Governments worldwide restricted religious freedom in 2011 through the implementation of blasphemy laws and legislation that favored state-sanctioned groups, while religious minorities who experienced political and demographic transitions tended to suffer the most, stated the 2011 State Department International Religious Freedom Report, which was released Monday.
"Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that pressure is rising," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a speech Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "When it comes to this human right ... the world is sliding backwards."
The report highlighted the deteriorating situation in China, whose government continued to increase restrictions on religious practice for Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas. This repression resulted in "at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans" last year, a trend that Tibetan prime minister Lobsang Sangay emphasized in a recent interview with The Cable. The Chinese government also cracked down on Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and religious groups unaffiliated with China's official state-sanctioned "patriotic religious associations," particularly Christian house churches.
Other designated "Countries of Particular Concern" included Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Burma, also known as Myanmar. According to the report, Burma eased some restrictions on religious freedom, though it continued to "monitor the meetings and activities of all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public events." The Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, which the Burmese government refuses to recognize as citizens, were especially targeted.
In Egypt, where the population democratically elected an Islamist government, the country's post-Mubarak transition remains tenuous, as Coptic Christians still face persecution. On October 9, for example, hundreds of demonstrators -- mostly Copts -- were attacked by Egyptian security forces in the Maspiro area of Cairo.
"Now, I am concerned that respect for religious freedom is quite tenuous, and I don't know if that's going to quickly be resolved, but since 2011 and the fall of the Mubarak regime, sectarian violence has increased," Clinton said. "We don't think that there's been a consistent commitment to investigate and apply the laws."
Regarding recently elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook said during a briefing Monday that the U.S. government expects him follow through on his commitment to religious freedom and diversity.
"President Morsi has said publicly that in his new government, he will include Coptic Christians, secular citizens, and a woman," she said. "So we are looking for him to follow through on what his promise was."
The new government in Libya, which stopped enforcing Ghaddafi-era laws that restricted religious freedom and institutionalized the free practice of religion in its interim constitution, was cited as a case of tangible success.
"They [the Libyan government] have come to believe that the best way to deal with offensive speech is not to ban it, but to counter it with speech that reveals the lies," the Secretary said.
Another trend on the rise in 2011 was global anti-Semitism, fueled by anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt, Holocaust denial in Iran, the desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries and France, and the openly anti-Semitic and nationalistic Jobbik party in Hungary.
A staffer from the U.S. embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, made a cameo appearance in a rap video in his bathrobe drinking a beer.
The video, entitled "Mingechevir", was produced by the group Caspian Dreamers, a pair of former Peace Corps volunteers named Tim McNaught and Brad Kessler who have become a viral web sensation in Azerbaijan. The video sings the praises of the beach resort town and is set to the tune of Will Smith's "Miami."
Chris Jones, a cultural affairs officer at the Baku embassy, shows up at time marker 2:36, looking quite relaxed.
Caspian Dreamer's most popular video, "Baku State of Mind," has over 300,000 hits on YouTube and the group even competed in the Eurovision 2012 live performance competition. You can follow them on Facebook and YouTube here and here.
In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Monday with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold, spoke at the Community of Democracies Governing Council and the International Women's Leadership Forum, and participated in the Leaders Engaged in New Democracies Network launch. Clinton praised post-Soviet Mongolia as a democratic model for Asia, calling it "an inspiration and a model" that stands "in stark contrast to those governments that continue to resist reforms" -- a none-too-subtle dig at neighboring China. Although Mongolia held parliamentary elections on June 28, the results are still being disputed as no major party was able to form a government.
Secretary Clinton, who is accompanied by Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, will travel next to Hanoi, Vietnam, to meet with senior Vietnamese leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Los Cabos, Mexico, with President Barack Obama for the G-20 summit, where she will participate in discussions focusing on the European economic crisis. Clinton is slated to hold a bilateral meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu this afternoon.
President Obama is expected meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit -- a meeting that could be tense after Clinton accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to the Syrian regime. Robert Hormats, Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, is accompanying the secretary and the president.
For years, the Washington debate over Georgia has focused on its quarrels with Russia and its aspirations to join NATO. This month, the well-heeled Georgian opposition has succeeded -- with help from a large team of D.C. lobbyists -- in opening the debate to include the Georgian government's handling of human rights and democracy inside the country.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) brought simmering congressional interest in internal Georgian politics into the public discussion last week by introducing the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," which declares in its list of findings that "Democracy in Georgia is facing serious challenges and political freedom and fair competition between political parties is under assault."
"For example, the government has increased detaining members of the political opposition and civil society nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), limited freedom of the press, undermined the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and stopped opposition groups from holding demonstrations -- often by violent means," the bill states.
The bill goes on to accuse the Georgian government, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, of harassing billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom the bill identifies as a Georgian businessman who has launched a new political party called Georgian Dream, "in an effort to unify the Georgian opposition parties and challenge Saakashvili's increasingly dictatorial control over Georgia's government."
The legislation accuses Saakasvili of stripping Ivanishvili of his Georgia citizenship and initiating a campaign of punishing and detaining his supporters in the lead up to the October 2012 Georgian parliamentary elections. The bill seeks an end to U.S. aid to Georgia if the elections are not free and fair or if Ivanishvili and his party are not allowed to fully participate.
"This bill will help shed light on the suppression that has been intensifying in Georgia. I know Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle share my growing concern over the suppression of political parties, nongovernmental organizations and workers in Georgia," McDermott said in a press release.
McDermott has not been known in Congress as being particularly active on the Georgia issue or on foreign policy in general. His last major foray into international diplomacy was a late 2002 trip to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein just before the U.S. invasion, a trip that was later discovered to be financed by Saddam's intelligence agencies.
But he is not the only lawmaker who has become recently interested in the internal politics in Georgia. Several senators brought up the issue at the March 21 nomination hearing for the new U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, who was confirmed late last week.
"I strongly believe that advancing our key interest in Georgia's long-term security and stability is directly linked to the government's furthering democratic reforms," said Senate Foreign Relations Europe Subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at the hearing.
In his opening remarks, Norland praised the Saakashvili government, declared U.S. support for Georgian territorial integrity, and noted Georgian contributions to U.S. national security priorities, including its contribution to the war in Afghanistan.
"As President Obama noted during President Saakashvili's visit to Washington earlier this year, Georgia has made extraordinary progress during this time in transforming itself from a fragile state to one that has succeeded in significantly reducing petty corruption, modernizing state institutions and services, and building a sovereign and democratic country," Norland said.
But then, in response to questioning from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Norland directly tied the conduct of Georgia's upcoming parliamentary elections to U.S. support for Georgia's NATO membership.
"I would just point out given Georgia's interests, Georgia's aspirations to NATO membership, and our support for those aspirations, how these elections are conducted is a very important litmus test, and we'll be watching carefully to make sure that the way these elections unfold are in keeping with NATO standards," he said.
"I just would underscore the issue of qualification of opposition candidates," Cardin said, a not too thinly veiled reference to Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party. "That's been used in too many European countries as a way of trying to block opposition opportunities, and I would just urge our presence there to have the widest possible opportunities for opposition to effectively be able to compete on a level playing field."
