U.S. President Barack Obama has made his administration's successes against terrorist groups -- above all last year's killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- a central plank of his re-election campaign.
But according to the State Department's latest annual counterterrorism report, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining operational strength in the Middle East and South Asia, even though terrorist attacks worldwide are at their lowest level since 2005.
The report cited 2011 as a "landmark year" due to the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and other key al Qaeda operatives, and noted that the terrorist group's "core," largely based in Pakistan, had been weakened.
"I would not say that we are less safe now than we were several years ago, because the al Qaeda core was the most capable part of the organization by quite a lot, and was capable obviously of carrying out catastrophic attacks on a scale that none of the affiliates have been able to match," Coordinator for Counterterrorism Dan Benjamin said Tuesday at a briefing introducing the report.
Democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa also testified to the terrorist organization's decline, he said, though he offered a few cautionary notes.
"We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful, public demands for change without any reference to al Qaeda's incendiary world view," Benjamin said.
"This upended the group's longstanding claim that change in this region would only come through violence. These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim majority nations."
Though AQAP benefited from the long and tumultuous political transition in Yemen, Benjamin said he expects the trend lines to go "in the right direction" under new president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Syria, on the other hand, remains a major cause for concern with no solution in sight. The New York Times reported Sunday that Muslim jihadists are "taking a more prominent role" in the resistance.
"We believe that the number of al Qaeda fighters who are in Syria is relatively small, but there's a larger group of foreign fighters, many of whom are not directly affiliated with al Qaeda, who are either in or headed to Syria," Benjamin said.
Iran remains the preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, according to the report, as its Lebanese client, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is engaging in the most active and aggressive campaign since the 1990s.
Of the more than 10,000 attacks carried out in 70 countries, 64 percent occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but both Afghanistan and Iraq saw a decrease in the number of attacks from 2010.
In Africa, there was an 11.5 percent uptick in attacks, a result of Nigerian militant group Boko Haram's more aggressive strategies and tactics. Despite criticism from Congress, the Obama administration has refused to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization on the grounds that its attacks are not representative of its general ideology, though the State Department did designate three of its leaders terrorists in June.
The report also mentions the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated group attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging the State Department to add the network to the list of terrorist groups, which would become effective with President Barack Obama's signature.
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.
The top Kurdish representative in Washington on Friday pushed back against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's attempt to encourage U.S. President Barack Obama to stop U.S. oil companies -- particularly ExxonMobil -- from investing in the Kurdish area of Iraq following Chevron's recent purchase of 80 percent of two blocks in the autonomous region.
The Kurdish representative, Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish Regional Government's representative in Washington and the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, was responding to Maliki's claim that Obama had sided with Baghdad in the escalating dispute in a recent letter.
"We would like to confirm that the letter was positive and convincing and stresses its respect for the constitution and Iraqi laws, in the same manner as the Iraqi government is seeking," read a statement from Maliki's office on Thursday.
On Friday, in a short interview with The Cable, Qubad Talabani shot back: "Every U.S. company that is working in Kurdistan today is working under the Iraqi constitution, so the notion that Obama has sent a letter to Maliki supporting his position on Exxon is misleading because the U.S. reaffirmed their support for the Iraqi constitution, and expressing their support is not contradictory to ExxonMobil working in Kurdistan."
But the dispute is not simply a legal matter. Baghdad is concerned that the KRG's cooperation with oil companies threatens its authority, since Article 112 of Iraq's constitution states that the management of the country's oil and gas fields and Iraq's energy policy are responsibilities of the federal government. "Firstly, the prime minister of Iraq should know that private U.S. companies ... don't act on the behalf of the U.S. government," Talabani said, "and they certainly don't take their orders from the U.S. government."
Baghdad banned ExxonMobil from bidding at a recent auction for exploration blocs after the company signed a 25-year exploration deal with the KRG last year. The KRG drew the ire of the Iraqi federal government earlier this month when it announced that it had exported some crude to Turkey, which gave the KRG refined product in return.
"This is an illegal and unconstitutional business that we will take the right decision against," a spokesman for Hussein al-Shahristani, Iraq's deputy prime minister for energy, said at the time. "The [Iraqi government's] oil ministry solely reserves the right to export crude oil, gas, or oil products to other countries."
American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin told The Cable on Monday that KRG president Massoud Barzani had also raised the issue with President Obama, which The Cable was unable to confirm.
"It's my understanding that Barzani walked away with the perspective that Obama was favoring Maliki's claims over Barzani's, so it seems already that the U.S. is siding with the Iraqi central government on this issue at least," he said. "We can't pressure Iraqis because we have no leverage left."
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
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
The State Department announced on Tuesday that it would exempt 10 European countries and Japan from penalties for doing business with Iran's central bank, because those countries are making significant progress toward weaning themselves off of Iranian oil.
"I am pleased to announce that an initial group of eleven countries has significantly reduced their volume of crude oil purchases from Iran -- Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As a result, I will report to the Congress that sanctions pursuant to Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 (NDAA) will not apply to the financial institutions based in these countries, for a renewable period of 180 days," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Tuesday statement. "The actions taken by these countries were not easy. They had to rethink their energy needs at a critical time for the world economy and quickly begin to find alternatives to Iranian oil, which many had been reliant on for their energy needs."
The European Union banned all new purchases of Iranian crude oil as of Jan. 23 and will phase out existing contracts by July 1, Clinton said. Japan was able to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil even despite energy shortages created by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"We commend these countries for their actions and urge other nations that import oil from Iran to follow their example," said Clinton. "Diplomacy coupled with strong pressure can achieve the long-term solutions we seek and we will continue to work with our international partners to increase the pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations."
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who co-authored the sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and those who do business with it, praised the State Department's move in a Tuesday statement of his own.
"The sanctions are working," he said. "Countries and companies are stepping up in recognition of the real threat that Iran poses to its neighbors and the global community and are terminating business relationships with Iran. On Saturday, SWIFT - the financial messaging service provider - cut off services to the Central Bank of Iran and 30 designated Iranian banks, and as a result -- for the first time -- we are seeing a real impact on the Iranian economy."
A senior State Department official said Tuesday that there are 12 countries left who import Iranian oil and could be sanctioned but didn't get exemptions today. Butthe official said that if those countries are going to be sanctioned, it won't be for a while.
Since the CBI sanctions didn't actually go into effect until Feb. 29, any case for implementing sanctions against those 12 countries would have to be based on evidence from that date forward, which would take time.
On March 30, President Barack Obama will have to make a determination as to whether price and supply conditions in the energy market allow for countries to switch from Iranian crude oil to other suppliers. If he determines they do, then a new set of harsher sanctions would go into effect on June 28 against any countries that don't have exemptions by then.
The main countries that the United States might be forced to sanction at that time include China, Turkey, India, and South Korea, none of which received exemptions today. The State Department official admitted that the conditions for receiving an exemption are vague.
"On the case of the other countries, the legislation specifies ‘significantly reduce.' It doesn't define what ‘significantly reduce' is," the official said.
The official said that Japan represents a model for how other countries could act to avoid sanctions. But under questioning, the official refused to say exactly how much Japan has committed to reducing its dependence on Iranian oil, calling that "commercially protected information." He said Japan reduced its intake of Iranian oil between about 15 to 22 percent over the last half of 2011, depending on how you look at the data.
One senior Senate aide called into question the State Department's decision to issue Japan an exemption. The aide pointed out that the law requires countries to reduce their intake of Iranian oil in 2012, not 2011, and it's not clear if Japan is going to continue that trend ahead of the June 28 deadline.
"The bottom line is that if Japan has in fact committed to reducing their purchases of Iranian oil by 15 to 22 percent in 2012, this exemption is fully warranted. But if this is just a get out of jail free card issued on the basis of past performance alone, this would not be a faithful application of the law," the aide said.
The aide also pointed out that the 10 EU countries are no-brainers for exemptions, because the EU is in the process of implementing a full Iranian oil embargo anyway.
"This is no diplomatic success, this is just cover to make sure that those EU countries that are complying with the embargo have cover from the sanctions."
The Russian government is following the path of the deposed regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar al-Qaddafi and is setting itself up for a fall from power, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"You need to listen to what Russian leaders themselves are saying. They say ‘We are not Libya, we are not Egypt, Russia will not go down this road,'" Saakashvili said. "I've heard that from other leaders before. I heard it from Soviet leaders. And once you start saying those things it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and then you start to do certain things and to not allow certain things, and those are exactly the kind of actions that promote further sliding down this road [toward losing power]."
Not only is Russia denying the desires of its own people by suppressing protests and real democracy, it is now leading the opposition to the wave of popular revolutions that the world witnessed over the past year, said the Georgian president, who fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008. The latest and greatest example, he said, is Russia's support for the brutal Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Syria stands as a symbol," Saakashvili said. "[The Russians] fully identify themselves with Libya but they thought that in Libya they were a fooled into action. And now with Syria they think that if Syria falls, it's the last bastion before Moscow. And this is exactly the kind of attitude that will bring problems closer home to Moscow. It's not going to help Syria in any way, but it's certainly damaging Russia a lot."
The anticipated return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency later this year is significant because his term will be marked by opposition to real reform both inside and outside Russia, Saakashvili said.
"Unlike Westerners who think in terms of superficial symbols that he's returning, the middle class in Moscow knew that he never went away," said Saakashvili. "It's not about returning Putin to the presidency, it's about what he said. And what he said was ‘I'm returning because I should stop any attempt to reform and crack down on any mode of reform,' and that's what the middle class in Russia heard."
U.S. engagement with Moscow is useful and efforts to continue the "reset" policy should continue, but all the signals from Russia indicate that it is returning to a pre-reset policy, the Georgian president added. He made the case that Russia showed real flexibility during its drive to get into the World Trade Organization in 2011, but now that it has achieved that goal, its attitude has reverted to one of confrontation.
