U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford keeps putting himself in harm's way. This Sunday, he attended the funeral of a Syrian activist shortly before it was attacked by Syrian security forces.
"US amb. Robert Ford shows up at the wake of slain #syria activist Giyath Matar. An hour later the funeral tent is trashed by security forces," tweeted Washington Post foreign correspondent Liz Sly Tuesday afternoon.
We found a video that shows Ford at the funeral, which took place on Sept. 11. The State Department today confirmed to The Cable that he was in attendance. We also found a video (warning: graphic) of Matar's tortured and mutilated body, posted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been meticulously documenting cases of alleged abuse against domestic protesters by the Syrian security forces.
"Security forces corpse [sic] submitted his corpse to his family and told them that you can make from his body a ‘Shawerma' sandwich!!!" the human rights organization reported.
Ford, who was installed as the U.S. envoy to Damascus in a recess appointment, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. But unless he can overcome a tough confirmation fight on the Senate floor, he will be forced to return to Washington at the end of the year.
The group also posted a video of the body of Ahmad Sulaiman Ayrut, who they allege was killed in the government attack on Matar's funeral.
The State Department condemned Matar's killing at a Monday press briefing, but only later confirmed to The Cable Ford's attendance at the funeral. So far, State has not commented on the violence at the funeral.
"This was a very high-profile human rights activist in Syria, apparently arrested on September 6th and died in custody -- again, further evidence of this regime's brutality, indiscriminate force, and absolute disregard for human life and for the human rights of its citizens," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
There was no mention of Ford's attendance on the U.S. embassy of Damascus's Facebook page. The last Facebook posting by Ford came on Sept. 8, where he references threats being made on his life by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"[Commenter] Mujtaba Xr warns me that I will face being killed if I continue my criticism of the repression in Syria. I take his post to be a perfectly good example of the kind of intolerance that has provoked such discontent in Syria," Ford wrote. "Remember that I am one of the few international observers here on the ground; if only the Syrian government would allow international media to move around the country freely like we did in Iraq!"
Ford's close call comes only two weeks after he was physically assaulted by a regime supporter while standing outside an anti-government sit-in by some lawyers at the Syrian Bar Association. The State Department didn't say anything about that incident either, until it was reported by The Cable.
Of course, it's possible that Ford is actually trying to get himself kicked out of Syria by the Assad regime. That would allow the Obama administration to spotlight Assad's intolerance and allow the State Department to avoid a fight over Ford's Senate confirmation.
The State Department has opened a brand-new office to manage U.S. policy toward countries attempting democratic transitions in the Middle East.
William Taylor, senior vice president for conflict management at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has moved over to Foggy Bottom to lead the new office, called the Middle East Transitions office, which began operations this week. His deputy is Tamara Cofman Wittes, who is now dual hatted, also continuing on deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. Taylor's chief of staff is Karen Volker, who until August was director of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is now directed by Tom Vajda. MEPI also falls under Wittes' portfolio. Taylor reports up to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.
In a Monday interview with The Cable, Taylor said his office will begin by leading State Department coordination on policy toward Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the three Middle East countries that are trying to make the shift from dictatorship to democracy.
"The idea is we want to focus energy and policy attention on how we support these three transition countries," he said. "The idea is to be sure this gets top-level attention in the department."
Taylor's office will have about 10 to 12 people, and he said he hopes to soon add a resident senior advisor from both USAID and the Pentagon. The office is meant to be permanent, and would expand its operations to cover countries like Syria and Yemen -- if and when those countries attempt a democratic transition.
Taylor's first job will be to lead an effort to develop support strategies for Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Then, his office will go about trying to implement those strategies by working within State, around the interagency process, and then with international financial institutions, non-governmental organizations, and stakeholders on the ground. Taylor said he will attend National Security Council meetings on issues related to his brief.
In President Barack Obama's May 19 speech on the Middle East, he promised to work on establishing enterprise funds for Egypt and Tunisia, which are accounts meant to support start up programs and activities abroad, and said that U.S. support for democracy will "be based on ensuring financial stability; promoting reform; and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy -- starting with Tunisia and Egypt."
Taylor said that the administration was still eager to pursue enterprise funds for these countries, but that legislation would be needed to get it done.
"We're looking at the possibly of enterprise funds model as a possible model for these transition countries but we're going to need a lot of support from Congress," he said, adding that State would also ask Congress for authorizations and appropriations to support the new transitions initiative at State. New funding for diplomatic initiatives is a tough sell in this tight fiscal environment, but transition funding does have some support in both parties.
Taylor was chosen for the job in part because he played a key role in a similar diplomatic effort following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, the State Department put together the Freedom Support Act Office, which managed relations with former members of the Soviet bloc.
That office was run by Ambassador Richard Armitage and reported up to Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Taylor worked for Armitage in that office and eventually became its director, a position he held until 2001. The Freedom Support Act Office was combined with the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) office and still exists today.
Taylor was U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, and before that served as Washington's envoy to the Mideast Quartet. In 2004 and 2005, he directed the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office in Baghdad, and from 2002 to 2003 he served in Kabul as coordinator of U.S. government and international assistance to Afghanistan.
It's generally expected that the United States will veto the Palestinian bid for full member status at the United Nations Security Council next month, but the Palestinian government thinks it has an ace up its sleeve -- a workaround option that would bypass the U.S. veto and allow it to secure U.N. recognition, says the PLO's top representative in Washington.
"The plan as of now is to go the United Nations to seek full member-state status for the State of Palestine," said Maen Rashid Areikat, PLO representative to the United States and head of the PLO mission in Washington, in a Tuesday interview with The Cable. That means submitting a request to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who will then turn that request over to the U.N. Security Council for a vote.
But the Security Council doesn't actually vote on the statehood question, only whether to refer the matter to the U.N. General Assembly. If and when the United States vetoes the idea of referring the Palestinian request to the General Assembly, that request dies. But the Palestinians aren't planning to stop there.
"We hope the United States will reconsider its position and not use its veto power against the Palestinian move at the United Nations," he said. "What happens after a veto? There are so many other options."
Areikat said one option under serious consideration was to invoke U.N. General Assembly Resolution 377, known as "Uniting for Peace," which was put forth by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1950 as a means of getting around an obstructionist Security Council, which at the time was unable to authorize a response to North Korea's attacks on South Korea because the Soviet Union was rejecting all related Security Council resolutions. Resolution 377 is meant to bypass the Security Council if it "fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression."
"What we could do is go to the Security Council and say that a member state of the Security Council, in this case the United States, has blocked our request and therefore we are seeking Security Council support to take the issue to the U.N. General Assembly, invoking Resolution 377," he said. "If that effort succeeds, we will be a non-member state at the United States, not a member state. That's the difference between the two."
Under Resolution 377, the Palestinians would only need nine out of 15 Security Council votes to refer their statehood request to the General Assembly, which can then address the matter immediately (if in session) or can call an emergency special session, as has been done 10 times since 1950, most recently in 1997, when it was convened to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The other option is for the Palestinian government to submit their request for full member status to the Security Council again, forcing the U.S. to veto it over and over.
"We can keep on going back to the Security Council again and again," Areikat said.
The Obama administration has been working hard to try to convince the Palestinians not to move forward at the United Nations. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's briefing that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today. Also, the NSC's Dennis Ross and Acting Special Envoy David Hale were in the Middle East and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today. Hale, but not Ross, will meet with Abbas Wednesday.
The Clinton call was "to urge President Abbas to receive them and hear them with open ears and to continue to work hard with us to avoid a negative scenario in New York at the end of the month," Nuland said. "We will continue to oppose any one-sided actions at the U.N. And we're making that clear to both sides."
"We respect their position, we expect them to respect our position. It's not a secret that they are asking us not to go the United Nations. It's not a secret that we are telling them we have to go to the United Nations," Areikat said.
But he said the Palestinian leadership no longer had faith in the United States or the international community to set forth a process for peace negotiations that both the Israeli and Palestinian sides could agree to. It's been a year since President Barack Obama established Sept. 2011 as the deadline for setting forth a framework for a final settlement, but "nothing has really happened," Areikat said.
"We have been waiting for over a year for the international community and the United States to create a formula that will constitute a basis for resuming negotiations and what we've seen is a total rejection on the part of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government to engage."
Prompted by The Cable, Areikat also responded to comments made in our interview with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren last week, who said that if the Palestinians move forward with their statehood drive, all bilateral agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians could be at risk, including the Oslo Accords.
"The agreement that Oren is accusing the Palestinians of violating is an agreement that Israel has rendered obsolete in the first place," he said, referring to the Oslo Accord specifically. "It's really shocking to hear that he is threatening to abandon the agreements with the PLO, which also provided certain stability to Israel and Israelis. I don't see how by abandoning the Oslo accords Israeli will be serving its own interests."
The State Department last week urged both sides to honor their existing agreements, despite the new diplomatic tussle. Areikat warned that the scuttling of standing agreements could have repercussions for Israel as well.
"If the Israelis want to take an action, there will be a reaction. If they want to throw away an agreement, it will also have an impact on them," he said.
Areikat also criticized leaders of the U.S. Congress, who is threatening to cut some or all of the $550 million in annual aid to the Palestinian government if it moves forward with the statehood push at the U.N., calling such an action "unwise and unconstructive."
"We definitely hope the U.S. Congress understands the fact that any steps taken to put pressure on the Palestinians is going to adversely affect U.S. interests and even the interests of Israel in the region," he said. "I hate to see members of Congress threatening to use financial support to try to influence Palestinian positions on this issue."
UPDATE: A State Department official confirms that Ross did end up meeting with Abbas Wednesday, along with Hale.
The ongoing war of words between the Obama administration and the Bashar al-Assad regime is quickly descending into a nasty exchange of personal insults and invectives between officials that have borne grudges against each other for years.
Both the U.S. and the Syrian governments have recently taken cheap shots at each other's officials. For instance, the Syrian national television station has called U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford a "dog" and said he must have been "shitting his pants with diarrhea" when he heard the fireworks that were being set off in a downtown square.
This week, the State Department unloaded on Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. On Tuesday, after the Treasury Department announced new sanctions on three Syrian officials, the State Department sent around some additional quotes to reporters about Muallem, to be attributed as coming from a "senior administration official."
