Mitt Romney's foreign trip showed that he can't handle sensitive diplomatic situations, can't even handle relationships with friendly countries, and therefore is failing the commander-in-chief test, according to Obama campaign representatives Robert Gibbs and Colin Kahl.
"He offended our closest ally and triggered a troubling reaction in the most sensitive region in the world. He certainly didn't prove to anyone that he passed the commander in chief test," said Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Gibbs said the Romney campaign set extremely low expectations for the trip -- and then didn't even meet those expectations. The former Massachusetts governor did not visit any warzones or meet with any U.S. troops, Gibbs observed, as then Senator Barack Obama did when campaigning in 2008.
"Many were surprised that Mitt Romney did not take the opportunity to meet with any members of our armed forces on this trip," said Gibbs.
Gibbs also noted that Romney only took three questions from the reporters traveling with him, sparking frustration between the Romney campaign and the press corps that boiled over with profane comments from one of Romney's aides to reporters in Poland. Obama took 25 questions on his campaign trip abroad, Gibbs said.
"He repeatedly took a pass on explaining his views on foreign policy to the American people," Gibbs said. "Romney's auditioning to be the leader of the free world and it's clear he is unable to represent America on the world stage."
Kahl, who served in the Obama administration for three years as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said that Romney's suggestion that London was not ready to host the Olympics was an unforced error.
"The trip was supposed to be an easy one for Governor Romney, but he couldn't even handle the low bar that his campaign set for him," said Kahl. "If Romney can't handle the special relationship with Great Britain on the eve of the Olympic Games, how can he handle our enemies?"
Kahl said that Romney's trip was devoid of specific policy proposals and that Romney has repeatedly criticized Obama's foreign policy without spelling out exactly what he would do differently.
"The world got to see what it would be like if Mitt Romney was in charge of American foreign policy and it's not a sight they will forget any time soon," said Kahl. "This trip casts serious doubt as to whether Governor Romney has the ability to handle the job."
Gibbs and Kahl also criticized Romney for intimating that culture had something to do with the disparity of wealth between in Israel and the Palestinian territories, comments described as racist by several Palestinian leaders.
"You have to choose your words very, very carefully and Governor Romney just didn't do that," said Kahl. "
"It's up to Governor Romney to explain why those comments would be helpful to resolving the conflict in the Middle East."
Kahl also defended the Obama administration's reluctance to recognize Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there, as Romney promised to do when he was in the Jewish state.
Kahl said that the current policy that the status of Jerusalem is an issue to be negotiated between the two parties represents bipartisan consensus going back decades.
"[Romney] disagreed with past democratic administrations like Bill Clinton's and past Republican administrations like Ronald Reagan's," Kahl said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Romney surrogate and rumored candidate to be Romney's running mate, defended the former governor's comments on culture and wealth in a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable.
"I think that certainly you look at the success of some countries and you wonder why are some nations that are right next door to other nations and more successful. I think America has benefited from being a melting pot of cultures," Rubio said. "There's no way you look at Israel and not marvel at what they have accomplished -- their commitment to democracy, their commitment to free enterprise, their commitment to upward mobility -- and I think you find a lot of that in their culture, absolutely."
The Romney campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Deputy Secretary Bill Burns discussed the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship and opportunities for international cooperation with Mexican government officials Sunday in Mexico City. Today Burns is in Bogota, Colombia, to lead the U.S. delegation in the third round of the U.S.-Colombia High-Level Partnership Dialogue, where he will be joined by Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Affairs Carlos Pascual, and Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez. Discussions will cover democracy, human rights, energy, economic opportunities, climate change, culture and education, and science and technology.
Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon is traveling to Greece and Turkey until July 31. In Athens, he will discuss economic reforms and foreign policy issues with senior government officials, political party leaders, and members of the business and think tank communities. On July 29, he will arrive in Istanbul, where he will meet with senior Turkish government officials to discuss various bilateral and global issues.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak at the second annual Global Diaspora Forum in Washington, which will focus on how the U.S. government and diaspora communities are partnering to further investment and trade, philanthropy, volunteerism, and social innovation around the world. She will also meet with World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean Asselborn, and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Slovak Republic Miroslav Lajcak.
Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman is in New York for the final week of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty Conference, which ends Friday. Conventional arms trading is estimated to be worth more than $70 billion a year, and the conference is still behind schedule. According to AFP, discussions are still hindered by disagreements between the main powers and a "small but determined minority of states who oppose the treaty."
In a rare moment amid a presidential campaign more often focused on bread-and-butter issues like jobs, economic growth, and deficit spending, the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney teams are ramping up their foreign-policy messaging this week as the former Massachusetts governor sets off for a major trip abroad.
In what has become a new ritual of American politics, both candidates will address the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno this week.
Ahead of Obama's Monday afternoon visit there, the president's campaign released a new video touting his administration's treatment of veterans and the president's moves to complete the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq last year.
Romney will speak to the conference on Tuesday before heading off on a three-nation foreign trip. On July 25, Obama surrogate and former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy will square off with Romney advisor Rich Williamson, George W. Bush's envoy to Sudan, in a debate at the Brookings Institution.
Earlier Monday, Flournoy and Colin Kahl, another former defense official, held a conference call with reporters, during which Kahl pledged that Obama would visit Israel in his second term if he is re-elected.
Kahl's pledge comes in response to the Romney camp's criticism that the president has been a fickle ally of Israel, a critique the GOP candidate is looking to exploit during his upcoming stop in Jerusalem.
After Romney speaks to the VFW Tuesday, he heads off that evening to London to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and meet with British officials. Romney then goes on to Israel and Poland before returning to the United States.
On their own conference call with reporters, several Romney policy advisors emphasized that Romney will not be criticizing Obama's foreign policy on the trip.
"This trip is really an opportunity for the governor to learn and listen," said Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign's policy director. "There are a number of challenges the world is facing today and this is an opportunity for him to visit three countries that each have a strong and important relationship with the U.S."