One example is Russia's constantly stoking the rumor that the United States is planning to deploy missile defense elements to Georgia, something Saakashvili said simply isn't true.
"Vladimir Putin is talking about this all the time. Either he is strongly misguided or he's looking for reasons to say nasty things," he said.
Just minutes before his interview with The Cable, speaking in front of a packed audience in the sparkling new auditorium of the United States Institute of Peace headquarters in Washington, Saakashvili contrasted the reactions of Russia and Turkey to the Arab Spring.
"Two radical different attitudes have emerged, offered by two specific regional powers. On one hand, the Russian Federation reacted with outrage and panic to the Arab Spring and tries to do anything they can to prevent any international support to the democracy movements anywhere. On the other hand, Turkey asserts itself as the model for the post revolutionary countries," he said.
"On the one hand, the government of Vladimir Putin desperately tries to hold back the progress of history. On the other hand, the government of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan tries to embrace the revolutions of the world. Two very different prime ministers," he said. "It's not a coincidence that Russian influence is decreasing while Turkish leadership is growing in the region every day."
Saakashvili also talked about Georgia's struggles following its separation from the Soviet empire, and the lessons he might offer to new governments undergoing similar difficulties.
"Georgia's experience does not provide a transferable model for many countries that have known or will sooner or later know progressive uprising. There was no freedom textbook for us, and no textbook for our friends was ever written. The real revolution occurs after the cameras from CNN, BBC, and the others have left the country. It consists of the long and difficult process of reform that follows," he said.
"This is a lesson and a message of hope. There is no future for global powers playing against the will of their own people."
The Cable also asked Saakashvili for his opinion of actor Andy Garcia's portrayal of him in the movie Five Days of War, the 2011 film about the Russian-Georgian conflict.
"I only saw parts of it, but what I know is that my English was a little better than his and that was very reassuring," he said.
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
There's been plenty of reporting about the Georgian government's extensive lobbying effort in Washington, but little is known about the new and expansive lobbying effort now in place on behalf of a Georgian billionaire and a leading opposition lawmaker, who are confronting Georgia's president on the world stage.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is in Washington today, having lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office -- a testament to the recent successes in the U.S.-Georgia relationship, as well as the successful efforts of Saakashvili's Washington lobbying duo, made up of the firms Orion Strategies and the Podesta Group.
"I think Georgia should be extraordinarily proud of the progress that is made in building a sovereign and democratic country," Obama said after the meeting. "And one of the first things that I did was express my appreciation for the institution-building that's been taking plac in Georgia; the importance of making sure that minorities are respected; the importance of a police and system of rule of law that is being observed -- the kinds of institution-building that is going to make an enormous difference in the future of not just this generation of Georgians but future generations of Georgians."
But if Saakashvili opened up his morning New York Times or Washington Post when he woke up at Blair House on Monday, he would have seen a full-page ad sponsored by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire tycoon of Georgian descent who is working closely with Irakli Alasania, the leader of Georgia's Free Democrats Party and the president's main political rival.
"The Rose Revolution of 2003 inspired many, myself included, to hope that Georgia would move toward a pluralistic democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and a free and open society," Ivanishvili wrote in the ad, which was framed as an open letter to Obama. "What we have instead is a super-centralized, almost neo-Bolshevik style of governance, which exhausted itself long ago, which not only impedes the nation's progress, but also jeopardizes its own achievements.
"We urge the leaders of the USA and the entire democratic community, do proceed and encourage the nation's movement towards the Euro-Atlantic integration, and at the same time, do apply all assets available to secure free and fair ballot for our citizens at the October 2012 parliamentary elections," the ad reads.
The ad identifies Ivanishvili as a Georgian businessman and philanthropist who was stripped of his citizenship by Saakashvili. The Georgian government contends Ivanishvili never renounced his French citizenship and needs a presidential waiver to hold dual nationalities -- a waiver he isn't likely to get. Regardless, Ivanishvili and his "Georgian Dream" movement are increasingly vocal in Georgia, and now in Washington as well.
Ivanishvili is currently paying the lobbying firm BGR Group $25,000 per month, according to disclosure filings, in a contract signed last November. He is also paying another $20,000 per month to Sam Patten, a Tbilisi-based consultant who is working with BGR on behalf of Ivanishvili, the disclosure records show. That money is paid through a London-based entity called BGR-Garbara, LTD, which the records state is working on behalf of Ivanishvili.
BGR-Garbara, LTD, also pays Patten $10,000 per month to work on behalf of Alasania, according to disclosure filings, to "advise U.S. officials" on political developments in Georgia, and for "arranging meetings with U.S. officials on behalf of the foreign principal [Alasania]."
Another contract filing shows that BGR-Garbara, LTD, also pays BGR an undisclosed sum to work on behalf of Alasania and the Free Democrats. The filing defines BGR-Garbara, LTD, as "a pan-European government affairs and public relations firm engaged by ‘Free Democrats'... for the purposes of promoting a stronger Georgian democracy through fair, open, and honest elections in 2012." Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker is also working on the contract for BGR, according to lobbying e-mails sent out by BGR to journalists and non-governmental organizations.
We're told by two sources that Alasania and Ivanishvili have also recently signed a contract with Patton Boggs, a powerful D.C. lobbying law firm, although no disclosure forms have yet been submitted. Both sources also confirmed that Ivanishvili's representatives made a pass at the Podesta Group, offering to double their fee to switch teams, but Podesta declined.
Ivanishvili is also working with Sam Amsterdam, the son of Robert Amsterdam, the Canadian lawyer made famous by his defense of imprisoned Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. There's no disclosure filing for that relationship because Sam Amsterdam is not a U.S. citizen and is not lobbying U.S. officials. Ivanishvili has made statements criticizing Khordorkovsky in the past. Robert Amsterdam is not working with Ivanishvili or his son on the project.
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 ties to Russia are not only political, but economic. He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, and still maintains at least a 1 percent stake in Gazprom, the semi-state controlled energy behemoth. (The Russian Federation and Gazprom are represented in Washington by Ketchum).
Patten, in a phone interview from Tbilisi, told The Cable that the Georgian opposition is simply maturing to the point where it recognizes the need for greater international stature.
Ivanishvili made his money in Russia before Putin's return to power, Patten said. Ivanishvili believes that confronting the Georgian government's lobbying in Washington is part of his effort to show the world there is an alternative to the Saakashvili government.
"In the Georgian mentality, there's a sense that Washington creates outcomes, but you have to win an election based on what you do on the ground," said Patten. "In the end, that's what matters."
Regardless, for Georgia-watchers around Washington, there are now two full fledged lobbying efforts to contend with. In a recent interview, Ivanishvili promised to ramp up his lobbying efforts around the world.
"They [the government] are spending a lot of money on lobbyists... The money of the people... They are wasting the money of the poor people," he said. "We have started very serious work and it needs to be organized well. In a few months, we will change the situation and we will change the attitude of the Europe and the U.S., and we will show them the reality. You will see this very soon."
Correction: This article originally stated -- incorrectly -- that DLA Piper was the third lobbying partner for the Georgian government. In fact, there are only two firms. Additionally, the original article contained a quote attributed to Alasania that could not be independently verified.
VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/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."
Earlier this year, the self-immolation of one Tunisian fruit vendor sparked a region-wide series of revolutions that upended autocrats around the Middle East. Meanwhile, no less than 10 Tibetan monks have set themselves on fire this year to protest Chinese repression in their homeland, but the international community has yet to take notice.
Lobsang Sangay, the newly-elected prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile, is in Washington this week to raise awareness of the dire human rights situation in Tibet and to call for U.S. support. He'll be meeting with senators, congressmen, and NGO leaders to educate them on the deteriorating situation in Tibet, but he has not been granted any meetings with senior Obama administration officials -- presumably due to their fear of creating friction in the relationship with China. He sat down Monday for a long, exclusive interview with The Cable.
"The urgent message is the ongoing self-immolations," Sangay said. "That reflects the desperate state that Tibetans are in. They are forced to take such drastic action, which is really sad. The motivation is that they want to highlight the oppressive policies of the Chinese government.... It's tragic."
He met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a long time supporter of the Tibetan cause, and plans to meet with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), and others. He will also speak on Wednesday at the National Press Club and testify before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA).
Sangay is hoping Congress will pass a resolution expressing solidarity with the Tibetan people and criticizing the repressive Chinese policies. He is also building support for his effort to provide funding that will help young Tibetans in exile receive an education in India and Nepal. Overall, he is simply hoping to highlight to Washington the worsening plight of Tibetans inside China.
"Many people are giving up their lives thinking the international community will come and hear their voices and support them," he said. "A resolution from Congress will send a message to Tibetans that their sacrifice is not in vain."
He also wants the Obama administration to put pressure on the Chinese government to improve the situation in Tibet. Sangay said the administration has raised the issue "in general" with Chinese leaders, but that he's not aware of any formal, concrete action by the administration on this issue.
The list of Chinese aggressive policies in Tibet is long, Sangay said, including economic marginalization, cultural assimilation, environmental destruction, and political repression. The crackdown on dissent has been increased, particularly in monastic communities, since the Tibetan uprising of 2008.
"Inside Tibet, they are giving up their lives and saying ‘Hear us. We are in a terrible situation and it's not worth living. We want you to acknowledge that you see us and you hear us,'" Sangay said. "So to acknowledge their suffering and to raise their aspirations and concerns, also to the Chinese government, that would go a long way."
We pressed Sangay to comment on the perception that the Obama administration has mistreated the Tibetan government-in-exile -- for example, by downgrading the location and publicity of Obama's meetings with the Dalai Lama and, in one case in Feb. 2010, making the Dalai Lama leave through a back door of the White House and walk past garbage in order to avoid the press.