"Walid Muallem has played a key role in trying to insulate the regime from the implications of its own brutality. By devoting himself to strenuously trying to hide Syrian government culpability in the murder and torture of Syrian citizens, Muallem bears some responsibility for the crimes committee. He has intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action," the senior administration official said.
Then came the kicker: "Muallem remains an unapologetic, shameless tool and mouthpiece of Bashar al-Assad," the senior administration said.
At Wednesday's State Department briefing, reporters pressed spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on whether she would repeat these insults on the record, and whether she thought it was constructive to publicly demean the Syrian foreign minister.
Nuland's answer was yes on both accounts.
"He has played a key role in trying to insulate the Assad regime from the implications of its own brutality by devoting himself strenuously to trying to hide the Assad regime's capability and the murder and torture of Syrian citizens. Muallem bears personal responsibility as well for the crimes committed. He's intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action," she said.
"You know, we saw people in the Qaddafi circle demonstrate a clear understanding of right and wrong when the tide began to turn there. They chose to defect. That has not yet happened with senior members of the Bashar Assad regime. Muallem remains unapologetic. He remains as a shameless tool and a mouthpiece of Assad and his regime."
And Nuland had more Muallem bashing quotes in her briefing book:
"Not done. Not done. More Muallem," she said. "He has also served as one of the key links between Damascus and Tehran, and he's strengthened Assad's reliance on Iranian equipment and advice in his relentless crackdown on the Syrian people."
Muallem is one of the key interlocutors between the Obama administration and the Assad regime, and the public sniping doesn't bode well for future contact. It could also be awkward when Muallem comes to New York next week for the U.N. General Assembly, but apparently the State Department no longer cares about playing nice.
Some reports have suggested that the personal nature of the insults is based on long-standing grudges between some members of the Obama administration and the Syrian officials. This Associated Press article links the new rhetoric to Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who survived an assassination attempt, presumably planned by Syria, when he was ambassador to Lebanon during the George W. Bush administration.
"The Assad regime is probably at the top of the suspect list," in terms of who tried to kill Feltman, said Andrew Tabler, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a new book about the U.S.-Syria relationship, In the Lion's Den, although Tabler doesn't think the war of words is based solely on personal grudges.
"Engagement is over, we are now essentially in a policy of confrontation. It's certainly a sign of the incredibly bad state of relations between the two countries," he said. "And it is getting nasty."
If the Palestinians go forward with their drive to seek recognition as a state at the U.N. General Assembly next month, all agreements governing Israeli-Palestinian and U.S.-Palestinian cooperation could become null and void, according to Israel's ambassador to the United States.
"We have a lot of agreements with the Palestinian Authority, we have no agreements with a ‘Government of Palestine,'" Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, told The Cable in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. "It's just a fact, we have no agreements with a ‘Government of Palestine.' It puts us in a different realm."
Oren said that agreements covering all sorts of fields, such as import-export, water sharing, and Israel-Palestinian security forces cooperation, would become invalid if the Palestinians declare statehood unilaterally, based on a vote at the U.N. -- rather than by negotiating statehood with the government of Israel via the stalled peace process.
"It's not just our agreements with the Palestinian Authority, it's America's agreements with the Palestinian Authority (that are at risk)," Oren said. "America is a cosignatory to the Oslo Accord and this would seriously undermine it.... Unilateral steps would have legal, economic, and political ramifications for us and for America as a cosignatory."
The current strategy by the Obama administration is to continue to push the Middle East Quartet -- the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia -- to agree on a statement that would affirm the 1967 borders with agreed swaps and recognize Israel's identity as a Jewish state as the basis for moving forward with negotiations. The "Jewish state" clause was the roadblock that prevented the Quartet from agreeing to a statement during their meeting last month in Washington. But Oren said that effort won't solve the problem.
"There is no guarantee that even if the Quartet members succeed in putting out a common position on negotiations that that will in any way divert the Palestinians from their intention of declaring a Palestinian state unilaterally," Oren said.
Oren said that the U.S. and Israeli governments are coordinating on the issue in a "daily and intensive manner" and "we see very much eye to eye."
In fact, the Obama administration has said often that it opposes the Palestinian drive for a U.N. vote on statehood and sees no alternative to direct negotiations. The question is whether the Obama administration is doing everything it can to convince other countries not to support the U.N. vote.
"I think they understand what needs to be done," Oren said. "We're working for similar goals."
But when pressed Oren didn't say whether or not the Obama administration is doing everything it can on the diplomatic front.
Some pro-Israel supporters in Washington think the administration needs to do more. "The United States must begin a vigorous public effort to lobby other countries, large and small, to oppose the Palestinian effort and join President Barack Obama in pressuring the PA to call it off," former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block wrote in a recent op-ed.
Oren said the PA is planning to use the statehood declaration to prosecute never-ending "lawfare" against Israel in international forums, which will lessen the chances for a negotiated solution.
"We want to be able to negotiate but we won't be able to negotiate if they are attacking our legitimacy in every international court. We're not going to negotiate under fire and it's a mistake for the Palestinians to think that we would," Oren said.
The Israeli government is publicly supporting the creation of a Palestinian state, the Palestinian economy is growing steadily, and Israel is cooperating logistically every day with Palestinian security forces, Oren said, but that could all be lost.
"The Palestinians have achieved a tremendous amount over the last 18 years and all of that could be at risk," Oren said. "The Palestinians risk all that has been achieved if they go forward with this ... and that would be a great tragedy."
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
This week's toppling of the Qaddafi regime in Libya shows that the Obama administration's multilateral and light-footprint approach to regime change is more effective than the troop-heavy occupation-style approach used by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, a top White House official told Foreign Policy today in a wide-ranging interview.
"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with FP. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."
Despite criticism from Congress and elsewhere, President Barack Obama's strategy for the military intervention in Libya will not only result in a better outcome in Libya but also will form the basis of Obama's preferred model for any future military interventions, Rhodes said.
"There are two principles that the president stressed at the outset [of the Libya intervention] that have borne out in our approach. The first is that we believe that it's far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers," said Rhodes. "Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. wasn't bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions."
Rhodes said that the United States is not going to be able to replicate the exact same approach to intervention in other countries, but identified the two core principles of relying on indigenous forces and burden sharing as "characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention."
Rhodes also weighed in on several other aspects of the Libya saga:
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford went on another trip outside Damascus to view the anti-government protests on Tuesday, this time in direct violation of travel restrictions placed on him by the Assad regime.
"Ambassador Ford went down to Jassem, which is about 70 kilometers south of Damascus, to see for himself what was up there," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's press briefing. "This has been another town that has been engaged in peaceful protest. He was there for about four hours. He had a chance there to talk to a number of Syrians, including those in the opposition, and then he drove back to Damascus."
Sounds like a nice little trip: another example of Ford's commitment to justify his continued presence in Damascus -- against the opposition of many congressmen and foreign policy pundits -- and a useful means of engaging with the Syrian opposition.
But after Ford's trip to the city of Hama last month to observe the unrest there, the Syrian government slapped travel restrictions on the U.S. envoy and his team, barring them from leaving Damascus. The State Department in turn retaliated with similar restrictions barring Syrian diplomats from leaving the Washington area.
Of course, Ford could have requested permission to leave Damascus, but instead he chose to tell the Syrian government about his trip only after he returned to the U.S. embassy.
"In this case, he informed the Syrian Foreign Ministry after the visit, and he made clear to them that the reason that he didn't inform them before the visit was because they haven't been approving any visits by anybody, anywhere," Nuland said. She explained that Ford had requested permission three times over the last six weeks to go to the city of Aleppo, but was denied in all three cases.
"So is he trying to get expelled from the country?" one member of the State Department press corps asked Nuland.
"He is trying to do his job, which is to be able to maintain broad contacts with a broad cross section of Syrians and to make sure that they know where the United States stands," she responded. She added that Ford had received the support of State Department leadership in advance of the trip.
Meanwhile, Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha, who has been neglecting his blog lately, has returned to Washington after spending some time back home. Moustapha is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly using Syrian embassy resources to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington with the aim of intimidating them and threatening their families back in Syria.
How would the State Department feel if Moustapha just ignored the U.S. government and began hopping around the United States without permission? Nuland said that he would be granted permission if he requested to travel somewhere, and that some Syrian officials had recently been granted permission to travel to California.
After the briefing, a State Department official held a little gaggle with reporters on a background basis, as is the post-briefing custom. One reporter pressed the official to acknowledge that, if the tables had been turned and a foreign ambassador didn't follow rules laid out by the U.S. government, he would be expelled.
All the official would say is, "In this case, after he was turned down three times, we just felt he needed to do his job."
Ford's expulsion from Damascus would actually solve a tricky problem for the State Department, which is facing a tough confirmation fight for him this fall. Ford was sent to Damascus last year under a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year. The only way for Ford to stay in Damascus longer than that is for the Senate to confirm him.
Though Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) reversed himself and now supports keeping Ford in place as ambassador, there are still multiple GOP senators who have no intention of letting Ford's nomination get through the Senate.
Given these dynamics, Ford's unauthorized visit to Jassem represents a win-win scenario for the State Department. On the one hand, it bolsters the State Department's case that Ford is a crucial link to the Syrian revolution. And if he gets thrown out of Syria, State can avoid a messy confirmation fight they are almost sure to lose.
The Bahraini government and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) will not hold what would have been the 8th annual Manama Security Dialogue this year because of the social upheaval and subsequent government crackdown in the country.
"We have decided not to convene the Manama Dialogue in December 2011," IISS CEO and President John Chipman told The Cable. "Instead, we have decided to hold two ‘Sherpa Meetings', one in January 2012, one in May 2012, involving high level officials from all the states that normally participate in the Manama Dialogue, to prepare for the intended resumption of the Manama Dialogue summit in December 2012."
The Manama Dialogue is the region's largest annual meeting of influential national security officials and experts. Chipman said that the Sherpa meetings are meant "to sustain the momentum" of the dialogue, as well as to build support for high-level government participation for the event in December 2012.
IISS notified government officials about the change in an information note last month.
"These Sherpa meetings will involve senior government officials from those states who normally participate in the Manama Dialogue," reads a note on the Sherpa meetings provided to The Cable by IISS. There will be about 65 officials from 20 countries at each meeting, which will be off the record and held at IISS's Manama office.
