When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Turkey for the latest meeting of the Libyan Contact Group on Friday, she will be asked to address how the Obama administration intends to help the rebel's Transitional National Council (TNC), which is running out of money and patience.
But what can she say? What will she say?
Four senators are renewing their push for the administration to recognize the TNC in advance of the Istanbul meeting. In a letter to Clinton last week, which was obtained by The Cable, they argued that the TNC's expanded inclusiveness and its new territorial gains make the case for recognition stronger. What's more, they said that diplomatic recognition was the best way to release the more than $30 billion in frozen Libyan assets that the rebels desperately want.
"We believe that formal recognition is justified, necessary and urgent," wrote Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Marco Rubio (R-FL). "Even more importantly, diplomatic recognition by the United States is now the best available means to ensure the TNC can secure access to the financial resources it desperately needs to meet the needs of the Libya people and sustain its fight against the Qaddafi regime, as legislation in Congress for this purpose has unfortunately become bogged down."
Over the past days, the White House has been considering the issue of extending diplomatic recognition intensively. We're told that there has been both a Deputies Committee meeting and a Principals Committee meeting in recent days to discuss what to do about the TNC. We don't know what the decision was, or if one has officially been made, but Clinton will likely unveil that information in Istanbul on Friday.
What's clear though is that the administration is in a bind, and one of its own making. They haven't recognized the TNC officially, which is the prerequisite for releasing some or all of the frozen Libyan assets to the TNC. The administration has come close, saying that the TNC is "the legitimate and credible interlocutor for the Libyan people." But that doesn't equal an official recognition, and doesn't allow the TNC to get their hands on the funds.
So far, 26 countries have recognized the TNC, including France, Britain, Spain, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and Canada.
The administration had been depending on Congress to pass legislation that would speed as much as $10 billion to the TNC from the frozen Qaddafi coffers. Unsurprisingly, the relevant legislation is bogged down in the Senate and has very little prospect of surfacing any time soon.
On Capitol Hill, frustration is growing with what many lawmakers and staffers see as a hands-off approach by the administration toward the Libyan rebels. For example, there is only a smattering of U.S. personnel on the ground in Benghazi, while other countries, such as Britain, have dozens of diplomats and advisors on hand.
The administration has one other option to get the money to the rebels. They could use the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), former Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey argued in an article for the Council on Foreign Relations. That law allows the president to take certain steps if he determines that a situation poses an "unusual and extraordinary threat" to national security. But since the White House has said there are no "hostilities" going on in Libya, that's going to be a tough case to make.
Yesterday, Clinton praised European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton for opening an EU office in Benghazi, but didn't say anything about the Obama administration's plans to assist the rebels in the near- or medium-term.
"As momentum continues to build in Libya, the people are not waiting to plan their new post-Qadhafi future. They are laying the foundation, organizing the institutions, and preparing the infrastructure, and the international community will support these efforts," Clinton said.
Whether the United States will be an integral part of those efforts remains to be seen.
GOP senators fought back today against the Democratic leadership's plan to debate and vote on the Libya war this week, but, following that episode, the leader of that effort said it should be the next item on the Senate's agenda.
Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and several other GOP senators held a late Tuesday afternoon press conference to celebrate the fact that they forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to scuttle his plans to hold a cloture vote on the Kerry-McCain resolution authorizing the military intervention in Libya.
"The events of this afternoon were very, very significant," Sessions said at the presser. "The Senate has sent a message to the leadership that we expect in this recess period that we do real work on the financial condition of our country, which includes budget issues and the debt ceiling. Those matters are of extreme focus for American and we should focus on that."
Of course, there isn't likely to be any floor debate on the debt limit this week, because those negotiations are stalled and being held behind closed doors. But there won't be any debate over the Libya war either, thanks to the efforts of the GOP caucus.
So when should the Senate get around to debating the Libya war, according to these senators? The Cable pressed Corker on that question at the press conference. After several attempts to skirt the question, Corker declared that the Libya debate was a lower priority because it won't force the administration to actually change its actions there, but nevertheless should be the Senate's next order of business.
Here's the exchange:
Josh Rogin: There are a lot of senators who want to debate the Libya war. It's been almost four months since we attacked Libya. When do you propose we get back to that?
Bob Corker: I think most people know that the resolution that's before us was defeated in the House. One of the things that has been a misnomer, the president has never asked for authorization of Libya.... What he did say is he would like to have a "sense of the Senate" resolution in support. In a cute way, he's tried to bypass the War Powers [Resolution]. I would have respected them more if they would have just said, "Hey we think [the War Powers Resolution] is unconstitutional." So there's no question that we need to return to the issue of Libya, because you cannot have somebody calling something "not hostilities" when it is. Let's settle this once and for all.... I think we will get back to that.
BC: There was nothing we were going to do this week in the Senate that in any way would have affected what was actually happening on the ground in Libya, nothing. Everybody knew that. The Senate might have voiced its opinion, but since the House already voted against the same resolution, nothing was going to change. So you're right, we need to get back to that.
BC: In my opinion -- I don't set the agenda -- that ought to be the very next item after we deal with these financial matters, that are more pressing and are something that we can actually affect, because again what we were going to do on Libya, which we are not going to do now, really wasn't going to affect the activities there either on the ground or in the air one iota.
The Senate indefinitely delayed its plan to debate the war in Libya on Tuesday, with Republicans decrying the very fact that the topic was on the table in the first place.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) cancelled the Senate's July 4 recess after President Barack Obama taunted lawmakers for leaving town while the country careens toward a fiscal crisis due to the lack of a deal over how to raise the debt ceiling. But since there's no progress on that front, Reid brought up the Kerry-McCain resolution to authorize Obama's military intervention in Libya.
But several senior Republicans took to the floor on Tuesday afternoon to object to debating the Libya mission at all and pledged to vote no on moving to debate the war -- arguing that the budget crisis was more pressing. Sensing that the vote was doomed to fail, Reid pulled the measure off the floor.
"Just to speak to how dysfunctional the U.S. senate is, we're here over the debt ceiling, but instead of focusing on the issue at hand, we're going to focus on something that's irrelevant possibly and has nothing to do with why we're here," Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), said on the Senate floor on Tuesday afternoon. "Let's not take up an issue that will have no effect on and has nothing to do with the debt ceiling, and take on those issues that will."
Corker is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Several other key Republicans, such as Senate Armed Services Committee members Robert Wicker (R-MS) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), promised to vote no on cloture, arguing not the merits of the war but rather the need to move immediately to budget matters.
The Senate has avoided a full vote on the Libya war for over three months and the complicated politics of the issue have placed both Republicans and Democrats in an uncomfortable position. For Democrats, they are being pressed by the administration to back the president's decision. Voting no risks the ire of the White House. But if they vote yes, their constituencies may fault them for supporting yet another war with an uncertain timeframe and costs.
For Republicans, voting no would risk ceding the national security high ground to a Democratic president; voting yes would put them on record pledging more American treasure to yet another unpopular and expensive foreign intervention.
Before Reid pulled the measure, several other senators were also set to vote no on debating the Libya war tonight based on their opposition to the mission or their anger at the president for not properly consulting Congress before attacking. Senators opposed to the Libya war overall include Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA), Ron Paul (R-KY), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
In his own floor speech on Thursday, Lugar objected to authorizing the Libya mission based on the cost and his dissatisfaction with the administration's justifications.
"American intervention in Libya did not come as a result of a disciplined assessment of our vital interests or an authorization debate in Congress," Lugar said. "A civil war in Libya is not a priority that required American military and economic investments. It is an expensive diversion that leaves the United States and our European allies with fewer assets to respond to other contingencies."
Lugar maintains that the War Powers Resolution does apply to the mission in Libya, despite the administration's claim there are no "hostilities" going on there, and he continues to demand clearer explanations of the mission's objectives, timelines, and costs.
"Even if one believes that the president somehow had the legal authority to initiate and continue U.S. military operations in Libya, it does not mean that going to war without Congress was either wise or helpful to the operation," Lugar said. "There was no good reason why President Obama should have failed to seek congressional authorization to go to war in Libya."
The House already rejected a similar measure to authorize the Libya war by a 123 to 295 vote on June 24. The House also narrowly rejected a motion to largely defund the mission, but that measure would have passed if not for some lawmakers' belief that it constituted a backdoor authorization for the war.
If today's vote had passed with 60 yes votes, a full debate over the war would have immediately followed, setting up a final vote on the Kerry-McCain resolution on Thursday afternoon.
But now, the Libya war debate will be shelved in the Senate until Reid brings it up again, probably after the debt ceiling deadline of Aug. 2, and perhaps much later. Our Hill sources tell us they expect the any further senate debate over Libya to be postponed until after the August congressional recess.
GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty will deliver a major address on foreign policy on Tuesday in what his top aides are billing as a rebuttal to what they see as President Barack Obama's flawed May 19 speech on the Middle East.
All the Republican presidential candidates are being forced to sharpen their foreign policy chops as the primary race heats up, but Pawlenty has been vocal on several key foreign policy issues for some time. His campaign may for now be light on foreign policy infrastructure, but it's heavy on policy positions and ideas, several of which he plans to lay out tomorrow morning when he addresses the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
"There's a frustration the governor feels with President Obama, that there's no strategic coherence to his foreign policy. Whether it's the Arab Spring, the Middle East peace process, Iran, or Syria there's an ad hoc approach to what they're doing. And the learning curve never seems to get flatter," Pawlenty's senior foreign policy advisor Brian Hook told The Cable.
"The governor's speech will set forth a strategically coherent approach to the Middle East and he will discuss a better way forward in the Middle East peace process."
Pawlenty will lay out a set of principles that the United States should adhere to in the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Pawlenty will also put forth his own views tomorrow for how the United States should respond to the Arab Spring. He will divide the countries of the region into categories -- those that are struggling for democracy, entrenched monarchies, anti-U.S. regimes such as Syria and Iran, and Israel. He will then argue that there's no one-size-fits-all solution for the problems plaguing the Middle East.
Hook, a former assistant secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, also worked as an advisor to two U.S. ambassadors: Zalmay Kalizad and John Bolton. He emphasizes that on foreign policy, Pawlenty is a "Reagan Republican" when it comes to the broad strokes.
On specific issues such as the president's approach to Israel, U.S. policy toward Iran, or U.S.-Russia relations, Pawlenty often shares the views of leading GOP hawks in the Senate such as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). But Pawlenty doesn't want to be identified as a neoconservative, and doesn't want his views to be tied to those senators in particular.
"I wish you could think of another way to describe this wing of the party, other than McCain and Lindsey Graham. I love John, but that's like saying we're embracing Nelson Rockefeller on economics," Pawlenty joked during his interview with Bloomberg News.
The other major foreign policy voice so far in Pawlenty's campaign is former Minnesota congressman and campaign co-chair Vin Weber, who was a member of the neoconservative group Project for a New American Century and an early supporter of the invasion of Iraq
But Hook said Pawlenty's foreign policy identity is his own.