"If we could have a result-oriented action, that would be most welcome. But a public display of support [by the Obama administration] has a symbolic meaning because that would encourage other countries to follow suit," he said. "We welcome both public and private gestures and public gestures have added significance."
He said the Chinese government is moving thousands of ethnically Han Chinese into Tibet to change the demographics of the region, and is installing party apparatchiks inside Tibetan monasteries under the rubric of "democratic management committees." He also said that an undeclared martial law has resulted in scores of Tibetans being arbitrarily arrested under trumped-up charges and then often disappeared altogether.
"When you read accounts of Chinese action in Africa, it looks like a replication of what is happening in Tibet," Sangay said, alleging that Tibet's water and other natural resources are being diverted out of the region. "Ten major rivers of Asia, which feed about one-third or more of the world's population, flow through Tibet.... You can call water the ‘white gold of the 21st century' and the Chinese are controlling that. It's affecting millions of people in Asia and creating a lot of tension."
So why hasn't the Tibetan crisis gotten as much world attention as the Arab Spring? In short, Sangay said that Chinese censorship and the isolation of the Tibetan community has impaired its ability to broadcast news of its plight.
"That's why I'm here, to make sure that these sacrifices do not go in vain," Sangay said, emphasizing that his government does not encourage self-immolation but feels a duty to speak up for protesters once they have acted.
The Chinese government doesn't recognize Sangay's government and often accuses him of promoting "anti-China splittist activities."
The Chinese government has sought to nominate the next Dalai Lama, a selection that Tibet's spiritual leaders said on Sept. 24 belongs to the current Dalai Lama alone. Sangay denounced China's position as ironic, given its denunciation of the Dalai Lama.
"It's a declared communist party, which believes that religion is poison.... They call the Dalai Lama the devil and they ban his photograph. So they want to choose the devil's incarnate?" Sangay said.
Sangay is not your typical prime minister-in-exile because, following the Dalai Lama's decision to transfer all political authority to the prime minister, he won the first really competitive race for the post. Before that, he spent 15 years in the United States, including time as a fellow at Harvard Law School, where he organized several meetings between Tibetan and Chinese scholars.
Sangay is committed to what's known as the "Middle Way," which refers to a call for Tibet's political autonomy and religious freedom but not independence from China. He sees a model in the example of Hong Kong, which is part of China but operates in its own way.
"I have a track record of someone who invests and believes in dialogue and I've met with hundreds of Chinese scholars," he said. "Many Chinese scholars do believe the Tibet issue is solvable because our demands are quite reasonable. It's the hard liners at the leadership level that are yet to come around."
He also said that the Tibetan issue is a matter of ethnic tolerance in China.
"They are willing to grant autonomy to Hong Kong and Macau because they are Han Chinese ... why they are not granting Tibetans autonomy is because they are Tibetans," he said. "Unless the leadership believes in diversity, they will never understand democracy.... Once they grant autonomy to Tibet, they will come around to embrace diversity, which will be the beginning of the real democratization of China."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tomorrow will visit the country that Herman Cain made fun of when he proudly declared that he wasn't an expert on foreign policy.
"Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is traveling to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan from October 22-23, 2011," the State Department announced today. "In Uzbekistan, Secretary Clinton will hold a bilateral meeting with President Islam Karimov and Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiev. Secretary Clinton will also tour the new General Motors Powertrain plant in Tashkent, where she will give remarks announcing the Central Asia Technology Entrepreneurship Program and Techno-Prize Competition."
In an Oct. 8 interview, Cain announced his strategy to combat what he called "gotcha" questions, such as who are the leaders of foreign countries.
"And when they ask who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say, ‘You know, I don't know. Do you know?' And then I'm going to say, ‘How's that going to create one job?'" Cain declared.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai brought up the comments to Clinton during her meeting with him Wednesday. Here's the exchange, as reported by the New York Times:
"He's a former pizza company owner," she said to Mr. Karzai.
"Is he that?" he replied in English.
"Oh, yes. He started something called Godfather's Pizza," she said.
"Yes, I see, I see," Mr. Karzai said.
Mrs. Clinton then turned to the American ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, and went on, laughingly. "The president was saying he saw a news clip about how Mr. Cain had said I don't even know the names of all these presidents of all these countries, you know, like whatever ..."
"All the ‘stans whatever," Mr. Karzai interjected, referring to the countries of Central and Southern Asia, including his.
"All the ‘stans places," Mrs. Clinton repeated.
Mr. Karzai did not seem to take offense, displaying what appeared to be an astute understanding of campaigning in a democratic country. "That wasn't right," he said, "but anyway, that's how politics are."
Hundreds of supporters of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) movement converged on the State Department on Friday to hear former U.S. congressmen and senior officials call for the U.S. government to take the MEK off its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) emceed the rally in front of the State Department headquarters. The event also featured speeches by former Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA), former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano.
"One of the greatest moments was when my uncle, President [John F.] Kennedy, stood in Berlin and uttered the immortal words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,'" Kennedy exclaimed. "Today, I'm honored to repeat my uncle's words, by saying [translated from Farsi] ‘I am an Iranian,' ‘I am an Ashrafi."
The crowd erupted in cheers and applause and began chanting, "MEK yes, mullahs no! They are terrorists, they must go!"
Kennedy advocated taking the MEK off the terrorist list, which it has been on since 1997, and accused the Iraqi government of committing war crimes by killing innocent members of the MEK at Camp Ashraf. 3,400 MEK members live in the desert camp in Iraq under restrictive conditions.
"To my friends in the State Department behind us, who continue to hold fast to an old policy that is supported by Tehran, you are on the wrong side of history," Kennedy shouted. "To [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki, your brutal and deadly assault on Camp Ashraf will land you in the International Criminal Court, where you will be held accountable."
"I love you," Kennedy told the crowd. "If you take the MEK off the list, you will unshackle a group that will help take out the mullahs in Iran."
Next up was Rendell, who called on the international community to militarily intervene in Camp Ashraf, comparing it to Muammar al-Qaddafi's assault on Benghazi earlier this year.
"The international community conducted a military intervention in Libya to protect innocent civilians. We should do the same thing to protect the innocent people in Camp Ashraf," Rendell said.
MEK leader Maryam Rajavi, who lives in Paris with her husband Massoud Rajavi (who hasn't been seen in public since 2003), is banned from traveling to the United States. But she spoke to the rally via a video message on a big screen, and accused the State Department of giving implicit permission to the Iranian and Iraqi governments to kill children.
"The terror listing in the U.S. is openly used as a justification to legitimize such bloodletting, by both the cruel mullahs as well as their proxy government in Iraqi," she said. "Therefore, the Iranian people are asking the United States, ‘Why are you not annulling the license to kill our children?'"
The Cable's informal headcount put the number of attendees at about 1,000 to 1,500, with long lines of young Iranian-Americans wearing shirts with photos of dead MEK members imprinted on them. Some attendees had photos of the Rajavis on their shirts. Add to that flags, confetti, and a full drum line.
We asked Kennedy if he had been paid for his appearance at the rally, but he refused to answer. Ali Safavi, president of a pro-MEK group Near East Policy Research, said the speakers were paid through a speakers bureau, which receives money from wealthy Iranian-Americans in the United States. He also said those Iranian-Americans work with the law firm DLA Piper, but he denied the allegation that DLA and these individuals help funnel money from the MEK to the former U.S. officials.
In a crowd made up of people who were mostly of Middle Eastern origin, a group of African-American attendees wearing MEK gear stood out. One man, who would only identify himself as "The Great Lonnell," was holding a "Delist the MEK" banner while wearing a shirt that said, "Behold the Great Beast."
"We are here representing on behalf of the Iranian community. This vicious dictator who is calling himself a president is murdering these people, he's slaying them, and nothing is getting done," the Great Lonnell said. "And they are here rallying to get the attention of a government that has deaf ears."
The Great Lonnell came to Washington from Staten Island, NY -- along with 200 people from a church he attends -- to support the MEK's struggle for human rights. He and his group have been attending MEK rallies for several months, he said.
The Great Lonnell then pulled your humble Cable guy aside and asked to pitch Foreign Policy another story.
"Do you want to write my own story?" he asked. "I am the Beast that will come to the earth, from Revelations in the Old Testament. I am that person."
The Cable was not able to confirm that The Great Lonnell was in fact the Beast from Revelations.
UPDATE: Zaid Jilani and Ali Gharib from ThinkProgress interviewed attendees at the rally, many who had tenuous if any links to the MEK and little understanding of why there were there. Many had traveled from far away on fully funded trips. Some appeared to be homeless. Watch the video here:
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
Senior Obama administration officials have been saying for months that the United States would not get involved in the Russian-Georgian dispute over Russia's desire to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Today, it was revealed that the administration, including President Barack Obama, has been deeply involved in the dispute for a long time.
Russian accession to the WTO is a major goal of the Obama administration's "reset" policy with Russia. However, the country of Georgia, a WTO member that has longstanding grievances with its larger northern neighbor, stands in the way because new members must be admitted by consensus. Russian troops have occupied the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, and Georgia wants concessions on customs and border administration before it agrees to allow Russian to join the WTO.
Russia and Georgia began meeting in February in Switzerland to work out a deal. In March, National Security Council Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul said that while it's a fact that Russia cannot join the WTO unless Georgia agreed, he insisted that the United States would not try to mediate between the two countries.
"There is a process underway [to resolve the outstanding trade issues]. I don't want to prejudge it because we're not involved in it," he said. "At the end of the day this is a bilateral issue, not a trilateral issue."
Skip forward to today, when Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in France. A senior White House official told ABC News after the meeting that Obama has "personally been engaged in" the issue for months, and actually set up the Swiss negotiations and convinced both the Russian and Georgian leaders to attend.