"So this trip demonstrates Governor Romney's belief in the worth and necessity of standing with our allies and locking arms with our allies," said Chen. "Each of these nations shares our love of liberty as well as our fortitude to defend it. They are each pillars of liberty and have fought through periods where liberty was under siege. This trip is an opportunity for us to demonstrate a clear and resolute stand with those nations that share our values."
The Obama campaign set his own marker for Romney's trip.
"He'll need to prove to the American people that he sees foreign-policy issues as worthy of substantive discussion rather than just generalities and sound bites in this campaign," said Obama senior advisor Robert Gibbs Monday. "This trip and this campaign begs several questions and I think Mitt Romney owes it to the American people to say where he stands on these important issues as he's trying out to be leader of the free world."
In London, Romney will meet with the leaders of the British government and opposition, including Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Foreign Minister William Hague, Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg, and former prime minister Tony Blair.
In Israel, Romney will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Perez, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Kadima Party Leader Shaul Mofaz, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
This will be Romney's forth trip to Israel. He made a family trip there in the late 1990s and then visited in January 2007 and gave a speech at the annual Herzliya conference. In January 2011, Romney visited Israel as part of a three-nation trip that also included stops in Afghanistan and Jordan.
Romney is visiting Poland at the invitation of former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and he will also meet with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. He will also visit Polish sites of historical significance, his advisors said.
In Poland, Romney will thank Poland for its commitments of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and tout Poland's relative economic success during the European fiscal crisis.
"This is a country that stands in sharp contrast economically to the rest of Europe... and Poland's success is rooted in its commitment to the principles of free market economies and capitalism," said Romney advisor Ian Brzezinski.
Although Romney will hold public events at all three stops, don't expect any big policy speeches or attacks on the administration's international actions.
"This trip is solely an opportunity to listen and the contrasts will be kept here in the States," said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Political Affairs Tara Sonenshine, and Ambassador-At-Large and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby will also attend the conference of 20,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries. With the theme of "Turning the Tide Together," AIDS 2012 aims to increase global awareness through convening a group of scientific experts, community leaders, and policy leaders.
Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman is in New York for the Arms Trade Treaty Conference at the U.N. Observers say the talks are "a week behind schedule" as the July 27 deadline approaches. The National Rifle Association's opposition to the treaty on the grounds that it could violate citizens' Second Amendment rights promises to hinder President Barack Obama's goal of signing the treaty on deadline.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, and discussed issues including Agent Orange, soldiers missing in action, and deepening cultural and economic bilateral ties with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. "The United States greatly appreciates Vietnam's contributions to a collaborative, diplomatic resolution of disputes and a reduction of tensions in the South China Sea," said the secretary, who is accompanied by Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats, Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan. Tomorrow Clinton will arrive in Vientiane, Laos, for meetings with Prime Minister Thonsing Thammavong and other senior government officials, making her the first secretary of state to visit the country in 57 years.
In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Monday with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold, spoke at the Community of Democracies Governing Council and the International Women's Leadership Forum, and participated in the Leaders Engaged in New Democracies Network launch. Clinton praised post-Soviet Mongolia as a democratic model for Asia, calling it "an inspiration and a model" that stands "in stark contrast to those governments that continue to resist reforms" -- a none-too-subtle dig at neighboring China. Although Mongolia held parliamentary elections on June 28, the results are still being disputed as no major party was able to form a government.
Secretary Clinton, who is accompanied by Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, will travel next to Hanoi, Vietnam, to meet with senior Vietnamese leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Latvian president Andris Berzins, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, and Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevics in Riga. She will depart for St. Petersburg later today to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Forum with Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer and hold a bilateral meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Clinton is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan. She then heads to Geneva for an emergency meeting on Syria.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, and Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomoja in Helsinki to discuss issues including Russia, energy and the environment, and women in Afghanistan. Clinton, who is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, also attended a Climate and Clean Air Coalition event and toured the Marimekko Factory and Design Space. Next stop: Riga, Latvia.
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mike Hammer are in Moscow for the final day of P5+1 talks with Iran. The talks "broke no new ground" as of Monday evening, the New York Times reported, and sanctions imposed on Iranian oil by the United States and the European Union are set to begin in July. One Iranian diplomat described Monday's atmosphere as "not positive at all," and many consider the talks deadlocked, but Tehran is reportedly willing to discuss the production of high-grade uranium, which the six powers want to negotiate down to a lower level of purity.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up a bill today to punish Russian human rights violators, moving that bill closer to passage in conjunction with another bill to grant Russia privileged trade with the United States.
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) convened her committee on Thursday morning to approve the House version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. Her committee counterpart Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) said during the markup he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with a coming bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which would include a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, established to punish Russia for not allowing Jews to emigrate during the Soviet period.
"The entire world knows that the state of democracy and human rights in Russia, already bad, is getting worse," Ros-Lehtinen said at the markup. "Moscow devotes enormous resources and attention to persecuting political opponents and human rights activists, including forcibly breaking up rallies and jailing and beating those who dare to defy it. Instead of the rule of law, Russia is ruled by the lawless."
The Obama administration is publicly opposed to the Magnitsky bill, especially the effort to connect it to Jackson-Vanik repeal, and has been working behind the scenes with bill sponsors such as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) to alter the legislation. "From our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," U.S. Ambassador Russia Mike McFaul said in March.
One of the administration ideas is to expand the Magnitsky bill to deal with human rights violators from all countries, but doing so wouldn't eliminate strong Russian objections to the bill. A short amendment added to the House version today by Ros-Lehtinen makes clear that the bill is directed only at Russia.Cardin even came up with a new draft version of the legislation in April. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill. For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create, potentially softening the bill's impact on Russian officials
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed consideration of the Magnitsky bill in April, so that the details inside the bill could be ironed out. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has promised to take up the bill in that committee at their as yet unscheduled next business meeting. He has also said he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with legislation to repeal Jackson-Vanik.
