand its operations to cover countries like Syria and Yemen -- if and when those countries attempt a democratic transition.
Taylor's first job will be to lead an effort to develop support strategies for Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Then, his office will go about trying to implement those strategies by working within State, around the interagency process, and then with international financial institutions, non-governmental organizations, and stakeholders on the ground. Taylor said he will attend National Security Council meetings on issues related to his brief.
In President Barack Obama's May 19 speech on the Middle East, he promised to work on establishing enterprise funds for Egypt and Tunisia, which are accounts meant to support start up programs and activities abroad, and said that U.S. support for democracy will "be based on ensuring financial stability; promoting reform; and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy -- starting with Tunisia and Egypt."
Taylor said that the administration was still eager to pursue enterprise funds for these countries, but that legislation would be needed to get it done.
"We're looking at the possibly of enterprise funds model as a possible model for these transition countries but we're going to need a lot of support from Congress," he said, adding that State would also ask Congress for authorizations and appropriations to support the new transitions initiative at State. New funding for diplomatic initiatives is a tough sell in this tight fiscal environment, but transition funding does have some support in both parties.
Taylor was chosen for the job in part because he played a key role in a similar diplomatic effort following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, the State Department put together the Freedom Support Act Office, which managed relations with former members of the Soviet bloc.
That office was run by Ambassador Richard Armitage and reported up to Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Taylor worked for Armitage in that office and eventually became its director, a position he held until 2001. The Freedom Support Act Office was combined with the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) office and still exists today.
Taylor was U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, and before that served as Washington's envoy to the Mideast Quartet. In 2004 and 2005, he directed the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office in Baghdad, and from 2002 to 2003 he served in Kabul as coordinator of U.S. government and international assistance to Afghanistan.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.