The senior official also compared the Georgians to the Palestinians, saying that, with regard to Georgia's desire to end the Russian occupation, "[T]he WTO is not the forum in which to resolve this... like the Palestinians pursuing the vote at the U.N."
"We think that Russian accession to the WTO will be good for the Russian economy, will be good for the U.S. economy, it will be good for the world economy," Obama said today. "And we are confident that we can get this done."
There are also signs that senior administration officials have placed pressure on Georgia to make a deal. A senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable that U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, while briefing senators before a recent congressional trip that included a stop in Georgia, asked those senators to pressure Georgia to move toward acceptance of Russia's membership in the WTO.
"It was odd to hear Ambassador Kirk behind closed doors urging a group of senators to pressure Georgia to 'be reasonable' while, we understood, the administration was saying publicly it would stay out of a Georgia-Russia issue," the aide said.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in a March interview with The Cable, said that the Russians were expecting the Obama administration to pressure Georgia into backing down, but that U.S. objectivity in the matter was key to getting it resolved.
"[The Russians] were telling the Americans that we will make a deal with you and Georgia comes as part of the package. I heard some Russians say that it just takes one call from Vice President [Joseph] Biden to Saakashvili to convince him and make him shut up. "But it's not like this and the Americans know it's not like this," Saakashvili said.
"Some Russians were saying ‘we'll let back in your wine and you will change your position.'" Saakashvili said. "We don't have any wine left to sell to the Russians. That's not the bargaining chip. We need transparency of border transactions and customs issues. That's where we need to find mutually acceptable solutions with the Russians."
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker is expected to be named Thursday as the new U.S. envoy in Afghanistan, replacing outgoing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Crocker has said the internal conflict in Afghanistan will probably go on indefinitely, but nevertheless advocated for "strategic patience" by the United States.
In a long article Crocker wrote for Newsweek in September 2009, Crocker talked about his previous stint as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul in 2002, immediately following the fall of the Taliban. Then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called him and barked, "Crocker, we need you in Afghanistan now." Crocker embarked upon the task of reopening the U.S. embassy in Kabul that had been shuttered in 1989 and reestablishing cooperation with a range of actors, including the Iranians.
Now, nine years later, the United States is still mired in the Afghan war, having committed more troops than ever before, and with no solution in sight. Crocker will be tasked with repairing strained relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and furthering a political process that will include some reconciliation talks with members of the Taliban.
In Iraq, Crocker oversaw the U.S. military surge, which was accompanied by an about-face from Iraqi insurgent groups toward cooperation with the United States, often referred to as the "Sunni awakening." But when Crocker was leaving Iraq, he warned against a similarly dramatic improvement in conditions in Afghanistan.
"Relentless internal conflict is not endemic in Iraq. In Afghanistan it is," he wrote. "For most Afghans an effective central government isn't even a distant memory. Tribal identity is everything. And Al Qaeda and the Taliban have learned from the mistakes of the insurgencies in Iraq. They have not forced the people to turn against them. They know the hills and valleys of the political terrain as well as they do the killing fields of Helmand province or the caves of Tora Bora. They have learned strategic patience."
The lesson Crocker took away from his time in Baghdad was that, although there is no way for the United States to impose a solution on a country, leaving before the problem is solved will only further damage the U.S. image in the region and therefore damage U.S. interests.
"Americans tend to want to identify a problem, fix it, and then move on. Sometimes this works. Often it does not," Croker wrote. "Of course, imposing ourselves on hostile or chaotic societies is no solution either. The perceived arrogance and ignorance of overbearing powers can create new narratives of humiliation that will feed calls for vengeance centuries from now. What's needed in dealing with this world is a combination of understanding, persistence, and strategic patience to a degree that Americans, traditionally, have found hard to muster."
So what does that mean for Crocker's view on the road forward for Afghanistan? While his essay doesn't place much emphasis on negotiating with the Taliban, which was the late Richard Holbrooke's prescription for ending the conflict, he does counsel that leaving Afghanistan before the job is done would be unwise.
"No one, least of all me, has an easy fix to propose. But over the last eight years I was intimately involved with our country's effort to manage its relationship with the Middle East and South Asia. I know that success only comes from a solid, sustained commitment of resources and attention," Crocker wrote.
25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the United States is still paying hundreds of millions of dollars to help clean up the site.
Ukraine's Embassy in Washington has been holding a series of events to commemorate the disaster, including a conference on April 21 and an event Monday night on the embassy grounds. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, the highest ranking U.S. official at Monday's event, spoke about the ongoing effort to secure the site, which still remains dangerous a quarter-century later.
"The United States -- in concert with our G-8 partners and the international community -- remains committed to helping Ukrainians bring the damaged Chernobyl nuclear facility to an environmentally safe and secure condition," she said.
Gottemoeller said the U.S. government had already given over $240 million to help clean up the Chernobyl site and that, last week, a U.S. delegation to Ukraine led by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski pledged an additional $123 million toward completing the construction of a new confinement shelter to cover the aging sarcophagus, which was designed to block the release of radiation from the plant, and a storage facility for spent fuel at the site.
Ukraine has become a leader in nuclear safety and nuclear responsibility, she stated, through its decision to abandon nuclear weapons in 1994 and its 2010 decision to give up its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium. In return, the United States has expanded its nuclear cooperation with Ukraine, including helping the country construct a "neutron source facility" that will advance nuclear scientific and medical research.
With the world now facing a new crisis due to the partial meltdown of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, Gottemoeller emphasized that the risks of nuclear power are shared by all.
"The events at Fukushima, just like the events at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, remind us once again that nuclear safety recognizes no boundaries," she said.
In the above photo, taken at the Ukraine Embassy event, Gottemoeller is flanked by Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak (left), and Ukrianian Ambassador Olexander Motsyk (right).
Jamie Mannina / State Department
The nation of Georgia is in a position to block Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a top goal of the U.S.-Russia reset policy. The Georgians say that they are willing to strike a deal with Russia but only if Moscow abides by WTO rules on trade and customs policy, a position that would require Russian concessions in its conflict over the occupied territories, according to the president of Georgia.
Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's president, sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable during his recent visit to Washington. He said that after lot of stalling and hand wringing, negotiations between Tbilisi and Moscow over the latter's desire to join the WTO had begun. As a WTO member, Georgia has veto power over any new additions to the organizations. Saakashvili said it was too early to tell if the Russians were negotiating in good faith or willing to make real concessions.
The Russian government refused to talk directly with Georgia for a long time and expected the United States to deliver Georgia's support for Russia's WTO accession, Saakashvili said.
"They were telling the Americans that we will make a deal with you and Georgia comes as part of the package. I heard some Russians say that it just takes one call from Vice President [Joseph] Biden to Saakashvili to convince him and make him shut up,'" the president said.
"But it's not like this and the Americans know it's not like this -- and they've done their best to clarify this to the Russians. Exactly because of that American position, finally the Russians came to the negotiating table. That's already great progress."
Obama administration officials have made it clear that Washington won't become involved in WTO negotiations between Russia and Georgia. The first round of those talks took place in the city of Bern with Swiss mediation earlier this month. The next round is scheduled to begin in May. Saakashvili said that Georgia was willing to be flexible but that the initial Russian proposals, which only dealt with Georgian exports to Russia, were not constructive.
"Some Russians were saying ‘we'll let back in your wine and you will change your position.'" Saakashvili said. "We don't have any wine left to sell to the Russians. That's not the bargaining chip. We need transparency of border transactions and customs issues. That's where we need to find mutually acceptable solutions with the Russians."
Of course, one huge problem is how to define the Georgian-Russian border. For Tbilisi, that includes the borders between Russia and the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it considers breakaway republics. Russia has recognized the territories as independent states and has troops stationed in both regions.
"It's up to the Russians to show that they can go to flexible and compromise solutions," Saakashvili said. "Russians have said we can get [WTO membership] without Georgia. Good luck. Let them try. But Georgia is not going to compromise our principles."
Saakashvili also said that he is willing to limit the negotiations to the economic arena, leaving aside contentious political issues, such as Russia's failure to adhere to the terms of the ceasefire that ended the 2008 conflict. But he doubted the Russian government could keep the two issues separate.
"It would be counter-productive to go to political issues, but unfortunately [throughout the recent history of Russian-Georgia relations] Russians have turned every single economic issue into a political one. That's where we find ourselves," he said.
Saakashvili also talked about Georgia's desire to start buying defensive weapons from the United States. There has been an unofficial, unstated ban on selling heavy weapons to Georgia, a ban Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) have often complained about.
"It's not in our interest to leave a stalwart partner, a NATO-aspirant country, without the needs to properly defend itself," McCain said at Tuesday's SASC hearing.
Saakashvili said he takes the administration at its word that there is no ban on weapons sales to Georgia and that some sales of small arms are "in the pipeline." But he added that Georgia really needs heavier weapons that could be used to defend the country in the case of another conflict with Russia.
"We don't' really need small arms, we have plenty of them and actually there are many alternative sources to shop for them," he said. "What Georgia really needs is something that it cannot get from anywhere else and that's anti-air and anti-tank [weapons] and that's completely obvious ... that's where should be the next stage of the cooperation."
Georgia has been striving to prove its value as a U.S. ally in a tumultuous region. Georgia has over 1,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan in some of the most dangerous areas in the South of Afghanistan and Saakashvili offered to send more troops in his March meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, he said.
The U.S. is also investing in Georgia. Saakashvili highlighted that the U.S. military is increasing its involvement on the ground in Georgia, for example by opening a $100 million U.S. Army Medical Research lab in Tbilisi as part of the Nunn-Lugar initiative.
Saakashvili said that the United States still must lead in supporting emerging democracies and use its moral authority and soft power to push for human rights and democratic change in countries with oppressive governments.
"This administration has been holding the line, at the U.N. Security Council, at the OSCE, at the arms control talks. American was the first major power to call a spade a spade, to call Russia's action in Georgia a military occupation. This moral support is paramount for any nation and these kind of things count," he said.