In both chambers, the bill faces cross jurisdiction with the finance and possible judiciary committees, which means they would also have to approve the legislation, because it deals with financial sanctions and criminal prosecutions. The Senate Finance Committee under chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is where the Russian PNTR bill would begin as well, although it's not clear whether the PNTR bill, which would include the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, would be joined with the Magnitsky bill in committee or on the floor.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee also approved today a bill calling for the International Olympic Committee to hold a moment of silence at the 2012 London games to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic team members in Munich. The IOC has thus far refused requests to hold a moment of silence, saying that it is unnecessary and would establish an unwelcome precedent. That drive is being led by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Nita Lowey (D-NY), and Steve Israel (D-NY).
Another bill approved today by the HFAC would express "sense of the House of Representatives with respect toward the establishment of a democratic and prosperous Republic of Georgia and the establishment of a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict with Georgia's internationally recognized borders."
The committee also approved a resolution expressing support for efforts to combat the Lord's Resistance Army and secure the imprisonment of Joseph Kony, a bill calling upon the Turkey to reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate's theological school at Halks, and the "Donald M. Payne International Food Assistance Act of 2012," which is mean to improve the quality and effectiveness of U.S. food assistance programs abroad.
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This weekend's NATO summit in Chicago is the first in decades to make little to no progress on the enlargement of the organization, leaving several countries to wait another two years to move toward membership in the world's premier military alliance.
In the official 65-point summit declaration issued Sunday, there were several references to the four countries vying for progress on their road to NATO membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia. But none came away from the summit with any tangible progress to tout back at home. NATO expansion was just not a priority of the Obama administration this year, U.S. officials and experts say, given the packed security-focused agenda and looming uncertainly caused by the deepening European financial crisis.
The 28 NATO foreign ministers did meet with leaders of the four "aspirant" countries, and the declaration praised those countries' contributions to NATO missions, but offered them little more than polite thanks.
"We are grateful to these partners that aspire to NATO membership for the important contributions they are making to NATO-led operations, and which demonstrate their commitment to our shared security goals," the declaration said.
"We're caught in this halfway place of ‘the door is open,' but it feels as if there's no political will or energy to make it happen," said Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "NATO enlargement has always been about strong American leadership, but this has not been a top priority for this administration."
Each would-be NATO member has its own roadblocks to membership. Bosnia still has some constitutional reforms to enact before it can be eligible. Georgia, recently named an "aspirant" NATO member, has its bid tied up by the Russian occupation of two of its territories. Montenegro has been granted its NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), the final step before membership. But Macedonia, which was granted MAP status way back in 1999, can't join NATO because Greece is still demanding that the Republic of Macedonia change its name.
There was a concerted effort in Washington in the lead up to the summit to push for a resolution to the Macedonia name dispute, but to no avail. Last month, 54 members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama to ask him to break the logjam. Obama's own former National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, wrote an op-ed May 18 urging the president to do more on enlargement.
"The alliance's enlargement has been a priority at each major meeting of NATO heads of state since the fall of the Berlin Wall," Jones wrote. "This weekend, when NATO leaders convene in Chicago, enlargement may be swept under the rug in deference to other topics of concern. That would be a blow to stability in the Balkans and to the Republic of Macedonia in particular."
Just before the summit began, former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, with former Defense Secretaries William Cohen and Donald Rumfeld, wrote a letter to the president urging him to break the impasse over Macedonia's membership or risk alienating European countries in transition that want to look to the West.
"Today, NATO is at a crossroads. As defense spending among NATO members falls, new aspirant nations in Southeastern Europe will provide needed manpower and resources to the Alliance. And while the region has made steady progress since the conflicts of the 1990s, stability in the Balkans cannot be taken for granted," they wrote. "We cannot afford to send mixed messages to those nations that are willing to stand up and be counted."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), came to the defense of Georgia's membership aspirations last week. In an op-ed in The Hill she argued for enlargement and called in a separate statement for progress on Georgia's bid.
"Georgia's security and sovereignty is critical to U.S. interests in the region. Georgia was invaded by Russian forces in 2008, and large portions of its territory remain under Russian occupation," she said. "I strongly urge our Administration to work with our allies at the NATO Summit in Chicago later this month to ensure that Georgia becomes a full member of the Alliance as soon as possible."
Conley pointed to the Serbian elections this weekend, where Serbians chose an ultra-nationalist known as "Toma the Gravedigger" to be their president, as evidence that these countries could slip back toward authoritarianism if not given full support and inclusion by Western organizations.
"If we let this agenda lapse, we may not like what we see in the future," she warned.
When NATO countries meet for their summit in Chicago this May, four countries will be vying for membership in the transatlantic alliance. For the small Balkan country of Macedonia, the only thing holding it back is its name.
Bosnia still has some constitutional reforms to enact before it can be eligible for NATO membership. Georgia, recent named an "aspirant" NATO member, has its bid tied up by the Russian occupation of two of its territories. Montenegro has been granted its NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), the final step before membership, and is moving towards accession at a steady pace. But for Macedonia, which was granted MAP status way back in 1999, there likely won't be any formal membership invitation in Chicago because NATO member Greece is still demanding that the Republic of Macedonia change its name.
"Macedonia's bid was blocked by Greece because of a 17-year row over the country's name," the BBC reported at the time of NATO's 2008 summit in Bucharest. "Athens says it implies a territorial claim on its northern province -- also called Macedonia -- and wants the former Yugoslav republic to change its name to New or Upper Macedonia."
Now, four years later, the dispute is no closer to being solved. Tuesday, 54 members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama to ask him to break the logjam.
"We strongly urge your administration to make sure that NATO finally offers the Republic of Macedonia its well deserved formal invitation to join the alliance during the Chicago summit," reads the letter, led by Reps. Candice Miller (R-MI) and Mike Turner (R-OH).
The letter points out that Macedonia has achieved all membership criteria to merit a NATO membership invitation and quotes Obama as saying in April 2009: "I look forward to the day when we can welcome Macedonia into the alliance."
