Seven Republican senators are demanding that the Obama administration take tougher measures to punish banks still doing business in Iran, and they are threatening to stall the nomination of a top Treasury Department official unless they get their way.
The dispute between the White House and Congress revolves around implementation of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010, the wide-ranging law signed into law last year. The Treasury Department issued a draft rule last week that lays out how it intends to implement a key provision of the law, which deals with Iran's banking partners in countries around the world. And that rule raised the ire of seven GOP senators, who expected Treasury to enforce the law much more stringently.
The key provision, section 104(e), directs the administration to punish any international financial institutions still doing business with Iran by cutting them off from the U.S. financial system.
"We were extremely unhappy with the draft rule to implement section 104(e) of CISADA publish by the Treasury Department last week," wrote Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Roger Wicker (R-MS), David Vitter (R-LA), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Mike Johanns (R-NE), in a previously unreported letter sent Tuesday, and obtained by The Cable.
The letter was addressed to David Cohen, the acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department. Cohen took over for Stuart Levey, the previous sanctions chief at Treasury, who moved on to the Council on Foreign Relations last month after more than 4 years on the job.
The senators are threatening to hold up Cohen's nomination if their demands regarding enforcement of the sanctions provisions aren't met. Cohen had his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday and, afterwards, Kirk sent Treasury a list of follow-up questions he says must be answered before he'll allow Cohen's nomination to move forward.
"The acting undersecretary's response to our letter and questions for the record will weigh heavily in any confirmation decision," Kirk told The Cable.
Kirk also identified 44 international financial institutions servicing Iranian banks and 18 U.S. institutions that are working with those who do business inside Iran. He got this list from a 2010 report entitled "Iran's Dirty Banking", which sourced the information to the Banker's Almanac.
Kirk wants Treasury to require all U.S. banks to certify that any foreign banks they deal with aren't dealing with Iran. He also wants those foreign banks to certify that any banks they are dealing with aren't doing business with Iran. But Treasury's current plan calls for banks to provide such information only if and when the Obama administration asks for it.
"The object is to make sure we are doing anything and everything we can to drive Iranian business out of our banking system and this is how to do it," one senior GOP senate aide said.
"Large American banks and foreign banks that are operating here have not been hauled before Congress and have not been forced to tell the people and shareholders why they have not complied with the law," said another senior GOP aide.
Specifically, the aide said that the senators who signed the letter want Treasury to publish a final rule on implementation of the provision that requires audits of all banks' interactions with Iran on an ongoing basis. If that happens, the Cohen nomination can go through.
All of the senators who signed the letter, except for Kyl, are on the banking committee.
In his Tuesday testimony, Cohen defended the Treasury Department's efforts to tighten the noose around Iran's banking sector, including the passing of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 and subsequent successful efforts to convince European and northeast Asian countries to drop their Iranian banking ties.
Since 2006, Treasury has sanctioned 20 Iranian state-owned banks involved in facilitating Iran's nuclear program for penalties, and officials have traveled the world to try to convince foreign governments to take similar actions.
Cohen also said that sanctions against foreign owned banks that are working with Iran aren't necessarily the best tool in all cases, and indicated that there are more penalty decisions coming soon, such as the designation of more third country banks.
"The first best option is to get them to stop. Our second best option is to apply sanctions. And without getting too much into the details of any particular investigation that we're conducting, I can tell you that we are, I would say, close to a decision point on several institutions," he testified.
Matthew Levitt, a former deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Treasury was not against congressionally mandated sanctions, but believes they should only be used after all efforts to persuade foreign banks to shape up fail.
"What you have here is a struggle between two branches of government trying to get the same job done, but using two different paths to the same end," he said. "In some instances, it may be, you will get more compliance if you don't hit them with the hammer."
Levitt also defended the Treasury's efforts to put pressure on Iran's financial activities. "It's almost silly for anyone to claim the Treasury Department has been soft on Iran," he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Berlin today and was supposed to meet with the other representatives of the Middle East Quartet: Russia, the U.N., and the EU. But the meeting was cancelled after the Obama administration successfully scuttled a European plan to issue a statement that included specifics of a final agreement for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
German officials said the meeting was cancelled due to "scheduling difficulties," but U.S. and Israel officials told The Cable that the meeting was scuttled over disagreements regarding the EU draft statement, which would have set terms on matters such as borders, security, and settlements.