"Governor Pawlenty believes in an exceptional America. He believes that a President must provide strong and decisive leadership to the forces of democracy, and President Obama has repeatedly failed at this basic task," he said.
Pawlenty mostly sticks to that forward-leaning approach, particularly in regard to Obama's intervention in Libya, a topic that he will also address on Tuesday. Pawlenty was among the first to call for a no-fly zone over Libya and for Muammar al-Qaddafi to go, but he's not satisfied with the way the Obama administration has handled the war.
"A quick, decisive decision by Obama in days, not weeks, to impose a no-fly zone would have given us a very different result. But once the president of the United States says that Qaddafi must go, you just can't let him sit there indefinitely and thumb his nose at us. He's a third-rate dictator who has American blood on his hands," he said.
Pawlenty's staff is aware that there is a fractious internal debate going on inside the GOP on foreign policy. The influx of Tea Party candidates in Congress has conflated foreign policy with calls to slash the budget, and candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are now questioning the continued commitment to Afghanistan. But Pawlenty is unmoved by the politics of the moment.
"Some foreign policy positions are not politically popular today, but the governor bases his decisions on principle and American values -- not what the polls say this week or next," Hook said.
Following the House of Representatives' stunning rebuke of the Obama administration's intervention in Libya last Friday, the Senate will weigh in tomorrow with a host of new proposed restrictions on President Barack Obama's war authorities.
The House voted overwhelmingly Friday not to authorize the Libya intervention and then narrowly rejected a measure that would have cut off most of the funding for the mission. A majority of lawmakers wanted to cut off the funds for Libya, but the vote failed because many congressmen believed that the bill, which left some of the funding in place, amounted to a "back door authorization" for the war.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow with State Department Counselor Harold Koh to examine the administration's claim that the Libya war does not amount to "hostilities," and therefore does not require congressional authorization under the War Powers Resolution.
After the hearing, the committee will hold a business meeting to consider a bill by Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that would authorize the Libya intervention. The committee could very well approve the bill, but not before several changes are made through amendments, most of them coming from ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"In this case, President Obama made a deliberate decision not to seek a Congressional authorization of his action, either before it commenced or during the last three months. This was a fundamental failure of leadership that placed expedience above Constitutional responsibility," Lugar will say at Tuesday's hearing, according to prepared remarks obtained by The Cable.
"At the outset of the conflict, the President asserted that U.S. military operations in Libya would be ‘limited in their nature, duration, and scope.' On this basis, the administration asserted that the actions did not require a declaration of war. Three months later, these assurances ring hollow," Lugar will say. "American and coalition military activities have expanded to an all but declared campaign to drive [Col. Muammar al] Qaddafi from power. The administration is unable to specify any applicable limits to the duration of the operations. And the scope has grown from efforts to protect civilians under imminent threat to obliterating Libya's military arsenal, command and control structure, and leadership apparatus."
Expect Lugar and other senators to challenge Koh on evidence that he was previously a staunch critic of granting the president unilateral war-making authority before joining the Obama administration. Koh reportedly supported the argument that the Libya intervention fell short of "hostilities" during the intra-administration debate on the topic.
When the committee does take up the Kerry-McCain resolution, Lugar will lead off with five amendments -- to limit the funds to only truly supportive functions like refueling and intelligence support, prevent any funding for ground troops, require the president to report every 60 days on the costs and progress of the Libya war, make sure it's clear Congress won't pay for reconstruction, and finally, to establish that it's the Senate's view that the Libya war does include "hostilities" and does fall under the War Powers Resolution.
Some or all of these could be approved by the committee, but the last one is almost sure to pass, given widespread congressional rejection of the administration's claim that legislative authorization is not required.
"You'll see overall consensus that their finding on a lack of ‘hostilities' doesn't stand," Lugar spokesman Mark Helmke told The Cable. "The overall mood is that you have to have authorization, and the question then is: Do enough Democrats feel comfortable with the other restrictions?"
Inside the committee, three Democrats have expressed reservations about the Libya war and could join with Republicans to restrict the president's authorities: Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and new committee member Richard Durbin (D-IL).
Webb said on Sunday's Meet the Press that he would support Lugar's amendments, and he criticized the Libya mission harshly.
"The president did not come to the Congress, and the reasons that he used for going in defy historical precedent," Webb said. "We weren't under attack, we weren't under an imminent attack, we weren't honoring treaty commitments, we weren't rescuing Americans. So, on the one hand, there's a very serious issue of precedent here."
Boxer pressed Kerry during a back and forth on the Senate floor on June 22, pushing him to confirm that the Libya resolution would not authorize ground troops and would expire in one year. Durbin supports the Kerry-McCain resolution but does not agree with the administration's argument that congressional authorization is unnecessary.
There are several other amendments expected Tuesday. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) has two amendments: one that would require the administration to seek reimbursement of the expenses of the mission from frozen Libyan assets and one that would require the administration to brief Congress every 15 days. Corker wants the authorization for the Libya war to expire after 6 months, as opposed to the 12 months granted under the Kerry-McCain measure.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) will offer an amendment that would call for further action on the investigation of the bombing of Pan Am 103, which was conducted by members of the Qaddafi regime. Going against the grain, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) will offer three amendments: to require the president to consult Congress before deploying ground troops, use the frozen assets to pay for U.S. operations, and clarify that Qaddafi's removal is the official policy of the U.S.
If and when SFRC finally approves the Kerry-McCain resolution to authorize the Libya war, that will mark the end of the Libya debate in the Senate for a while. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is not expected to begin the full Senate floor debate until after the July 4 recess.
Obama administration officials are claiming a partial victory today because the House rejected a measure to defund the Libya war, even after rejecting a separate measure that would have authorized the war. But the numbers don't tell the whole story.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to put lipstick on the pig of today's admonishment of the administration by Congress, saying that she was "gratified that the House has decisively rejected efforts to limit funding" for the intervention. She was referring to the House's rejection of a bill put forth by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) that would have shut off the spigot of funds for most, but not all, U.S. military operations in Libya.
The vote failed 180-238 - but, in fact, there were more than enough lawmakers to pass the measure. Of the 149 Democrats who stuck with the president, up to 70 of them are totally opposed to the Libya intervention and want to see it completely defunded as soon as possible. They voted "no" on the Rooney's bill because they thought it was too weak, did not cut off all funds, and implicitly authorized the intervention.
These 70 Democrats make up the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), the largest caucus within the House Democratic Caucus, whose leadership includes Reps. Mike Honda (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ).
"Members of Congress voted no because the bill provided funding and legal authority for everything we're currently doing. It was back door authorization. Members didn't support authorizing what we're doing now in Libya," Michael Shank, Honda's spokesman, told The Cable. "The majority of the CPC voted no on the Rooney vote because of this."
In other words, if the GOP had put forth a stronger anti-Libya resolution, the progressive Democrats would have joined them and it would have passed. Despite what Clinton or other administration officials may say, the bill's failure cannot be seen as an endorsement of the Libya war.
The argument that the Rooney bill indirectly authorized the Libya war was made Friday on the House floor by many, including Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), who said:
"This bill purports to cut off funding for combat in Libya. In doing so it simply forbids what the constitution already forbids, the waging of war without explicit congressional authorization. But then it specifically grants to the president what up until now he has completely lacked: Congressional authority to engage in every conceivable belligerent act short of actually pulling the trigger."
"Refueling bombers on their way to targets, identifying and selecting targets, guiding munitions to their targets, logistical support, operational planning... these are all acts of war in direct support of belligerence at war and this bill authorizes them," he said. "Let's not enter a war through the backdoor when we have already decided not to enter it through the front."
And in case there was any doubt on the CPC's position, their leaders issued the following statement:
The Co-Chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Peace and Security Taskforce call on Congress and the President to immediately end our war in Libya. The US has been engaged in hostilities for over 90 days without congressional approval, which undermines not only the powers of the legislative branch but also the legal checks and balances put in place nearly 40 years ago to avoid abuse by any single branch of government.
We call on our colleagues in Congress to exercise their legitimate authority and oversight and immediately block any funding for this war. Before the Executive branch further weakens the War Powers Resolution, and before we attack another country in the name of our "responsibility to protect," we must recommit ourselves to our Constitutional duty and obligation to hold the purse strings and the right to declare war. For decades, the House recognized the need for appropriate checks and balances before another war was waged. We must do the same. We call on Congress to exhibit similar foresight by promptly ending this war and pledging to uphold the laws that characterize America's commitment to democratic governance.
The top U.S. admiral involved in the Libya war admitted to a U.S. congressman that NATO forces are trying to kill Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. The same admiral also said he anticipated the need for ground troops in Libya after Qaddafi falls, according to the lawmaker.
House Armed Services Committee member Mike Turner (R-OH) told The Cable that U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the NATO Joint Operations Command in Naples, Italy, told him last month that NATO forces are actively targeting and trying to kill Qaddafi, despite the fact that the Obama administration continues to insist that "regime change" is not the goal and is not authorized by the U.N. mandate authorizing the war.
"The U.N. authorization had three components: blockade, no fly zone, and civil protection. And Admiral Locklear explained that the scope of civil protection was being interpreted to permit the removal of the chain of command of Qaddafi's military, which includes Qaddafi," Turner said. "He said that currently is the mission as NATO has defined."
"I believed that we were [targeting Qaddafi] but that confirmed it," Turner said. "I believe the scope that NATO is pursuing is beyond what is contemplated in civil protection, so they're exceeding the mission."
Later in the same briefing, Turner said, Locklear maintained that the NATO mission does not include regime change. "Well, certainly if you remove Qaddafi it will affect regime change," Turner said that he replied. "[Locklear] did not have an answer to that."
Locklear also said that, upon Qaddafi's removal, ground troops would be needed during the immediate period of instability, Turner said. In fact, Locklear said publicly that a "small force" might be necessary following the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in a May 30 conference in Varna, Bulgaria.
Turner joined hundreds of other lawmakers in voting against authorizing the Libya war on Friday morning. The authorization resolution was defeated 123 to 297. A subsequent vote on a bill to defund the Libya mission also failed 180-238 .
Turner has been opposed to the Libya war from the start and even introduced a resolution opposing the effort. For him, Friday's chaotic Libya debate was a direct result of the administration's neglect and disrespect of Congress throughout the debate over the mission.
"The president hasn't come to Congress and said any of this, and yet Admiral Locklear is pursuing the targeting of Qaddafi's regime, Qaddafi himself, and contemplating ground troops following Qaddafi's removal," Turner said. "They're not being straightforward with Congress... It's outrageous."
Ignoring Congress allowed the administration to ignore the large, looming questions about the Libya war that congressmen are asking -- especially today, as another vote to defund the mission looms before the House next month, when the defense appropriations bill is set to be debated. But if the House does vote to defund the mission, Turner said, Obama will have nobody to blame but himself.