Macedonia was the staging area for NATO operations in Kosovo in 1990, offered refuge to 360,000 Kosovars, and has fought alongside NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the letter states. "If Macedonia can protect the tent of NATO, Macedonia should be able to sleep in the tent of NATO," it reads.
Congressional support for Macedoniaa's accession is also codified two bills in Congress. The Senate's version of the NATO Enhancement Act of 2012 was introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) and the House version was introduced by Turner.
But the dispute over the name of the country is still standing in the way.
Vice President Joseph Biden met with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski in Washington in February 2011, after which the White House said in a statement, "The Vice President expressed the hope that Macedonia and Greece resolve together the longstanding ‘name issue' so that Macedonia can move forward on seeking NATO membership and fulfilling its Euro-Atlantic aspirations."
Last December, advocates of Macedonia's NATO accession thought they had found the solution, when the International Court of Justice ruled by a 15-1 vote that Greece had breached its international obligations by objecting to NATO membership for the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," a name the Macedonians believe is a reasonable compromise.
But for the Obama administration, that ruling hasn't changed the state of the dispute. Asked for comment by The Cable, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor referred to the following statement issued at the 2008 Bucharest summit:
We recognise the hard work and the commitment demonstrated by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to NATO values and Alliance operations. We commend them for their efforts to build a multi-ethnic society. Within the framework of the UN, many actors have worked hard to resolve the name issue, but the Alliance has noted with regret that these talks have not produced a successful outcome. Therefore we agreed that an invitation to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will be extended as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached. We encourage the negotiations to be resumed without delay and expect them to be concluded as soon as possible.
"Allies remain committed to this position," Vietor said.
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Mitt Romney has created an international confrontation over his claim that Russia is America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," but most national security leaders in Congress, including Republicans, simply don't think Russia deserves that stature.
Romney doubled down on his criticism of Russia and the Obama administration's handling of the U.S.-Russia relationship in a Tuesday op-ed for Foreign Policy, in which he again criticized Obama for telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on a hot mic that he needed "space" on issues such as missile defense because he would have more "flexibility" after the November election. Medvedev said that Romney's comments "smell of Hollywood" and that presidential candidates "need to use one's head, one's good reason."
"It is not an accident that Mr. Medvedev is now busy attacking me. The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House," Romney shot back.
On Capitol Hill, top Republicans have little praise for Medvedev or Russia and maintain that Moscow has played an unhelpful international role and represses its own citizens. But these lawmakers see Russia as a power in decline and therefore not worthy of the title of America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe."
"I don't see them as our No. 1 strategic foe because they've got a weak economy and structurally are not very strong. China could potentially be more harming to our interests because of the growth of their economy and the growth of their military," Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable.
Russia is in decline on many fronts, due to a lack of a moral direction by Kremlin combined with rampant corruption and a regime that's desperately trying to hang on to power, Graham said.
"I think Russia is behaving in a manner very inconsistent with being a mature member of the international community, but I see Russia as a declining power because they choose to embrace a model that never ended well in history. Instead of helping the world do things like get rid of Assad, they seem to be ambivalently or actively encouraging people to do bad things," he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable that he agreed with Romney that Obama's comments about flexibility on missile defense were alarming, but he wouldn't say Russia was the No. 1 geopolitical foe of the United States.
"I think they are a strategic challenge," McCain said. "They continue to supply [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad while he slaughters Syrians and they continue to obviously oppose our missile-defense systems. They continue to be an oppressive and repressive regime.
"Fortunately in many ways they are declining. But this recent consolidation of power shows a lack of democracy there," McCain said.
In a Wednesday morning appearance on Fox and Friends, McCain expressed more support for Romney's Russia claim.
"I think in many respects [they are the number one geopolitical foe]," McCain said. "Look at what they are doing in Syria right now... they continue to prop up North Korea and obviously now they have a president for life."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), another member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lamented the backsliding of democracy in Russia but also denied that Russia the No. 1 geopolitical foe in the world.
"I wouldn't have put in the way Mitt Romney did, but I don't dismiss his thoughts," Lieberman told The Cable. "China's rising; Russia seems to be in a holding pattern but still quite strong militarily. And they have been in the way of progress in a lot of things going on in the world."
"The developments in Russia have been one of the most disappointing things that have happened in the world over the last 20 years or so," he said. "When the Berlin Wall fell and the first wave of Russian democracy came, I was very optimistic. But both internally they are a very repressive society and externally, it's better than the Cold War but we're still bumping into Russia too many times, as in Syria."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable that the U.S.-Russia relationship is not nearly as bad as Romney makes it seem and actually has potential for productivity and progress.
"Russia's cooperating with us on some things, it's not on others. The threat of religious extremism is not centered in Russia; it's centered in South Asia and the Middle East and that is an enormous and time-consuming challenge for all of our national security enterprises." Kerry said. "So I think [Romney] is vastly and significantly off target as well as in terms of potential of the upsides with Russia if we move forward on a number of things."
In his original interview with CNN, Romney made clear that he doesn't see Russia as the number one immediate security challenge. He said Russia is the greatest American foe "in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world's worst actors. Of course, the greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran."
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 people and international observers may not see last Sunday's presidential election in Russia as legitimate, but President Barack Obama has now officially endorsed the return of Russian past and future President Vladimir Putin.
"President Obama called Russian President-elect and Prime Minister Putin to congratulate him on his recent victory in the Russian Presidential election," the White House said in a late Friday afternoon statement (read: news dump) about the Friday morning phone call between the two leaders.
"President Obama highlighted achievements in U.S.-Russia relations over the past three years with President Medvedev, including cooperation on Afghanistan, the conclusion and ratification of the START agreement, Russia's recent invitation to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and cooperation on Iran," the statement read. "President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed that the successful reset in relations should be built upon during the coming years."
Obama told Putin he looked forward to Putin's May visit to Camp David for the G-8 summit and the two talked about how they could benefit economically from Russia's joining the WTO, the statement explained.