"This ultimately will make the whole process of advancing freedom irreversible."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) is in Pakistan, but not only to negotiate the release of an American diplomat imprisoned there. Kerry's trip was designed to reset U.S.-Pakistan relations, which have been strained by recent events.
"We have many mutual interests. And that's what brings me here," Kerry said at a press conference upon arriving in Lahore on Tuesday, the city where U.S. diplomat Raymond Davis was arrested on Jan. 27 after fatally shooting two Pakistani men. The U.S. government has been demanding Davis be released from prison because, as an employee of the embassy there, he has diplomatic immunity. Kerry said that rescuing Davis, however, wasn't the focus of his visit.
"I'm here, because in the middle of events that seem to be focusing people narrowly, we need to remember and think about the things that we care about and that we're both fighting for the bigger, the bigger strategic interests," Kerry said. "And we cannot allow one thing or another that might divide us in a small way to take away from the things that unite us in a big way."
Behind the scenes, a high-level government source familiar with the discussions said that Kerry crafted the trip and his message on his own. President Obama asked Kerry to travel to Pakistan to deal with the Davis crisis, which has put elements of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation on hold. But after conferring with senior foreign policy aides and Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani over the weekend, Kerry decided to travel to Pakistan for a "relationship saving" mission, not a "rescue" mission, the source explained.
For example, Kerry decided to travel first to Lahore, rather than Islamabad where the Pakistani government resides. Although he will meet with Pakistani government officials at the highest levels, including President Asif Ali Zardari, he wanted first to deliver a message to the Pakistani people directly in the town where the incident took place and tell them directly that the United States wasn't only interested in Davis's release.
"Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry left last night for Pakistan where he will meet with senior Pakistani government officials to reaffirm U.S. support for the strategic relationship between the two countries," committee spokesman Frederick Jones told The Cable.
Kerry told the White House before he left that he was not going solely to secure the release of Davis specifically, but to establish a path out of the crisis and ensure other areas of critical cooperation remained on track, the high-level government source said.
The reaction in Pakistan to Kerry's opening press conference among officials supportive of the relationship was overwhelmingly positive.
"He said all the right things on Pakistan," a senior Pakistani official told The Cable. "John Kerry is recognized by most Pakistanis as a friend of Pakistan. By sending him, President Obama has really helped what could have become a bigger diplomatic problem down the road."
The trip comes after a severe downturn in U.S.-Pakistan relations following Davis's arrest. Davis, a former Special Forces operative who speaks fluent Urdu, was being tailed by two suspected agents of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence organization on motorcycles when he shot and killed them through the windshield of his car. Davis claimed they brandished guns. A third Pakistani man was run over and killed by a U.S. embassy vehicle accidentally as it rushed to the scene.
The State Department has always maintained that Davis has diplomatic immunity but has been unclear on what his actually job was in Pakistan. The State Department said on Monday that Davis was a member of the "technical and administrative staff" at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and that he had been temporarily assigned to the consulate in Lahore.
The shooting has become a national scandal in Pakistan and an international crisis due to a combination of circumstances and political gamesmanship by opponents of the Zardari government inside Pakistan. When Davis was arrested, the Punjabi police did not write on his arrest forms that he claimed diplomatic immunity, a Pakistani government source said.
This source told The Cable that the region around Lahore is run by the brother of Nawaz Sharif, the top political opponent to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and the authorities there might have sought to take political advantage of the situation. By claiming that Davis had committed murder and pushing the story out to Pakistani media, Zardari was placed in the unenviable position of having to choose whether to defend an American murderer or risk the wrath of his countrymen.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi happened to be out of the country at the time. A Foreign Ministry official named Salman Bashir was left to make the decide whether to grant Davis immunity right away but decided it would be politically prudent to make no decision at all and let Davis remain in jail, the Pakistani government source said. Unclear messages from the U.S. side exacerbated the confusion.
"The political tragedy was that it was almost three days before the U.S. government claimed immunity, by which time the tensions had already been inflamed," the source explained.
It should be clear to the Zardari government that because Davis was on the U.S. embassy diplomatic list, he has immunity as a matter of international law under the Vienna Convention and should be released. But they are likely trying to avoid absorbing the political fallout of releasing him by passing the buck to the Pakistani courts, who will hear arguments about the Davis case on Feb. 17.
Meanwhile, the Davis debacle has stalled some U.S.-Pakistan cooperation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton canceled her scheduled meeting with Qureshi at the recent Munich Security Conference and the U.S. postponed a planned trilateral meeting between top officials from the U.S., Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is personally involved in trying to secure Davis's release. Haqqani has denied reports that Donilon threatened to kick him out of the country if Davis wasn't release,, but the White House has told the Pakistani government the issue must be resolved before full cooperation can resume.
The most probable outcome will be a face-saving deal whereby the Pakistani courts agree to release Davis, the U.S. government promises to investigate the incident as a criminal matter, and the U.S. pays some compensation to the families of the Pakistani victims.
In the end, the incident illustrates that the U.S. and Pakistani governments still have a ways to go in terms of working together to build stability into the relationship.
Either way, our Pakistani source said that there is plenty of blame to go around.
"[Davis] was wrong in carrying the gun. He was wrong in shooting the people. There definitely was some craziness in what he was doing," the source said. "But it's a clear and gross violation of international law to hold a diplomat."
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said he wants to build a center-right coalition to advocate for considering pulling out of Afghanistan in order to save the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars being spent there.
As the United States grapples with the government's fiscal crisis, the huge investment in Afghanistan just isn't wise, Norquist argued at a private salon dinner in Washington on Tuesday evening to a group of foreign-policy minded academics and journalists. He also pointed to the opportunity cost of devoting so much national attention and resources to Afghanistan, which takes focus away from other international challenges.
Norquist teamed up with New America Foundation foreign policy chief Steve Clemons, who organized the dinner, to present his case. Clemons's own effort to publicize the costs of the war, as detailed in the report of the Afghanistan Study Group he helped to lead, dovetails nicely with Norquist's beliefs.
"The U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice," the report states, estimating the price tag of continuing the strategy put forth by President Barack Obama at about $100 billion per year.
Norquist, who said his career in politics began with an interest in foreign affairs, noted that $100 billion is exactly the amount some are calling for to be cut from the defense budget.
Clemons is set to release new polling data that he says shows conservatives around the United States support scaling back the Afghanistan mission. The poll, which is based on interviews with 1,000 conservative voters on Jan. 4-10, was conducted by Third Eye Strategies on behalf of the Afghanistan Study Group.
According to the poll, 57 percent of conservative respondents, including 55 percent of self-identified Tea Party members, agreed with the statement: "The United States can dramatically lower the number of troops and money spent in Afghanistan without putting America at risk."
71 percent of conservatives and 67 percent of Tea Partiers said they were "very worried" or "somewhat worried" that the costs of the war in Afghanistan will make it more difficult to reduce the deficit and balance the budget over the next decade.
Less than half of the respondents said that, all things considered, the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, and two-thirds said that the United States should either reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan or leave the country altogether.
"According to findings, conservative Americans worry that the substantial annual costs of the Afghanistan War will make it much more difficult for the U.S. to reduce the deficit and balance the federal budget by the end of this decade," a press release about the poll stated. "Also, more conservatives believe the war has been worth the costs sustained thus far than those who believe the war has not been worth it."
Throughout the dinner, Norquist repeatedly invoked former President Ronald Reagan, whom he said reacted appropriately to past terrorists attacks, such as the 1983 murder of 241 Marines in Beirut, but didn't commit the United States to a protracted occupation of that country.
"Reagan didn't decide that the U.S. should stay in Lebanon for 15 years. We left that country to have their civil war all by themselves," Norquist said.
Norquist also repeatedly referred to those on the right that have advocated for continued and increased investment in the Afghanistan mission, "such as Irving Kristol's son," a reference to Weekly Standard founder William Kristol. Norquist said that despite the fact these voices dominate the debate on the right about Afghanistan, their commitment to extending the war doesn't represent the true feelings of grassroots conservatives.
When pressed, Norquist declined to call for a withdrawal from Afghanistan outright. Rather, he said, he wants to "start a discussion" about leaving Afghanistan among the "center-right," and educate the conservative masses about the costs of the war in the hopes of shifting conservative public opinion.
When Clemons was asked how he thought withdrawal advocates could convince those on the right who argue for continued war in Afghanistan on moral or ideological grounds, he said, "I don't want to convince them, I want to beat them -- or at least compete with them -- in the debate."
Attendees at the dinner included retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, former Bush White House staffer and New America Fellow Jim Pinkerton, the Council on Foreign Relations' Charles Kupchan, the Nixon Center's Paul Saunders, the Atlantic Council's Ian Brzezinski, and many others.
The U.S.-Russian "reset," meant to repair relations between the two former rivals, has been led by U.S. President Barack Obama and his counterpart, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The White House sees the reset, along with its key deliverable, the New START nuclear reductions treaty, as part of its effort to strengthen Medvedev's credibility within the Russian system, as opposed to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Vice President Joseph Biden spoke of how New START fits into the administration's drive to empower Medvedev at a small roundtable on Nov. 20 with a group of foreign affairs columnists, including your humble Cable guy.
"I do believe that there is a play here," he said. "Medvedev has rested everything on this notion of a reset. Who knows what Putin would do? My guess is he would not have gone there [in terms of committing to the reset], but maybe."
Russia experts aren't so sure that passing New START would strengthen Medvedev's position vis a vis Putin. Most of them believe that Putin was, is, and will likely remain the more powerful of the two Russian leaders.
Biden acknowledged that nobody in Washington, including himself, really knows what's going on inside the Kremlin between Medvedev and Putin, but he truly believes that a stronger "reset" policy, which includes ratifying New START, is good for Medvedev -- and a stronger Medvedev is good for U.S.-Russia relations.