"A regularly scheduled quartet meeting got hijacked by the Europeans who are getting increasing frustrated and want to tackle final status issues," said former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, now with the Wilson Center. "If the U.S. wants to get involved, they will do a lone ranger on this one. We will decide what constitutes our policy positions."
The Obama administration dispatched National Security Council Senior Director David Hale to the Middle East last week to deal with the issue, multiple officials confirmed. He met with both Palestinian and Israel leaders, as well as a representative of each of the Quartet members.
For the Obama administration, Hale's effort was a success on two counts. The White House was able to avoid another domestic political problem by acting swiftly to prevent an uproar by pro-Israel community in Washington; and Obama was able to bide time in advance of a major speech on the Middle East he is preparing to make in the coming weeks.
"We're always open to new ideas and new approaches. But fundamentally, we know what needs to be done, which is to get the parties together, to get them talking about these core issues so that they can resolve them in a fashion that's sustainable and appropriate to both sides," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Thursday.
Around Capitol Hill, some pro-Israel offices were already warning the State Department that they should not repeat their approach from February, when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice initially offered to endorse a U.N. Security Council presidential statement criticizing Israeli settlement activity, causing domestic political uproar. That statement never came to a vote and the administration ultimately vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution criticizing Israel.
"This is a positive change, because at the last go around, the administration was less clear with America's intent to veto the anti-Israel resolution," said former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, now a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute. "They've come to a place where there's a recognition that they need to be cautious about the process. And by acting as part of the part of the Quartet, they've done a smart thing. Whether it represents a shift of policy in the long term, it's too early to tell."
The White House is now busily working out the details of its new approach to advancing the dormant Middle East Peace process. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) spilled the beans at the Brookings U.S. Islamic Forum in Washington on Tuesday, when he said that President Barack Obama will offer a new template to advance the peace process ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's trip to Washington in May to attend the annual AIPAC conference.
Kerry also criticized the administration's entire strategy for Middle East peace up to now. "I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable," he said.
Block called Kerry's rebuke of the administration's previous policy, "an unusual moment of honesty in Washington."
Clinton confirmed on Tuesday night that Obama will make a major speech on the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in her remarks to the same Brookings forum. The Israel section of Clinton's speech was not in the version mailed to reporters earlier in the day, suggesting she added it in response to Kerry's remarks.
Clinton said that the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was "no more sustainable than the political systems that have crumbled in recent months."
Analysts and policymakers are looking to the early fall as a deadline for some progress on the Middle East peace process. September was the original deadline the administration gave for a final settlement framework agreement and that's when the Palestinians plan to push for a vote at the U.N. General Assembly recognizing them as an independent state.
But Miller said progress before then isn't likely for three reasons: The Israeli government is not in a position to make the concessions needed to restart direct talks; the Obama administration has no real strategy for getting back to direct talks; and the Palestinian government is divided into two opposing camps.
"You put all these things together and you have a pretty bleak picture."
Obama has had on his desk for months now a set of parameters he could wrap into a speech that would break new ground to guide negotiations, Miller said, but the president hasn't wanted to get ahead of the parties. The speech could be risky for Obama if he fails to chart a clear path forward -- or if that path isn't followed by the Israelis or Palestinians.
"When you don't have a policy or you have a bad policy, the pressure grows to give a speech. But a speech that doesn't have legs could be a real liability," he said.
Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday called for the international community to support a transition to democracy in Syria and also called for support for other youth movements around the Middle East.
"I believe that finally a democratic system in Syria is our best bet for the future," Peres said at Tuesday night's dinner hosted at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). CNN's Wolf Blitzer moderated a question and answer session and probed Peres to explain Israel's stance on a range of pressing regional issues.
"The president of Syria was self assured that the people are in love with him; well, it emerged as an illusion," said Peres. "In politics you have to distinguish between support and supporters. Support exists as long as you own the government, when you're in crisis the supporters disappear."
Peres said that Israel was ready to give up the Golan Heights as part of an overarching peace deal with Syria, but only if Damascus would totally reject its alliance with Tehran and its dependence on Iranian support.
"If Syria will divorce the Iranians and the Hezbollah we are very close. If they want to have it both ways then nothing will happen," he said.