The most recent Manama Dialogue featured attendance by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, and your humble Cable guy. It's the Middle East counterpart to IISS's annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which we also attended.
The Manama Dialogue is not the only international event in Bahrain that has been delayed this year for political reasons. The Bahrain Grand Prix Formula 1 racing event was postponed from March 2011 to October and then cancelled outright. The next F1 racing event in Bahrain is scheduled for November 2012.
President Barack Obama said yesterday that he wants to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down from office, and promised to implement more sanctions on the Syrian regime. But conservatives in Washington have several additional ideas for how to up the pressure on Assad.
Thirty-two mostly conservative national security experts wrote a letter to Obama today on the letterhead of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies commending him for calling on Assad to step down and urging him to quickly ramp up the pressure on his regime. "We are concerned... that unless urgent actions are taken by the United States and its allies, the Assad regime's use of force against the Syrian people will only increase and the already significant death toll will mount," the letter said.
The signatories want Obama to push hard for multilateral energy sector sanctions and to advocate for the passage of new Syria sanctions legislation, which was introduced in Congress earlier this month. They also think the administration should encourage Germany, Italy, and France to stop buying Syrian oil, forcefully urge energy trading firms from Switzerland, Holland, and elsewhere to stop selling Syria refined petroleum products, and sanction any person involved in Syrian pipeline construction, including insurance firms, shipping companies, financing entities, and ports managers.
They also want harsher sanctions on Syria's central bank, punishment for anybody who buys Syrian debt, additional U.N. sanctions based on Syria's record of weapons and nuclear proliferation, and the recalling of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford.
The letter reminded the president that the fall of the Assad regime would not only be a boon for the Syrian people, but also have "game-changing implications" for the balance of power in the Middle East. "It would deny Iran the use of its major ally as a proxy for terrorism, stem the flow of Syrian arms to Hezbollah, reduce instability in Lebanon, and lessen tensions on Israel's northern border," the signatories wrote.
The group commended Obama's new executive order that requires the immediate freeze of all Syrian government assets that fall under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibits U.S. citizens from doing any business with the Syrian government. The new sanctions also ban the import of Syrian petroleum products into the United States, and ban Americans from doing business with Syrian petroleum companies.
The signers include former NSC Middle East official Elliott Abrams, the Council on Foreign Relations' Max Boot, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, AEI's Fred Kagan, the Brookings Institution's Bob Kagan, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, former CIA Director James Woolsey, top GOP consultant Randy Scheunemann, and former NSC official Jamie Fly, now executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.
The calls for Ford's recall have been echoed in both the House and Senate. House Foreign Relations Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) yesterday praised the administration's move but reiterated her call for Ford for come back to Washington.
Several nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have recalled their ambassadors from Damascus but the Obama administration argues that Ford's activities on the ground, including a recent visit to protests in Hama, are helping the opposition. Ros-Lehtinen disagrees.
"It is also important that the administration take the next step in ending its engagement policy and reverse its mistake of sending a U.S. ambassador to Syria," she said in a statement. "The continued presence of an ambassador in Damascus sends a mixed message to the Syrian regime and gives legitimacy to Assad and his cronies."
Full text of the letter after the jump:
As the Obama administration tightened sanctions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Congress is warming to the idea of confirming U.S. envoy to Damascus Robert Ford.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) came out this morning in support of the confirmation of Ford, who was sent to Damascus via a recess appointment last year. Several senators, including Lieberman, objected at the time to the United States sending an ambassador to Damascus, arguing that it would amount to a reward for Syrian bad behavior. Now, just as several countries, including Saudi Arabia, are pulling out their ambassadors, Lieberman is arguing that Ford must stay.
"This time, I believe the Senate should quickly vote to confirm Mr. Ford as our top diplomat in Damascus," Lieberman wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday. "While the Obama administration originally envisioned Amb. Ford's primary purpose as engagement with the Syrian regime, that is no longer the case. Rather than being an envoy to Assad, Mr. Ford is now first and foremost our ambassador to the Syrian people and a bridge to the democratic transition they demand."
Lieberman's about face, which was largely due to Ford's trip to the restive city of Hama last month to observe the anti-regime protests there, removes one obstacle to his confirmation. Other senators who were opposed to confirming him in the past include Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL). Neither Kyl nor Kirk has said whether they will continue to oppose Ford's nomination this time around.
Some on Capitol Hill don't like the optics of the United States confirming an ambassador to Syria while other countries withdraw their envoys as a means of registering their opposition to Assad's crackdown, which has increased in brutality over the past 10 days.
"Senator Lieberman is one of the great national security leaders of this generation, and Robert Ford is a skilled diplomat, but it makes no sense to have an American ambassador in Damascus now," one senior GOP congressional aide told The Cable. "It's a sad day when the Saudi king has greater moral clarity than the president of the United States."
Regardless, the gap between the Obama administration's stance on Syria and Congress's demands for action is narrowing. Administration officials have been hinting that the White House will officially call for Assad to step down this week, perhaps on Thursday, signaling the end of the administration's two-year effort to engage the Syrian government.
The State Department was also heavily invested in the visit to Syria yesterday of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, even sending Fred Hof to Ankara coordinate pressures and messaging with the Turks. The Davutoglu visit doesn't seem to have given protesters a respite from the Syrian regime's crackdown, though: Troops loyal to Assad reportedly killed at least 35 people today.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland previewed the administration's coming change in rhetoric at Tuesday's briefing. "In the case of Syria, the message from 2009 was, if you are prepared to open Syria politically, if you are prepared to be a reformer, if you are prepared to work with us on Middle East peace and other issues we share, we can have a new and different kind of partnership," she said. "And that is not the path that Assad chose."
Today, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, and Syriatel, the largest mobile phone operator in Syria.
"By exposing Syria's largest commercial bank as an agent for designated Syrian and North Korean proliferators, and by targeting Syria's largest mobile phone operator for being controlled by one of the regime's most corrupt insiders, we are taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to Assad and his regime's illicit activities," Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement.
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration action is in part a recognition of the facts on the ground in Syria and in part an attempt to stay ahead of Congress, which is preparing to move forward with a new Syria sanctions bill when congressmen return to work in September.
The bill, authored by Lieberman, Kirk, and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would authorize President Barack Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.
Whether or not Ford gets confirmed will be a key test of whether Congress can get on board with the administration's approach.
"We need to have someone who is meeting with the opposition and people who want to interact with the U.S. in the future," said Tabler. "Unfortunately in this town, its either peace process or isolation. We need a more creative policy."
As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, lawmakers and activists are stepping up their efforts to convince the White House to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power.
The U.N. Security Council issued a presidential statement on Wednesday afternoon condemning the violence in Syria and calling for those responsible for human rights violation to be held accountable. The statement did not call for an international investigation into the crimes, as some members had wanted, and does not carry the force of a Security Council resolution, which was ultimately unattainable.
"It is clear that President al-Assad is not committed to pursuing the reforms that would meet these goals. As such, the United States and the international community must hold the regime accountable, and pressure them to change course," 68 U.S. senators wrote in a new letter to President Barack Obama today. "Implementing additional sanctions would show the Syrian people that we stand with them in their struggle for human rights and a more representative government, while also making it clear to the Syrian regime that it will pay an increasing cost for its outrageous repression."
The senators are calling on the administration to prohibit U.S. businesses from operating or investing in Syria, impose stringent sanctions on Syria's banking sector, restrict the travel of Syrian diplomats within the United States, and block property transactions in which the Syrian government has an interest. In addition, the senators are calling on Obama to engage with European allies on ending purchases of Syrian oil, and cutting off investments in Syria's oil and gas sectors.
The letter comes only one day after Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced a bill that would authorize Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.
Obama's Syria team, which is centered at the State Department, has been increasing its rhetoric and activity against the Assad regime, having now made the internal calculation that Assad will have to leave sooner or later. "We've definitely been very clear that we don't see Assad in Syria's future," a senior administration official told Foreign Policy this week.
Another administration official who does not work directly on sanctions predicted that new designations of Syrian officials for targeted sanctions could be coming in "days, not weeks." Still that movement is not enough for the administration's critics.
"I don't understand their Syria policy," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a SFRC member who is calling for a tougher administration stance. "I wish there was a little more clarity on it, I'm sorry there isn't."
Other observers beg to differ. "The administration has been criticized as muddled, I think this is no longer the case," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Now the idea has crystallized inside the administration that the Assad regime is on its way out and all options are on the table, short of military action."
At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said that, additional U.S. unilateral sanctions "probably aren't going to have that big of an impact," because "the big companies working in the energy sector in Syria are from Europe or Syria's neighbors."
But the administration isn't opposed to the new congressional legislation, Tabler said. Ford was simply acknowledging the fact that the United States doesn't have much leverage in Syria and therefore must work through other countries to increase pressure on Assad.
"[T]he point that Ford was trying to make was that in order to get the change on the ground, you have to get the European countries to join in," Tabler said. "The question is whether this congressional action will lead to more European action or not."
"It's foreign companies, in particular those based in the EU, that the U.S. needs to persuade to pull out of Syria. Ford is absolutely right about that," said a senior Senate aide who works on Syria. "In fact, that's precisely why the congressional sanctions introduced yesterday don't target U.S. companies. They target the foreign energy companies that are doing business with Syria."
Regardless, the administration still has yet to issue an outright call for Assad to step down now, as it did with Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Qaddafi. That's one of the main requests of Syrian opposition activists, several of whom met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department on Tuesday. They want Obama to be more public in his support of the Syrian opposition.
"The president had remarks on Egypt and Libya, but no speech on Syria," said Radwan Ziadeh, a George Washington University professor who was part of the group. "Also we need the United States to lead international action on Syria at the United Nations Security Council level."
Ziadeh said that Clinton promised to throw her support behind the condemnation of Syria just passed at the United Nations, but did not pledge that the administration would do the other things the activists are requesting, including leading a drive for Syrian officials to be charged with war crimes at the International Criminal Court.
The one hour meeting was also attended by Syria activists Marah Bukai and Mohammad Alabdalla, as well as Ford, Special Advisor Fred Hof, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tamara Wittes, and a deputy of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner.
The activists had been requesting a meeting with Clinton for over a month, Ziadeh said. They have seen greater senior administration attention on Syria in recent days, which they view as positive, but are waiting for that attention to be translated into a more bold and public stance, he noted.