"The centerpiece of where Medvedev is, is this reset. And [START] is the crown jewel inside that reset, because it wasn't Putin pushing this, it was Medvedev," Biden explained. "I'm not suggesting that if START fails, all of the sudden we're back in a Cold War with Russia. But I am saying that the things in the margins that make a big difference right now might be different."
Biden pointed to what he characterized as "unprecedented" Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran as areas where the reset policy has advanced U.S. interests, and which could be jeopardized if New START fails.
But Russia experts from the left and right agreed that the idea of a rift on foreign policy between Medvedev and Putin is often exaggerated in Washington, and that Medvedev isn't likely to have pursued the reset without Putin's agreement. But they also agreed that Putin's likely return to the presidency in 2012 spells trouble for the U.S.-Russia relationship.
"We have a tendency in Washington to see a mortal struggle over the strategic direction of Russia between Medvedev and Putin that simply doesn't exist in reality," said Samuel Charap, fellow at the Center for American Progress. "However, the implications of a return to the presidency for Putin are serious and significant in a negative way for the U.S."
As president, Putin did engage in arms control agreements with the Bush administration, including signing the 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), known as the Moscow Treaty, which would be nullified by New START. But Putin also left office with a bad taste in his mouth regarding arms control deals with Washington, after the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty..
Charap said it's wise to have a "healthy skepticism" about Biden's notion that there are real differences on strategic questions between Medvedev and Putin. "I cannot imagine that major strategic decisions of national import are taken by Medvedev without the consultation of Putin," he said.
Whether or not Putin would be more or less amenable to New START, the Obama administration shouldn't be trying to play the murky game of internal Russian politics, other experts said.
"It's a dangerous path to go down to try to split Medvedev and Putin," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Although focusing on Medvedev seems to have produced some dividends, we should not be under the illusion that we can elevate Medvedev to be the principal decision maker, because he will never be as long as Putin is around."
"I don't see any evidence to show that there's a split between Medvedev and Putin on this issue," Petersen said. "They actually agree on this issue, which is that they are willing to cooperate now but they will take any opportunity to get out of their responsibilities while holding the U.S. to their side of the agreement."
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Russia's former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who served under President Putin, described the Medvedev-Putin relationship as that between "a boss and senior assistant who temporarily occupies the position of president of the country."
When asked if he thinks Putin will run for president in 2012, Kasyanov said, "I wouldn't say ‘run,' just step in."
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."
Once and future presidential candidate Mitt Romney is sending around a new fundraising letter, asking for money so that he can fight President Obama's new nuclear-arms reductions treaty with Russia.
"This is a critical midterm election year, and we need to ensure that we elect leaders who understand that a strong America is the best hope for freedom and peace in the world, and who will put our national security interests first," Romney wrote in mass email asking for contributions to his Free and Strong America PAC.
"WILL YOU STAND WITH ME TODAY IN THIS EFFORT BY MAKING A CONTRIBUTION TO MY PAC OF $35, $50, $100, $250, $500, $1,000, $2,500 OR EVEN THE MAXIMUM $5,000?"
Romney declared his opposition to the new START treaty in a much-criticized Washington Post op-ed entitled "Obama's Worst Foreign Policy Mistake." His fundraising drive echoes that line and also attacks Obama's foreign policy writ large.
"Unfortunately, this is not the first time that President Obama's foreign policy missteps have damaged our national security interests. His decision to abandon our missile defense system in Central Europe undercut key allies like Poland and the Czech Republic. And his policy of ‘engagement' with rogue nations has been met with North Korean nuclear tests, missile launches and the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, while Iran has accelerated its nuclear program, funded terrorists and armed Hezbollah with long-range missiles," Romney wrote.
On START, Romney is clear in what he wants to happen. "Whatever the reason for the treaty's failings, it must not be ratified: The security of the United States is at stake," he said.
That position is shared by his ideological cohorts at the Heritage Foundation, who are starting a nationwide anti-ratification grassroots effort via their new 501c4 group, Heritage Action for America. Romney has been working with this group.
But the Heritage Foundation's main analyst on such matters, Baker Spring, didn't write the Romney op-ed, he tells The Cable. He does think the article signals a theme that many Republicans will now use to oppose not only START, but other arms-control initiatives the Obama team has plans to push forward.
"There's now, in play, two fundamentally different views regarding arms controls in the post-Cold War world," Spring said. "The question, simply and straight forwardly, is: Is the U.S. going to fashion an arms control policy based on at least the possibility if not the likelihood of a proliferated environment? Or is it going to go back to essentially the tried and true verities of Cold War-style, retaliation-based deterrence as a defining mechanism for what arms controls should obtain, as a fundamental goal?"
Spring acknowledges that his and Romney's views differ from those of most leading Senate Republicans, including Jon Kyl, R-AZ, and John McCain, R-AZ, two key GOP voices on START. Both Kyl and McCain are keeping their powder dry, bargaining for concessions on missile defense and nuclear modernization before they will say which way they intend to vote.
According to The Hill, Kyl and Vice President Joseph Biden are in negotiations over the treaty now.
Spring says that the basic positions of the two camps of Republicans are the same, but that senators are holding their fire as part of their strategy to get the most concessions possible.
"When you look at the Kyls and McCains of the world, I don't think there's at this point in time much difference between their position and where [South Carolina Sen. Jim] DeMint and Romney will be. I think that's a simple matter of legislative tactics," said Spring.
Senate sources said that various senators are preparing two types of measures that could impact the START debate, whenever it does get to the Senate floor. One type, an amendment to the resolution ratifying the treaty, would, if passed, force the document to go back to the Russians for another round of negotiations. That could be a ratification killer in a practical sense, by overcomplicating the process until it loses steam.
Another, less controversial way to express concerns would be a statement of reservation that a senator could try to tack on to the treaty. This could allow the GOP to air its complaints while still allowing ratification to go forward.
What's clear is that the Obama administration is working the GOP caucus hard to try to firm up the eight to 10 votes they will need to reach the 67-vote threshold. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Sen. Bob Corker, R-TN, Tuesday and Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to talk with GOP senators about START as well.
Leading former senators from both parties are also joining the debate to make the case for ratification. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel are each headlining a pro-START think tank event this month.
As the debate over the road ahead in Afghanistan heats up in Congress, Democrats are using the power of the purse to seek broad changes in the administration's policy and express their unhappiness with the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai.
In the latest move, a leading House appropriator promised Monday to remove all the Afghanistan foreign operations and aid money from next year's funding unless she can be assured none of the funds are being wasted due to corruption in the Afghanistan government.
"I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists," foreign ops subcommittee chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-NY, said. "Furthermore, the government of Afghanistan must demonstrate that corruption is being aggressively investigated and prosecuted."
Her subcommittee will mark up the fiscal 2011 state and foreign ops appropriations bill Wednesday. When they do, billions of dollars the president requested for all sorts of non-military work in Afghanistan will not be in the bill.
A spokesperson for Lowey said she was responding, in part, to two articles published Monday that described some of the abuses of U.S. taxpayer funds going to Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal reported that more than $3 billion of cash has been flown out of the Kabul airport over the last three years, packed in suitcases, and a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation is underway. The Washington Post reported Monday that Karzai is protecting high-level political officials from scrutiny related to the missing funds.
Lowey's spokesman told The Cable that the largest pots of money to be affected are about $3.3 billion in economic support funds and about $450 million requested for anti-narcotics and law enforcement aid to Afghanistan. Other accounts to be excluded include global health money, anti-terrorism funds, and military training funds for Afghanistan army officers. Humanitarian aid would not be affected.
Lowey also tied the issue to the still struggling U.S. economy, a theme that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, focused on in a separate speech today. Democrats in Congress are preparing to go home to their districts after this week for a July 4 recess that will kick off the congressional campaign season. Accordingly, they are amplifying their rhetoric about deficit spending and expressing their unhappiness with the progress of the war in Afghanistan.
"Too many Americans are suffering in this economy for us to put their hard-earned tax dollars into the hands of criminals overseas," Lowey said.
unclear exactly how Lowey's bill will be treated after it passes out of her
committee. There is not much chance the Congress will pass a full slate of
funding bills this year at all. Hill sources said that the current thinking is
to pass one bill that will keep the government running until after the
elections, called a continuing resolution. In past years, those catch-all
spending bills often have had big changes from what the committees put forth,
so the money could be added back later on.
It's also unclear exactly how the Afghan government, much less the Obama administration, could actually assure Lowey that the billions of dollars being sent to Afghanistan are not being siphoned off by corrupt officials for illicit purposes.
The office of Kay Granger, R-TX, the ranking Republican on Lowey's committee, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
UPDATE: Granger issued this statement late Monday afternoon:
"I share similar concerns with Chairwoman Nita Lowey about today's press reports alleging the shipment of billions of dollars in donor funds out of Afghanistan. However, I cannot support cancelling all FY2011 Afghanistan funding for the State Department and USAID until all the facts are clear and we know the impact this could have on our troops on the ground. When General Petraeus helped craft the current Afghan strategy last year it was not exclusively a military strategy - the State Department and USAID were intended to be key partners in the overall effort."
The new and temporary head of the NATO ISAF mission in Kabul has a clear message in the wake of the firing of Gen. Stanley McChyrstal: Don't worry, everything about the mission will stay exactly the same.
That message, which British Lt. Gen. Nick Parker communicated through an interview with NATO television today, is meant to reassure local and international stakeholders that there won't be disruptions in the complex ongoing operations by NATO forces. He also expressed sadness about the sudden ouster of General McChrystal, but echoed President's Obama's call to focus not on the drama, but on the job at hand.