Norlund's comments stunned Georgia watchers because no administration official had directly linked the conduct of parliamentary elections to Georgia's NATO aspirations, and the no other administration official has used the term "litmus test" to connect the two.
The new and expansive congressional interest in Georgia's democratic development coincides with a new and expansive lobbying effort by Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream party in Washington. The effort is led by the powerful D.C. lobbying law firm Patton Boggs, which has filed disclosures for its work on behalf of Ivanishvili and his Cartu Bank under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), rather than the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), as is commonly used for Americans representing foreign politicians.
The Ivanishvili lobbying team also includes several other D.C. firms, including National Strategies, which also filed under the LDA and declared on its form that it is not representing a "foreign entity." Working with National Strategies is the firm of Downy McGrath, which did say it is representing a "foreign entity" in its disclosure forms and stated it is working on behalf of "democratic elections in the Republic of Georgia." The firm of Parry, Romani, Deconcini, Symms is also working on the Ivanishvili lobbying team, according to its own disclosure forms.
Some firms appear to be working on Ivanishvili's behalf even though they haven't registered at all. The firms KGlobal and Peter Mirijanian Public Affairs have been sending e-mails to reporters touting the McDermott bill.
The only firm to register under FARA as representing Ivanishvili is BGR Group, whose disclosure forms for its business representing Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream movement can be found here, here, here and here. BGR also represents leading Georgian opposition politician Irakli Alasania and his Free Democrats party, according to their own FARA disclosure forms. Alasania's political efforts are supported and funded by Ivanishvili, the disclosure forms reveal.
Lobbying firms often prefer to register under LDA rather than FARA because the disclosure requirements are more lenient. The legality of such filings, according to FARA lawyers, depends on whether the client is actively involved in foreign politics and whether U.S. lobbyists are actively involved in lobbying U.S. officials for specific policies related to said politics.
Ivanishvili's critics paint him as a Russia-funded oligarch whose agenda is anti-Western and therefore anti-American. They point to his seemingly soft stance on Russia, such as when he said of once and future President Vladimir Putin, "the Russian people like this man" and that Russia "is not the worst example of an undemocratic state." He has also blamed Saakashvili for the outbreak of war with Russia in 2008.
Ivanishvili's economic ties to Russia run deep. He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, and still maintains at least a 1 percent stake in Gazprom, the state-controlled energy behemoth. (The Russian Federation and Gazprom are represented in Washington by Ketchum).
In an interview last week with Der Spiegel, Ivanishvili spelled out the goals of his new and expensive lobbying effort, namely to get the U.S. government to end its support for Saakashvili.
"America has chosen Georgia as a junior partner. The United States believes that Saakashvili is creating a democratic Georgia, but these are merely facades," he said. "I want to show the Americans his true face. Saakashvili is pulling the wool over their eyes."
For now, the U.S. government is treading carefully on the issue. In his written responses to questions from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-ID), Norland disputed some of Ivanishvili and McDermott's assertions, but did not dismiss their concerns outright.
"We are not aware of any opposition supporters being detained, although there have been some credible reports of their harassment. In addition, there are indications that Georgia's new campaign finance law is being implemented in a manner which is curbing political speech," he said. "Our focus is on the process and ensuring that all qualified candidates and political parties are able to compete on equal terms; the administration does not support any particular party or candidate."
Win McNamee/Getty Images
At least five U.S. embassies could begin the New Year without an official ambassador at the helm, due to the ongoing feud between the State Department and the Senate over several ambassadorial nominees and secret Senate holds.
As of Jan. 1, if Congress doesn't act by the end of the year, there will be no U.S. ambassador in Russia, India, the Czech Republic, El Salvador, and Azerbaijan. Three of the current ambassadors at those posts (Czech, El Salvador, and Azerbaijan) were placed there by President Barack Obama through recess appointments that expire at the end of this month, but face stiff opposition in the Senate and may not be confirmed for their posts. The nominee for the fourth (Russia) is being held up by GOP senators over issues not related to his qualifications for the job. The India ambassador slot is vacant now and nobody has been nominated to fill it.
U.S. ambassador to Moscow John Beyrle will leave Moscow this month and return to the United States, multiple administration officials confirmed. Obama has nominated National Security Council Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul to replace him, but McFaul's nomination is being held up in the Senate by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who wants the administration to give Congress assurances that the United States will not share sensitive missile defense data with the Russian Federation. Several other senators may also emerge to oppose the McFaul nomination, several Hill sources report, not due to any personal objections to McFaul, but due to their unhappiness with Obama's reset policy with Russia.
Eight prominent conservative foreign policy experts wrote to Obama today to ask the administration to strike a deal with Kirk in order to facilitate McFaul's confirmation and avoid having a vacancy at the top of the Moscow embassy.
"Time is short if Dr. McFaul is to be in Moscow before the New Year. In the aftermath of the deeply flawed Duma election, it is imperative to have Dr. McFaul's voice heard in Russia as soon as possible. We urge you to work with Senator Kirk's office in order both to protect our national security and to expedite Ambassador-Designate McFaul's confirmation," wrote Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, Bruce Jackson, Robert Kagan, David Kramer, David Merkel, Steve Rademaker and Randy Scheunemann.
The same group wrote a letter last month praising McFaul as a good choice for ambassador to Russia. Conservatives are torn between their desire to see Congress push back against Obama's Russia policies and their support for McFaul personally.
Another U.S. ambassador nominee that has a lot of conservative support is Norm Eisen, the current ambassador to the Czech Republic. Eisen was sent to the Prague as a recess appointment because of objections by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IO). Grassley is still upset over the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a position where he oversaw government programs such as AmeriCorps.
Eisen, the former White House ethic czar, was a key figure in the controversy and defended the White House's actions. He also made the case to Congress that Walpin was unfit for his position, writing in a letter to senators shortly after the sacking that Walpin "was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the Board to question his capacity to serve." Walpin called those allegations "absolutely amazing."
Grassley, along with Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), has never dropped the issue of Walpin's firing. Grassley's shop contributed heavily to a joint House-Senate report released last November they say alleged not only that Walpin's firing was handled improperly, but also that Eisen misled Congress about the matter.
A slightly different group of conservative foreign policy hands wrote to Senate Foreign Relations Committee heads John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) today to urge them to push the Eisen confirmation process forward.
"Ambassador Eisen's appointment was already delayed after his initial nomination in 2010, leaving us without an ambassador in Prague at a key moment in U.S.-Czech relations. The absence of an ambassador in 2012 would again send the wrong message to our Czech allies," the experts wrote. "While we support the prerogative of senators to raise concerns about presidential nominees, we believe that in this case, the importance of having an ambassador in Prague as well as Ambassador Eisen's record over the last year should ensure his speedy confirmation."
letter was signed by Fly, Jackson, Scheunemann, Rick Graber, Stuart Levey, Michael Makovsky, Clifford D. May, John
O'Sullivan, Gary Schmitt, Kurt Volker, and Ken Weinstein.