The dinner event at the USIP's brand new landmark headquarters on Constitution Avenue was hosted by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and its executive director former Congressman Robert Wexler. Award-winning Israeli violinist Kobi Malkin performed for the audience of diplomats, lawmakers, officials, and journalists.
Speaking more broadly about the region, Peres repeated his call for advancing the Middle East peace process as a means of supporting and aligning with the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.
"In order to enable the young generation to take over and go their way, we have to find a solution for the conflict between us and the Palestinians. I would like to see that our conflict will follow the nature of these awakenings," Peres said.
The Israeli president said that Israel supports the transition to democracy ongoing in Egypt, despite the possibility that the new government might not be as reliable as the old regime in supporting the peace process.
"I have to be fair and say that President Mubarak played one role that we appreciated very much and that was to prevent another war in the Middle East -- and we shall never forget it," he said. "But I think the fact that the young generation took over and tried to tell their people, we have to join in the new age of modern life and we cannot go on with corruption, division, dictatorship -- I think it's a good opening which is needed for the Egyptians and we welcome it very much.
Peres said that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could very well be a large political player in the next Egyptian government -- but will never be the majority and do not represent the solution to Egypt's problems.
"Suppose they'll pray ten times a day. Will this solve the problems of Egypt? The problems of Egypt are not prayers, but poverty. And many of the young people understand this. And they may have overplayed their hand."
Peres's call for change and democracy did not extend to Jordan, however, where he said the international community should support and help King Abdullah II.
"He is a responsible leader who is trying to serve his people," he said. "He is in a very difficult situation economically. And if we are really serious, we have to help him to overcome the economic difficulties."
Peres also said that any Israelis who think that President Barack Obama isn't a strong supporter of Israel are wrong. He noted that Obama told him -- and has shown through his deeds -- that the U.S. president will always place Israel's security at the top of his priority list.
"I trust the president. I think he is serious. I think he has a dilemma that all of us have. The dilemma is between following the call of values, the primacy of the moral choice, and the realistic situation which is not necessarily as moral as you would like it to be," he said.
Government officials in attendance included Sens. Chris Coons, Frank Lautenberg, and Bill Nelson; Reps. Gary Ackerman, Shelley Berkley, Dan Burton, Steve Cohen, Ted Deutch, Jim Moran, Jerrold Nadler, Nancy Pelosi, David Price, and Jan Schakowsky; State Department Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Richard Morningstar Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs; Ronald Schlicker; Director of the State Department Office of Israel & Palestinian Affairs Paul Sutphin; and Deputy Secretary for Near East Affairs Jacob Walles.
Diplomats in attendance included Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Jordanian Ambassador Alia Hatoug-Bouran, E.U. Ambassador João Vale de Almeida, Azerbaijan Ambassador Yashar Aliyev, Cyprus Ambassador Pavlos Anastasiades, Georgian Ambassador Temuri Yakobashvili, Chief Representative of the PLO Maen Areikat, and representatives from the embassies of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Egypt.
Most of the guests were getting their first look at the lavish USIP building, which was built with more than $100 million in taxpayer funds and approximately $50 million in private donations. Several guests noted the irony of unveiling the new building right in the middle of a huge government fight -- in which Republicans passed a bill that would completely eliminate the $41 million annual budget of USIP.
The building itself represents the cooperation of Jews and Muslims from the Middle East. The building was designed by an Israeli architect, the huge dove-shaped sculpture that makes up a large part of the roof was designed by an Iranian artist, and a large chunk of the private funding came from a donor in the UAE.
The State Department wants to shift resources toward supporting civil society development in Tunisia, but the top senator on the Foreign Relations Committee is refusing to allow State to transfer money away from an education program in the Middle East for that purpose.
In the wake of the democratic revolutions sweeping the region, the State Department is rapidly trying to reevaluate its approach to Middle East democracy promotion. But without a budget for fiscal 2011, and with no idea of what awaits their budget in fiscal 2012, State is being forced to move money around to speed funds to the Arab countries that are trying to make the difficult transition to democracy.
Three weeks ago, the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative sent Congress what's known as a "congressional notification," requesting permission to shift $29 million in funds from other programs in the region. State wants to shift $20 million to democracy promotion efforts in Tunisia and around the region. Another $7 million would go supporting rule of law and political development programs in the Middle East. $1 million would go to youth councils in Yemen.