"Nobody expected this to happen. We wouldn't have planned it or chosen it, but it makes no difference," Parker said. "What we're doing continues yesterday, today, tomorrow - there isn't any change, so I think we want to be very careful about not making too much of something which is very sad, we all regret it, but nothing here has changed at all - we continue with our mission."
"But this is more than a man, this is about the mission and we all know that and there's a group of people in Afghanistan who are completely committed to the NATO mission and we will not miss a beat and I can absolutely assure you that nothing will change."
Amb. Mark Sedwell, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, echoed Parker's contention that there will be no change in the strategy to following the change in leadership.
"That strategy remains the basis of the campaign and the campaign remains on course," he said.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Georgia next month, she'll be paying some overdue attention to a country that has felt somewhat neglected by the Obama administration.
Following the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, then-candidate Obama sent future Vice President Joe Biden to Tbilisi to express solidarity with his old friend Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Candidate Obama was trying to match the fervor of John McCain, another one of Saakashvili's old friends, who criticized Obama for not immediately taking Georgia's side in the dispute.
After assuming office, the administration instituted a freeze of military assistance to Georgia, just as that country was getting ready to deploy a brigade of troops to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Obama's outreach to Russia pressed forward while the Russians cemented their military presence in the disputed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and neglected to fulfill their obligations under the agreement they signed at the end of the conflict.
The National Security Council's senior director for Russia, Michael McFaul, defended the Obama administration's Georgia policy this week at a meeting at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
McFaul's main point was that the Obama administration had made a decision to de-link its drive to improve relations with Russia, the famous "reset button," from its Georgia policy. He said the administration wanted to pursue reset initiatives, like the civilian nuclear agreement that President Dmitry Medvedev is coming to Washington later this month in part to discuss, regardless of what was happening with the Russia-Georgia situation.
"It is a part of our strategy to deliberately avoid linkage between issue areas that have nothing to do with each other," McFaul said. "We don't think it's effective."
Specifically, McFaul said that the administration was not seeking to make the civil-nuclear deal contingent upon Russia ending what he described as its "occupation of Georgia," as some in Congress advocate. (Russia insists that its troops are protecting newly sovereign states, though few other countries recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. Georgia claims the breakaway republics as sovereign territory.)
"That doesn't mean we're ignoring Georgia," McFaul said. "We're doing these things in parallel, but we're not linking them."
Nor, said McFaul, would the United States go along with Moscow's attempts to link Georgia to Russian cooperation on other issues, such as U.N. sanctions on Iran. "We're not throwing the Georgians under a bus in the name of a U.N. Security Council resolution. That was a proposition put to us a long time ago."
McFaul admitted, however, that there has been zero progress in advancing the objective of getting Russia to remove troops from Georgia.
"Is it a foreign policy objective of the Obama administration to help end Russia's occupation of Georgia in a peaceful manner and restore Georgia's territorial integrity? Absolutely yes," he said. "Have we made progress on the central objective? My answer is no. We haven't. That's the truth."
For the record, McFaul's portfolio at the NSC doesn't actually include Georgia. That falls to Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the senior director for Europe. Sources close to the issue say the Georgians deal mostly with McFaul anyway, but observers still wonder whether it wouldn't be better to join the two issues, as the Pentagon does.
Experts said the delinking of the issues in public is pragmatic, since there is little chance the U.S. would be able to move the Russians out of Georgia anyway.
"That's a wise way of doing it, because solving the Georgia problem within the context of arms control negotiations is just not realistic," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "That's just the way it is. There's not much we can do on Georgia."
But the Clinton trip could go a long way in making the Georgians feel they are getting enough attention from the Obama administration. "They want to be seen as a loyal, Western-oriented outpost," he said.
Clinton should be ready to hear some uncomfortably harsh anti-Russian rhetoric when she gets to the podium next to Saakashvili, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discovered back in 2008.
"Any U.S. official who goes to Georgia should know that the Georgian leadership, particularly Saakashvili, is going to talk badly about Russia," Petersen warned.
Despite repeated proclamations by senior leaders in both chambers of Congress and on both sides of the aisle that nothing could stop the Iran sanctions bill, its two lead sponsors announced today that they would delay the conference meant to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions.
"With the progress in negotiations at the Security Council, we believe that our overriding goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability is best served by providing a limited amount of time for those efforts -- and expected follow-on action by the EU at its mid-June summit -- to reach a successful conclusion before we send our bill to the president," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, said in a statement Tuesday.
It was only last week that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, promised to get it done before the Memorial Day recess.
"International sanctions make a lot more sense than unilateral" Dodd said at the time. "But we're not going to retreat from the unilateral sanctions effort."
But today, Dodd and Berman claimed that last week's unveiling of the draft U.N. sanctions resolution by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had convinced them that the Security Council process was actually making progress. They now expect to bring the conference report to be voted on by the entire Congress "in the latter half of June."
The delay represents a retreat for the lawmakers and a victory for the Obama administration, which had warned Congress that passing the bill could upset delicate U.N. negotiations. But inside the conference, serious disputes between lawmakers and the administration remain, such as whether to grant broad exemptions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the United States.
A U.N. official told The Cable that Security Council members are still pouring over the draft resolution and the reams of documents and annexes that accompany it. Those consultations are expected to go on for weeks.
Outside groups that have been pushing for the legislation, such as the American Israel Public Action Committee, were quick to say they are OK with the delay.
"AIPAC supports this decision and endorses Chairmen Dodd and Berman's firm, public commitment to get tough, comprehensive Iran sanctions legislation on the president's desk before the July 4th recess," the group said in a statement.
What's not clear is whether Republicans will suffer Dodd and Berman's delay quietly. "I didn't see any Republican names on that statement by Dodd and Berman," one GOP congressional aide remarked.
House GOP leaders had agreed not to bring up procedural motions to protest the lack of a conference report if the bill was completed by May 28. But now Berman will have to convince them that the delay is in the best interests of getting a stronger bill whenever it's completed.
What a difference six weeks can make in the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai comes to Washington this week, White House officials will welcome him with open arms, quite different than the scolding tone they took with him when President Obama went to Kabul in March.
The White House knows it has to make nice with Karzai, who is crucial to the success of the Afghanistan mission. But the trip has also been set up to try to diversify ties with his government by welcoming a whole slew of Afghan cabinet ministers and officials and setting up meetings to cement connections outside the direct Obama-Karzai relationship.
"Next week is really the reciprocal visit for Obama's March visit to Kabul," said the NSC's Af-Pak special assistant Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute. But the difference in messaging between Obama's March trip to Kabul and Karzai's May trip to Washington is stark.
On Air Force One during Obama's trip to Kabul, National Security Advisor Jim Jones established the tough love message on corruption, saying that Obama wanted Karzai to "understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have not been paid attention to, almost since Day 1," and that Karzai "needs to be seized with how important" the issue of corruption is.
But following Obama's visit, Karzai lashed out at the Americans, accused the U.S. and the UN of engineering the massive fraud of his own election, and threatened to join the Taliban if the West didn't treat him nicely.
The Obama administration moved quickly to stem the bleeding and put the messaging about the relationship back on the right track.
"We believe that we are on a encouraging glide path in Afghanistan," Jones told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way back to Washington April 9, adding that Karzai "will prove himself over time as we tackle all of these important issues to be very reliable and is very appreciative of everything that we're doing."
Not many outside the administration are convinced Karzai is showing actual improvement.
"The problem is that we clearly have a flawed partner in Mr. Karzai and his government, and it's not at all clear that the situation's improving," said Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass. "To the contrary, it seems to be deteriorating."
Some argue that the administration should keep up its mix of carrots and sticks until Karzai is actually pressured enough to make reforms.
"Without a strong natural constituency or powerful military to call his own, President Karzai cannot afford to alienate many of his political partners," CNAS' Andrew Exum wrote in a new report last week. But Exum also pinpointed a problem with that strategy, namely that the U.S. has no choice but to stick with Karzai no matter what he does."The United States and its allies cannot hedge against Karzai by courting alternatives because no palatable alternatives exist," Exum wrote.
So the Obama team decided to invite Karzai's entire cabinet to Washington, to try to stem the volatility of a relationship based on interactions with one erratic man.
"We want to underscore with this visit the development of a very broad strategic partnership," explained deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, adding that the broad participation "serves to underscore the breadth of the relationship."
Karzai will be bringing his ministers of defense, interior, agriculture, development, reconciliation, and others. After arriving on Washington on Monday, he'll kick off a set of State Department meetings with some public remarks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday morning.
Wednesday will be the White House day, and Karzai will get significant time with President Obama in the Oval Office while his other ministers meet with their various interlocutors. On Thursday, Karzai goes to the think tanks, with one public event with Clinton at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
But while the Obama administration is clearly trying to establish ties with Karzai's ministers and associates, they are steering clear of his opponents. When Abdullah Abdullah, who ran against Karzai in the presidential election, comes to DC the week after Karzai, he will get no love from the administration at all.
"He's coming as a private citizen and being hosted by private organizations, not by the U.S. government," said Lute, "To my knowledge he is not meeting with any U.S government officials at an official capacity.
The State Department's update of its annual list of official terrorist groups is imminent, but the group that just attacked Moscow won't be on the list.
The Caucasus Emirate, which has been waging a jihad against the Russian government, is led by Doku Umarov, who calls himself the "emir of the North Caucasus." He was previously President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, but dissolved that Republic and established the Emirate in its place in 2007 in order to impose sharia law in his territory.
Umarov declared all the way back in 2007 that his group was expanding its struggle to wage war against the United States, Great Britain, and Israel. Last month, he released a video claiming credit for the suicide attacks in Moscow in March that resulted in the deaths of 39 people.
But apparently, the State Department chose not to include Caucasus Emirate in the newest update to its list of foreign terrorist organizations, according to Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-FL, who is calling on the State Department to add the group for the sake of national security and U.S. -Russia relations.