The Cable reported last week that Mari Carmen Aponte, the currently serving U.S ambassador to El Salvador, might have to come back to Washington at the end of the year because her re-nomination process is facing a huge amount of pushback from Senate Republicans.
Aponte's initial nomination to be ambassador to El Salvador was held up last year in an effort led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who was demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who allegedly had ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation at the time. She wasn't confirmed, but Obama sent her to El Salvador via a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year.
DeMint shows no signs of backing down and Aponte was barely approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a 10-9 vote that fell along party lines.
Another U.S. ambassador who may have to pack his bags this month is Matthew Bryza, Obama's envoy to Azerbaijan. His nomination was being held up last year by two Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who are seen to be representing the Armenian voting constituencies unhappy with the administration's policy opposing a congressional resolution condemning the 1915 Armenian genocide.
The U.S. Azeris Network (USAN), an Azeri diaspora group, has started a public awareness campaign to push for Bryza's confirmation.
"Armenians are working to get Bryza [to] return to America in January 2012, seeking thereby to paralyze the mission of the US ambassador to Azerbaijan and to show that the Armenian lobby has a veto in relation to who will be the next U.S. ambassador to Baku," USAN said in a statement on Tuesday.
Former Ambassador to India Tim Roemer left his post in June for family reasons. The Obama has yet to nominate anyone to replace him in New Delhi.
A team of conservative policymakers and thinkers believes that there's a real chance that Western efforts to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon will fail, in which case the United States would have to lead an international effort to contain Iran and deter the Islamic Republic from using its nuclear weapons capability.
Experts at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative Washington think tank, have spent the last six months thinking about how the United States should respond to a nuclear-armed Iran. They are getting ready to release an extensive report tomorrow detailing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with that scenario, entitled, "Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran."
"The report is very much an acknowledgement of the very real possibility of failure of the strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and any responsible party should recognize that failure is an option. There's been a huge disservice done by all who have spent their lives in denial of that possibility," AEI Vice President Danielle Pletka told The Cable in a Monday interview. "Whenever you devise a strategy for what happens before a country gets a nuclear weapon, you should have a strategy for what happens after they get one as well."
Pletka will unveil the report on Tuesday morning at an event with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), and fellow AEI experts Tom Donnelly, Maseh Zarif, and Fred Kagan. The project brought together Iran experts of all stripes to brainstorm what would be needed to create the maximum level of confidence that, if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon, it would not decide to use it.
"While there can never be certain deterrence, Cold War presidents often had confidence that the United States had sufficient military power to support a policy of containment through a strategy of deterrence; for most of the period they felt that deterrence was assured," the report states. "It is worth repeating Dean Acheson's basic formulation: ‘American power would be employed in stopping [Soviet aggression and expansion], and if necessary, would inflict on the Soviet Union injury which the Moscow regime would not wish to suffer.' Assured deterrence began with assured destruction of the Soviet regime."
Pletka said that while the geopolitical environment is now different, the basic goal of U.S. policy is the same -- to create a situation whereby Iranian leaders would credibly believe that any nuclear attack would mean the end of their regime. But Pletka doubts whether this administration has the stomach for such a stance.
"Take out Soviet and Moscow from Acheson's quote, and sub in Iran and Tehran. Are we willing to inflict on Iran injury which the Tehran regime would not wish to suffer? I doubt it," Pletka warned. "There's no question that a country can be deterred from using a nuclear weapon, the only question is if there is the will to put those tools in place."
The report works under the assumption that Iran is working to build a nuclear weapon now and could complete one before the 2012 U.S. presidential election, after which it would continue to build nuclear weapons at a rapid pace. The report also assumes that the Obama administration is unwilling to go to war with Iran before November 2012 over the issue, and that even a limited strike by Israel would not achieve a full destruction of Iran's nuclear capabilities.
"Strategically, Iran's leaders would be foolish to wait until after November 2012 to acquire the capability to permanently deter an American attack on their nuclear program," the report states. "Sound American strategy thus requires assuming that Iran will have a weaponized nuclear capability when the next president takes office in January 2013. The Iranians may not test a device before then, depending, perhaps, on the rhetoric of the current president and his possible successor, but we must assume that they will have at least one."
"Make no mistake -- it would be vastly preferable for the United States and the world to find a way to prevent Iran from crossing that threshold, and we wholeheartedly endorse ongoing efforts that might do so," the authors write. "But some of the effort now focused on how to tighten the sanctions screws must shift to the problem of how to deal with the consequences when sanctions fail."
For Donnelly, part of the report's value is that it highlights the high costs of a deterrence and containment strategy compared to the costs of taking stronger actions now to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
"Deterrence and containment are the default mode for the people who are not up for going to war, but we wanted to point out that this was not a cheap or easy alternative, which is the way a lot of people make it sound," Donnelly told The Cable in an interview.
At Tuesday's event, Kirk will make the argument that the deterrence and containment strategy are too costly and too uncertain to depend on. His speech will be entitled, "If Iran gets the bomb..."
"Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the march to nuclear weapons. And if this brutal, terrorist-sponsoring regime achieves its goal -- if Iran gets the bomb -- we, the United States of America and freedom-loving nations around the world, will have failed in what could be our generation's greatest test," Kirk will say, according to excerpts of his speech provided to The Cable.
"Iran remains the leading sponsor of international terrorism -- a proliferator of missiles and nuclear materials -- a regional aggressor -- and an abuser of human rights. We cannot afford to risk the security of future generations on a policy of containment."
Four Republican senators are calling on the Obama administration to place a sensitive missile defense-related radar site in Georgia, rather than in Turkey, as is currently planned.
"We believe that the U.S. should deploy the most effective missile defenses possible -- in partnership with our allies -- that provide for the protection of the U.S. homeland, our deployed forces, and our allies," began a Feb. 3 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), James Risch (R-ID), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and James Inhofe (R-OK).
The senators are responding to statements from the Turkish government that it would only agree to host the new radar, known as TPY-2, if the United States agrees not to share with Israel any of the information gathered by the radar site, which is part of a NATO system discussed at the recent Lisbon summit. Turkey also wants command and control over the radar and wants NATO to remove any references to Iran as the threat targeted by the missile shield.
For all these reasons, the senators think Georgia would be a better option.
"We believe that the Republic of Georgia's geographic location would make it an ideal site for a missile defense radar aimed at Iran, and would offer clear advantages for the protection of the United States from a long range missile as compared to Turkey," the senators wrote. "What's more, the Republic of Georgia should be a significant partner for future defense cooperation with the U.S."
The senators asked Gates to tell them if Georgia was under consideration as a possible host for the radar site and, if not, what other alternatives the Pentagon is considering.
The prospects of NATO or the Obama administration actually placing a missile defense radar site in Georgia are slim, considering that Georgia is not in NATO and that the consequences for U.S. -Russia and NATO-Russia relations could be devastating.