In order to fund these initiatives, $10 million would be taken away from the "Tomorrow's Leaders" program, which provides scholarships for Arab youth to attend college at three U.S.-accredited universities in the Middle East.
Three powerful GOP congressional offices initially objected to State taking the funds away from the "Tomorrow's Leaders" program. The lawmakers holding up the money were House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
The Cable confirmed on April 1 that the three committee members had placed "informational holds" on the reprogramming request. That means they sent additional questions back to State about why the money was being taken from the universities, whether State had tried to find the money elsewhere, and whether another source of the money could be found.
On April 4, Ros-Lehtinen and Granger's office told The Cable that they had lifted their holds, but still thought the State Department's request lacked detail.
"State's original justification for the reprogramming was vague, and additional information was requested," said Ros-Lehtinen spokesman Brad Goehner. "As soon as the information was provided, Chairman Ros-Lehtinen authorized the funds to go through."
"We had some outstanding questions about how the State Department was making its reprogramming decision and we now feel those questions have been addressed," a Granger aide told The Cable.
That leaves Lugar's office as the only one keeping the funds from being disbursed. Lugar spokesman Mark Helmke told The Cable that Lugar is unhappy with how State is dealing with the overall regional response, not just this specific reprogramming request.
"Senator Lugar continues to have a number of questions about the administration's strategy for the upheavals across North Africa and the greater Middle East," said Helmke. "Lugar is concerned the administration is just reacting to events without a plan on where we are going. Democracy building in Tunisia is a good thing. But so are scholarships. How does this re-programming affect other projects in Egypt and elsewhere? The lack of a clear end game strategy for Libya, and the refusal to gain congressional authority, only add to Lugar's concerns."
A Lugar committee staffer told The Cable that Lugar would allow State to move enough money to fund the Tunisia program, but not all the programs in the request. Lugar will also not allow, for now, State to take the money from the educational program.
"We are doing due diligence on this, it's pretty routine, making sure they are not robbing Peter to pay Paul, or rushing money out the door without a solid plan," the staffer said. "If [the educational program] is the only place to find money to respond to Tunisia, or to the many urgent needs in the Middle East and North Africa, the [State] Department should make that case."
The three universities that run the Tomorrow's Leaders program are the American University in Cairo, the American University in Beirut, and the Lebanese American University.
The American University of Beirut (AUB) is represented in Washington by William Hoffman, a registered lobbyist for the university who has been in contact with these GOP offices to make the case for defending the funds. According to the website Opensecrets.org, Hoffman's firm Gryphon International was paid $144,000 by AUB in 2010 and has been working for the university, its only client, for several years.
In an interview with The Cable, Hoffman confirmed he had been in contact with both Lugar and Granger's office recently to make the case for the education money.
"The issue is how do we best promote democracy building and sustainable economic development in the Arab world. People with very good intentions can disagree about the best way to do that, but it's certainly my feeling that you can hardly do better than to provide American-style education," Hoffman said. "There is a tendency in government to look at short- term, rather than long-term goals and in some cases that can be a mistake."
President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres discussed how the Israeli-Palestinian peace process fits into the wave of democratization sweeping through the Arab world during a working lunch and then a 40 minute one-on-one meeting on Tuesday..
"We had an extensive discussion about what's happened in the Middle East," Obama said at a press conference after the meetings. "I think he and I both share a belief that this is both a challenge and an opportunity; that with the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it's more urgent than ever that we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis."
At the working lunch, Obama was joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, NSC Chief of Staff Brooke Anderson, NSC Senior Director Dennis Ross, incoming U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, and NSC Senior Director Puneet Talwar.
Both presidents expressed the opinion that bringing the Arab-Israeli conflict to a resolution would help the United States and Israel support democratic change in the Middle East.
"We see it as a clash between generations, a clash between those who want democracy and those who want to go backwards," an Israel official who was present at the lunch told The Cable. "One of the ways to make sure the right side wins is if there could be progress in the peace process."
The most immediate issue for Israel how to set good relations with the next government in Egypt. Obama said the two presidents discussed ways for both countries to support Egypt's economic development as a means of supporting the Egyptian youth. Peres believes restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would also help Israel navigate its changing relationship with Egypt.
"Peres' message is that Palestinians and Israel now have a common interest to get to negotiations, because both sides want Egypt to continue to support the peace process," the Israel official said.