That could be a reference to administration efforts to get Congress to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that prevents the U.S. from giving Russia permanent normal trade status. Some in Congress are resisting that because of Russia's deteriorating record on democracy, rule of law, and human rights.
At the end of the statement, the White House mentioned the crisis in Syria, in which the Russian government is arming the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue discussions on areas where the United States and Russia have differed, including Syria and missile defense," the statement read. "President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue their efforts to find common ground and remove obstacles to better relations."
The State Department, in their May 5 statement on the election, noted the concerns of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about the election, including that it wasn't a level playing field to begin with, that government resources were used partisan purposes, and that there were procedural irregularities on the day of the election.
"We urge Russian authorities to build on these steps to ensure that the procedures for future elections will be more transparent," the State Department said. The White House statement made no mention of the problems with the election.
After Russia's Dec. 2011 parlaimentary elections, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called them "neither free nor fair." When Russian protesters took to the streets to protest those elections and Putin's return to the presidency, Putin publicly accused Clinton of inciting the protests.
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
Russia and Iran are continuing to send arms to the Syrian regime that can be used against protesters, a top State Department official said today.
"Iran is resupplying Syria and through Syria has supplied weapons to Hezbollah," said Tom Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, at a Wednesday morning breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
Countryman's bureau plays a major role in monitoring international compliance with nonproliferation and arms control rules. He declined to go into specifics on what arms Iran and Russia are giving the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but he confirmed that both countries are still supplying arms that can be used to attack civilians and opposition groups inside Syria, who are engaged in an increasingly bloody struggle with the government.
"We do not believe that Russian shipments of weapons to Syria are in the interests of Russia or Syria," he said.
According to Countryman, the Iranian weapons being funneled through the Syrian government to Hezbollah are not being used by Hezbollah inside Syria, but are being transferred to Hezbollah groups inside Syria's neighbor Lebanon.
Countryman also said the U.S. government is working with allies to try to get a handle on the stores of conventional, biological, and chemical weapons inside Syria, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands if and when the Assad regime collapses.
There are "tens of thousands" of MANPADS - shoulder-fired missile systems -- in Syria and nobody really knows where they all are, Countryman said. Unlike Libya, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so there is no official reporting on its store of those weapons, but the effort to locate them is underway.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
He also commented on the news that Iran has sent a letter to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
"This would be a good day for [Iran] to answer a letter sent four months ago," Countryman said, but what Iran really needs to do is open up fully to IAEA inspectors and directly address all of the questions about its nuclear program.
"There is a path forward where Iran can pursue peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.
Former National Security Council Senior Director Dennis Ross argued in a New York Times op-ed today that the window for diplomacy with Iran is now open again because of the pressure wrought on Iran by international sanctions.
"The Obama administration has now created a situation in which diplomacy has a chance to succeed," wrote Ross. "It remains an open question whether it will."
MUNICH - At Saturday's morning session of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta clarified that NATO forces will not stop fighting in Afghanistan in 2013, but he confirmed that the U.S. hopes to hand over the combat lead to Afghan forces that year. Many European and NATO officials in the room were still a little miffed they had to learn about the strategy shift in the newspapers two days ago.
On the way to Brussels to attend the NATO defense ministers meeting Feb. 2, Panetta made news by saying that U.S. forces will transition out of a lead combat role next year. "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013," Panetta said. "Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."
On Saturday morning here in Munich, sitting beside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Panetta made the same announcement again, but this time with a bit more nuance.
"Our bottom line [in Afghanistan] is ‘in together, out together.' As an alliance, we are fully committed to the Lisbon framework and transitioning to Afghan control by 2014. Our discussions included considerations about how ISAF will move from the lead combat role to a support, advise, and assist role as Afghan security forces move into the lead," he said. "We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter."
Prior to Panetta's statements this week, the only public milestone between now and the full transition of responsibility to Afghan forces at the end of 2014, as was announced at the Lisbon conference last year, was the Sept. 2012 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. surge forces, as announced by President Barack Obama last June.
Panetta's remarks this week place a new milestone in the middle of those two dates, by setting a public goal of handing over lead combat responsibility for the last geographical area in Afghanistan, known as Tranche 5, over a year before the full handover of responsibility is set to take place.
European officials here in Munich said they understood the reason for the new milestone, which is to give the Afghans some time to adjust to having the combat lead while NATO forces are still present in large enough numbers to help them out, especially if there are bumps along the road.
But several NATO and European officials were shocked and some were even a little miffed that Panetta had made a major change in the messaging over the Afghanistan war without giving them a heads up.
There are two different theories as to why Panetta decided to announce the 2013 milestone on the plane to Europe, before telling his NATO counterparts about it, despite that he was about to see them only hours later.
Some here in Munich think that Panetta simply spoke too fast and didn't mean to surprise his European colleagues. Others believe that Panetta wanted to announce the news on his own terms, rather than tell the Europeans and then have it leak out to the press, perhaps in an even less articulate way.
One high ranking European official told The Cable that his government was expecting such an announcement at the NATO summit in Chicago in May, not here in Europe in February.
"The feeling was, well we can't say the same thing in Chicago as we said in Lisbon," the official said, referring to the expected May announcement. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined."
European governments had told the Obama administration that announcing a new milestone for drawdowns in Afghanistan was politically difficult for them, but that they were willing to go along with it, albeit reluctantly.
"We said, ‘Okay, if Obama needs this politically, that's fine. But please consider the bad side effects for us. This is hard to explain to our constituencies," the European official said. "Before today we could still say the drawdown was conditions based. Now we can't make the argument that it's anything but politically motivated."
Panetta's main mission Saturday was to reassure European countries that the United States was not abandoning Europe despite the defense budget cuts in the U.S. and the American strategic pivot to Asia. He announced that a battalion sized U.S. military force would rotate to Europe as America's first concrete presence in the NATO Response Force.
"Our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region in the world," he said.