But the letter is a sure sign that the new Congress is prepared to ramp up its advocacy of restoring defense cooperation with Georgia, which has slowed to a crawl since the 2008 Russian invasion. Other senators who are calling for more military support and cooperation for Georgia include John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"The United States, under substantial Russian diplomatic pressure, has paused the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia, and no U.S. assistance since the war has been directly provided to the Georgian Ministry of Defense," Lugar wrote in a December 2009 report. "Consequently, Georgia lacks basic capacity for territorial defense."
Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has a message for those in Congress who want to slash development and foreign-aid budgets: Cuts will undermine U.S. national security.
On the heels of a major speech on the coming reforms to America's premier development agency, Shah sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable to explain his vision for making USAID more responsible and accountable, an effort he said will require increased short-term investment in order to realize long-term savings.
But if Congress follows through on a massive defunding of USAID as the 165-member Republican Study Group recommended yesterday, it would not only put USAID's reforms in jeopardy, but have real and drastic negative implications for American power and the ongoing missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Shah.
"That first and foremost puts our national security in real jeopardy because we are working hand and glove with our military to keep us safe," said Shah, referring to USAID missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Central America, and responding directly to congressional calls for cuts in foreign aid and development.
The RSC plan calls for $1.39 billion in annual savings from USAID. The USAID operating budget for fiscal 2010 was approximately $1.65 billion. The RSC spending plan summary was not clear if all the cuts would come from operations or from USAID administered programs.
"That would have massive negative implications for our fundamental security," said Shah. "And as people start to engage in a discussion of what that would mean for protecting our border, for preventing terrorist safe havens and keeping our country safe from extremists' ideology … and what that would mean for literally taking children that we feed and keep alive through medicines or food and leaving them to starve. I think those are the types of things people will back away from."
The interests between the development community and U.S. national security objectives don't always align, and this tension is at the core of the debate on how to reinvigorate USAID. Short-term foreign-policy objectives sometimes don't match long-term development needs, and U.S. foreign-policy priorities are not made with development foremost in mind.
But Shah's ambitious drive to reform USAID seems to embrace the idea that development investments can be justified due to their linkage with national security. He is preparing to unveil next month USAID's first ever policy on combating violent extremism and executing counterinsurgency. He also plans to focus USAID's efforts on hot spots like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, while transitioning away from other countries that are faring well and downgrading the agency's presence in places like Paris, Rome, and Tokyo.
Shah pointed out that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus have all come out in strong support of increasing USAID's capacity to do foreign aid.
"In the military they call us a high-value, low-density partner because we are of high value to the national security mission but there aren't enough of us and we don't have enough capability," he said. "This is actually a much, much, much more efficient investment than sending in our troops, not even counting the tremendous risk to American lives when we have to do that."
For those less concerned with matters of national security, Shah also framed his argument for development aid in terms of increased domestic economic and job opportunities: If we want to export more, we need to help develop new markets that are U.S.-friendly.
"If we are going to be competitive as a country and create jobs at home, we cannot ignore the billions of people who are currently very low income but will in fact form a major new middle-class market in the next two decades," he said.
One of the main criticisms of USAID both on Capitol Hill and elsewhere is that the agency has been reduced over the years to not much more than a contracting outfit, disbursing billions of dollars around the world to organizations that have mixed performance records. In Shah's view, if Congress wants USAID to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, it has to increase the agency's operating budget and allow the agency to monitor contracts in-house.
"It was the Bush administration that helped launch the effort to reinvest in USAID's capabilities and hiring and people, and the reason they did that is they recognized you save a lot more money by being better managers of contracts," Shah said. "We have a choice. We have a critical need to make the smart investments in our own operations … which over time will save hundreds of millions of dollars, as opposed to trying to save a little bit now by cutting our capacity to do oversight and monitoring."
Shah wouldn't comment on the latest and greatest USAID contracting scandal, where the agency suspended contractor AED from receiving any new contracts amid allegations of widespread fraud. But he did say that his office would be personally reviewing large sole-source contracts from now on, requiring independent and public evaluations, and that more corrective actions are in the works.
"I suspect you'll see more instances of effective, proactive oversight that in fact saves American taxpayers significant resources," he said.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is in town for the Richard Holbrooke memorial today at the Kennedy Center, honored Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) on Wednesday night for his support of Georgia following their 2008 war with Russia.
In a dinner and ceremony held at the Georgetown Club, Saakashvili awarded Lieberman the Saint George's Victory Order, which is awarded to individuals who have significantly contributed to victorious battles. Previous American recipients include Holbrooke, President George W. Bush, and then Senator Joe Biden.
Lieberman flew to Georgia in August 2008 just a few days after the Russian-Georgian ceasefire was reached, together with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). They were both involved in the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). McCain, who famously declared, "We are all Georgians," was awarded the Order of the National Hero of Georgia in 2008.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Lieberman spoke about the continuing bond between the U.S. and Georgia and called for a deepening defense partnership. He also emphasized the importance of continuing democratic reform in Georgia in order to advance its transatlantic future.
"Every step that Georgia takes towards greater democracy and rule of law is also a step towards greater security," he said.
Lieberman also spoke about the role Georgian troops are playing in Afghanistan, and thanked Saakashvili and his government for the service and sacrifice of Georgia's military alongside U.S. troops.
But Lieberman didn't receive a gold-plated revolver recovered from a Russian soldier, as McCain did.
Also in attendance at the dinner were Georgian ambassador to the U.S. Batu Kutelia, Georgian minister of economy and development Vera Kobalia, and Raphael Glucksmann, one of Saakashvili's closest advisors and son of French philosopher Andre Glucksmann.
Lieberman brought his neighbors and their son to the dinner. Also Ken Wollack, president of National Democratic Institute, Steve Nix, regional director of Eurasia for International Republican Institute, and Orion Strategies' Randy Scheunemann attended.
Ever since President Barack Obama took office, his administration has refused to sell military equipment to Georgia. In a newly released WikiLeaks cable, the U.S. ambassador to Russia made the argument that U.S. military support to Georgia is unwise because it would upset the U.S.-Russian "reset."
"A decision to move towards a more robust military relationship with Georgia will imperil our efforts to re-start relations with Russia," read a June 2009 cable signed by U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle. "Our assessment is that if we say ‘yes' to a significant military relationship with Tbilisi, Russia will say ‘no' to any medium-term diminution in tensions, and feel less constrained absent reverting to more active opposition to critical U.S. strategic interests."
The U.S.-Russia reset policy is not as important to Russia as its "absolute" priority of expanding its influence in Eurasia, Beyrle wrote. He said that sending military supplies to Georgia would cause Russia to backtrack on other areas of U.S.-Russia cooperation, including joint action to pressure Iran.
Besides, the Russians don't think that the United States possesses the power to force a resolution to the situation in the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has occupied since the end of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Beyrle explained in the leaked cable.
The Obama administration hasn't actually set forth a policy banning weapons sales to Georgia. They simply haven't sold weapons to Georgia and don't plan on doing so. That de facto ban on arms sales has riled some in Washington, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"The United States, under substantial Russian diplomatic pressure, has paused the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia, and no U.S. assistance since the war has been directly provided to the Georgian Ministry of Defense," Lugar's staff wrote in a December 2009 report. "Consequently, Georgia lacks basic capacity for territorial defense."