"This is a low profile organization that has continued to carry out high profile acts of terrorism, including the twin bombings in Moscow recently," Hastings told The Cable in an exclusive interview, "They've got a jihad against Russia and the United States. If that ain't a terrorist organization, I don't know what is."
Hastings is introducing a new Congressional resolution Thursday detailing the crimes committed by Caucasus Emirate and urging the State Department to add them to the list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Hastings, who is a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), got involved in the issue after hearing about the group from scores of Russian lawmakers. He said listing the group would be an easy win for U.S.-Russian relations.
"President Obama has pressed the reset button, but too often we find ourselves not trying to do things with the Russians," said Hastings, "The State Department has the opportunity to amend the report to include this organization."
Some experts note that there is internal debate within the Chechen rebel community about whether the group's declarations of jihad against the West is really such a good idea.
"It seems that the Caucasian rebels themselves are frightened by their own ‘war declaration' against the West," Andrei Smirnov wrote in an article for the Jamestown Foundation, "The absurdity of the rebels' declarations lies in the fact that they declare war against the West, and at the same time beg for aid in their anti-Russian struggle."
"Whatever the Caucasian rebels say, it is clear that they do not have much in common with the interests of the international Jihadi movement," Smirnov went on, "This movement has no smaller plans than the Jihadi movement worldwide, but it nonetheless limits itself to activities inside Russia's borders and has no ambitions to grow into an international problem."
The State Department has cut off communications with semi-deposed Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and is sending an envoy to meet with the new de facto leadership, but Foggy Bottom is not quite ready to say that a change of government has taken place.
Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, leaves Wednesday morning for Bishkek with plans to meet with Roza Otunbayeva, the opposition leader who is now holding the reigns of Kyrgyzstan's government after bloody demonstrations drove Bakiyev to seek refuge in the country's southern region.
In a briefing before his departure, Blake described Otunbayeva as the head of Kyrgystan's "provisional government," but steered clear of either endorsing the overthrow of the Bakiyev regime or supporting Bakiyev in any way.
"My main goal will be to hear from the Kyrgyz administration about their assessment of the law and order situation, the steps that they plan to take during their six-month interim administration, to organize democratic elections and a return to democracy, and how we might be able to help them to restore democracy and economic growth in Kyrgyzstan," Blake said.
Blake will travel with Kurt Donnelly, the National Security Council's director for Central Asia, and Dan Rosenblum, his aide in charge of assistance programs.
Asked if the U.S. was abandoning Bakiyev, whom the United States has been courting and supporting for years, Blake said no. "The situation with Bakiyev remains I'd say unclear. ... The United States really hasn't taken a position in that. We think that this needs to be managed by the Kyrgyz themselves, in accordance with the Kyrgyz constitution."
That constitution, which can be found here, says nothing about chasing a sitting president from the capital city and then arresting him -- which the erstwhile opposition is now threatening to do.
"No change has yet taken place, so we can't make a judgment about Bakiyev," Blake said.
And what about the 81 people who reportedly died in the streets during last week's uprising?
The violence "was not by the current provisional government," Blake said. "Many of those were killed by supporters of [Bakiyev] ... according to the provisional government."
So was this a legal change of government or not?
"We do not see this as a coup," Blake said.
Does the State Department see a Russian hand in fomenting the violence that led to the change in government?
"That's probably a question best addressed to the Russians," Blake said.
Blake did confirm that there has been no U.S. government contact with Bakiyev, and a Kyrgyz delegation including his son Maxim arrived in Washington late last week as scheduled, but the U.S. side canceled all their official meetings and refused to speak with them.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke over the weekend with Otunbayeva, offering U.S. assistance and pleading for the new leadership to honor Kyrgyzstan's agreement to lease the Manas airbase to the U.S. military, which needs it to transit vital supplies to the war in Afghanistan.
Blake said the new government will honor the existing Manas agreement, but admitted that the agreement was only for one year and ends this summer. At that time, the new leadership could reassert its longstanding opposition to the U.S. military's presence in Kyrgyzstan, creating problems for a renewal or renegotiation.
The bottom line is that the State Department is taking a wait-and-see approach, perfectly happy to work with whichever group ends up on top in Bishkek, while realizing that the situation is still fluid.
"It is not for us to take sides or to choose among competing factions," said spokesman P.J. Crowley.
VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama said Sunday that the United States is still "working on" democracy and a top aide said he has taken "historic steps" to improve democracy in the United States during his time in office.
The remarks came as Obama met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- one of the U.S. president's many meetings with world leaders ahead of this week's nuclear summit.
Kazakhstan, which has been touting its record on combating nuclear proliferation, is a key player in the NATO supply network to Afghanistan and currently heads the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Some observers see a conflict between Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the 56-nation OSCE, which plays an important role in monitoring elections in emerging democracies, and its own widely criticized human rights record.
But if the Obama administration saw any disconnect, it kept its criticism to itself.
"In connection with the OSCE, the presidents had a very lengthy discussion of issues of democracy and human rights," NSC senior director Mike McFaul said on a conference call with reporters Sunday. "Both presidents agreed that you don't ever reach democracy; you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy."
The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman asked McFaul to clarify.
"You seemed to be suggesting there was some equivalence between their issues of democracy and the United States' issues, when you said that President Obama assured him that we, too, are working on our democracy," Weisman said. "Is there equivalence between the problems that President Nazarbayev is confronting and the state of democracy in the United States?"
"Absolutely not ... There was no equivalence meant whatsoever," McFaul said. "[Obama's] taken, I think, rather historic steps to improve our own democracy since coming to office here in the United States."
In an interview, Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov told Weisman, "There was no pressure at all in the meeting," and that Obama quoted Winston Churchill as saying that democracy is "the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."
The warm welcome for Nazarbayev underscores the extent to which Kazakhstan, which agreed in January to allow NATO to ship nonlethal cargo through its territory, has become critical to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan -- especially given the ongoing instability in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the U.S. military leases an important airbase.
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1991, when the country became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union, and his highly centralized rule has been heavily criticized by human rights monitors.
The State Department's own 2009 human rights report on Kazakhstan reported widespread human rights violations, including severe limits on citizens' rights to change their government; detainee and prisoner torture and other abuse; unhealthy prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of an independent judiciary; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association; and pervasive corruption, especially in law enforcement and the judicial system.
Freedom House's 2010 world survey declared Kazakhstan "not free" and said, "Kazakhstan holds the chairmanship of the OSCE for the year 2010 despite a record of fraudulent elections and repression of independent critics in the media and civil society -- behavior that only grew worse as 2010 approached."
The latest Human Rights Watch report on Kazakhstan was entitled, "An atmosphere of quiet repression."
"Putting the United States in the same category as a country such as Kazakhstan is ridiculous, said Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. "President Obama should be using the success of America's democratic experience to encourage foreign leaders to improve their own systems, not implying that we are all in the same boat."
Despite a strongly worded statement issued Thursday, leading Republican senators have not yet decided to oppose ratification of the newly signed nuclear reductions treaty, multiple GOP aides told The Cable.
Republicans senators with a strong interest in arms control have been heavily involved in the debate over the new Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty with Russia, which U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in Prague Thursday. A tough statement issued Thursday evening by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ and Senate Armed Services Ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ, led many in Washington to speculate that they were gearing up to oppose Senate ratification.
But that decision has not yet been made, GOP Senate aides close to the issue said. The offices of leading GOP lawmakers, not just Kyl and McCain, are still pouring over the treaty text and investigating whether or not what the treaty says about missile defense is really problematic for them.
"While we were initially advised that the only reference to missile defense was in the preamble to the treaty, we now find that there are other references to missile defense, some of which could limit U.S. actions," the senators wrote. "This has the potential to constrain improvements to U.S. missile defenses, if objected to by the Russians."
They added that it would be "difficult" to ratify START in the Senate if their demand for a "robust" nuclear modernization plan isn't fully met.
It's true that the administration said before the release that the text of the agreement would not include any references to missile defense and would in no way constrain U.S. missile-defense plans. It was always expected that the preamble would acknowledge the relationship between offensive and defensive systems and that the Russians would issue a unilateral statement acknowledging their right to withdraw from the treaty if they believe American missile defenses are upsetting "strategic stability."
But what surprised the GOP senators was this passage in the text of the treaty:
"Each party shall not convert and shall not use ICBM launchers and SLBM launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein. Each Party further shall not convert and shall not use launchers of missile defense interceptors for placement of ICBMs and SLBMs therein. This provision shall not apply to ICBM launchers that were converted prior to signature of this Treaty for placement of missile defense interceptors therein."
In other words, the treaty prevents ICBMs and SLBMs from being used for missile defense, a Russian concern. But the existing systems in Alaska and California are grandfathered in and the administration has no current plans to convert other ICBMs for missile defense use, an official explained.
Whether that represents a red line for Republicans like McCain and Kyl is simply not decided yet, our Senate sources said. The strong statement could be intended to establish a negotiating position to ensure they get what they are really worried about: a nuclear modernization plan that they feel safeguards U.S. stockpiles going forward.
Obama's Nuclear Posture Review, also issued this week, ends the prospects of building a completely new warhead, but the State Department is preparing a "stockpile management plan" and a "life extension program" for the old warheads that could do almost all the things a new warhead program would do.
A Wednesday statement by Kyl and McCain commenting on the release of the NPR also indicated that the two lawmakers are still processing the documents and open to supporting them if their concerns are addressed.
"We will evaluate this [NPR] carefully in the coming weeks, including when we see the modernization plan required by law at the time the START follow-on treaty is submitted to the Senate," they wrote.
So when might a vote on START happen?
The latest speculation is that the Senate would be wise to do it during the lame-duck session in November and December. This way, the administration and its supporters on Capitol Hill could avoid a lengthy debate just prior to the midterm elections but also get it done before the new Congress takes its seats, probably with even more GOP senators.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.