"I believe that this administration has handled this so badly, that if they had come to Congress, I think they would have done more of their homework. They have not done a full assessment of their mission, its scope, or the consequences if they're successful. Congress would have required that," Turner said. "Now it's a little late."
The House of Representatives, in a culmination of over three months of Congressional frustration with the Obama administration's handling of the Libya intervention, voted against authorizing the war 123-295 and is set to vote for cutting off most of the funding for the mission.
The resolution to authorize the President Obama's intervention in Libya, sponsored by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), garnered only 8 GOP votes.
But all of this could have been avoided if overworked top Obama administration officials had not been too physically exhausted to pay a little more attention to Capitol Hill, according to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
"It's crazy that we're fighting over this the way we are," Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) said in a roundtable with reporters just now.
The scene here at the Capitol on this sunny, summer Friday morning is surreal, as the three-hour debate continues. Lawmakers, who must still vote a resolution to cut off all funds for the war sponsored by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL), are continuously unleashing statements on why the Libya war represents a threat to the Constitution, a plundering of the Treasury, or an overreach of U.S. power.
The arguments against the war are all over the map. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) actually said the votes were the best way to prevent a decades-long slide into "monarchy." Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) launched into a diatribe about the abuse of wartime contractors.
Democrats like Howard Berman (D-CA) and Jim McDermott (D-WA) tried to defend the president's policy by making the humanitarian argument and focusing on the limited nature of U.S. involvement. But they were shouted down by the war's opponents, many even from within their own party. "What, we don't have enough wars going on?" said Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), sarcastically.
To be clear, the votes today won't actually force President Barack Obama to terminate the U.S. military intervention in Libya. But though the votes are largely symbolic, that doesn't mean they aren't hugely important. The Obama administration realizes the negative impact of a rebuke by the House, and is even resorting to rhetoric that implies the GOP might actually be helping Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.
"Who's side are you on?" Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this week, showing her deep frustration with Congressional opposition to the Libya war.
McKeon said this was exactly the kind of unhelpful statement that showed the administration's lack of respect for Congress and its fumbling of the politics of the Libya war.
"She is one of the ones that caused us to be where we are," McKeon shot back, in response to a question from The Cable.
So how did we get here? On March 17 -- the same day that Obama was pursuing the authorization for war at the United Nations and two days after he decided he wanted to attack Libya -- the president had a 90-minute lunch with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) but never mentioned Libya once, McKeon said. McKeon left Washington that night, only to receive a phone call 10 a.m. Friday morning, saying, "The president wants you in the White House in an hour for a meeting."
"It's like at the last minute somebody thought ‘here's something we should check off, talk to the Congress,'" McKeon said.
When Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates eventually did come to Capitol Hill to brief Congress a week later, someone asked Clinton directly to address the issue of Congressional authorization and the War Powers Resolution.
"[Clinton] said, paraphrase, ‘It doesn't matter what you think, we're doing what we're doing.'" McKeon said. "I heard from a lot of people on both sides of the aisle that that really bothered them."
"Somebody else told me Secretary Clinton was living on about 3 or 4 hours sleep a night. So I just gave her the benefit of the doubt on that, I figured she was just tired and stressed when she made that comment," McKeon added.
McKeon then asked Gates to brief his committee for 3 hours, but Gates negotiated down the amount of time, telling McKeon, "I am exhausted... just physically," McKeon said.
Communication with Congress did not improve from then on, leaving lawmakers to come up with their own views on the war, McKeon said.
"There are a lot of people in the conference that feel the president has violated the constitution. And yet, some of those same people, they're not opposed to the mission in Libya," McKeon said." They think if he had met with Congress or in some way done a better job of setting up what he was going to do, they would feel much more comfortable and we wouldn't even be at the point where we are at."
McKeon is the quintessential GOP defense hawk in Congress. He is for steadily increasing defense budgets. He thinks Obama made a mistake by announcing the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. He is concerned that the GOP is risking its credibility on national security.
"Conservative Republicans have a three legged stool: defense, fiscal responsibility, and social issues. Right now the stool is out of balance because fiscal matters are dominating everything," he said.
But when it comes to Libya, even he just doesn't see the logic of the endeavor.
"Why aren't we in Syria, why aren't we in Yemen," McKeon said. [Obama's] argument, you could drive a tank through it. It doesn't make sense."
He doesn't believe President Obama's contention that the United States has taken itself out of the lead role in Libya. And he doesn't buy that a NATO-led mission that's dependent on the U.S. military is much different than any other international mission where the U.S. military is involved.
"The President is in a box because he's getting hit from the left as far as anything he does with the military, so he used [NATO] as cover," McKeon said. "NATO is us. So I think that was just a thing the president kind of used to say ‘hey it's not us.' They can't do it without us."
McKeon believes that the Libya war is currently in a stalemate, hindered by a mission plan that is meant to protect Libyan civilians, but does not permit the targeting of the despot who is killing those civilians.
So what does McKeon think we should do now? Kill Qaddafi. "We should get him, whatever it takes."
Does that include ground troops, we asked? "No."
Congress has gone back and forth over whether to keep sending cash and equipment to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), particularly following a clash between the Israeli army and the LAF along the Israel-Lebanon border in August 2010 that left five people dead. Now Howard Berman (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is pushing a bill to end almost all U.S. assistance to Lebanon. He's joined by the top Lebanese-Americans in Congress, including Darrell Issa (R-CA), Charles Boustany (R-LA), and Nick Rahall (D-WV).
His bill, the Hezbollah Anti-Terrorism Act (HATA), is modeled on Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act (PATA) that Congress passed after Hamas won the 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council.
"When there is essentially a government in Lebanon where a militia organization that has a political front and that is on our terrorist list is determining the nature of that government, the fundamental nature of Lebanon changes very much, from an election-based democracy into a different kind of country," Berman said in a Friday afternoon interview with The Cable.
"Under those situations, with limited exceptions, I don't think American taxpayers should be providing military or economic assistance to help Hezbollah maintain its grip on the government of Lebanon," he added.
Berman had put a hold on assistance to Lebanon last summer, but later allowed the money to go through because he wanted to strengthen the LAF in its internal struggle against Hezbollah. But now the situation is totally different and he won't back off, he said.
"The notion that the LAF will remain an island of independence under a government that is dominated and welded together by Hezbollah is a very different proposition," he said.
Berman's bill would still allow support for rule of law and democracy programs, educational funding, and even training of Lebanese forces in America under the IMET program. The president would also be able to waive restrictions in the law in cases that were deemed to be in the national security interests of the U.S.
His GOP counterpart, HFAC chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) is generally supportive of the idea and is considering supporting the bill, Berman said.
But what about the notion that Iran will be more than happy to make up any deficit caused by the withdrawal of U.S. aid?
"Iran has been supplying Hezbollah for years. This is not a fear, this is a reality. We have to respond to this reality and I think this is the way to do it," Berman said.
He released a summary of the legislation, which could come up as a free-standing bill or as an amendment to a larger piece of legislation.
The Obama administration will expand sanctions on Iran and countries that do business with it, but new congressional legislation is unnecessary, according to Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg.
The House and Senate have each unveiled a bill that would tighten existing sanctions, compel the administration to enforce penalties already on the books, and levy a host of new sanctions against members of Iran's regime and companies that aid Iran's energy, banking, or 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.
Lawmakers are increasingly frustrated that the administration has decided not to use CISADA to penalize many companies from third-party countries such as China that are believed to be violating the sanctions, while only punishing a couple of firms from countries such as Belarus. The new bills are meant to force action on Chinese companies. But Steinberg said that the administration doesn't support another round of sanctions legislation and will proceed with enforcement on its own timeline.
"We think we have powerful tools, and we've welcomed CISADA and we think CISADA is a powerful tool, and what we've seen, not just with China but with everybody, is that the availability of that has caused countries and companies to stop doing things that they might otherwise do," Steinberg told The Cable in a June 6 interview on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore.
Steinberg fundamentally disagreed with senators who believe that China has not been adhering to the sanctions and allowing its companies to backfill the business in Iran left open by the departure of firms from U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea.
"I think the [Chinese] record has been reasonably good in terms of what they've done. It's not perfect, and we continue to work with them, we continue to keep some actions of theirs under investigation and review," he said.
"I think people -- if one would have asked two years ago, for example, on dealing with Iran, how much we would be in sync with China -- I think they would be amazed how well this has worked, both in terms of the formal stuff in the Security Council, but also in the P5+1," said Steinberg. "The Chinese have been fully on board, they haven't undercut it, they've been very clear and consistent with the need for Iran to meet their obligations and they've worked as a partner with us on that. They've been very restrained in their political and economic engagement with Iran."
Will the administration ever sanction Chinese companies for doing business in Iran, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, continues to this day?
"It depends what they do," Steinberg said. "As we've said to the Congress and to everybody, in the first best instance what we want is to see countries do it voluntarily, and we've seen a number of cases where we've raised issues of concern with China, and we've had some progress."
The lawmakers who spent months drafting the new sanctions legislation and who are planning to push it through Congress this summer fundamentally disagree with Steinberg's reading of Chinese behavior.
"I worry that the Obama administration has given Chinese banks and companies a get out of jail free card when it comes to sanctions law, and they should not," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) said at last month's AIPAC conference in Washington.
In a Tuesday interview with The Cable, Kirk said that the Senate bill has strong leadership from both parties, including lead sponsors Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and many others.
"The hollowness of the administration's enforcement is evident when you compare how much the U.S. and Iranian economies grew last year. Because Ahmadinejad's economic growth was faster than Obama's, that underscores our concern that the results are meager at best," Kirk said.
"We have overwhelming bipartisan consensus here and in the House as well, so I would say to Secretary Steinberg, prepare for incoming legislation."
As the Obama administration struggles to find common ground with the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership grapples with internal squabbles, one U.S. senator is proposing a host of ways to deepen cooperation between the United States and Israel.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) spent last week on what he calls "an intense fact-finding mission to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan," where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Jordan's King Abdullah II, and many others. In a soon-to-be-released report, obtained in advance by The Cable, he proposes a path forward for increased U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation and lays out his views on how Congress should deal with the thorniest issues of the U.S. approach to the Middle East.
Kirk is proposing an increased role for the Israeli Navy in global anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean in cooperation with India. He wants to vastly expand U.S.-Israeli cooperation on cyber security, beyond the suspected cooperation on the Stuxnet worm that has delayed Iran's uranium enrichment program. Kirk is also calling on the Joint Chiefs to review the possibility of adapting Israel's "Iron Dome" short-range missile defense system for use by the United States and NATO.
"We are stretched quite thin in the Indian Ocean and to have Israeli support will be critical in managing and reducing the pirate threat," Kirk said in a Tuesday interview with The Cable.