Contradicting Lugar, the Beyrle cable argues that arms sales would actually be harmful for Georgian national security, because it increases the likelihood of sparking another war that Georgia would surely lose.
"From our vantage point, a burgeoning military supply relationship with Georgia is more of a liability for Georgia than a benefit," Beyrle wrote. "We recognize that our suggested approach would be deeply dissatisfying to Saakashvili, but we see ... no way to neutralize the advantages of geography, size, and capabilities enjoyed by Russia."
Samual Charap, associate director for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center of for American Progress, agreed. "Instead of the argument of whether we can fulfill this desire of the Georgian government, we have to step back and say ‘what is the U.S. interest here,'" he said. "There's no such thing as a military balance or a military deterrent in this case."
More broadly, Charap and top administration officials argue that the reset policy with Russia is actually good for Georgia, even if it means that the United States won't sell it weapons.
"I guess the question is: Is Georgia and is the rest of Europe more secure today than they were -- than Europe was when we first got here? And I think our answer is yes," Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, said in June.
"The reset protects Georgia because Russia now has a whole lot more to lose," added Charap. "Before, nobody in Moscow was going to think ‘what will they think in Washington,' because they didn't care. Now they care."
Other experts said that while the Beyrle cable reflects just one man's opinion, it fits into a broader pattern of an Obama administration that has ignored Georgia and other parts of central Asia due to a focus on improving U.S.-Russian ties.
"Having a reset policy is fine, but what the administration has not done is create a simultaneous comprehensive policy for the central Asian states," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Right now 100 percent of our Georgia policy is about Russia, where it should be about 25 percent."
Petersen agreed that selling arms to Georgia is not a panacea, but should be combined with other types of assistance, including civil institution building, which is mentioned in Beyrle's cable.
"The Georgians love banging the table and saying give us lots of arms, but they are just as myopic as this cable was," Petersen said. "If you're going to do arms sales, you have to do 10 other things relating to bolstering Georgia."
The cable, by alluding to Russian corruption and heavy handedness in the disputed territories, fits into the larger picture of State Department reporting, as revealed by WikiLeaks, which privately emphasizes Russian misbehavior in Georgia. These cables, including reports on Russian military and intelligence attacks inside Georgia dating back to 2004, go well beyond what U.S. diplomats commented on in public.
Although Beyrle's cable does not represent U.S. official policy, some experts see a White House keen to adopt its candid recommendations.
"As the U.S. ambassador to Russia, naturally he is going to a focus on a better relationship with Russia, so you can't say this necessarily this trickles up to the Obama administration's policy," said Petersen. "But a senior official at State is clearly saying we should throw Georgia under the bus."
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration has been touting its progress in negotiations with Russia over Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organization, but the White House has no intention of helping Russia overcome the biggest remaining obstacle: Georgia.
National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers was in Moscow last week, where he announced that "the end is in sight" for U.S. -Russian agreement on outstanding bilateral issues, such as Russia's actions related to intellectual property rights. Summers also explained why Russia's WTO membership is in America's interest.
"The potential of this market for American business is very great... and it's important for the goal President Obama has set for doubling exports over the next five years," he said.
But after Russia has satisfied Washington's concerns on intellectual property protection, poultry issues, etc., it will have to choose whether or not to make concessions to Georgia. The two nations fought a limited war in 2008 and Russia still has troops deployed on Georgian soil to this day.
The Georgians may have been waiting for the Obama administration to approach them with an offer that would entice them to consent to Russia's WTO membership. Any one WTO country can veto Russian accession and Georgia is the leading candidate to do so. Russia may have been waiting for Washington to pressure Georgia to drop their objections. A senior administration official told The Cable that both sides can stop waiting because Washington is not going to get involved.
"This is a bilateral issue between Russia and Georgia, this is not a trilateral issue that we are supposed to solve somehow," the senior administration official said, explaining that the Obama administration has no intention of trying to exert influence on Georgia on this issue and will not offer any carrots or sticks to Tbilisi.
"People somehow think we are going to mediate this between the Russians and the Georgians. That's not our job," the official said.
The Obama administration's position is that Russia should make the first move. It is unlikely that there will be membership for Russia if basic borders and customs issues are not resolved with Georgia, the official said.
"That has to be done before Russia joins the WTO," the official said. "And as it is Russia who is seeking to join the WTO, we would see it as up to them to come up with a way to start negotiations."
So what does Georgia want from Russia? Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri spelled it out in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"Georgia's support to Russia's WTO membership is conditional. The precondition is fulfillment of obligation taken by Russia in our bilateral accession protocol in 2004 and solving issues of customs administration on the Georgian-Russian border," he said. "Unregulated illegal trade as it takes place now is counter WTO rules. Russia should become member of this rules-based organization but only if it respects trade rules."
Of course, one huge problem is how to define the "Georgian-Russian border." If you are Georgia, that includes the borders between Russia and what the Obama administration calls the "occupied" Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Some experts believe there's a compromise that could square that circle. Damon Wilson, director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council, said there could be some international presence on the Russia-Abkhazia and Russia-South Ossetia border, similar to the arrangement in Transnistria, a disputed territory on the border of Moldova and the Ukraine.
But he agreed with the Obama administration official that the burden to begin resolving Russia-Georgia issues that lie in the way of WTO membership is on Russia, not Georgia.
"Too many people frame this as ‘are the Georgians going to be the spoiler.' That already puts the Georgians in a box," Wilson said. "The issue is, do the Russians want in the WTO or not and if so, what are they going to do?"
The Georgians are taking a reasonable position and are not trying to make a stink out of this, recognizing that their leverage is ultimately limited, he said. But their concerns are valid and represent a real trade concern that needs to be addressed.
"If Russia is going to be a part of this, it can't enter on day one with some sort of exception. The first sign is that the Russians need to come to the table and talk to the Georgians."
Wilson's views represent those of many in the Russia watching community in Washington who wonder if the Obama administration wants Russia to join the WTO more than Russia itself wants to join. After all, in addition to the economic benefits for the United States outlined by Summers, WTO membership for Russia is one deliverable Obama would like to point to as part of his "reset" policy.
"Russians have to want this," said David Kramer, former assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. "Russians have to choose whether they work with the Georgians to solve the problem or whether it's more important for them to hold Georgia up as the obstacle."
Kramer, a frequent critic of the Obama reset policy, said the administration has taken exactly the right approach on this issue by putting the onus back on Russia and Georgia to work it out without U.S. mediation.
"Sure, [the administration] is looking to get some wins on the board for Russia reset, but the Bush administration was doing the same thing. If Bush was in office today, we'd be doing the START treaty and we'd be pushing WTO," Kramer said.
Meanwhile, there's a growing murmur on Capitol Hill that the path toward U.S. support for Russian WTO membership in Congress might not be as assured as the administration might hope. Congress must repeal the 35-year-old Jackson-Vanick law, which was meant to support then Soviet emigrants. The law as currently written prevents the U.S. from granting Russian Permanent Normal Trade Relations status.