"She said that they want a transition in Syria to start as soon as possible," said Ziadeh. "It's important to see how much Secretary Clinton is personally involved. But now we need to push the White House to have a speech by President Obama very soon."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the single senator that attended his confirmation hearing today that while the administration's sanctions on the Syrian regime are working, newly proposed congressional sanctions probably won't do much good.
Ford, who was sent to Damascus under a recess appointment because he could not be confirmed last year, was back in Washington for one more confirmation push before his recess appointment expires on Dec. 31. The U.S. envoy was expected to face harsh criticism from a number of GOP senators who believe the Obama administration has not been tough enough on regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But after the debt ceiling vote was done, most lawmakers patted themselves on the back and immediately skipped town. Only Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) was left by the time Ford's hearing begun.
Ford played it cautiously for most of Casey's questioning, repeating administration calls for a transition to democratic rule in Syria, condemning the brutality of the regime against its people, and praising the Syrian opposition while being clear-eyed about the challenges that the opposition faces.
"It's a diverse group, they're not very well organized. That's not surprising," Ford testified, explaining that he meets with opposition representatives constantly. "It's important for the Syrian opposition to develop their ideas, Syrian ideas, for their democratic transition."
Ford also joined the meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Syrian activists earlier today at the State Department.
"It's really important now to give these Syrians an ear and to amplify their voices," he said at the hearing. "My job is to help establish the space for Syrian activists ... to develop and organize the political transition that must occur if Syria is to be stable again."
When asked about the prospect of new congressional sanctions, Ford indicated that the bill introduced today by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), might not be the best way to put pressure on the Assad regime. Their bill would authorize President Barack Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.
"Unilaterally, additional American measures probably aren't going to have that big of an impact," said Ford. "The big companies working in the energy sector in Syria are from Europe or Syria's neighbors."
"We would look to find ways to with our partners to enhance our [existing] sanctions," he added, adding that those discussions are underway. "The challenge is getting targeting that works and really has an impact."
However, Ford did make a point to emphasize that the administration's Syria sanctions, which have designated several Syrian regime officials as targets for asset freezes, are effective. More such designations are expected in the coming days.
"The [administration's] sanctions do bite. We do see more business people slowly shifting sides, and that's important," he said. "So we do think sanctions are having an impact."
Clearly, the senators who sponsored the bill disagree with Ford's assessment that additional sanctions will not have an impact.
"The United States should impose crippling sanctions in response to the murder of civilians by troops under the orders of Syrian President Assad," Kirk said in a release. "The Arab Spring will sweep away this dictatorship, hopefully with the help of American sanctions similar to those leveled against the Iranian regime."
Kirk and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) have been among the most critical senators of the administration's approach to Syria. Both argue that Ford's presence there represents an unwise concession to the government. The Cable caught up with Kyl in the Senate hallways on Tuesday and asked him if he will try to thwart Ford's nomination.
"I don't have any plans with regard to his nomination," Kyl said.
We predicted that the senators on the committee might not show up for the hearing, so we caught some SFRC members earlier in the day to see where they stood on the administration's strategy of slowly but surely increasing pressure on the Assad regime.
"I think we do should everything we can to ratchet up our pressure on Syria," said SFRC member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). "The administration has made a series of good movements seeking to tighten the noose economically and anything we can do to enhance that will have my support."
"I don't understand their Syria policy," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a SFRC member who is calling for a tougher administration stance. "I wish there was a little more clarity on it, I'm sorry there isn't."
At the hearing, Casey praised Ford and recounted reports of the Syrian authorities torturing children. He said that Assad "must step down" and that more can be done to pressure Syria in international bodies.
"Ambassador Ford's recent trip to Hama was a testament to his commitment to represent the values of the United States," Casey said.
Ford speculated that the members of the U.N. Security Council were now more ready than before to take action on Syria. He also said that while Hezbollah continues to support the Syrian government, the group has been silent recently due to the anger their pro-Assad statements aroused among the Syrian people.
On the core issue of whether Assad should go, Ford stuck with the administration's position that Assad has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people, but stopped short of calling for him to step down now.
"Our conclusion is that this regime is unwilling or unable to lead the democratic transition the Syrian people are demanding," he said. "And there's really no difference between unwilling or unable as far as we're concerned."
Before Ford's hearing, half a dozen senators showed up for the confirmation hearings of two more sitting ambassadors who have to go through the process again because they received recess appointments: Ambassador to Turkey Frank Ricciardone and Ambassador to the Czech Republic Norm Eisen.
Wednesday's scheduled hearing for Wendy Sherman to become undersecretary of State for political affairs was outright cancelled because no senators were going to be there.
Ricciardone no longer has to worry about the complaints of now-retired Sen. Sam Brownback, but he still faces potential opposition from Kirk and Menendez. Kirk doesn't want the administration to make a missile defense deal with Turkey and Menendez wants the administration to refer to the destruction of the Armenian population during and after World War I as "genocide."
Eisen, who left his post as White House ethics czar in August 2010, was held up last year by Finance Committee ranking Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) over alleged actions and misrepresentations related to the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Eisen said that representing the United States in the Czech Republic had special meaning for him, because his mother was born there but was forced to flee due to Nazi persecution. Lieberman, who is not on the committee, showed up to introduce Eisen and commended those in attendance for not being part of the "the herd of senators who fled town after the vote."
DOHA, Qatar - As Bashar al-Assad's shock troops storm cities and towns across Syria, leaving a death toll in the triple digits that has only stoked the fires of rebellion even hotter, Barack Obama's administration is stepping up measures aimed at fatally weakening the Syrian dictator's regime.
Critics of the U.S. president's policy, particularly on the right, have long charged his administration with being soft on Assad. But the United States is now unequivocally committed to his ouster, having lost whatever little faith it had in the Syrian leader's willingness to reform. "He is illegitimate," a senior administration official says flatly. "We've definitely been very clear that we don't see Assad in Syria's future."
To that end, the administration is working closely with its European allies and Turkey, seeking to steadily ratchet up the pressure on a regime that analysts, including within the government, increasingly see as doomed. "All of the factors that keep the regime in power are trending downward," the senior official says, pointing to a swiftly collapsing economy and worsening "cohesion" within the regime. "Assad is in on every decision, without a doubt, but as time goes on there's more infighting."
Read the rest here.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is set to mark up a fiscal 2012 State Department and foreign assistance authorization bill July 20, which proposes sweeping changes to the security assistance provided to several governments that have rocky relationships with the United States.
The draft version of the bill, obtained by The Cable, would prevent the allocation of any funds that fall under the State Department's jurisdiction to the government of Pakistan until the administration can reassure Congress that Pakistan is assisting with the investigation into who helped hide Osama bin Laden, a step that will include making bin Laden's relatives available to the U.S. government. Islamabad must also demonstrate that it is not holding up visas for U.S. personnel who are set to go to Pakistan and not diverting U.S.-provided weapons for purposes other than fighting terrorists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
That would effectively defund the Kerry-Lugar aid program, which allocated $1.5 billion in fiscal 2012 and another $400 million in foreign military financing. $800 million in U.S. aid was also suspended earlier this month -- but those funds came from the Pentagon's coffers, not the State Department.
The bill would also prohibit the use of any State Department funding to assist the government of Lebanon until the White House certifies to Congress that no member of Hezbollah or any other terrorist group serves in a policy position in the Lebanese government -- a step that would currently be impossible, because Hezbollah is a major coalition partner in the current government. The Obama administration would also need to certify that Lebanon's security services are free from Hezbollah members, that all Lebanese government ministries are financially transparent, and that the Lebanese government is dismantling all foreign terrorist organizations, which includes Hezbollah
In other words, no foreign military financing or international military education and training (IMET) funding for Lebanon would be permitted if this bill, authored by HFAC Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), were to become law.
Similar restrictions on funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA) make it equally unlikely that any State Department assistance to the Palestinian Authority would be allowed. The bill would condition the aid on the president certifying that the PA is doing several things, including that they have "halted all anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian Authority-controlled electronic and print media and in schools, mosques, and other institutions it controls, and is replacing these materials, including textbooks, with materials that promote tolerance, peace, and coexistence with Israel."
Funding for Yemen would also face a series of difficult restrictions, including the stipulation that the president must certify that the Yemeni government "is not complicit in human rights abuses." Hundreds of protesters have been killed since the 5-month old uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is still recovering in Saudi Arabia.
Ros-Lehtinen's bill doesn't stop at restricting foreign assistance to countries that have fraught relations with the United States. The bill would also set into law that it "shall be the policy of the United States to uphold and act in accordance with all of the reassurances provided by the President in an April 14, 2004, letter to the Prime Minister of Israel."
That's a direct swipe at Obama's May 19 declaration that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations should be based on 1967 borders with agreed swaps. The bill would also require the State Department to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
On China, Ros-Lehtinen's bill would call for a U.S. consulate in Tibet and a Tibet interest section in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. It would also eliminate the East-West Center in Hawaii, a think tank studying U.S.-China relations, and prohibit funding for the U.S.-China Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security that the two countries agreed to establish in January.
The bill also includes language on reinstating the "Mexico City Gag Rule," which would prevent funding for any non-governmental organization that discusses abortion. Republican members of HFAC are also expected to introduce amendments on everything from the United Nations to Libya.
Of course, the bill could change before Wednesday's markup. In fact, this is only the latest of several drafts that have been provided to The Cable over the last couple of weeks. We're told that this draft is close to what the final version that will be presented to the committee.
But that doesn't mean the bill will become law any time soon. Assuming the House leadership gives the bill floor time, it would still have to be reconciled with a version being drafted by the Senate. And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by John Kerry (D-MA), isn't about to put forward a bill that contains such dramatic limits on the Obama administration's foreign policy.
HFAC staffers insist that they want to devise a strategy for their bill to become law by working with the Senate.
The last time a State Department authorization bill actually became law was 2005, although the House did pass one in 2009. Regardless, insiders see the bill as guidance for House appropriators, who plan to mark up the State Department and foreign assistance appropriations bill July 27. That bill could actually become law if Congress ever resolves the current budget crisis and tackles government funding levels for next year.
For those readers out there who aren't budget geeks, the authorization bill simply sets out policy and is not binding when it comes to dollar amounts. The appropriations bill sets funding, and as such actually places money in the State Department's coffers.