But Obama, following the breakdown of the direct negotiations he and Clinton worked so hard to push forward in 2010, warned Peres that he would only try again if he first saw increased commitment from both parties.
"Obama said he's willing to help, he's willing to push forward, but... he wants to see that a serious effort is being made and then he will add his weight," the official explained.
Obama and Peres also addressed the issue of Iran at their meetings. Peres noted that dealing with Iran is also a moral issue, because the Islamic Republic heads the anti-democratic camp in the region. The two presidents also agreed on continuing cooperation on missile defense against the Iranian threat and the necessity of maintaining economic sanctions on Tehran. .
According to the Israeli official, Peres told Obama that Israel is increasingly concerned about the flow of Russian strategic weaponry into the region and said that Israel wants to purchase an additional 20 F-35 fighter jets.
U.S. officials at the lunch raised the touchy issue of continued Israeli settlement building, but Peres didn't give any ground.
"Look, our policy hasn't changed," the official said, referring to Peres's position. "We have our differences with the administration but this has been our policy all along. We don't agree on everything."
Peres also asked Obama to consider clemency for convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, and he reminded the U.S. president that he has an open invitation to visit Israel whenever he wants.
Obama acknowledged both points but gave "no sort of reply one way or the other," the official said.
The State Department announced on Tuesday that it has decided to apply the recently passed Iran sanctions legislation to the Belarusian company Belorusneft. But GOP senators monitoring the implementation of the law said the move was marginal and unsatisfactory.
The action prevents Belorusneft, a subsidiary of the government-owned conglomerate Belneftekhim, from seeking any loans or doing any business in U.S. financial markets. The sanction was implemented under the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) of 1996 as amended by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010. In a press release, the State Department focused on Belorusneft's 2007 $500 million contract with the NaftIran Intertrade Company (NICO), which is also being punished under U.S. sanctions.
"Since President Barack Obama signed CISADA into law on July 1, 2010, Iran's ability to attract new investment to develop its oil and natural gas resources, and to produce or import refined petroleum products, has been severely limited," the release said. "The State Department's direct engagement with companies and governments to enforce CISADA is raising the pressure on the Government of Iran."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday that, in practical terms, the action prohibits Belorusneft from seeking assistance from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, obtaining U.S. government export licenses, obtaining private U.S. bank loans exceeding $10 million, and securing any procurement contracts with the U.S. government.
Belarusneft, the largest oil company in Belarus, hasn't actually tried to apply for any of those things, but Toner explained that the new announcement "also sends a message to our partners in Europe as well that this is a company that we've decided to sanction. And I'm sure they have access or would seek access into European markets." Toner didn't say if State was pushing the EU to follow suit.
Three senior senators who have been intimately involved in the Iran sanctions law and its implementation immediately shot off a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, obtained by The Cable, criticizing today's announcement as too weak.
"We are writing to express our disappointment with today's announcement that the administration designated only one additional entity for violating U.S. sanctions with regard to Iran," wrote Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). "We do not believe this represents full compliance with the sanctions regime put in place by Congress."
"It appears that Chinese firms in the energy and banking sectors have conducted significant activity in violation of U.S. law," ten senators wrote to Clinton on March 10. "We cannot afford to create the impression that China will be given free rein to conduct economic activity in Iran when more responsible nations have chosen to follow the course we have asked of them. We are sure you agree."
The State Department's Bob Einhorn briefed senators on Capitol Hill on this very issue on March 11, but a senior GOP senate aide told The Cable that the meeting was disappointing.
The GOP senate offices in question see today's designation as marginal, especially as the parent company, Belneftekhim, was already sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2007 through Executive Order 13405, which targeted firms connected to President Alexander Lukashenko for human rights violations, and three other subsidiaries were sanctioned in 2008.
"It's a complete disappointment," one senior GOP aide told The Cable. "You would have thought they had already found a way to only designate the lowest hanging fruit when they sanctioned NICO. Alas, they found a lower hanging fruit."
A different senior GOP aide said the move sends the signal that the Obama administration only has the willingness to punish Iranian companies such as NICO and companies from other states that doesn't have close or critical relations with, such as Belarus.
"While the administration is patting itself on the back for its empty action today with Belarus, we can hear the sighs of relief coming from Tehran, Beijing, Ankara and Geneva where bankers, gasoline traders, and oil and natural gas financiers just realized that the Obama administration isn't serious about stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program," the aide said.