"Russia would be under no obligation to comply with its commitments to the US made in bilateral accession negotiations and the US would have no recourse to WTO dispute-resolution mechanisms. Essentially, we would get none of the benefits of having Russia inside the rules-based system if Jackson-Vanik isn't repealed," said Samuel Charap, fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Although the Soviet emigrant issue no longer exists, a Republican-controlled Congress could resist that move due to concerns about Russia on any number of issues.
"When you look at the makeup of what the Congress is likely to look like next week, that's not the most auspicious setting for the administration's argument, so there would have be a serious push by the administration and supporters on the Hill to get this done," a senior GOP Congressional aide said.
The State Department has been stepping up both its rhetorical and punitive actions against Iran, but the question still remains whether the administration will go as far as to sanction companies based in countries where relations are delicate, especially China.
Last week, the United States announced two steps to increase pressure on Iran: President Obama signed an executive order on Sept. 29 targeting eight Iranian individuals for serious human rights abuses, and the State Department announced on Sept. 30 that it was imposing sanctions on the Switzerland-based Naftiran Intertrade Company (NICO) due to its involvement in the Iranian petroleum sector. These actions are based on the Iran sanctions legislation passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last June.
On Monday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new 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, one in Singapore, and one in the UAE.
There are some positive signs, however, that international pressure is having an effect on companies' willingness to do business in Iran. Several firms -- hailing from Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, India, and the United Kingdom -- told the GAO that they are halting their refined petroleum business with Iran.
But leading senators aren't convinced that the holdouts are planning to follow suit. They are pressing the Obama administration to use the new sanctions law to punish those who won't go along -- especially if they are from China.
"The GAO report released today provides encouraging evidence that the comprehensive sanctions legislation passed by Congress earlier this year is indeed persuading many companies to stop selling gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran. We applaud those firms that have taken this responsible and important step," said Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) joint statement. Lieberman and Collins had requested the GAO report in July.
However, the success of sanctions legislation has only made it "even more imperative" that the Obama administration pressure countries that have maintained their ties in Iran, the senators stated. "We are particularly concerned that the majority of the companies that GAO identifies as still selling gasoline to Iran are in China. We urge the Administration to complete its own investigations swiftly and enforce the sanctions law, comprehensively and aggressively, against any violators," the statement read.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told reporters last week that the State Department was looking at additional firms' business in Iran and would consider more direct sanctions through a two-step process that takes up to 180 days. But he added that the administration was first trying to negotiate with foreign governments to stop the companies' activities in advance of imposing penalties.
"We are following the process outlined in the statute," said Steinberg. "If we find credible evidence [of firms violating the sanctions], then we go to the next stage, which is to conduct an investigation ... and then we would make a decision," Steinberg said.
One of the main concerns on Capitol Hill is that, as countries pull out from Iran, other countries will take over contracts, thereby nullifying the effect of the sanctions and enriching themselves at other countries' expense -- a practice known as "backfilling."
The administration and Congress worked hard to convince Japan and South Korea to impose unilateral measures against Iran, which they did, but there's particular concern that China will simply come in and take over those contracts.
Kyl and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week on this very issue, pointing out reports that China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) replaced the Japanese firm Inpex and agreed to invest around $2 billion to develop Iran's South Azadegan oil fields last year.
"The Administration, by continuing to ignore blatant violations of our sanctions laws by Chinese companies, has undermined our sanctions regime on Iran. It has sent the message to our friends and allies -- many of which have taken the difficult steps to reduce their economic ties with Iran -- that others will be let off the hook," Kyl said Sept. 30.
"If President Obama genuinely believes that a nuclear-armed Iran is not acceptable, he must stand by those words and apply the authority Congress has given him to punish all who are violating U.S. sanctions laws, particularly China," said Kyl. "Time is of the essence."
Steinberg addressed the issue of backfilling in his briefing, saying that such activity would provoke actions under the sanctions legislation. "We've made clear to all our international partners that we are strongly discouraging substitution. And of course, were there to be substitution that came within the ambit of the act, it would raise questions under the act," he said.
Bob Einhorn¸ State's senior advisor on Iran and North Korea sanctions, is the man responsible for delivering that message and he traveled to Beijing last week to press the Chinese not to undermine the sanctions. It's not clear yet if he was successful.
In a July 29 hearing, Einhorn referenced a previous GAO report that identified 41 foreign firms with a petroleum interest in Iran. "There are a number of entities that are very problematic. I have to say that a number of them have been engaged in sanctionable activity," he said in testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform committee.
Complicating matters are the persistent rumors that China may have secured some type of immunity from additional sanctions as part of their agreement to support U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, which established relatively benign sanctions against Iran as punishment for its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.
Undersecretary of State William Burns said at an Oct. 1 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the State Department had competed an internal review of the companies noted in the GAO report and would make more determinations soon, but he cautioned not to expect too many companies to be singled out for punishment.
"There are probably -- there are a number of cases, less than 10, in which it appears that there may have been violations of the Iran Sanctions Act. Most of those appear to involve activities that have stopped, in other words, involving companies that have pulled out of business in Iran, but there are a couple that appear to be ongoing," he said.
Capitol Hill observers have been encouraged by the administration's recent moves -- but are still not convinced they constitute enough of a commitment to increasing pressure on Iran. Staffers say that the administration's new forceful tone and rhetoric are a marked improvement, even if they are only fulfilling the actions required by the sanctions legislation.
What's clear is that the administration is not yet finished implementing sanctions against firms doing business with Iran, and Congress will be pressing it not to back down from punishing companies from countries that may take retaliatory measures.
"Many in Congress are worried that the administration will fall for Iran's latest bid to buy a reprieve from sanctions by appearing interested in negotiations," said one senior GOP senate aide. "Congress will not let up on the pressure on the administration to go after Iran and those who are supporting it, namely, the Chinese."
With Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visiting Washington Thursday, the issue of Russia's occupation of Georgia is now on the agenda. The White House doesn't have any specific plans to advance its stated goal of getting Russian troops out of what Georgia claims as its own territory, but claims that the reset itself is already making the situation better.
"I guess the question is: Is Georgia and is the rest of Europe more secure today than they were -- than Europe was when we first got here? And I think our answer is yes," said Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, in a conference call Tuesday.
Russian troops have been entrenching their presence in the disputed territories of Abkhasia and South Ossetia since the end of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, in direct violation of the ceasefire agreement they signed to end the conflict. Russia is also among the only countries to recognize the regions as independent states.
"We consider their occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be illegitimate. And this is a position shared widely by the international community," McFaul said.
Basically, the administration's plan for Georgia is to continue to make its position clear to the Russians, continue to send economic aid to the Georgians, and wait patiently for those two things to produce some result.
"In addition to having a discussion and an argument, I would say, a disagreement about this occupation of these territories, we also have an interest in stability in the region, reducing tensions, expanding monitors, expanding transparency about what Russia is doing in these territories," McFaul said. "And we're perfectly happy to expand their understanding of what we are doing in terms of our cooperation with the Georgian government."