The top Republican and Democrat foreign aid leaders in the House of Representatives are warning the Palestinian Authority (PA) that U.S. aid will be withheld if the Palestinians seek recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September.
"We write to reiterate our serious concerns about your intentions to pursue recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations," reads a July 11 letter sent to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas by the leaders of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), obtained by The Cable.
"It has been the longstanding belief of the United States government that the path to a true and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis will come only as a result of direct negotiations. We write to reaffirm that belief and warn of the severe consequences of abandoning it."
The Obama administration has been clear that it doesn't support the Palestinian plan to seek a vote on statehood at the United Nations in September, but it so far hasn't spelled out any consequences for the Palestinians if they should choose to do so. Congress, on the other hand, is doing a lot to make those consequences known. On July 7, the House passed a resolution opposing the statehood plan by a 407-6 vote. The Senate passed the same resolution unanimously.
In May, 29 senators promised to cut off all U.S. assistance to the PA if it formed a unity government with Hamas. The United States gave the PA about $550 million in aid in fiscal 2011, a mixture of project funding and direct cash to the government.
The head of the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, told The Cable in May that the plan to seek recognition at the United Nations was not final and could be scuttled if negotiations resume. He also said that the unity government would not change its policies regarding the peace process at least until Palestinian legislative and presidential elections, which are tentatively scheduled for May 2012.
The House plans to mark up its fiscal 2012 appropriations bill on July 27, and several foreign aid accounts are under scrutiny. And following the apparently fruitless meeting this week of the Quartet members here in Washington, the path back to direct negotiations remains unclear -- a fact that will only further endanger U.S. assistance to the PA.
Already, Congress has been taking a harder look at funding for the Palestinian territories. Multiple Hill sources said that a recent routine request for program funding for USAID staffers vetting Palestinian aid projects was held up by the House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) for weeks before finally getting approval.
"American assistance has always been predicated upon Palestinian leaders' commitment to resolve all outstanding issues through direct negotiations," the congresswomen wrote. "Current and future aid will be jeopardized if you abandon direct negotiations and continue your current efforts."
GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty will deliver a major address on foreign policy on Tuesday in what his top aides are billing as a rebuttal to what they see as President Barack Obama's flawed May 19 speech on the Middle East.
All the Republican presidential candidates are being forced to sharpen their foreign policy chops as the primary race heats up, but Pawlenty has been vocal on several key foreign policy issues for some time. His campaign may for now be light on foreign policy infrastructure, but it's heavy on policy positions and ideas, several of which he plans to lay out tomorrow morning when he addresses the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
"There's a frustration the governor feels with President Obama, that there's no strategic coherence to his foreign policy. Whether it's the Arab Spring, the Middle East peace process, Iran, or Syria there's an ad hoc approach to what they're doing. And the learning curve never seems to get flatter," Pawlenty's senior foreign policy advisor Brian Hook told The Cable.
"The governor's speech will set forth a strategically coherent approach to the Middle East and he will discuss a better way forward in the Middle East peace process."
Pawlenty will lay out a set of principles that the United States should adhere to in the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Pawlenty will also put forth his own views tomorrow for how the United States should respond to the Arab Spring. He will divide the countries of the region into categories -- those that are struggling for democracy, entrenched monarchies, anti-U.S. regimes such as Syria and Iran, and Israel. He will then argue that there's no one-size-fits-all solution for the problems plaguing the Middle East.
Hook, a former assistant secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, also worked as an advisor to two U.S. ambassadors: Zalmay Kalizad and John Bolton. He emphasizes that on foreign policy, Pawlenty is a "Reagan Republican" when it comes to the broad strokes.
On specific issues such as the president's approach to Israel, U.S. policy toward Iran, or U.S.-Russia relations, Pawlenty often shares the views of leading GOP hawks in the Senate such as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). But Pawlenty doesn't want to be identified as a neoconservative, and doesn't want his views to be tied to those senators in particular.
"I wish you could think of another way to describe this wing of the party, other than McCain and Lindsey Graham. I love John, but that's like saying we're embracing Nelson Rockefeller on economics," Pawlenty joked during his interview with Bloomberg News.
The other major foreign policy voice so far in Pawlenty's campaign is former Minnesota congressman and campaign co-chair Vin Weber, who was a member of the neoconservative group Project for a New American Century and an early supporter of the invasion of Iraq
But Hook said Pawlenty's foreign policy identity is his own.
"Governor Pawlenty believes in an exceptional America. He believes that a President must provide strong and decisive leadership to the forces of democracy, and President Obama has repeatedly failed at this basic task," he said.
Pawlenty mostly sticks to that forward-leaning approach, particularly in regard to Obama's intervention in Libya, a topic that he will also address on Tuesday. Pawlenty was among the first to call for a no-fly zone over Libya and for Muammar al-Qaddafi to go, but he's not satisfied with the way the Obama administration has handled the war.
"A quick, decisive decision by Obama in days, not weeks, to impose a no-fly zone would have given us a very different result. But once the president of the United States says that Qaddafi must go, you just can't let him sit there indefinitely and thumb his nose at us. He's a third-rate dictator who has American blood on his hands," he said.
Pawlenty's staff is aware that there is a fractious internal debate going on inside the GOP on foreign policy. The influx of Tea Party candidates in Congress has conflated foreign policy with calls to slash the budget, and candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are now questioning the continued commitment to Afghanistan. But Pawlenty is unmoved by the politics of the moment.
"Some foreign policy positions are not politically popular today, but the governor bases his decisions on principle and American values -- not what the polls say this week or next," Hook said.
Ever get the feeling that the Obama administration abuses the use of anonymity when offering up "senior administration officials" to speak about policy on "background?"
Yeah, so do we.
The Obama team routinely gives briefings and interviews on the condition that the briefer not be identified by name, but only with a vague reference to the fact that they work for the administration. The reporters on the call know who the briefer is, but for the purposes of publication, only a vague description of the person can be used.
Traditionally, anonymity was granted by news organizations to officials so they would be free to talk about sensitive matters without fear of retribution or so officials could go beyond the talking points to say things that were true but impolitic.
But these days, "background" briefings are the rule, not the exception, and the demand for anonymity is sometimes so unnecessary and so silly that simply reading the transcript can demonstrate the futility of the exercise.
Such was the case with yesterday's State Department background briefing with a "senior administration official" regarding U.S. policy in the Middle East.
"We're very fortunate to have with us today [Senior Administration Official], who's been traveling in the region, and we thought it would be helpful to give you all just an update on his travels, his trips, his meetings, and an update on U.S. efforts to advance Middle East peace," Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said to begin the call. "So without further ado, I will hand it over to [Senior Administration Official], but just - I'm sorry, just one - briefly before I do that, for the attribution on this, he should be henceforth known as senior administration official. This call is on background."
The "senior administration official" went on to describe his trip around the Middle East with NSC Senior Director Dennis Ross and his meetings with officials and special envoy throughout the region.
"Last week, Dennis Ross from the Washington and I followed up and met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his advisors, and then I stayed on in the region and I've met with President Abbas, with the lead negotiator Saeb Erekat, Nabil Abu Rudaina, and others on the Palestinian side, and I've also met with the Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby this afternoon, the head of the Egyptian intelligence service General Mawafi, and I have other meetings later today at the Arab League," the official said.
Toner and the "senior administration official" must have realized that in several State Department briefings, spokesmen have talked about how Dennis Ross and Acting Special Envoy David Hale were traveling in the region. In one briefing, Spokesperson Victoria Nuland actually listed the specific meetings that Hale was conducting, which magically match the meetings of the "senior administration official" on the call.
Several readers wrote to The Cable to remark that the State Department was comically failing to protect the identity of its "senior administration official," despite the fact no one really thought there was any risk in identifying him by name in the first place.
So what was the sensitive information that this "senior administration official" gave on the call that just couldn't be put to his name?
"Well, I don't want to get into the specifics of our diplomatic exchanges, particularly since we're smack in the middle of a trip and with the effort," the official said in a response to a question about what he was telling the parties.
"Obviously, the reconciliation issue is a significant one. It raises profound questions that the president himself has mentioned in his speech," the official said in response to a question about how to deal with a unity government that includes Hamas. "We'll need to face those questions."
Talking about President Obama's big Middle East Speech, the official said, "Well, I think the speech is powerful in and of itself and, I mean, this was a game-changing, historic development by our president. At this stage, I think I really can't address questions related to what we might do in the future with it."
Good thing none of that was on the record!
As U.S. contributions to the United Nations and its participation in the controversial Human Rights Council (HRC) are under attack in the Congress, a top State Department official said on Wednesday that U.S. engagement at the HRC has been effective and benefited Israel.
"U.N. bodies, including the Human Rights Council, have improved as the result of direct U.S. engagement. If we cede ground, if our engagement in the U.N. system is restricted -- these bodies likely would be dominated by our adversaries," said Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Prior to the U.S. decision to join the HRC in 2009, Israel was singled out for six special sessions intended to single out Israeli actions for condemnation, there were too many unbalanced resolutions focused on Israel, and too little attention paid to the world's worst human rights situations, she said.
But now, Brimmer contended the situation was getting better: "The challenges continue at the Council, but the Council's improvement through U.S. engagement is undeniable."
She highlighted the council's decision on Wednesday to issue a statement calling on the Syrian government to allow access to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and referred to "daily reports of killings, arbitrary detention, and torture of men, women, and children."
Most of Brimmer's speech focused on what she called "the administration's far reaching efforts to normalize Israel's status in and across the U.N. and the broader multilateral system."
Brimmer also criticized congressional efforts to withhold U.S. funding for the United Nations, an effort led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
"The United States must maintain the strongest position it can at the U.N., and that means paying its bills on time and in full," she said. "How could we have won tough Security Council sanctions on Iran or North Korea if we were continuing to incur arrears?"
"How would it impact the president's commitment to a shared security with Israel?" Brimmer said. "These are risks we cannot afford to take. The United States cannot afford failed short-term tactics that have long-term implications for our security, and we must be a responsible global leader, and that means paying our bills."
As the Obama administration struggles to find common ground with the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership grapples with internal squabbles, one U.S. senator is proposing a host of ways to deepen cooperation between the United States and Israel.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) spent last week on what he calls "an intense fact-finding mission to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan," where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Jordan's King Abdullah II, and many others. In a soon-to-be-released report, obtained in advance by The Cable, he proposes a path forward for increased U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation and lays out his views on how Congress should deal with the thorniest issues of the U.S. approach to the Middle East.