In the question and answer session following his remarks, Panetta said that the Pentagon was not planning to implement the defense "trigger" set to go into effect in Jan. 2013, which would mandate $600 billion in additional defense cuts over the next ten years.
"Sequestration is a crazy formula," he said. "We're not paying attention to sequester. Sequester is crazy... If sequester happened, the strategy I just developed would have to be thrown out the window."
MUNICH - The first panel at the 2012 Munich Security Conference examined whether Germany should assume a role as the regional, benign hegemon in Europe. But one speaker, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, told the Germans that it's just never going to happen so they shouldn't even try.
The question posed to Sikorski and the other panelists at the Friday evening discussion was whether Germany could play a role in Europe today similar to the role the United States played in Europe after World War II. Sikorski said that Germany doesn't have the attributes of a hegemon, such as an overwhelming economy, a large military budget, and an international role commensurate of a preeminent regional power.
"So you will not be a benign hegemon in Europe and you shouldn't even try," Sikorski told his largely German audience. He even referred to lingering concerns about German power left over from the WWII period.
"Why is Russia always a bigger security challenge than Germany for Poland? When Germany gets too big for its boots, we always automatically add allies," Sikorski said. "So don't get too dizzy with success."
"Germany cannot be said to be said to be similar to the United States [in the post WWII period]," Sikorski said. "The position of benign hegemon for Germany is not attainable, and therefore I would propose your actual position in the EU, which is a very honorable one, is the position of the largest shareholder."
Economically, Germany is only marginally larger than France and Britain, whereas the United States economy dwarfed its rivals when it became a world power, Sikorski said. Also, German trade is largely localized, with 9 out of its 10 largest trading partners located in Europe.
Sikorski said a hegemon must have a significant share of resources, must be able to supply public goods to the wider community, and others must believe the hegemon pursues policies that are at least relatively beneficial to all. Germany doesn't fit the bill, Sikorski said, even when one looks at Germany's defense budget, which is about $43 billion.
"[Former German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl was more right than [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger. Kissinger said [Germany is] too big for Europe, [but] too small for the world. Kohl said [Germany is] too big to be first among equals, but too small to dominate in Europe," said Sikorski.
Nevertheless, Sikorski graciously offered to aid Germany's role as the largest, if not the dominant force in Europe.
"Poland declares that we are ready on a pragmatic basis, despite the history, to help you," he said. "As long as we are working towards European solutions."
Johannes Simon/Getty Images
That's right, your humble Cable guy is on his way to Germany to participate in the 48th annual Munich Security Conference, one of the largest gatherings of national security officials in the world.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), and a large delegation of experts and lawmakers led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will be at the event, which begins Friday. Other senators and former officials from Washington headed to Munich include Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Mark Udall (D-CO), Brent Scowcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalizad, Kurt Volker, Dan Senor, and many others.
"It is arguably the most important security conference of them all," McCain told The Cable. "It's like Davos without the Hollywood aspect."
When McCain learned that The Cable will be at the conference, blogging and tweeting the whole time, he said, "Oh, no.... I'm going to call the German embassy."
Lieberman gave The Cable a little more historical perspective about the conference, which he has been attending for over 20 years, after first being invited by Sen. John Glenn (D-OH). Bill Cohen, who served as senator and later defense secretary, led the U.S. congressional delegation to the conference at that time. Cohen passed the baton to McCain when he left the Senate, and McCain invited Lieberman to be the co-leader of the delegation to give it a bipartisan character.
"For decades, it has been an occasion to discuss critical issues in the U.S.-European alliance. In the past 10 or 15 years it really has been broadened," Lieberman said. Defense ministers and foreign ministers from just about every NATO country attend and recently more and more heads of state are showing up as well, he said.
Among the foreign leaders expected to attend, in addition to U.S. and European officials, are Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jabali, and perhaps even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The interactions with the Russian delegation are always interesting, Lieberman said.
"We've had some very eyeball-to-eyeball matches when President [Vladimir] Putin has come," he said.
The main topics of the formal conference sessions will be the effect of the global recession on defense budgets, what President Barack Obama's so-called pivot to Asia means for U.S.-Europe relationship, and the uprisings in the Arab world.
But a lot of the action happens informally in the hallways and in the bilateral meetings that take place on the sidelines of the sessions. Last year, Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov actually exchanged the final documents of the New START treaty there.
McCain and Lieberman always plan one stop on the way to Munich. This year, they are touching down for a few hours in Madrid to meet with the Spanish government led by newly elected President Mariano Rajoy Brey.
It's a lot of foreign policy packed into only a couple of days, but watch this site for coverage of all the action.
"It's quick," Lieberman said. "We go Thursday and we'll be back Sunday night in time for the Super Bowl."
Photograph by Kai Mörk
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
The State Department shot back at the Russian government today following an attack on the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Mike McFaul, in the Russian state-owned media.
"The fact is that McFaul is not an expert on Russia. He is a specialist in a particular pure democracy promotion," read a report published on Tuesday on Russia 1, the television channel that is run by the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK).
The Russian state television report also criticized President Barack Obama for appointing McFaul because he is not a career diplomat and accused him of having an agenda of supporting Russian opposition groups in an attempt to destabilize the Russian government.
"This is the second case of the violation of this tradition over the past 30 years. A first exception was [former U.S. envoy to Russia] Bob Strauss, appointed by [former President George H.W.] Bush, which, again, was meant to serve the collapse of the Soviet Union," the report said.
In response to a question at today's briefing posed by The Cable, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland backed up McFaul and said that he isn't going anywhere and isn't going to stop meeting with civil society and democracy activists in Russia, as he did over the weekend.
"With regard to Ambassador McFaul, as the Russian Federation knows very well ... he is one of the U.S. government's top experts on Russia. He was, and remains, a key architect of the president's ‘reset' policy," Nuland said.