Regarding the stalled Middle East peace process, Kirk maintains that the United States should reaffirm President George W. Bush's 2004 letter on borders, which somewhat contradicts Obama's May 17 statement that borders should be based on 1967 lines with agreed swaps. Obama's new language for the first time made it official U.S. policy what had long been the Palestinian goal of using the 1967 lines as a basis for new borders.
Kirk's report also states that U.S. funding should not go to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, nor should the United States give aid to the Palestinian Authority if it seeks a unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations in September or fails to curb anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian schools.
"It just seems extraordinarily difficult in the middle of deficits and debt that we should borrow money from China to fund a Hamas-supported government," Kirk said. "We would still support Palestinian schools and hospitals, but the approximately $200 million in direct support to the PA would be in jeopardy."
Kirk also wants the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to start transferring its management of Palestinian health and education services over to the Palestinian government, and for the State Department to designate the Turkish aid organization IHH, which organized the flotilla of ships that tried to breach Israel's Gaza blockade in May 2010, as a terrorist organization.
On his trip, Kirk also met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Benjamin Gantz, Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo, senior advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister Ron Dermer, Israeli Navy commander in chief Vice Admiral Eliezer Marum, Israeli Ministry of Defense Political-Military Bureau Director Amos Gilead, Deputy Israeli Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya'alon, Israeli Prime Minister's Office spokesman Mark Regev, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Jerusalem Post Palestinian Affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh.
Human rights in Iran were also a big focus for Kirk on the trip. The senator made a video with Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident, in which Sharansky recited a list of dissidents who are currently imprisoned by the Iranian regime.
You can watch that video here:
UPDATE: Ecclestone now says the race is a no-go due to the opposition of the racing teams. "Of course it's not on," the BBC quotes him saying.
On Friday, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the governing body for the world of motor sports, announced its decision to return the Bahrain Grand Prix to the island Gulf nation, which has been rocked by unrest, brutal human rights abuses, and a deepening sectarian divide since protests broke out on Feb. 14.
In making its decision, the FIA sent a "fact-finding mission" to Bahrain in late May to determine whether it would be safe to hold the race, which was canceled earlier this year amid the violence. According to Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, quoted in the Guardian, "The FIA sent people out there to check on the situation, they came back and reported everything is fine."
The report, a copy of which was provided to FP by the New York-based human rights group Avaaz, was signed by FIA Vice President Carlos Gracia, who traveled to Bahrain on May 30 and May 31 along with an assistant, Carlos Abella.
It appears to be a complete whitewash.
According to the report, Gracia and Abella met with several government officials, including Minister of Culture Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa, Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, Public Security Chief Maj. Gen. Tariq bin Dana, Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed R. al-Zayani, and BIC CEO Salman bin Eissa al-Khalifa -- and seem to have accepted their views uncritically.
They also met with Tariq al-Saffar of the pro-grovernment National Institute of Human Rights, who was appointed in 2010 by King Hamad. (Saffar is also managing director of advertising firm Fortune Promoseven, which lists the F1 Grand Prix as a client.)
Gracia and Abella did dine with several unnamed foreign business leaders -- a dinner arranged by their government host -- but met with zero members of the opposition or with independent rights groups, and did not tour Shiite neighborhoods that have reportedly been under siege for weeks, though they did visit a shopping mall.
Nonetheless, they concluded, "Life in Bahrain is completely normal again" -- an observation at odds with copious reporting on the state of fear that has gripped the country since Saudi troops intervened in late March.
Other questionable assertions: "Security is guaranteed" ... "visitor figures have returned to the same level -- and are even increasing -- when compared against figures in previous years" ... "atmosphere of total calm and stability" ... "the presence of military forces was limited to a few, certain, strategic points."
In perhaps their most ludicrous claim, the fact-finders found "NO indication of any problems or reason why Bahrain's F1 Grand Prix should not return to the 2011 Calendar."
Human Rights Watch Deputy Director Tom Porteous, in a May 26 letter to FIA chairman Jean Todt, urged the FIA to consider the government's harsh crackdown in making its decision.
"The government's violent suppression of all protests in mid-March, in which some two dozen persons were killed, mostly protesters or bystanders at the hands of security forces, has featured large-scale arbitrary arrests, protracted incommunicado detention, and credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment of persons in custody," Porteous wrote.
That advice seems to have been ignored.
"Formula 1 wanted to be told that everything is fine, and that's the answer they got," said Rutgers University assistant professor Toby Jones, an expert on Bahrain.
The Bahraini regime has presented the return of the Grand Prix as a major victory, a stamp of approval from an international community that has largely condemned the crackdown.
But holding the race may have been a miscalculation, warned Jones, "because it gives the protesters a date to rally around."
The race is now scheduled for October 30, but a change of heart by Ecclestone and growing opposition from racing teams could see it canceled yet again.
President Obama was due to meet Bahrain's crown prince on Tuesday.
One day after the Senate unveiled its wide ranging new Iran sanctions legislation and on the same day 10,000 AIPAC supporters are on the Hill, the Obama administration announced it would enforce penalties on seven companies doing business with Iran.
Outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg briefed the press on Tuesday on the administration's move to sanction seven companies under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), passed and signed into law last July. For those keeping count, that's a total of nine sanctioned firms since the law has been in place. The companies are: Petrochemical Commercial Company International (PCCI), UK and Iran; Royal Oyster Group, UAE; Speedy Ship, UAE, Iran; Tanker Pacific, Singapore; Ofer Brothers Group, Israel; Associated Shipbroking, Monaco; and Petroleos de Venezuela, sometimes known as PDVSA, in Venezuela.
All of the companies have been involved in the supply of refined petroleum products to Iran, Steinberg said.
"In its struggle to secure the resources it needs for its energy sector, Iran repeatedly has resorted to deceptive practices to evade sanctions... Today's actions add further pressure on Iran to comply with its international obligations," he said. "By imposing these sanctions, we're sending a clear message to companies around the world: Those who continue to irresponsibly support Iran's energy sector or help facilitate Iran's efforts to evade U.S. sanctions will face significant consequences."
Not all the companies were sanctioned in all the same way. For example, PDVSA will no longer have access to U.S. government contracts and U.S. Export-Import Bank financing and technology licenses, but the company can still sell oil to the United States and their subsidiaries are exempt from the sanctions.
Many in Congress are increasingly unhappy with the Obama administration for failing to enforce penalties on companies from countries who are not part of the sanctions team that do business with Iran. CISADA directs the administration to punish all these companies. Last October, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that identified 16 companies as having sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China.
But no Chinese companies have been sanctioned by the Obama administration to date for aiding Iran's energy sector.
"I worry that the Obama administration has given Chinese banks and companies a get out of jail free card when it comes to sanctions law and they should not," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) said Monday at the AIPAC conference.
Steinberg also noted that the administration has separately decided to impose sactions on 16 more foreign firms and individuals for their misbehavior on missile programs or WMD under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA), three of which are from China.
Initial reaction to the administration's Tuesday announcement was mixed, with some praise and some skepticism that the new sanctions won't go far enough to transform the intent of the legislation into results.
"This sanction is a good first step and shows the importance of deeds, not only words. This step should send ripples of fear throughout the energy sector that Iran sanctions will be enforced," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director and head of the Iran Energy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
But multiple Senate aides told The Cable that they would continue to press the administration to enforce energy industry sanctions against third-party countries such as China and Russia.
"The question is, how does this appear to the international community? Do they look at these sanctions and say that the Americans aren't serious about stopping what's going on in the market? Sadly, I think the answer is yes," said one senior GOP Senate aide.
"It's always good when they sanction somebody, but the devil is in the details."
On Friday, the Obama administration will reach the 60-day limit on how long it can wage war in Libya without congressional authorization, as spelled out in the War Powers Resolution of 1973. But does the administration, or for that matter Congress, even care?
Section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. § 1544(b)) mandates that:
Within sixty calendar days after a report is submitted or is required to be submitted pursuant to section 4(a)(1), whichever is earlier, the President shall terminate any use of United States Armed Forces with respect to which such report was submitted (or required to be submitted), unless the Congress (1) has declared war or has enacted a specific authorization for such use of United States Armed Forces, (2) has extended by law such sixty-day period, or (3) is physically unable to meet as a result of an armed attack upon the United States. Such sixty day period shall be extended for not more than an additional thirty days if the President determines and certifies to the Congress in writing that unavoidable military necessity respecting the safety of United States Armed Forces requires the continued use of such armed forces in the course of bringing about a prompt removal of such forces.
President Barack Obama notified Congress of his intention to commit U.S. forces to war in Libya on March 21, so the 60-day deadline is May 20. But there's no chance the U.S. involvement in the Libyan war will end by then and there's no chance Congress will move to formally express its view on the war before the deadline.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) circulated a letter on Wednesday, obtained by The Cable, demanding that Obama explain exactly what he plans to do.
"As recently as last week your Administration indicated use of the United States Armed Forces will continue indefinitely. Therefore, we are writing to ask whether you intend to comply with the requirements of the War Powers Resolution. We await your response," Paul wrote.
The letter was also signed by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Mike Lee (R-UT).
The Cable asked NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor if the president intended to comply with the War Powers Act or even believed it to be constitutional, but Vietor declined to comment.
We're told by two congressional sources that the White House is considering declaring that U.S. military involvement in Libya has paused, only for it to resume in a few days, thereby resetting the 60-day clock. But that questionable legal tactic, for now, is not being confirmed by anybody in the administration.
Regardless, as of Friday, any one senator can invoke the War Powers Resolution, which would force the Senate to debate the issue. Several Senate offices are scrambling now to figure out exactly how the law would be invoked, but the most likely scenario would be for one senator to raise a budget point of order, which would seek to cut off all funding for war operations in Libya immediately, thus kicking off the debate.
The White House does seem nervous about the deadline. The administration pulled Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from a scheduled Thursday hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was then cancelled.
Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) had been working on a resolution expressing support for the administration's military intervention in Libya, but the final language was never worked out and the momentum for doing anything in the Senate with regard to Libya petered out as the focus turned to the budget battle.
Kerry told reporters on Tuesday that he was open to debating and passing a resolution in the Senate on Libya, but said he didn't see any enthusiasm from leadership or his caucus to get something done.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said on Tuesday that a Senate resolution approving the Libya war was more trouble than it was worth because though most senators approved of the Libya war, they couldn't agree on the details of how a resolution should be worded.
Still, there are several GOP senators who would like to use the deadline to press the administration for more clarity on the mission: goals, benchmarks, costs, and lots of other details. These senators include Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) who has been demanding such answers to no avail.
But GOP senators are in something of a bind on the issue, as several of them are on the record as arguing that the War Powers Resolution, which has never been challenged in court, is unconstitutional.
"I've never recognized the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, nor has any president, Republican or Democrat," exclaimed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), speaking to reporters on Tuesday.