Kirk is proposing an increased role for the Israeli Navy in global anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean in cooperation with India. He wants to vastly expand U.S.-Israeli cooperation on cyber security, beyond the suspected cooperation on the Stuxnet worm that has delayed Iran's uranium enrichment program. Kirk is also calling on the Joint Chiefs to review the possibility of adapting Israel's "Iron Dome" short-range missile defense system for use by the United States and NATO.
"We are stretched quite thin in the Indian Ocean and to have Israeli support will be critical in managing and reducing the pirate threat," Kirk said in a Tuesday interview with The Cable.
Regarding the stalled Middle East peace process, Kirk maintains that the United States should reaffirm President George W. Bush's 2004 letter on borders, which somewhat contradicts Obama's May 17 statement that borders should be based on 1967 lines with agreed swaps. Obama's new language for the first time made it official U.S. policy what had long been the Palestinian goal of using the 1967 lines as a basis for new borders.
Kirk's report also states that U.S. funding should not go to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, nor should the United States give aid to the Palestinian Authority if it seeks a unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations in September or fails to curb anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian schools.
"It just seems extraordinarily difficult in the middle of deficits and debt that we should borrow money from China to fund a Hamas-supported government," Kirk said. "We would still support Palestinian schools and hospitals, but the approximately $200 million in direct support to the PA would be in jeopardy."
Kirk also wants the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to start transferring its management of Palestinian health and education services over to the Palestinian government, and for the State Department to designate the Turkish aid organization IHH, which organized the flotilla of ships that tried to breach Israel's Gaza blockade in May 2010, as a terrorist organization.
On his trip, Kirk also met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Benjamin Gantz, Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo, senior advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister Ron Dermer, Israeli Navy commander in chief Vice Admiral Eliezer Marum, Israeli Ministry of Defense Political-Military Bureau Director Amos Gilead, Deputy Israeli Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya'alon, Israeli Prime Minister's Office spokesman Mark Regev, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Jerusalem Post Palestinian Affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh.
Human rights in Iran were also a big focus for Kirk on the trip. The senator made a video with Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident, in which Sharansky recited a list of dissidents who are currently imprisoned by the Iranian regime.
You can watch that video here:
One day after the Senate unveiled its wide ranging new Iran sanctions legislation and on the same day 10,000 AIPAC supporters are on the Hill, the Obama administration announced it would enforce penalties on seven companies doing business with Iran.
Outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg briefed the press on Tuesday on the administration's move to sanction seven companies under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), passed and signed into law last July. For those keeping count, that's a total of nine sanctioned firms since the law has been in place. The companies are: Petrochemical Commercial Company International (PCCI), UK and Iran; Royal Oyster Group, UAE; Speedy Ship, UAE, Iran; Tanker Pacific, Singapore; Ofer Brothers Group, Israel; Associated Shipbroking, Monaco; and Petroleos de Venezuela, sometimes known as PDVSA, in Venezuela.
All of the companies have been involved in the supply of refined petroleum products to Iran, Steinberg said.
"In its struggle to secure the resources it needs for its energy sector, Iran repeatedly has resorted to deceptive practices to evade sanctions... Today's actions add further pressure on Iran to comply with its international obligations," he said. "By imposing these sanctions, we're sending a clear message to companies around the world: Those who continue to irresponsibly support Iran's energy sector or help facilitate Iran's efforts to evade U.S. sanctions will face significant consequences."
Not all the companies were sanctioned in all the same way. For example, PDVSA will no longer have access to U.S. government contracts and U.S. Export-Import Bank financing and technology licenses, but the company can still sell oil to the United States and their subsidiaries are exempt from the sanctions.
Many in Congress are increasingly unhappy with the Obama administration for failing to enforce penalties on companies from countries who are not part of the sanctions team that do business with Iran. CISADA directs the administration to punish all these companies. Last October, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that identified 16 companies as having sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China.
But no Chinese companies have been sanctioned by the Obama administration to date for aiding Iran's energy sector.
"I worry that the Obama administration has given Chinese banks and companies a get out of jail free card when it comes to sanctions law and they should not," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) said Monday at the AIPAC conference.
Steinberg also noted that the administration has separately decided to impose sactions on 16 more foreign firms and individuals for their misbehavior on missile programs or WMD under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA), three of which are from China.
Initial reaction to the administration's Tuesday announcement was mixed, with some praise and some skepticism that the new sanctions won't go far enough to transform the intent of the legislation into results.
"This sanction is a good first step and shows the importance of deeds, not only words. This step should send ripples of fear throughout the energy sector that Iran sanctions will be enforced," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director and head of the Iran Energy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
But multiple Senate aides told The Cable that they would continue to press the administration to enforce energy industry sanctions against third-party countries such as China and Russia.
"The question is, how does this appear to the international community? Do they look at these sanctions and say that the Americans aren't serious about stopping what's going on in the market? Sadly, I think the answer is yes," said one senior GOP Senate aide.
"It's always good when they sanction somebody, but the devil is in the details."
In his 45-minute speech on the Middle East Thursday, President Obama spoke of his admiration for the wave of protests movements rocking the region, attempting to square U.S. interests with the democratic aspirations of an increasingly restive Arab street. He also announced several incremental shifts in U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps," the U.S. president said, referring to what are official known as the 1949 Armistice lines, "so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."
That's one step further the position outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Washington, when she called for such an outcome to be the product of negotiations: "We believe that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements."
Former Congressman Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable that Obama's announcement was a bold step toward Middle East peace that alters U.S. policy in a fundamental way.
"The president put on record today that America's position that the conflict should be resolved on ‘67 lines with agreed swaps," Wexler said. "By doing so, he has ensured that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state, and second, he has created a moment of truth for Prime Minister [Bibi] Netanyahu, President [Mahmoud] Abbas, and the Israeli and Palestinian peoples."
Wexler sees the move as a daring challenge to both Netanyahu and Abbas to restart the peace process based on the parameters Obama laid out in the speech, which included a clear rejection of Abbas's strategy of pursuing a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state at the U.N. General Assembly.
"No longer in earnest can Abbas call for a settlement freeze; no longer can Abbas say he pursuing a strategy at the U.N. to realize a Palestinian state," Wexler said. "Likewise, Netanyahu must determine whether or not he is willing to negotiate based on the 1967 lines with agreed territorial swaps and realize an outcome that brings 80 percent of Jewish Israelis who are today outside of the ‘67 lines within the internationally recognized borders of the state of Israel."
There was considerable debate inside the administration as to whether making such bold statements on the peace process was a good idea, but in the end, Obama made the call himself and did so because he thought such language was necessary to give credibility to his overall regional policy, according to Wexler.
"It certainly was a difficult decision, but ultimately the president determined that a call for reform in the Middle East and an American proscription for engagement with the Arab nations would seem hollow if [Obama] did not provide direction on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well," Wexler said.
There's also evidence that the decision went down to the wire. Obama was more than 25 minutes late to deliver his speech and White House aides told reporters the delay was due to last-minute edits. A text of the speech was emailed to reporters halfway through Obama's remarks, whereas usually the text is distributed as soon as a presidential speech begins.
The Israelis were surprised by the remarks as well. The Netanyahu government had been assured of no surprises in the speech, especially since Obama is set to meet with the prime minister in Washington Friday and address the policy conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, on Sunday. Obama's remarks were not only a surprise, but "not a very good one," one Israeli official said.
Netanyahu's office reacted immediately after the speech, writing on his official website:
Israel appreciates President Obama's commitment to peace. Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state. That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress.
Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines. Those commitments also ensure Israel's well-being as a Jewish state by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel. Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel, no territorial concession will bring peace.
Some of Israel's supporters saw the remarks as unhelpful.
"Mentioning the ‘67 borders in this way, at this time, is a major mistake that simply repeats the error made when the White House focused on settlements and drove the Palestinians to an untenable position from which they will not climb down," said Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC, now a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. "This strategic error is manifold, and undermines, not advances, the prospects for peace talks."
The other shift in Obama's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was that he called for the issues of territory and security to be dealt with first before issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees are tackled.
"Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians," Obama said. "Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table."
"The president outlined a process in which Israel's security will be guaranteed, its Jewishness will be without question, and the withdrawal of Israeli security forces will be phased and conditioned on the behavior of the Palestinians. If the Palestinians do not perform, the Israelis won't have to withdraw from security points," said Wexler. "Today, the president made that the official U.S. position."
Block argued that while it's true Obama's scheme does acknowledge that Israel should retain control over large parts of the West Bank, to push this idea now, just as the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are forming a unity government, is unwise.
Obama addressed that issue in his speech by saying, "Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist."
"There's no good answer to the question of what to do about Hamas," said Wexler. "But Obama put the onus on the Palestinians to provide an answer."
The Obama administration has been furiously advancing its regional diplomatic efforts on a wide range of issues in the run-up to the Middle East speech that President Barack Obama will deliver at the State Department on Thursday.
Top administration officials have been meeting with Arab leaders, preparing new announcements on aid to the region, finalizing sanctions on bad actors, and closely coordinating the president's message in the last few days. Obama's mission is a tough one -- to clarify a consistent U.S. approach to the region despite his administration's varied responses to the uprisings that have occurred throughout the region this year. And there's a lot on his plate.
"Specifically, a successful speech will need to align America with the most positive aspects of Arab rebellions against autocracy; reflect a balance between the hope and fear triggered in equal parts by seismic political change; signal American support for a process of democratic choice without suggesting indifference to the outcome of free and fair elections; project both disapproval and understanding -- but not endorsement -- toward those U.S. friends, especially in the Gulf, who refuse reform and repress its advocates; and explain why the maniacal dictator in Libya merits NATO bombing while the capo di tutti capi in Damascus does not even merit specific personal opprobrium for his outrageous behavior," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The administration ratcheted up its response to Damascus today, announcing that the United States will expand sanctions to include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses over their brutal crackdown on anti-government protests. The administration sanctioned some Syrian officials last month, but this is the first time Assad himself is the target of such measures.
On Monday, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Jordan's King Abdullah in Washington in a potential preview of the speech's message on Middle East peace. "We both share the view that despite the many changes, or perhaps because of the many changes, it's more vital than ever that the Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table," Obama said after the meeting.