McFaul also pointed to the recent Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, which said that approval of NATO among ordinary Russians has gone up from 24 percent in 2009 to 40 percent this year.
"We think that that's evidence that if you have a substantive dialogue with Russia about security issues, even difficult ones ... that can improve the security for the United States, for Russia, and our allies in Europe and partners in Europe," he said.
The U.S. administration has made great efforts to de-link Georgia from other aspects of the U.S.-Russia relationship, arguing that that there is no reason not to make progress on issues where the U.S. and Russia share interests, such as arms control, nonproliferation, and economic cooperation.
"Even as we have differences, we can cooperate on areas of mutual concern, and of course the flip side of that is even where we cooperate on areas of mutual concern, we don't paper over our differences either," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on the conference call.
But Rhodes also suggested that better interactions with Moscow improve the chances that the Georgia situation can progress.
"We think that having the dialogue is in the ultimate interest of resolving these disagreements," he said.
Even Russia experts who favor the "reset" approach, however, are calling on the administration to change its tone on Georgia.
"We have a two-pronged policy: One is banging on the table and getting the equivalent of ‘shove it' from the Russians," said Samuel Charap, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "On other the other hand we have this traditional method of assistance to Georgia. I don't think any of this is getting at the real problem or getting us any closer to ending the Russian occupation of Georgia."
The U.S. administration should reframe the Georgia debate around common interests with Russia, Charap argues, based on the shared desire to prevent a new outbreak of violence there.
The White House should also take advantage of the fact that the Russians aren't happy with the status quo either, he said. Russian officials sometime refer to the disputed territories as a "suitcase with no handle," difficult to hold but too valuable to put down.
"At the end of the day, we don't actually have any leverage over the Russians on this," Charap said. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't stop trying to change what's going on there."
As the State Department celebrates its biggest success by signing the new START treaty in Prague today, back in Washington a key arms-control job remains unfilled with no nominee in sight.
The "T" family at State, which is comprised of three arms-control related bureaus, has seen a real resurgence in this administration. This is due both to the genuine desire of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reinvigorate the capacity and strength of the arms-control bureaucracy and the efforts of under secretary Ellen Tauscher, the former congresswoman who now finds herself with the ability to implement the arms-control agenda she advocated for years on Capitol Hill.
The bureau itself is alive again. It's even been redecorated. And Tauscher has brought on a top-echelon staff with a broad range of experience. Some stars include Deputy Assistant Secretary Frank Rose, who was Tauscher's key missile defense aide in Congress, chief of staff Simon Limage, Wade Boese, formerly of the Arms Control Association, Jofi Joseph, former foreign-policy advisor for Sen. Bob Casey, Josh Kirshner, formerly of the House Intelligence Committee , and many others.
But one key position in her bureau remains leaderless. The bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN) still has no assistant secretary and there are no signs a nomination is coming any time soon. That's a problem because the ISN bureau is crucial to Tauscher's plan to reorganize the T family, and even Sen. Richard Lugar has noted that this will be more difficult without an assistant secretary at the helm.
The staff is ably led by acting assistant secretary Vann Van Diepen, but his nomination could reopen a contentious debate about the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which the administration is trying to avoid.
State is right to be concerned about a lengthy and contentious fight over the nomination. Leading GOP senators such as Minority Whip Jon Kyl have been constantly frustrated by what they see as the State Department's reluctance to keep them in the loop on arms-control issues.
State disputes that, pointing to the multiple breifings administration officials have given Kyl and his staff and noting that Kyl has even been to Geneva to oberserve the START negotiations himself.
He held up for months State's last arms control nominee, Ambassador Laura Kennedy,before finally removing his objections in February.
And the most obvious choice for the open job, Van Diepen, is controversial as far as the GOP leadership is concerned, due to his involvement in writing a controversial 2007 National Intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program.
Van Diepen was one of three principal authors of the estimate, which concluded, "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
The administration is said to be preparing a new estimate that rolls back that claim, although that will be classified.
In a little noticed congressional hearing in late March, Congressman Ed Royce pressed Van Diepen on the issue. Van Diepen tried to defend the NIE and said, "by ‘nuclear weapons program' we mean Iran's nuclear weapon design and weaponization work. ... We do not mean Iran's ... uranium conversion and enrichment."
Clinton is said to be supportive of Van Diepen. However, the GOP is already warning that the nomination would be problematic.
"If Vann were nominated for any role requiring senate confirmation, GOP senators would demand a thorough review of the entire record related to the 2007 NIE and its terribly flawed and political judgments," a senior GOP senate aide told The Cable. "I would have thought State already has enough fights on its hands."
Sources said that State had forwarded the name of Steve Mull to the White House, but the White House never acted on it and Mull is now said to be in line for another State Department job in a different bureau.
If the Kyrgyz opposition is able to maintain control after toppling the government, the Pentagon and State Department may have to renegotiate the U.S.-Kyrgyz agreement on a crucial U.S. air base there, experts warn.
It's only been a few months since the now-deposed Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbak Bakiyev, signed a new deal upping the rent on the Air Force Transit Center at Manas, which the U.S. depends on for critical supplies en route to Afghanistan.
Last February, there was a vote in the Kyrgyz parliament to end the arrangement, egged on by a Russia wary of the growing U.S. military presence in its near abroad. The man who led the opposition to the base in the legislature was former parliamentary speaker and opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev, who now seems to be in control of the country, after being arrested and then released on Wednesday.
"We have to probably renegotiate the Manas basing agreement, because it was the opposition that pressured Bakiyev into renegotiating in the first place," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow with the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. "The leading opposition figures are not anti-American or more pro-Russian than anyone else in Kyrgyzstan, but because they led the drive to raise the rents they might have to reopen negotiations for political reasons."
And where there is a negotiation in Central Asia, there is a U.S.-Russia angle to worry about as well.
"This could be a relatively friendly negotiation, but the Russians could very well take the opportunity to meddle again," Petersen said.
Although Russia would have an interest in getting back at Bakiyev for finally striking a deal with the U.S., Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has condemned the violence and denied any Russian role in today's events.
Meanwhile, it's still "business as usual" at Manas, according to a U.S. military spokesman.
"As of right now the air base is still open, the unrest has not impact operations on the base," said Shawn Turner, Pentagon public affairs officer. "It's getting a little tense."
Turner said he had no information that Bakiyev, who took over from Askar Akayev during the 2005 "Tulip Revolution," was holing up at the U.S. base, despite some rumors in the capital city of Bishkek to that effect.
"Folks at Manas tell us that business as usual and if he was there, that would be something that we would be aware of," Turner said.
Petersen said he was hearing Bakiyev has taken refuge in his home turf of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan where he still has a power base. If he hasn't actually left the country, that could indicate the power struggle isn't over, he added.
The broader implication for the international community is the realization that the era of popular revolutions in Eurasia toppling unpopular government is still ongoing, and even democratic governments that don't live up to their ideals are vulnerable.