Levin predicted that if the issue came to a head, the White House would declare the law invalid.
"If we operated under the War Powers Act, [the White House is] going to say the War Powers Act is not constitutional and the whole thing ends in court," Levin said.
He added that there's an easier and more effective way for senators to stop the war -- if that's what they want to do. They can just hold up the money.
"You don't have to go through the complexities of the War Powers Act.... It's called the power of the purse."
In his 45-minute speech on the Middle East Thursday, President Obama spoke of his admiration for the wave of protests movements rocking the region, attempting to square U.S. interests with the democratic aspirations of an increasingly restive Arab street. He also announced several incremental shifts in U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps," the U.S. president said, referring to what are official known as the 1949 Armistice lines, "so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."
That's one step further the position outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Washington, when she called for such an outcome to be the product of negotiations: "We believe that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements."
Former Congressman Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable that Obama's announcement was a bold step toward Middle East peace that alters U.S. policy in a fundamental way.
"The president put on record today that America's position that the conflict should be resolved on ‘67 lines with agreed swaps," Wexler said. "By doing so, he has ensured that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state, and second, he has created a moment of truth for Prime Minister [Bibi] Netanyahu, President [Mahmoud] Abbas, and the Israeli and Palestinian peoples."
Wexler sees the move as a daring challenge to both Netanyahu and Abbas to restart the peace process based on the parameters Obama laid out in the speech, which included a clear rejection of Abbas's strategy of pursuing a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state at the U.N. General Assembly.
"No longer in earnest can Abbas call for a settlement freeze; no longer can Abbas say he pursuing a strategy at the U.N. to realize a Palestinian state," Wexler said. "Likewise, Netanyahu must determine whether or not he is willing to negotiate based on the 1967 lines with agreed territorial swaps and realize an outcome that brings 80 percent of Jewish Israelis who are today outside of the ‘67 lines within the internationally recognized borders of the state of Israel."
There was considerable debate inside the administration as to whether making such bold statements on the peace process was a good idea, but in the end, Obama made the call himself and did so because he thought such language was necessary to give credibility to his overall regional policy, according to Wexler.
"It certainly was a difficult decision, but ultimately the president determined that a call for reform in the Middle East and an American proscription for engagement with the Arab nations would seem hollow if [Obama] did not provide direction on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well," Wexler said.
There's also evidence that the decision went down to the wire. Obama was more than 25 minutes late to deliver his speech and White House aides told reporters the delay was due to last-minute edits. A text of the speech was emailed to reporters halfway through Obama's remarks, whereas usually the text is distributed as soon as a presidential speech begins.
The Israelis were surprised by the remarks as well. The Netanyahu government had been assured of no surprises in the speech, especially since Obama is set to meet with the prime minister in Washington Friday and address the policy conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, on Sunday. Obama's remarks were not only a surprise, but "not a very good one," one Israeli official said.
Netanyahu's office reacted immediately after the speech, writing on his official website:
Israel appreciates President Obama's commitment to peace. Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state. That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress.
Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines. Those commitments also ensure Israel's well-being as a Jewish state by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel. Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel, no territorial concession will bring peace.
Some of Israel's supporters saw the remarks as unhelpful.
"Mentioning the ‘67 borders in this way, at this time, is a major mistake that simply repeats the error made when the White House focused on settlements and drove the Palestinians to an untenable position from which they will not climb down," said Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC, now a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. "This strategic error is manifold, and undermines, not advances, the prospects for peace talks."
The other shift in Obama's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was that he called for the issues of territory and security to be dealt with first before issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees are tackled.
"Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians," Obama said. "Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table."
"The president outlined a process in which Israel's security will be guaranteed, its Jewishness will be without question, and the withdrawal of Israeli security forces will be phased and conditioned on the behavior of the Palestinians. If the Palestinians do not perform, the Israelis won't have to withdraw from security points," said Wexler. "Today, the president made that the official U.S. position."
Block argued that while it's true Obama's scheme does acknowledge that Israel should retain control over large parts of the West Bank, to push this idea now, just as the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are forming a unity government, is unwise.
Obama addressed that issue in his speech by saying, "Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist."
"There's no good answer to the question of what to do about Hamas," said Wexler. "But Obama put the onus on the Palestinians to provide an answer."
The Obama administration has been furiously advancing its regional diplomatic efforts on a wide range of issues in the run-up to the Middle East speech that President Barack Obama will deliver at the State Department on Thursday.
Top administration officials have been meeting with Arab leaders, preparing new announcements on aid to the region, finalizing sanctions on bad actors, and closely coordinating the president's message in the last few days. Obama's mission is a tough one -- to clarify a consistent U.S. approach to the region despite his administration's varied responses to the uprisings that have occurred throughout the region this year. And there's a lot on his plate.
"Specifically, a successful speech will need to align America with the most positive aspects of Arab rebellions against autocracy; reflect a balance between the hope and fear triggered in equal parts by seismic political change; signal American support for a process of democratic choice without suggesting indifference to the outcome of free and fair elections; project both disapproval and understanding -- but not endorsement -- toward those U.S. friends, especially in the Gulf, who refuse reform and repress its advocates; and explain why the maniacal dictator in Libya merits NATO bombing while the capo di tutti capi in Damascus does not even merit specific personal opprobrium for his outrageous behavior," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The administration ratcheted up its response to Damascus today, announcing that the United States will expand sanctions to include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses over their brutal crackdown on anti-government protests. The administration sanctioned some Syrian officials last month, but this is the first time Assad himself is the target of such measures.
On Monday, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Jordan's King Abdullah in Washington in a potential preview of the speech's message on Middle East peace. "We both share the view that despite the many changes, or perhaps because of the many changes, it's more vital than ever that the Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table," Obama said after the meeting.
The speech is not expected to delve into the details of any plan to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a process that ended formally with the resignation of Special Envoy George Mitchell, but the administration has also been in close contact with the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to coordinate messaging. Netanyahu will meet with Obama on Friday in Washington, and will also deliver a speech to Congress on May 24.
Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg is in Israel and the West Bank today, meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Steinberg will participate in the U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue on Thursday, which will firm up progress on U.S.-Israel security cooperation.
Steinberg was in Bahrain on Tuesday, along with Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, reinforcing the explicitly different tone the administration has taken with that regime, which is also implicated in human rights abuses against protesters.
"During his meetings, Deputy Secretary Steinberg affirmed the long-standing commitment of the U.S. to a strong partnership with both the people and the Government of Bahrain and stressed the importance of full respect for universal human rights," the State Department said in a read out. "He urged all parties to pursue a path of reconciliation and comprehensive political dialogue."
Meanwhile, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has been busily firming up the administration's stance on Yemen, where protesters have been pressing the government to fulfill promises of a leadership change. Brennan called President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Wednesday to urge him to implement the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement, which would see Saleh step down from power.
"Brennan noted that this transfer of power represents the best path forward for Yemen to become a more secure, unified, and prosperous nation and for the Yemeni people to realize their aspirations for peace and political reform," the White House said in a statement about the call.
What about Egypt and Tunisia? The State Department has been working to finalize a new aid package for Middle East countries transitioning to democracy, the Wall Street Journal reported today, just in time for Thursday's speech.
On Libya, Obama is expected to claim limited success in the mission to protect civilians, pledge additional support for the Transitional National Council, and repeat calls for Col. Muammar al Qaddafi to step down.
Obama is also planning a series of events following the speech to drive home his message. On May 20, he will go to CIA headquarters to thank the agency for its work in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. On May 22, he'll address the AIPAC conference in Washington.
The relationship between the Arab Spring and the drive for Middle East peace is one area of the speech lawmakers are listening for closely. Does the president think the wave of democratic revolutions across the region make the peace process easier or harder?
"I think in some ways it makes it harder and in some ways it makes it easier," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable. "The thrust of the Arab Spring is democratic and not really religious so that makes it easier. But it's also harder because when you have a population in a state of upset it's kind of hard to lead to that population."
The State Department is publicly blaming Syria for the clashes between Israel Defense Forces soldiers and unarmed protesters that resulted in over a dozen deaths Sunday, but officials didn't offer any direct evidence to support that assertion.
"We do think that this is an effort by the Syrian government to play a destabilizing role," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at Monday's briefing in response to a question from The Cable. "It's clearly an effort by them to take focus off the situation that's happening right now in Syria. And it's a cynical use of the Palestinian cause to encourage violence along its border as it continues to repress its own people within Syria."
Toner's comments follow those of White House spokesman Jay Carney, who said on Monday morning that the United States is "strongly opposed to the Syrian government's involvement in inciting yesterday's protests in the Golan Heights. Such behavior is unacceptable and does not serve as a distraction from the Syrian government's ongoing repression of demonstrators in its own country."
Both spokesmen affirmed Israel's right to defend its own borders. Neither offered any direct evidence that the Syrian government was directly involved. The violence along the Golan Heights marked the first clashes on the Syrian-Israeli border in 37 years.
A State Department official, speaking on background basis, explained the thinking to The Cable.
"It's a pattern that we've seen. I don't know that we have any direct evidence, but I think we're pretty confident that this is something that Damascus has done in the past and we believe they have had a hand in it," the official said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Jordan's King Abdullah on Monday morning, and officials confirmed that Syria was among the topics they discussed. The persistent anti-government protests there will also be mentioned in President Barack Obama's Thursday speech on the overall U.S. approach to the Arab world.
On Capitol Hill, Syria's involvement is also regarded as a given.
"It is not surprising that President Assad is using Palestinian protesters to distract from the democratic uprising that is occurring within Syria's own borders," Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) said in a statement. "But it nonetheless displays a shocking level of cynicism to risk provoking war in order to maintain a grasp on power. President Assad must end the violent crackdown in Syria, stop his collaboration with Iran, and respect Israel's right to exist."
Both the House and Senate are preparing new legislation to increase pressure on Iran, but the House fired the opening salvo on Monday with a new bill authored by both heads of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
"U.S. policy towards Iran has offered a lot of bark, but not enough bite. This new bipartisan legislation would bring to bear the full weight of the U.S. by seeking to close the loopholes in existing energy and financial sanctions laws, while increasing the type and number of sanctions to be imposed," committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said in a statement unveiling the Iran Threat Reduction Act (ITRA).
The bill is meant to close loopholes that Ros-Lehtinen and others believe the administration is using to avoid enforcement of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in July 2010.
"Given the grave nature of the Iranian threat, it is my hope that my colleagues will support further strengthening the bill as it moves through the legislative process and not fall into the trap of enabling the Executive Branch to ignore U.S. law," she said.
To date, only two companies have been sanctioned under provisions in CISADA that were designed to clamp down on Iran's energy sector -- one Iranian state-owned corporation, and one corporation from Belarus. The new bill eliminates some of the waivers available to the president, raises the bar for other waivers, and expands the list of targeted Iranian officials and entities.