The speech is not expected to delve into the details of any plan to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a process that ended formally with the resignation of Special Envoy George Mitchell, but the administration has also been in close contact with the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to coordinate messaging. Netanyahu will meet with Obama on Friday in Washington, and will also deliver a speech to Congress on May 24.
Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg is in Israel and the West Bank today, meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Steinberg will participate in the U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue on Thursday, which will firm up progress on U.S.-Israel security cooperation.
Steinberg was in Bahrain on Tuesday, along with Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, reinforcing the explicitly different tone the administration has taken with that regime, which is also implicated in human rights abuses against protesters.
"During his meetings, Deputy Secretary Steinberg affirmed the long-standing commitment of the U.S. to a strong partnership with both the people and the Government of Bahrain and stressed the importance of full respect for universal human rights," the State Department said in a read out. "He urged all parties to pursue a path of reconciliation and comprehensive political dialogue."
Meanwhile, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has been busily firming up the administration's stance on Yemen, where protesters have been pressing the government to fulfill promises of a leadership change. Brennan called President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Wednesday to urge him to implement the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement, which would see Saleh step down from power.
"Brennan noted that this transfer of power represents the best path forward for Yemen to become a more secure, unified, and prosperous nation and for the Yemeni people to realize their aspirations for peace and political reform," the White House said in a statement about the call.
What about Egypt and Tunisia? The State Department has been working to finalize a new aid package for Middle East countries transitioning to democracy, the Wall Street Journal reported today, just in time for Thursday's speech.
On Libya, Obama is expected to claim limited success in the mission to protect civilians, pledge additional support for the Transitional National Council, and repeat calls for Col. Muammar al Qaddafi to step down.
Obama is also planning a series of events following the speech to drive home his message. On May 20, he will go to CIA headquarters to thank the agency for its work in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. On May 22, he'll address the AIPAC conference in Washington.
The relationship between the Arab Spring and the drive for Middle East peace is one area of the speech lawmakers are listening for closely. Does the president think the wave of democratic revolutions across the region make the peace process easier or harder?
"I think in some ways it makes it harder and in some ways it makes it easier," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable. "The thrust of the Arab Spring is democratic and not really religious so that makes it easier. But it's also harder because when you have a population in a state of upset it's kind of hard to lead to that population."
The State Department is publicly blaming Syria for the clashes between Israel Defense Forces soldiers and unarmed protesters that resulted in over a dozen deaths Sunday, but officials didn't offer any direct evidence to support that assertion.
"We do think that this is an effort by the Syrian government to play a destabilizing role," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at Monday's briefing in response to a question from The Cable. "It's clearly an effort by them to take focus off the situation that's happening right now in Syria. And it's a cynical use of the Palestinian cause to encourage violence along its border as it continues to repress its own people within Syria."
Toner's comments follow those of White House spokesman Jay Carney, who said on Monday morning that the United States is "strongly opposed to the Syrian government's involvement in inciting yesterday's protests in the Golan Heights. Such behavior is unacceptable and does not serve as a distraction from the Syrian government's ongoing repression of demonstrators in its own country."
Both spokesmen affirmed Israel's right to defend its own borders. Neither offered any direct evidence that the Syrian government was directly involved. The violence along the Golan Heights marked the first clashes on the Syrian-Israeli border in 37 years.
A State Department official, speaking on background basis, explained the thinking to The Cable.
"It's a pattern that we've seen. I don't know that we have any direct evidence, but I think we're pretty confident that this is something that Damascus has done in the past and we believe they have had a hand in it," the official said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Jordan's King Abdullah on Monday morning, and officials confirmed that Syria was among the topics they discussed. The persistent anti-government protests there will also be mentioned in President Barack Obama's Thursday speech on the overall U.S. approach to the Arab world.
On Capitol Hill, Syria's involvement is also regarded as a given.
"It is not surprising that President Assad is using Palestinian protesters to distract from the democratic uprising that is occurring within Syria's own borders," Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) said in a statement. "But it nonetheless displays a shocking level of cynicism to risk provoking war in order to maintain a grasp on power. President Assad must end the violent crackdown in Syria, stop his collaboration with Iran, and respect Israel's right to exist."
Both the House and Senate are preparing new legislation to increase pressure on Iran, but the House fired the opening salvo on Monday with a new bill authored by both heads of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
"U.S. policy towards Iran has offered a lot of bark, but not enough bite. This new bipartisan legislation would bring to bear the full weight of the U.S. by seeking to close the loopholes in existing energy and financial sanctions laws, while increasing the type and number of sanctions to be imposed," committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said in a statement unveiling the Iran Threat Reduction Act (ITRA).
The bill is meant to close loopholes that Ros-Lehtinen and others believe the administration is using to avoid enforcement of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in July 2010.
"Given the grave nature of the Iranian threat, it is my hope that my colleagues will support further strengthening the bill as it moves through the legislative process and not fall into the trap of enabling the Executive Branch to ignore U.S. law," she said.
To date, only two companies have been sanctioned under provisions in CISADA that were designed to clamp down on Iran's energy sector -- one Iranian state-owned corporation, and one corporation from Belarus. The new bill eliminates some of the waivers available to the president, raises the bar for other waivers, and expands the list of targeted Iranian officials and entities.
Other original co-sponsors are committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), Dan Burton (R-IN), Edward R. Royce (R-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), and Ted Deutch (D-FL).
"We must use every economic tool available to force Iran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons," Berman said in his own statement. "As we await vigorous enforcement by the Obama Administration under CISADA, we must continually look ahead and examine additional means to pressure Iran, and that is exactly what this new legislation is intended to do."
Over in the Senate, top lawmakers are also preparing new Iran sanctions legislation, which could be unveiled as early as this month. Like the House bill, the Senate's version will incorporate ideas from a range of individual lawmakers on how to increase pressure on Iran. However, the Senate bill will likely focus on expanding sanctions rather than tightening enforcement of existing sanctions, as the House has done.
The Senate effort is being led by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Mark Kirk (R-IL), but will likely incorporate ideas from others, such as Robert Casey (D-PA) and Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY).
"The new legislation for the first time targets Iran's crude oil exports and the dominant role played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the development, production, and distribution of Iran's oil," said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who helped develop the House bill. "With the introduction of this new legislation, companies now are on notice that ‘buyer beware': If you're buying crude from Iran, you're buying it from the IRGC, and that's bad for business, bad for your reputation and could make you the target of U.S. sanctions."
You can find the bill text here.
Special Envoy George Mitchell resigned at a low point in the effort to achieve peace in the Middle East, but officials and experts argued that the failure cannot be laid solely at his feet.
While President Barack Obama is set to give a major speech next Thursday setting forth U.S. policy in response to the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world, he is not expected to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any depth. There was considerable debate within the administration about whether to link the two issues, but the president ultimately decided not to set forth a new peace process strategy. That decision was perhaps the final sign for Mitchell that his continued service would not be needed.
In fact, Mitchell's departure is the clearest signal that no new peace initiative from the administration is forthcoming.
"There's nothing they can do right now," said former negotiator Aaron David Miller. He added that Mitchell isn't responsible for the current state of the peace process, because the direction of the administration's Middle East policy was always controlled by the White House.
"This was not a George Mitchell problem, this was 80 percent the reality that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were willing to tough issues and 20 percent the Obama administration, which inflated expectations, wrongfully elevated the settlement issue, and now finds itself with no negotiations no peace process and no strategy," he said.
"To blame Mitchell for an administration that never had an effective strategy is just wrong," said Miller.
In what could be a preview of how Obama will address the peace process next week, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon spoke about the issue Thursday evening at an event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"[N]o one should take comfort in the status quo," he said. "As we have learned in the Middle East, the status quo is never static. There are demographic and technological clocks that keep ticking. There is a new generation of leaders who will emerge in the region as a result of the changes that are now taking place."
The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, told The Cable in an interview that Mitchell did the best he could and remains well regarded, despite the lack of progress. The Palestinian government wants the Obama administration to stay engaged and the window for negotiations was not closed, he said.
"We understand this speech will not focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we'd like to see a continued commitment by the U.S. to reach a conclusion to the conflict," he said.
But while the administration and the Israeli government have been coordinating closely in recent weeks, U.S.-Palestinian relations have declined due to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's plan to seek diplomatic recognition for a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September, and the announcement that the PA will form a unity government with the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Areikat said that the plan to seek recognition at the United Nations was not final, and could be scuttled if negotiations resume. He also said that the unity government would not change its policies regarding the peace process, at least until elections, which are currently scheduled for May 2012.
"The PLO will continue to be in charge of negotiations and political issues and even the future government that will be formed as a caretaker transition government will to continue to implement the policies of the president and will not undertake any new policies," he said.
Inside the administration, Mitchell's role had lessened ever since the administration announced it was abandoning the strategy of focusing on Israeli settlement moratorium extensions in November 2010.
"George's operation had withered and been unattended since then and he really hasn't had a mandate," said Steve Clemons, foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation, who agreed that the Fatah-Hamas deal does render the current process moot.
"They don't have a plan to deal with the unity government. The Hamas deal has caught them unaware so the strategy they put in place won't work," said Clemons.
Mitchell now becomes the latest special envoy, whose ranks include the late Richard Holbrooke, who saw his role overshadowed by more senior officials in the White House.
"They created an empire of envoys," said Miller. "This whole process was managed by the White House and the NSC with the president being the arbiter of what would and would not be."
The White House is set to announce that Middle East Special Envoy George Mitchell will resign from his post, formally ending the strategy of incremental diplomacy that Mitchell hoped would produce progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"The fact that this is an extraordinarily hard issue is not news to anyone in this room," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday."The president's commitment remains as firm as it was when he took office."
Mitchell, who told insiders when he took the job that he was planning to stay for about two years, had long been expected to step down. But the timing of the move is significant, as it comes one week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits to Washington and President Barack Obama makes a major speech on the uprisings that have occurred throughout the Arab world.
Mitchell was credited for leading the diplomatic effort that produced a peace agreement resolving the crisis in Northern Ireland, and he tried to apply the lessons learned from that conflict to the current Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
"I had 700 days of ‘no' in Northern Ireland, and one ‘yes,'" Mitchell said, when announcing the resumption of direct talks last year. "You have to be willing to go back, prodding, cajoling, listening .... You have to make clear you respect the people involved, and whatever the circumstance involved, to allow the parties to express their views."