"He is obviously going to do his job, which is to continue to look for opportunities to cooperate strongly with the government in our mutual interest, but also to speak out clearly and meet with a broad cross section of Russians, including those Russians who are hopeful that their country will move in an increasingly democratic direction," Nuland added. "So he will continue to do that."
McFaul's meetings with activists just happened to coincide with a visit to Moscow by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who commented extensively on Russia's incomplete transition to democracy in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant.
"It is very important for people to be able to continue to express their concerns and their views openly and peacefully. We will continue to support Russians inside and outside the government who stand for transparency and accountability. That's deeply in Russia's self-interest," Burns said.
"I would stress that we have no interest -- zero interest -- in interfering in Russian politics.... Nor do we seek to offer lectures to Russians or preach to them about democracy. I know from my own experience how unenthusiastic Russians are about such lectures. What we can do, and what we will continue to do, openly and unapologetically, is to support universal human rights, to support the evolution of the rule of law and democratic institutions, to support Russia's continuing political and economic modernization."
Apparently, this is Moscow's idea of rolling out the "red carpet": Russian state television today launched an all-out assault on new U.S. Ambassador Mike McFaul.
"The fact is that McFaul is not an expert on Russia. He is a specialist in a particular pure democracy promotion," read a report published on Russia 1, the channel that is run by the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK).
The Russian government was evidently displeased that McFaul met with human rights activists in his first official function at the Moscow embassy, where he was joined by visiting Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. The Russian media's public smear campaign against McFaul accused him of working on behalf of the "so-called democratic movement" in the country during the early 1990s, when he visited there on behalf of the National Democratic Institute -- an organization "known for its proximity to the U.S. intelligence services," according to the TV report.
The report then quotes from several of McFaul's writings and from The Cable's post on McFaul to accuse him of having an agenda of supporting Russian opposition groups in an attempt to destabilize the Russian government.
The hostile welcome represents a sharp rebuke to McFaul's message of openness and cooperation that he brought with him upon arriving in Moscow last week.
"As President Obama's representative in Russia, I believe my most important mission is to continue to help Russians understand who Americans are, what we stand for, and what we seek in our relationship with Russia and the Russian people," McFaul said in his video message to the Russian people, posted Jan. 15 on The Cable.
"The most important part of my job will be to foster more contact between the people of the United States and the people of Russia. I'm interested in not only meeting government officials, but people from other political parties and movements, businessmen and women, civil society activists, and regular Russians just like you."
The Russian state television report also criticized President Barack Obama for appointing McFaul because he is not a career diplomat. "This is the second case of the violation of this tradition over the past 30 years. A first exception was [former U.S. envoy to Russia] Bob Strauss, appointed by [former President George H.W.] Bush, which, again, was meant to serve the collapse of the Soviet Union, a characteristic detail," the report said.
The Russian State TV report then accused McFaul of writing hundreds of articles against once and future Russian President Vladimir Putin, and criticized McFaul's book, Russia's Unfinished Revolution.
"Has Mr. McFaul arrived in Russia to work on his specialty? That is, to finish the revolution?" the report asked. "It is hoped that [this stay in the embassy] will not be for Mr. McFaul, ‘the best time of his life.'"
Nothing like a winter welcome to Moscow...
The United States and Russia will conclude a missile defense cooperation agreement eventually as a result of the "strategic stability" talks between the two powers, according to the State Department's top arms control official.
"We will get a missile defense agreement for cooperation with Russia," Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher told a meeting of the Defense Writers Group on Thursday. "I believe that missile defense is the metaphor for the opportunity of getting things right [in the U.S.-Russia relationship]. It's been an irritant in our relationship for 30 years. It's also the place where great European powers, including Russia, can work together cooperatively."
Tauscher talked at length about her ongoing discussions, which she dubbed "strategic stability" talks, with Russian officials over missile defense. These have centered around cooperation on the Obama administration's European missile defense program, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, she said.
"Almost everything else that you work with on European security has been settled, decided, and worked on together for decades. The only thing that's new where you can bring the Russians in is missile defense," Tauscher said. "This is the place where we can begin to put aside the Cold War and ‘mutually assured destruction' and move toward ‘mutually assured stability.'"
Your humble Cable guy asked Tauscher why the Obama administration's optimism about a missile defense agreement with Moscow seems so far removed from the pessimism of leading Russian officials. In a November speech, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested talks had broken down and he threatened several retaliatory measures, including Russia's potential withdrawal from the New START nuclear reductions agreement.
Tauscher responded that these statements were part of the Russian campaign season and that progress would speed up once the March Presidential elections in Russia had subsided. She also acknowledged that the Russians are demanding a legally binding document from the Obama administration promising U.S. missile defenses in Europe will not impact Russia's strategic deterrent, which Tauscher said they will never get.
"We will never do a legally binding agreement because I can't do one. I can't get anything ratified. Even if I wanted to I'm not sure I would.... ‘Legally binding' doesn't mean what it did before," Tauscher said. "What they are looking for really is a sense that future administrations are going to live by [Obama's commitments]. And you can't really do that."
GOP senators fought hard against during the New START debate against giving Russia any assurances that could be seen as limits on the U.S. missile defense system. Tauscher said the only way for Russia to be assured about the U.S. system was to cooperate fully in its implementation.
"The only way they are going to be assured ... the system does not undercut their strategic deterrent is to sit with us in the tent in NATO and see what we are doing. They will only be their own eyes and ears," she said. "Is it a political leap of faith? Yes. Are they ready to do it? No. But we are hoping that these strategic stability talks over the next 8 months will start to loosen these old ties that have been binding everybody in the old way of thinking."
Tauscher also said implementation of New START with Russia was going extremely well, one year after ratification. There have been 1,700 notifications [of missile movements, etc] and each side has done near the maximum allowed number of inspections, she said.
"We have a very good treaty. Nobody claimed it was the best or the biggest treaty in the world. But it's a modest treaty that has served us in so many different ways," she said. "New START is just doing great."