Other original co-sponsors are committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), Dan Burton (R-IN), Edward R. Royce (R-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), and Ted Deutch (D-FL).
"We must use every economic tool available to force Iran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons," Berman said in his own statement. "As we await vigorous enforcement by the Obama Administration under CISADA, we must continually look ahead and examine additional means to pressure Iran, and that is exactly what this new legislation is intended to do."
Over in the Senate, top lawmakers are also preparing new Iran sanctions legislation, which could be unveiled as early as this month. Like the House bill, the Senate's version will incorporate ideas from a range of individual lawmakers on how to increase pressure on Iran. However, the Senate bill will likely focus on expanding sanctions rather than tightening enforcement of existing sanctions, as the House has done.
The Senate effort is being led by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Mark Kirk (R-IL), but will likely incorporate ideas from others, such as Robert Casey (D-PA) and Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY).
"The new legislation for the first time targets Iran's crude oil exports and the dominant role played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the development, production, and distribution of Iran's oil," said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who helped develop the House bill. "With the introduction of this new legislation, companies now are on notice that ‘buyer beware': If you're buying crude from Iran, you're buying it from the IRGC, and that's bad for business, bad for your reputation and could make you the target of U.S. sanctions."
You can find the bill text here.
Mahmoud Jibril, the prime minister of the Libyan opposition's Transitional National Council (TNC), called on the United States to formally recognize Libya's rebels as the country's legitimate representative body so that urgent financial assistance can begin to flow.
The Obama administration has repeatedly called for Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi to step down from power but the State Department has not abandoned its official recognition of the Qaddafi government and transferred recognition to the TNC, as did France, Italy, and Qatar. Without that recognition, the TNC can't begin to draw from the billions of dollars in assets that had belonged to the Qaddafi regime and were frozen by the international community shortly after the revolution began, Jibril said during his Thursday visit to Washington.
"I would like to call on the United States and this administration to help us," Jibril told an audience at the Brookings Institution. "We are facing a real crisis, running almost out of money... We have a real human tragedy in the making right now."
The frozen Libyan government assets are valued at about $34 billion. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 6, "We're looking at ways that we can take frozen assets from the Qaddafi regime and provide those to the Transitional National Council."
But Jibril said that, without official recognition, it was impossible to get access to the funds or even to draw a line of credit based on the frozen assets.
"We are not recognized by the United States, so they cannot release the money," he said.
He also noted the contradiction in the administration calling for Qaddafi to go but continuing to recognize his government.
"Ironically enough, the United States is declaring that the regime lost its legitimacy, so it's not recognizing the other regime by the very fact of this official statement," Jibril said. "We need political recognition by just recognizing this council as the sole legitimate representative interlocutor of the Libyan people."
Jibril said that Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) was working on legislation that would provide about $180 million to the TNC, but that the council needs about $3 billion to provide for Libyan citizens over the next six months.
Jibril also feared that the Congressional appropriations process might be too slow, and that delay in funding could lead to vast humanitarian suffering. "Four or five weeks might be too late. We need this money yesterday, not today."
According to Jibril, some countries have justified their failure to recognize the TNC by explaining that the Libyan opposition does not actually constitute a state. Legally, if the TNC were to form a government, that would facilitate recognition, but the TNC doesn't want to take that step because that could lead to a partition of the country, he explained.
Clearly frustrated, Jibril pleaded for the administration to look beyond the legalities and recognize the TNC as a political gesture.
"If you are convinced of the legitimacy of this revolution, of the legitimate demands of those people, then some political steps have to be taken," he said.
He said that the Libyan revolution was a peaceful movement that had been forced into armed revolt by the brutal actions of the Qaddafi regime. "The freedom fighters are marching toward Tripoli," he said, predicting that Qaddafi regime would ultimately collapse or be overrun, although he couldn't predict when.
"Either an internal crackdown will take place or a total collapse of the regime will materialize in the next few weeks, hopefully," said Jibril.
He also laid out what the TNC sees as a "roadmap" for Libya to reorganize politically if and when Qaddafi falls. First, the TNC would convene a national congress, which would draw representatives from all regions of Libya, to select the committee that would draft a constitution. The constitution would then be put to a referendum, supervised by the United Nations. If the constitution is approved, the new Libyan government would then hold parliamentary elections, followed shortly thereafter by a presidential election.
Jibril is meeting with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the White House tomorrow. He will also meet Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and some members of Congress before leaving Washington.
Part of his message to U.S. officials will be that the United States must continue to play a prominent and active role in dealing with the crisis in Libya.
"If I meet President Obama... I would strongly urge him to play a more active role, because there is a lot at stake strategically for the United States if that role is not played properly. There is a lot to be lost," Jibril said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boasted last month about the decision to start giving non-lethal aid to the Libyan rebel army. Yesterday, the rebels got their first delivery: 10,000 packets of pre-packaged food, what the military calls Meals Ready to Eat (MREs).
"This shipment, authorized under the President's April 26th drawdown, consisted of more than 10,000 halal meals ready to eat, so-called MREs, that were transferred from Department of Defense stocks in support of the [Transitional National Council]'s efforts to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under the threat of attack," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters at Tuesday's briefing.
The meals are part of the $25 million in non-lethal aid to the Libyan rebels the White House approved on April 26. That approval came 11 days after the State Department notified Congress that it wanted to spend the funds to help the Libyan rebel army fight off the forces of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.
"One of the reasons why I announced $25 million in non-lethal aid yesterday, why many of our partners both in NATO and in the broader Contact Group are providing assistance to the opposition, is to enable them to defend themselves and to repulse the attacks by Qaddafi forces," Clinton said April 21.
But while the State Department's notification said the money would go to things like "vehicles, fuel trucks and fuel bladders, ambulances, medical equipment, protective vests, binoculars, and non-secure radios" -- all items identified by the Libyan opposition's Transitional National Council (TNC) as urgently needed -- now the list is much more weighted to humanitarian goods.
Toner said Tuesday that the shipments were meant to be in "support of the TNC's efforts to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under the threat of attack." More items are en route to Benghazi, including medical supplies, uniforms, boots, tents, and personal protective gear, he said.
"We continue to work with the TNC to determine what additional assistance requirements we might be able to support in the coming weeks," said Toner.
Tomorrow will be a great chance to do that, as TNC Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril arrives in Washington.
Many in Congress are getting impatient with what they see as a lack of concrete action by the Obama administration to condemn and punish the Syrian government for its brutal crackdown on civilian protesters. Today, 16 senators are co-sponsoring a resolution calling on the administration to get tough on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) spearheaded the resolution (PDF) with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and John McCain (R-AZ). The foursome held a press conference on Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol to announce their new effort and demand that the Obama administration expand its activities to sanction, condemn, and pressure the Syrian government to stop killing civilians in the streets.
"I know that there are some who had hoped when these
protests first broke out that Bashar al- Assad would pursue the path of reform
rather than the path of violence and brutality. But that has clearly not been
his choice. He is not a reformer. He is a thug and a murderer who is pursuing
the Qaddafi model, and hopes to get away with it," said Lieberman.
"First and foremost, [the resolution] sends a clear message that Bashar al Assad -- through his campaign of violence -- has lost legitimacy, and puts the Senate squarely on record as standing with the aspirations of the Syrian people," Lieberman added.
The resolution condemns the Syrian government for its crackdown on peaceful protesters, violating international human rights agreements, withholding food, water, and basic medical services to civilians, and torturing protesters in government custody. The resolution also mentions Iran's assistance to Syria's repressive government and Syrian meddling in Lebanon, which has included transferring weapons to Hezbollah.
The senators want the administration to expand the targeted sanctions it imposed last month on senior Syrian government officials, sanction Assad directly, expand the effort to combat media and information censorship in Syria, engage more with the Syrian opposition, and seek condemnation of Syria at the U.N. Security Council. The senators also want President Barack Obama to speak publicly about the crisis there.
"It's time to indict the guy who is giving the orders," said McCain. "And it's time for the President of the United States to speak up."
Two senior Senate aides said they expect the resolution to move to the Senate floor and be passed relatively soon.
Importantly, the Senate resolution declares that the Syrian government "has lost legitimacy" and expresses the belief that the Syrian people should determine their own political future. The State Department has resisted making that statement, knowing that once the administration declares Assad is no longer "legitimate," all efforts to work with the Syrian government to encourage better behavior will become more difficult.
Pressed repeatedly on that very question at Tuesday's briefing, State Department spokesman Mark Toner refused to say the Syrian government was no longer legitimate.
"We believe that he needs to take concrete steps to cease violence against innocent protesters and civilians, and he needs to address their legitimate aspirations," he said.
But Syria's main advocate in the Senate, SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), told The Cable on Tuesday that Assad's chance to be a reformer had passed.
"I said we have to put him to the test. I've always said it's a series of tests," Kerry said. "The chance was lost and that's the end of it."
UPDATE: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) is now also a co-sponsor of the resolution, bringing the total number of co-sponsors to 17.
Now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has proven that he has no problem killing peaceful protesters in the streets, some of the most prominent advocates of engaging with the Assad regime are rethinking their views. That list now includes Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), who told The Cable today that he no longer believed the Syrian regime was willing to reform.
Kerry, who has served as Congress's point man on engaging the Syrian regime, told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as recently as March 16 -- shortly after the current uprising had begun -- that he still expected Assad to embrace political reform and move toward more engagement with America and its allies.
"[M]y judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it," said Kerry, who has met with Assad six times over the past two years.
But in an exclusive interview today, Kerry said he no longer saw the Syrian government as willing to reform. "He obviously is not a reformer now," he said, while also defending his previous stance. "I've always said the top goal of Assad is to perpetuate his own regime."
When pressed by The Cable about his earlier, rosier view of Assad, Kerry denied he had expected the Syrian regime would come around.
"I said there was a chance he could be a reformer if certain things were done. I wasn't wrong about if those things were done. They weren't done," Kerry said. "I didn't hold out hope. I said there were a series of things that if he engaged in them, there was a chance he would be able to produce a different paradigm. But he didn't."
"I said we have to put him to the test. I've always said it's a series of tests," Kerry said. "The chance was lost and that's the end of it."
In light of the current crackdown, during which over 700 Syrians have lost their lives and thousands more have been arrested, Kerry admitted that the ship has sailed for U.S. engagement with the Assad regime.
"We can't [continue to engage] right now," he said. "This is an egregious situation. There are a lot of human rights abuses and we have to respond appropriately."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to point to Capitol Hill when asked why the administration ever believed that the Syrian government could be peeled away from its alliance with Iran or would pursue a path toward greater freedom and democracy for its people.
"Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer," she said March 27. And on May 6, she stated that the Syrian regime has "an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda."
However, Kerry's about-face suggests that the administration's allies in Congress have no interest in taking the fall for the administration's optimism regarding Syria. Meanwhile, those in the Senate who have always seen Assad as a despotic and cruel leader are claiming vindication.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable on Tuesday that lawmakers' contention that Assad could be a reformer was "one of the great delusionary views in recent foreign policy history."