But the push-and-pull diplomacy that was central to his strategy never led to a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian. And now, with the prospect of a Fatah-Hamas unity government, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority seem even less likely.
Some experts believed that Mitchell's strategy was at odds with other top administration officials, such as NSC senior director Dennis Ross, who serves as a key interlocutor with the Israeli government.
"Dennis Ross has finally taken over the portfolio. He's the one who has been doing the deal with Netanyahu," said Steve Clemons, foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. "Mitchell was cast with trying to make [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Fayyad and [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen overlook some of the hurdles they had to get back to negotiations while Ross was in direct communication with Netanyahu."
Clemons said that Israeli officials "studiously avoided dealing directly with Mitchell, so essentially the Obama team allowed Netanyahu to pick his interlocutors." This fact, Clemons said, hamstrung Mitchell considerably.
Mitchell had played a reduced role for the last few months. After traveling to the region frequently in 2010, he didn't travel there at all in 2011. His deputy David Hale was in the region often.
Mitchell was initially highly regarded by both the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, when the direct talks broke down last September due to Israel's resumption of settlement activity, the path forward for his strategy become unclear and the administration has yet to come up with another way forward.
"The status quo between Palestinians and Israelis is no more sustainable than the political systems that have crumbled in recent months," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said April 12 at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. "Neither Israel's future as a Jewish democratic state nor the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians can be secured without a negotiated two-state solution. And while it is a truism that only the parties themselves can make the hard choices necessary for peace, there is no substitute for continued active American leadership."
There's no word yet he will be replaced, but one possible replacement, according to experts, would be his senior advisor and former Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.
Many in Congress are getting impatient with what they see as a lack of concrete action by the Obama administration to condemn and punish the Syrian government for its brutal crackdown on civilian protesters. Today, 16 senators are co-sponsoring a resolution calling on the administration to get tough on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) spearheaded the resolution (PDF) with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and John McCain (R-AZ). The foursome held a press conference on Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol to announce their new effort and demand that the Obama administration expand its activities to sanction, condemn, and pressure the Syrian government to stop killing civilians in the streets.
"I know that there are some who had hoped when these
protests first broke out that Bashar al- Assad would pursue the path of reform
rather than the path of violence and brutality. But that has clearly not been
his choice. He is not a reformer. He is a thug and a murderer who is pursuing
the Qaddafi model, and hopes to get away with it," said Lieberman.
"First and foremost, [the resolution] sends a clear message that Bashar al Assad -- through his campaign of violence -- has lost legitimacy, and puts the Senate squarely on record as standing with the aspirations of the Syrian people," Lieberman added.
The resolution condemns the Syrian government for its crackdown on peaceful protesters, violating international human rights agreements, withholding food, water, and basic medical services to civilians, and torturing protesters in government custody. The resolution also mentions Iran's assistance to Syria's repressive government and Syrian meddling in Lebanon, which has included transferring weapons to Hezbollah.
The senators want the administration to expand the targeted sanctions it imposed last month on senior Syrian government officials, sanction Assad directly, expand the effort to combat media and information censorship in Syria, engage more with the Syrian opposition, and seek condemnation of Syria at the U.N. Security Council. The senators also want President Barack Obama to speak publicly about the crisis there.
"It's time to indict the guy who is giving the orders," said McCain. "And it's time for the President of the United States to speak up."
Two senior Senate aides said they expect the resolution to move to the Senate floor and be passed relatively soon.
Importantly, the Senate resolution declares that the Syrian government "has lost legitimacy" and expresses the belief that the Syrian people should determine their own political future. The State Department has resisted making that statement, knowing that once the administration declares Assad is no longer "legitimate," all efforts to work with the Syrian government to encourage better behavior will become more difficult.
Pressed repeatedly on that very question at Tuesday's briefing, State Department spokesman Mark Toner refused to say the Syrian government was no longer legitimate.
"We believe that he needs to take concrete steps to cease violence against innocent protesters and civilians, and he needs to address their legitimate aspirations," he said.
But Syria's main advocate in the Senate, SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), told The Cable on Tuesday that Assad's chance to be a reformer had passed.
"I said we have to put him to the test. I've always said it's a series of tests," Kerry said. "The chance was lost and that's the end of it."
UPDATE: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) is now also a co-sponsor of the resolution, bringing the total number of co-sponsors to 17.
Lt. Gen. John Allen is set to take over command of the war in Afghanistan when Gen. David Petraeus becomes CIA director in September. The battle against the Taliban remains the centerpiece in the Afghanistan effort, but the development mission -- the world's largest and most challenging -will also be a focus for Allen.
In a long interview with USAID's Frontline magazine, Allen talked about the development challenges in Afghanistan and recounted his experiences working with development professionals in the Mediterranean in the 1970s, running the task force that led the U.S. government response to the Asian tsunami of 2004-2005, and coordinating development projects in Iraq during the surge from 2006 to 2008. He promised to push for increased cooperation between soldiers and aid workers and fight for USAID's continued support from the military and Congress.
Here are some excerpts:
On the challenges in the military-civilian relationship in a warzone:
It's largely in the sequencing. Ten years ago, I'd have said it was cultural. Not today. Yes, the development and military cultures are inherently different, but after a decade of war, where our paths in many ways are now inextricably linked, our institutional cultures are largely in harmony and we draw strength from the relationship. This includes development NGOs as well.... When the development and military entities are closely tied together in planning and execution --"within the hearing of the guns" -- we have all the ingredients for success. While there remains room for improvement, we're far more advanced and effective in this relationship than we were just 10 years ago.
On how to achieve better cooperation between the military and development personnel on the ground:
For the military, working better on the ground with USAID can come specifically from establishing a close working relationship with the USAID elements which will be operating with or alongside the military units. During periods of conflict, this ideally begins at the unit's home station before the deployment and continues without interruption right down to the ground level during the deployment and employment. If we've done this right, USAID or development personnel who'll be in the same area have had the chance to participate in the military unit's training during its preparations and in its mission rehearsal exercises prior to deployment.
On development's role in preventing conflicts:
As we start our second decade of counterinsurgency efforts in CENTCOM, it has become clear to us that one of the best ways we can defend our nation is to prevent factors that combine in our region which severely stress social systems ... ultimately creating a critical mass of hopelessness, and frequently leading to insurgency and conflict. Indeed, the social turmoil playing out in our region, the so-called Arab Spring, is a direct result of these societal forces boiling over....
On why domestic support for development is lower than support for the military:
I honestly think it is simply a combination of word association and exposure. Through the media, particularly since 9/11, your average American has had far more day-to-day exposure to the military culture than to the development world. Americans are accustomed to and generally understand the broad mission areas of the military in ways they never had prior to 9/11. In contrast, they may not have had any exposure to, or understanding of, the art and science of development.
In many respects, USAID's efforts can do as much -- over the long term -- to prevent conflict as the deterrent effect of a carrier strike group or a marine expeditionary force. There are adversaries in the CENTCOM region who understand and respect American hard power, but they genuinely fear American soft power frequently wielded in the form of USAID projects. While the hard power of the military can create trade, space, time, and a viable security environment, the soft power of USAID and the development community can deliver strategic effects and outcomes for decades, affecting generations.
On the budget fight over funding for USAID:
The development programs carried out by USAID directly support the president's National Security Strategy and are a sound expenditure of our nation's precious resources. As you note, some do feel that expending funds in support of development projects is a luxury. This argument complements the ever increasing concerns over the economic realities facing our government. The fiscal pie is only so big and the ability to carve out a larger slice -- no matter who you are -- will only continue to become more challenging.
Read the entire interview later this afternoon at www.usaid.gov/frontlines.
29 U.S. senators have asked President Barack Obama Friday to cut off aid to the Palestinian government if it joins with Hamas, in a previously unreported letter (PDF) obtained by The Cable.
"The decision of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to form a unity government with Hamas - a designated terrorist group - threatens to derail the Middle East peace effort for the foreseeable future and to undermine the Palestinian Authority's relationship with the United States," begins the letter, which was spearheaded by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Robert Casey (D-PA).
Menendez is the third ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Casey chairs SFRC's Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs subcommittee. The letter was also signed by Democratic heavyweights Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The details of the deal between the PA and Hamas aren't entirely clear. Many of the sticking points between the two Palestinian factions appear to remain unresolved and the contents of the reconciliation deal's classified annex remains unknown, but, as the senators' letter notes, Hamas foreign policy chief Mahmoud al-Zahar has said that "our plan does not involve negotiations with Israel or recognizing it."
Hamas also publicly condemned the May 1 killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan.
For all these reasons, the senators want Obama to make it clear that the PA will forfeit U.S. foreign assistance if it goes through with the plan to join forces with Hamas. The United States gave the PA about $550 million in aid in fiscal 2011, a mixture of project funding and direct cash to the government.
"As you are aware, U.S. law prohibits aid from being provided to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas unless the government and all its members have public committed to the Quartet principles," they wrote. "We urge you to conduct a review of the current situation and suspend aid should Hamas refuse to comply with Quartet conditions."
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) agrees. "No taxpayer funds should go, they must not go" to the new Palestinian unity government, she told the Washington Post May 4.
The Obama administration is currently examining the Palestinian reconciliation deal, but officials have repeatedly said in recent days that any unity government must reject Hamas's current policies.
"Any Palestinian government must renounce violence, it must abide by past agreements and it must recognize Israel's right to exist," White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, told the American Jewish Committee on April 28.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner repeated Daley's message at Thursday's press briefing, and implied that a government that includes Hamas would not be able to work with the United States.
"We've said very clearly that we'll work with a Palestinian Authority government that unambiguously and explicitly commits to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties. And that includes the road map," Toner said. "And our position on Hamas has not changed. We still believe it's a foreign terrorist organization."
"The Obama Administration knows the law prohibits U.S. aid going to a Palestinian government in which Hamas plays any role. That's why the administration has said several times in the past week that the United States will only deal with a Palestinian government that meets the Quartet conditions -- renounces violence, recognizes Israel, and accepts all previous agreements," said former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, now a partner at the consulting firm Davis-Block LLC. "If Hamas wants to transform itself, surely that would be welcome, but it's not likely."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.