Although this latest unrest was sparked by the government's decision to raise utility prices by 200 percent, Bakiyev has been moving toward cronyism and corruption for some time, Petersen said.
"Color revolutions are not dead in this part of the world," he said, noting that what's going on in Kyrgyzstan has implications for Ukraine and Georgia. "If a color revolution goes authoritarian, you can have another revolution right on top of it."
After President Obama has rolled out his nuclear policy review Tuesday morning, he used his down time to turn his attention to another major nuclear initiative: the Nuclear Security Summit being held in Washington next week.
With 47 world leaders coming to town, Obama simply can't very well schedule one-on-one meetings with all of them -- lest international diplomacy turn into the equivalent of speed dating. Still, the least the president can do is give a phone call to the leaders he's rejecting, and that's what he was doing Tuesday afternoon.
So far, the world leaders Obama has granted an audience to are (in alphabetical order by country): President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, President Hu Jintao of China, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan, and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev doesn't need a bilateral, because he will have lots of time to hang out with Obama Thursday in Prague when they meet there to sign the new START agreement. Obama just met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week. And British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is skipping the summit to gear up his campaign ahead of the May elections he announced this morning.
So who's not getting face time with Obama? One confirmed rejection is Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who got the consolation phone call from Obama just a few hours ago.
"President Saakashvili thanked President Obama for his invitation to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington," according to a readout of the call from the Georgian side. "President Obama thanked President Saakashvili for Georgia's exceptional commitment of troops to the international effort in Afghanistan."
What Obama didn't mention in the call Georgia's aspirations to join NATO or Georgia's concern about the French sale of a new assault ship to Russia.
Hey, maybe they'll run into each other at the buffet.
So, who are the other countries may be soon getting the rejection call? Looks like the leaders of Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Vietnam.
Did you know there will be massive human rights protests across Russia this Saturday? Well, John McCain is all over the situation.
McCain, who famously declared "We are all Georgians" during the August War of 2008, gave a speech on the Senate floor calling on all Americans to get involved in the cause of human rights in Russia and lambasting the Kremlin for its harsh treatment of opposition and activist leaders.
"This is about universal values -- values that we in the United States embody but do not own ... values that should shape the conduct of every government, be it ours or Russia's or any other country's," McCain said, "And when we see citizens of conviction seeking to hold their governments to the higher standard of human rights, we should speak up for them."
McCain hasn't given up the cause of the Georgians since the end of the presidential campaign. He visited the country in January and made a stop at the border of the breakaway region of Abkhazia, where Russian troops still remain.
"I know that Washington has a lot of foreign-policy challenges at the moment, but we cannot forget Georgia and the support it deserves amid a continuing threat from its neighbor to the north," he said.
Back in 2008, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared McCain a "national hero" of Georgia when he visited in January and gave him a Vietnam-war revolver (pictured) that was captured off a Russian soldier at the ceremony.
McCain also recently met with opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Washington. When McCain asked Nemtsov what Americans could do to support human rights activists in Russia, Nemtsov said, "Speak up for it. And speak up for us."
Here's what the State Department's newly released report on human rights practices had to say about Russia:
Were you keeping a list of senior GOP lawmakers who are weighing in to oppose the potential French sale of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship to Russia? If so, add Indiana Senator Richard Lugar to that list.
Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, released a report Tuesday that calls on NATO to take a lead role in coordinating security assistance to Georgia, the culmination of a staff project that included a trip to Tbilisi in late October. The report's conclusions are stark in terms of Lugar's view on how Georgia is faring one year after the Russian invasion.
"As a result of Russian diplomatic pressure and threats to restrict commercial ties with entities selling defense articles to Georgia, the Georgian military has been unable to replenish much of its military capacity that was eviscerated in the war," the report reads.
The last tranche of U.S. post-war assistance to Georgia, $242 million to round out the $1 billion commitment, was notified to Congress in December and went through without objection. The report highlights that the Obama administration decided not to use any of that money to shore up Georgia's lethal capabilities.
"The United States, under substantial Russian diplomatic pressure, has paused the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia, and no U.S. assistance since the war has been directly provided to the Georgian Ministry of Defense. Consequently, Georgia lacks basic capacity for territorial defense."
Lugar argues that Georgian military weakness increases the risk of armed conflict by pinning the Georgians into a desperate position and raising the possibility of conflict-starting miscalculations.
Despite the unfortunate headline in this otherwise strong Associated Press article, Lugar is not calling on NATO to arm Georgia, exactly. His more nuanced view is that NATO must establish a leadership role in maintaining the security balance in the Caucasus, which is tipping more every day toward the Russian advantage.
That's where the French sale of the Mistral comes in. Several senior GOP lawmakers have come out strongly against the potential sale of the ship, introducing bills and writing letter focused on strategic or tactical concerns.
Lugar's concern is more of a diplomatic one, and it relates to the integrity of NATO as much as the security of Georgia. He references the possible sale of the Mistral specifically.
"Failing a coordinated, NATO-led strategy for security assistance in the region, allies run the risk of disturbing an already fragile political balance and engendering an excessive nationalization of Georgian defense policy."
It remains to be seen if NATO will embrace the role of coordinator for security for Georgia, especially since Georgia seems as far away from NATO membership as ever. But regardless of whether Georgia get in or stays out, NATO is going have stake in Georgian security issues from now on and Lugar's point is that should include ensuring NATO allies don't take unilateral measures to upset the military balance.
The journalist in Baku who broke the story of Plouffe's visit, of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, told a contact that she and other journalists tried to attend Plouffe's speech Monday at Baku's Gerb (Western) University but were not allowed in. Plouffe was also scheduled to have a meeting with the president of Azerbaijan.
The visit comes "on the eve of a referendum abolishing term limits which will leave the president in power for as long as he wants," a former U.S. oil executive who worked in Azerbaijan writes The Cable. "This visit will be represented inside Azerbaijan as a sign of President Obama's personal support for Ilham Aliyev. ...The runup to this referendum has seen the government shut down Radio Liberty, VOA and BBC and also harassing/arresting/beating anyone who tries to campaign against it."
A White House official said "Plouffe is traveling as a private citizen. The Embassy is not setting his schedule. Any questions should be directed to him." Efforts to reach Plouffe at Baku's Park Hyatt hotel were unsuccessful.
Last week, Plouffe sent an e-mail on behalf of Barack Obama's campaign organization, "Obama for America," to promote the president's economic stimulus package. "Friend -- President Obama recorded a video to speak directly to you about his economic recovery plan," the e-mail began.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service Monday, Plouffe said, "I'm here as a private citizen, so all I am doing is talking about elections and the Internet and democracy and how to -- you know, talk about our election [and] how great it was so many people participated in it." Isa Gambar, the head of the opposition Musavat party, told RFE/RL "If he is here to meet the members of the government and to talk about the promotion of civil society, then it would be useful for him also to meet the representatives of the civil groups and political parties, too."
UPDATE: Plouffe now plans to donate his $50,000 speaking fee to pro-democracy groups, the WSJ reports.
Photo: FILE; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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