"It wasn't just Kerry, it was a whole lot of people, first of all the administration," McCain said.
Two other top Democrats continued to defend the two-year drive to engage the Syrian government in interviews with The Cable on Tuesday.
"Even Qaddafi looked like a reformer for a while and he gave up his nukes. So things flip around pretty quickly in the Middle East," said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). "Assad sure doesn't look like a reformer today."
Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Assad still has a chance to do the right thing.
"I don't think Syria has shaken out yet, I don't think we know what Assad will or won't do.... I wouldn't be overly optimistic," she said.
Feinstein also sounded a cautious note about Washington's ability to pressure Syria to choose a path toward reform.
"I don't think we can be everyone's keeper. We've got five nations under active civil war in the Middle East now and I don't know that we can be telling every one of them what they should or shouldn't do," she said. "If they're not going to listen to their own people, it seems to me that we're not going to make much of a difference."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
In just over a week, 60 days will have passed since the war in Libya began. But Congress has no plans to exercise its rights under the War Powers Act to either approve or stop the administration's use of U.S. military forces to fight the army of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.
The War Powers Resolution of 1973 allows the president to commit U.S. forces for 60 days without the explicit authorization of Congress, with another 30 days allowed for the withdrawal of those forces.
"The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to a declaration of war, a specific statutory authorization, or a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces," the law states.
But the administration won't be immediately pressed to follow the law if nobody in Congress intends to enforce it. Both leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told The Cable on Tuesday that there are no plans for Senate action on the war in Libya -- before or after the deadline.
"I'm not hearing from my colleagues that they feel the War Powers situation is currently in play because we're deferring to NATO," committee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable. Kerry had been working on a resolution with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) but the text was never finalized.
Kerry said there's nothing on the schedule either in his committee, where a resolution based on the War Powers Act would have to originate, or on the Senate floor. "I'm certainly prepared to listen and be responsive," if senators want to debate the war, he said.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the committee's ranking Republican, told The Cable he also doesn't see any action on the horizon, but he called on the Senate to start conducting oversight of the war and demanding more details from the Obama administration.
"I'm one who believes that there does need to accountability, if not a declaration of war under the War Powers Act, at least some specific resolution that would give authority," Lugar said. "But even absent that, some definition from the president of what our plan is, what our metrics would be, and by this time what the costs have been, quite apart from the estimate of what they will be."
Asked if the president is legally required to begin ending U.S. military involvement when the 60-day window closes, Lugar said it's a possibility.
"That is certainly one strong interpretation of this. I'll examine that when we come to it," he said. "The War Powers Act has been argued through several administrations as to whether the president feels bound by it or not."
Overall, he and many others in the Senate lament that the budget debate and other issues have pushed the Libya discussion to the back burner.
"There has never has been the correct focus on Libya with regard to congressional hearings or congressional debate," Lugar said.
29 U.S. senators have asked President Barack Obama Friday to cut off aid to the Palestinian government if it joins with Hamas, in a previously unreported letter (PDF) obtained by The Cable.
"The decision of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to form a unity government with Hamas - a designated terrorist group - threatens to derail the Middle East peace effort for the foreseeable future and to undermine the Palestinian Authority's relationship with the United States," begins the letter, which was spearheaded by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Robert Casey (D-PA).
Menendez is the third ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Casey chairs SFRC's Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs subcommittee. The letter was also signed by Democratic heavyweights Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The details of the deal between the PA and Hamas aren't entirely clear. Many of the sticking points between the two Palestinian factions appear to remain unresolved and the contents of the reconciliation deal's classified annex remains unknown, but, as the senators' letter notes, Hamas foreign policy chief Mahmoud al-Zahar has said that "our plan does not involve negotiations with Israel or recognizing it."
Hamas also publicly condemned the May 1 killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan.
For all these reasons, the senators want Obama to make it clear that the PA will forfeit U.S. foreign assistance if it goes through with the plan to join forces with Hamas. The United States gave the PA about $550 million in aid in fiscal 2011, a mixture of project funding and direct cash to the government.
"As you are aware, U.S. law prohibits aid from being provided to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas unless the government and all its members have public committed to the Quartet principles," they wrote. "We urge you to conduct a review of the current situation and suspend aid should Hamas refuse to comply with Quartet conditions."
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) agrees. "No taxpayer funds should go, they must not go" to the new Palestinian unity government, she told the Washington Post May 4.
The Obama administration is currently examining the Palestinian reconciliation deal, but officials have repeatedly said in recent days that any unity government must reject Hamas's current policies.
"Any Palestinian government must renounce violence, it must abide by past agreements and it must recognize Israel's right to exist," White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, told the American Jewish Committee on April 28.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner repeated Daley's message at Thursday's press briefing, and implied that a government that includes Hamas would not be able to work with the United States.
"We've said very clearly that we'll work with a Palestinian Authority government that unambiguously and explicitly commits to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties. And that includes the road map," Toner said. "And our position on Hamas has not changed. We still believe it's a foreign terrorist organization."
"The Obama Administration knows the law prohibits U.S. aid going to a Palestinian government in which Hamas plays any role. That's why the administration has said several times in the past week that the United States will only deal with a Palestinian government that meets the Quartet conditions -- renounces violence, recognizes Israel, and accepts all previous agreements," said former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, now a partner at the consulting firm Davis-Block LLC. "If Hamas wants to transform itself, surely that would be welcome, but it's not likely."
The difference between the situations in Syria and Libya is that the Syrian government might still come around and pursue a reform agenda, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday.
In an interview with Lucia Annunziata of Italy's "In Mezz'Ora" in Rome, Clinton was asked whether the United States was applying a double standard when dealing with Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and other Arab dictators who are killing their citizens, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Clinton explained that she still held out hope that the Syrian government would institute reforms that could satisfy the demands of protesters and end the government-sponsored violence against civilians. There was no hope for that outcome in Libya, she said.
"There are deep concerns about what is going on inside Syria, and we are pushing hard for the government of Syria to live up to its own stated commitment to reforms," she said. "What I do know is that they have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda. Nobody believed Qaddafi would do that. People do believe there is a possible path forward with Syria. So we're going to continue joining with all of our allies to keep pressing very hard on that."
Clinton argued that the United States and its international partners have acted aggressively in the case of Syria, but admitted that acting against the Assad regime is more complicated, in many ways, than organizing action against the Libya regime.
Clinton was also asked how long she thought the war in Libya would last.
"Well, I think everyone, including, of course, the United States, is working urgently to try to bring about a political solution," she responded. "The obstacle is Col. Qaddafi."
Clinton insisted Qaddafi's death was not part of NATO's mission in Libya, although she noted he might be killed if he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"The objective is to protect civilians. But there are legitimate targets, like the command-and-control bunkers and facilities that we know he and his family control," Clinton said. "This is a conflict and he could become a victim of the very violence that he initiated."
Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril is coming to Washington on May 12, about a month after he postponed his previously planned visit due to a cancelled flight.
The opposition's official representative in Washington, former Libyan Ambassador Ali Aujali, announced the visit on Thursday, and said Jibril will meet with administration officials, lawmakers, and give a speech at the Brookings Institution. During his previously scheduled trip, he had planned to speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"We are deeply grateful to the US for its diplomatic leadership, military support, and humanitarian assistance in the fight against the Qaddafi regime," said Ajuli in a statement. "During his visit, Dr. Jibril will help to fill out the picture and the plans of the opposition and its leadership in its efforts to establish a free and democratic Libya."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be out of town for Jibril's visit, on an official visit to Greenland. But she met with Jibril today on the sidelines of the Libya Contact Group's second round of meetings in Rome.
Before the meeting, Clinton announced that the United States would seek to give some of Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's frozen assets to the opposition.
"I'm pleased to announce that the Obama administration, working with Congress, has decided to pursue legislation that would enable the U.S. to tap some portion of those assets owned by Qaddafi and the Libyan government in the United States, so we can make those funds available to help the Libyan people," she said.
Clinton also said that Qaddafi must relinquish power, and promised that the NATO-led coalition would not stop striking his military until he stops killing his own citizens.
The Obama administration has been gradually ramping up its support for the Libyan opposition. The White House approved $25 million in non-lethal aid to the rebels on April 26. But the State Department has yet to abandon its official recognition of Qaddafi's regime and recognize the TNC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
As part of Jibril's ongoing plea for aid, he promised that all Libyan government contracts would be honored by a new government led by the TNC.
Clinton said there were many ways to help the rebels, but didn't get into specifics. "We'll be discussing a financial mechanism, we'll be discussing other forms of aid," she said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that Osama bin Laden's death could advance the effort to reach a political resolution to the war in Afghanistan, because it might convince the Taliban and al Qaeda to come to the negotiating table.
"In Afghanistan, we have to continue to take the fight to al Qaeda and its Taliban allies. Perhaps now they will take seriously the work that we are doing on trying to have some reconciliation process that resolves the insurgency," Clinton said on Wednesday to a conference of editorial writers at the State Department. "So our message to the Taliban hasn't changed; it just has even greater resonance today. They can't wait us out, they can't defeat us; they need to come into the political process and denounce al Qaeda and renounce violence and agree to abide by the laws and constitution of Afghanistan."
Clinton said that bin Laden's death would make al Qaeda and the Taliban more likely to strike a deal in Afghanistan because they will have no grand leader to rally around.
"Well, a lot of people say, well, [bin Laden's deputy Ayman] al-Zawahiri will step into it. But that's not so clear. He doesn't have the same sense of loyalty or inspiration or track record," she said. "I mean, bin Laden was viewed as a military warrior. He had fought in Afghanistan. He wasn't an intellectual. He wasn't just a talker. He had been a fighter, so he carried with him a quite significant mystique."
"The Taliban did not give up al Qaeda when President Bush asked them to after 9/11, because of Mullah Omar's personal relationship with bin Laden. That's gone, so I think it opens up possibilities for dealing with the Taliban that did not exist before."
At least one Pakistani Taliban group, Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), has already said that it is planning to increase attacks in the wake of bin Laden's death -- and will not come to the negotiating table. "Now Pakistani rulers, President Asif Ali Zardari and the army will be our first targets. America will be our second target," TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said on Tuesday.
And Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan's Tehrik-e-Insaaf party said on Tuesday that the United States has transformed bin Laden into a martyr.
"For all these people who think the U.S. is not fighting terrorism but fighting Islam, [bin Laden] will become a holy warrior and an inspiration for legions of jihadis. All it will do is increase extremism," he said.
But Stephen Biddle, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the Afghan Taliban, namely the Quetta al Shura, might be more amenable to negotiations than the Pakistani Taliban, because they are the ones getting hammered by U.S. forces and are suspected to be internally divided over whether or not to maintain their alliance with al Qaeda.