Tauscher said the Obama administration hopes the "strategic stability" talks will establish reliability and durability in the U.S.-Russia relationship, which will lead to further nuclear reduction talks following Russia's presidential election, including discussions about reducing Russia's tactical nuclear stockpile.
"We want to get back to the table with the Russians both on strategic and non-strategic, deployed and non-deployed. That means everything," she said "We need the elections can pass so that both sides can get back to the table."
Overall, Tauscher disputed the contention that U.S.-Russia relations have peaked, and she dismissed those who have pointed to official comments from either side that seem to indicate the U.S.-Russia "reset" policy is coming to an end.
"While you might pick little data points out and say well there's a little bit of snotty talk here or there... the truth is everything is moving along, nose up, things are good."
The nomination of Mike McFaul to become ambassador to Russia cleared one major hurdle Thursday as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) lifted his hold. The administration was working hard Thursday to satsify other GOP senators' concerns as the Senate prepares to adjourn for the year.
If McFaul is not confirmed by the Senate this month, there will be a vacancy atop the U.S. embassy in Moscow as of next week, when Amb. John Beyrle leaves. Kirk had been very public about his reasons for placing a hold on the McFaul nomination, saying that he was seeking written assurances that President Barack Obama's administration will not provide Russia with any currently classified information on the U.S. missile defense system. Several other members of Congress -- and some experts outside Congress, such as former Missile Defense Agency head Lt. Gen. Trey Obering - echoed Kirk's concern.
On Tuesday, Robert Nabors, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote a letter to Kirk on the matter that was obtained by The Cable.
"We will not provide Russia with sensitive information about our missile defense systems that would in any way compromise our national security. For example, hit-to-kill technology and interceptor telemetry will under no circumstances be provided to Russia," wrote Nabors. "However, in the event that the exchange of classified information with Russia on missile defense will increase the president's ability to defend the American people, the president will retain the right to do that."
In a Thursday interview with The Cable, Kirk said that this assurance, combined with new language in the defense authorization bill requiring 60 days notice before any classified missile defense data is shared with Russia, was enough to reassure him that no classified missile defense data will ever be shared. The law also requires the president to certify in writing that Russia won't share the data with any third parties, such as Iran.
Kirk said that the administration can't possibly certify that Russia won't share the information, so there won't be any way for the administration to meet the defense bill's requirement. If the administration does try to notify Congress it plans to share classified missile defense data with Russia, Kirk promised there would be hearings, legislative action, and a full-court press to oppose it.
"They would have a two-month all out fight on their hands," he said.
Kirk also pointed out that the Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin, who has been insulting Kirk on Twitter, is set to travel to Iran next month. "There is no doubt that Iran will share with Russia the technologies found in our RQ-170 drone," Kirk said. "It's extremely troubling that Russia's top official on missile defense is deepening his relationship with Iran."
Kirk praised McFaul and said his record on promoting democracy and human rights will be an asset if and when he takes over the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The hold was never about McFaul personally, Kirk said.
With Kirk's hold gone, that leaves four other GOP senators who had expressed public or private objections to the McFaul nomination: Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), James Risch (R-ID), Jim DeMint (R-SC), and Richard Burr (R-NC), who has threatened to hold all State Department nominees until State designates the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization..
Corker had placed a hold on McFaul to ensure that the United States fully funds the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) budget, which includes funding for the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, for FY 2012. If Congress passes the omnibus bill with full NNSA funding this week, that should take care of Corker's concerns.
DeMint's objection, which is especially important because he controls the Republican Steering Committee, is over the administration's refusal to share internal documents related to its negotiations with Russia over missile defense. Examples of documents sought by DeMint include the draft of the U.S.-Russia Defense Technology Cooperation Agreement.
DeMint has taken multiple hostages in his fight with the State Department over these documents, including holding the nomination of Mike Hammer to be assistant secretary of State for public affairs.
DeMint and the other GOP senators met with McFaul in the Capitol today for a briefing and McFaul showed the senators the draft DTCA. The hope is that this meeting was enough to satisfy their concerns about U.S. policy toward Russia and information sharing with Congress.
Meanwhile, 36 conservative foreign policy experts wrote to top senators today to plead for the confirmation of Matthew Bryza as ambassador to Azerbaijan. Bryza is currently serving under a recess appointment that expires next month.
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 concerns of their Armenian constituencies, which are unhappy with the administration's policy opposing a Congressional resolution condemning the 1915 Armenian genocide.
"It is understandable that Armenian Americans and even some Senators will disagree with the U.S. policy concerning whether to call the events of 1915 a genocide. That is an argument to be hashed out with the U.S. Administration on the merits," the experts wrote. "But holding up a qualified career nominee who is already serving in a key position will not change U.S. policy, and does a disservice to U.S. interests in a critical region."
Fresh off his war of words with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russia's once-and-future President Vladimir Putin is calling out another senior U.S. politician: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
Unlike Clinton, who doesn't actually want to be trading insults with Putin in the press, McCain relishes these types of confrontations. In fact, McCain might have even started it when he tweeted on Dec. 6, "Dear Vlad, The ArabSpring is coming to a neighborhood near you."
That was a reference to the anti-Putin rallies in Moscow to protest Russia's parliamentary elections, which Clinton called "not free and fair."
On Thursday, Putin insulted McCain during a TV call-in show.
"He has the blood of peaceful civilians on his hands, and he can't live without the kind of disgusting, repulsive scenes like the killing of Qaddafi," Putin said.
Putin then took his insults one step further, accusing McCain of losing his marbles when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"Mr. McCain was captured and they kept him not just in prison, but in a pit for several years," said Putin. "Anyone [in his place] would go nuts."
McCain responded Thursday morning on Twitter, writing, "Dear Vlad, is it something I said?"
Putin didn't even address McCain's comments at the Foreign Policy Initiative Forum on Tuesday in Washington, when he accused the entire Russian government of corruption.
"I think this a corrupt system -- an oligarchy.... This is a kleptocracy. It's certainly not a representative government," McCain told the forum.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.