Quetta al Shura's only statement on bin Laden's death so far was to express doubt that he was really killed.
"Negotiating with the Quetta al Shura Taliban is easier without the personal commitment of Mullah Omar to Osama bin Laden as a constraint. The only question is how much easier. I'm inclined to think there are a lot more barriers than just this," Biddle said.
"There has been plenty of speculation that the field command in Afghanistan and the high command in Pakistan have been experiencing deepening schsms."
Clinton also said that the administration would try to use the bin Laden death to make the case that now is not the time to cut funding for diplomacy and development at the State Department and USAID.
"We're going to be working to bolster our partnerships even now, particularly as people are digesting this news. We're going to look for ways to put this into the context of the larger debate we're having here at home about what it takes to stay engaged in the world," she said.
Clinton argued that the Obama administration's increased funding for State and USAID helped in the mission to find and kill bin Laden, although she didn't give any details on how State was involved in the overall mission to find and kill bin Laden.
"Our tools were so much better [than in the previous administration] and our relationships had evolved in a way that enabled us to obtain information that was actionable. So it takes funding and it takes resources, and it takes having those person-to-person connections that really make a difference," she said.
Asked about how the killing of bin Laden would impact the wave of democratic revolutions sweeping the Arab world, Clinton said the final impact was unpredictable but that the United States could influence how the region digests the news.
"Up until now, the Middle East and North Africa have been very focused internally, what were they going to do in Egypt to navigate their revolution, what was finally going to happen in the other places," she said. "This is an event that breaks through that, but which way it breaks is not clear yet. If we can keep the emphasis on his extremist ideology, his use of violence is not what brought about the Arab spring, I think we can begin to shape how people think about it."
The mission to kill Osama bin Laden was years in the making, but began in earnest last fall with the discovery of a suspicious compound near Islamabad, and culminated with a helicopter based raid in the early morning hours in Pakistan Sunday.
"Last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground," President Obama told the nation in a speech Sunday night.
"Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body," he said.
Sitting in a row of chairs beside the podium were National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Press Secretary Jay Carney stood in the back with about a dozen White House staffers.
Since last August, Obama convened at least 9 meetings with national security principals about this operation and the principals met 5 times without the president, a senior administration official said. Their deputies met 7 times formally amid a flurry of other interagency communications and consultations.
ABC News reported that the principals' meetings were held on March 14, March 29, April 12, April 19 and April 28.
Last week Obama finally had enough intelligence last to take action. The final decision to go forward with the operation was made at 8:20 AM on Friday, April 29 in the White House's Diplomatic Room. In the room at the time were Donilon, his deputy Denis McDonough, and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan. Donilon prepared the formal orders.
On Sunday, Obama went to play golf in the morning at Andrews Air Force Base. He played 9 holes in chilly, rainy weather and spent a little time on the driving range, as well. Meanwhile, the principals were assembling in the situation room at the White House. They were there from 1:00 PM and stayed put for the rest of the day.
At 2:00, Obama met with the principals back at the White House. At 3:32 he went to the situation room for another briefing. At 3:50 he was told that bin Laden was "tentatively identified." At 7:01 Obama was told there was a "high probability" the high value target at the compound was bin Laden. At 8:30 Obama got the final briefing.
Before speaking to the nation, Obama called former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Three senior administration officials briefed reporters late Sunday night on the surveillance, intelligence, and military operations that ended with bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. operatives.
"The operation was the culmination of years of careful and highly advanced intelligence work," a senior administration official said.
The stream of information that led to Sunday's raid began over four years ago, when U.S. intelligence personnel were alerted about two couriers who were working with al Qaeda and had deep connections to top al Qaeda officials. Prisoners in U.S. custody flagged these two couriers as individuals who might have been helping bin Laden, one official said
"One courier in particular had our constant attention," the official said. He declined to give that courier's name but said he was a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and a "trusted assistant" of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a former senior al Qaeda officer who was captured in 2005.
"Detainees also identified this man as one of the few couriers trusted by bin Laden," the official said. The U.S. intelligence community uncovered the identity of this courier four years ago, and two years ago, the U.S. discovered the area of Pakistan this courier and his brother were working in.
In August 2010, the intelligence agencies found the exact compound where this courier was living, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The neighborhood is affluent and many retired Pakistani military officials live there.
"When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw," one official said.
The compound was 8 times larger than the other homes around it. It was built in 2005 in an area that was secluded at that time. There were extraordinary security measures at the compound, including 12 to 18 foot walls topped with barbed wire.
There were other suspicious indicators at the compound. Internal sections were walled off from the rest of the compound. There were two security gates. The residents burned their trash. The main building had few windows.
The compound, despite being worth over $1 million, had no telephone or internet service. There's no way the courier and his brother could have afforded it, the official said.
"Intelligence officials concluded that this compound was custom built to hide someone of significance," the official said, adding that the size and makeup of one of the families living there matched the suspected makeup of bin Laden's entourage.
The intelligence community had high confidence that the compound had a high value target, and the analysts concluded there was high probability that target was bin Laden, one official said.
When the small team of U.S. operatives raided the compound in the early morning hours Sunday Pakistan time, they encountered resistance and killed three men besides bin Laden and one woman. The three men were the two couriers and one of bin Laden's sons. The woman was being used as a human shield, one official said. Two other women were injured.
One U.S. helicopter was downed due to unspecified "maintenance" issues, one official said. The U.S. personnel blew up the helicopter before leaving the area. The team was on the ground for only 40 minutes.
A senior defense official told CNN that US Navy SEALs were involved in the mission.
No other governments were briefed on the operation before it occurred, including the host government Pakistan.
"That was for one reason and one reason alone. That was essential to the security of the operation and our personnel," one official said. Only a "very small group of people" inside the U.S. government knew about the operation. Afterwards, calls were made to the Pakistani government and several other allied countries.
"Since 9/11 the United States has made it clear to Pakistan that we would pursue bin Laden wherever he might be," one official said. "Pakistan has long understood we are at war with al Qaeda. The United States had a moral and legal obligation to act on the information it had."
Americans abroad should stay indoors be aware of the increased threat of attacks following bin Laden's killing, the State Department said in a new travel warning issued Sunday night. State also issued a specific travel warning for Pakistan.
"Al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers may try to respond violently to avenge bin Laden's death and other terrorist leaders may try to accelerate their efforts to attack the United States," one official said. "We have always understood that this fight would be a marathon and not a sprint."
The White House finally approved the $25 million in non-lethal aid to the Libya rebels that the State Department had notified Congress about on April 15.
The White House released a memo late Tuesday from President Obama to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates officially authorizing them to "drawdown" up to $25 million of "non lethal aid and services" to give to the Libyan Transitional National Council "to support efforts to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack in Libya."
The State Department's Congressional notification about the aid funds stated that the aid would include "vehicles, fuel trucks and fuel bladders, ambulances, medical equipment, protective vests, binoculars, and non-secure radios" -- all items identified by the TNC as urgently needed to protect civilians from Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces in cities such as Misrata.
Clinton trumpted the aid as direct support to the rebel army when she "announced" it April 21, a day after the Washington Times first revealed the State Department's plan.
"One of the reasons why I announced $25 million in nonlethal aid yesterday, why many of our partners both in NATO and in the broader Contact Group are providing assistance to the opposition - is to enable them to defend themselves and to repulse the attacks by Qaddafi forces," Clinton said.
So what was the hold up? State Department spokesman Mark Toner said April 21 that the request, despite being approved by Clinton and sent to Congress, was not fully "cooked" and had not received White House approval.
Our sources tell a different story. Multiple sources said that the list of items and logistics for delivering the goods hadn't been worked out. The U.S. military doesn't actually land on Libya shores under the current operations scheme, so the goods have to be routed through third party carriers, which is costly. The heavier the items (trucks, for example), the costlier the delivery.
$25 million doesn't really go that far when delivery costs are accounted for, so the final shipment is likely to contain less military vehicles and more lightweight goods, such as medical equipment and blankets, our sources said. There's a realization that even then, the $25 million won't be enough to meet the needs of the Libyan rebels and the people they are protecting.
Separately, the U.S. government is sending millions of dollars in aid to Libya in the form of food, aid to international organizations, and money to help airlift migrants and refuges back to their homes.
State Department Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan was asked about the delay in the approval of the funds at a Tuesday briefing. "Is there a problem?" he was asked. "Not that I'm aware of," he responded.
The Cable asked Sullivan if the reasons for the delay were the logistics but he said he didn't know. We also asked him if $25 million was really enough to help the rebel army.
"Do we need to put more than $25 million into Libya, this is something that we're constantly assessing," Sullivan said. "And obviously, the conversations that are happening in the run-up to the Rome Contact Group meeting about this temporary financial mechanism will involve consideration of what the United States has on offer in respect to assistance, and we're looking at that and will continue to do so."
On April 15, the State Department notified Congress that it wanted to send $25 million of non-lethal military aid to the Libyan rebels, but as of today that money is being held up by the White House and no funds or goods have been disbursed.
The State Department's congressional notification about the aid funds, first reported on Tuesday by the Washington Times, stated that the aid would include "vehicles, fuel trucks and fuel bladders, ambulances, medical equipment, protective vests, binoculars, and non-secure radios" -- all items identified by the Libyan opposition's National Transitional Council (NTC) as urgently needed to protect civilians from Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces in cities such as Misrata.
"One of the reasons why I announced $25 million in nonlethal aid yesterday, why many of our partners both in NATO and in the broader Contact Group are providing assistance to the opposition - is to enable them to defend themselves and to repulse the attacks by Qaddafi forces," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on this morning.
"There's an urgent situation here and they need our help," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on Wednesday.
But as of today, six days after the State Department notified Congress it planned to give the aid, the White House has still not signed off and none of the aid has begun its journey to the rebels, despite that intense fighting is ongoing.
"Yesterday's announcement of the 25 million in drawdown assistance was not fully cooked. That still needs to head to the White House, be confirmed or ratified by the president, and then we can begin implementing it," Toner explained at Thursday afternoon's State Department briefing.
So what's the hold up? National Security Staff spokesperson Tommy Vietor declined to comment on why the White House was holding up the funds or when a decision would be made.
Meanwhile, a State Department official said that the State Department's top official in Libya Chris Stevens continues to work with the NTC to figure out what they need and whether the U.S. can provide specific items of assistance.
If the aid is approved by the White House, Libya rebels could be soon wearing U.S. military uniforms, although without the U.S. flag stitched on them.
"Many places around the world people wear old NYC police uniforms, they won't be the current uniforms, they have old stocks," the official said.
The U.S. and other countries are readying further measures to increase pressure on Qaddafi through further sanctions on the regime's oil business and tighter enforcement of existing sanctions, the official said.
When asked if the U.S. was considering military advisors to Libya, as the British and French are doing now, the official said, "No."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.