Dubowitz, executive director and head of the Iran Energy
Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told The Cable that today's announcement "is a step in the
right direction for both human rights and national security, but it's only a small
and incremental one."
"The administration should be praised for moving against the energy lifeblood of both Belarus and Iran, two regimes which savagely repress their own people," he said. "But this was only a borderline meaningful designation since Belneftekhim and three other subsidiaries are already subject to designations. While a designation against this fourth subsidiary is helpful, the time for incrementalism is long past as Iran drives towards a nuclear weapon."
President Barack Obama spoke on Monday evening with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the two agreed that NATO should have a command and control role in the Libya war, according to a White House read out of the phone call. But today in Brussels, the French government said it doesn't agree.
"The President and the Prime Minister reaffirmed their support for the full implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, in order to protect the Libyan people," the White House said. "The leaders agreed that this will require a broad-based international effort, including Arab states, to implement and enforce the UN resolutions, based on national contributions and enabled by NATO's unique multinational command and control capabilities to ensure maximum effectiveness."
The Turkish government has been very clear that it does not support NATO-led enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya if the mission goes beyond the U.N.-sanctioned objective of protecting Libyan civilians.
"We do not want Libya to become a second Iraq.... A civilization in Iraq collapsed within eight years. More than a million people were killed there," Turkey's daily Hürriyet newspaper quoted Erdogan as saying on Monday on the way back from Saudi Arabia. "We will not participate with our fighting forces. It is impossible for us to think that our fighters would drop bombs over the Libyan people."
Turkey laid out its position at Tuesday's NATO meeting in Brussels. The Turks are still upset they were not invited to the Paris planning meeting on March 19, the day the air strikes began. Turkey has also taken over as the protecting power of the U.S. in Tripoli, meaning they would be in charge of direct interactions with the Libyan government and responsible for the abandoned U.S. embassy, their government announced on Monday.
Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Tuesday that France now opposes NATO taking over the Libya mission. The French and German representatives reportedly stormed out of the Monday meeting in Brussels over disagreements about NATO's role, albeit for very different reasons. Germany is opposed to the military intervention altogether.
The confusion is causing problems for the rest of the coalition as well. Norway said Tuesday it was "suspending" its promise to use F-16 fighter jets in combat in Libya until the command structure issue was worked out, even though its jets had already arrived at the staging base in Italy.
All of this puts into question the viability of Obama's pledge on Monday that the U.S. will transfer command of the military mission in Libya in "a matter of days."
Adding to the questions over the endgame, Obama and Erdogan also "underscored their shared commitment to the goal of helping provide the Libyan people an opportunity to transform their country, by installing a democratic system that respects the people's will," the White House said.
At the start of this week, the consensus around Washington was that military action against Libya was not in the cards. However, in the last several days, the White House completely altered its stance and successfully pushed for the authorization for military intervention against Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. What changed?
The key decision was made by President Barack Obama himself at a Tuesday evening senior-level meeting at the White House, which was described by two administration officials as "extremely contentious." Inside that meeting, officials presented arguments both for and against attacking Libya. Obama ultimately sided with the interventionists. His overall thinking was described to a group of experts who had been called to the White House to discuss the crisis in Libya only days earlier.
"This is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values," a senior administration official said at the meeting, telling the experts this sentence came from Obama himself. The president was referring to the broader change going on in the Middle East and the need to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights.
But Obama's stance in Libya differs significantly from his strategy regarding the other Arab revolutions. In Egypt and Tunisia, Obama chose to rebalance the American stance gradually backing away from support for President Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and allowing the popular movements to run their course. In Yemen and Bahrain, where the uprisings have turned violent, Obama has not even uttered a word in support of armed intervention - instead pressing those regimes to embrace reform on their own. But in deciding to attack Libya, Obama has charted an entirely new strategy, relying on U.S. hard power and the use of force to influence the outcome of Arab events.
"In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook," said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. "The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one."
Inside the administration, senior officials were lined up on both sides. Pushing for military intervention was a group of NSC staffers including Samantha Power, NSC senior director for multilateral engagement; Gayle Smith, NSC senior director for global development; and Mike McFaul, NSC senior director for Russia. .
On the other side of the ledger were some Obama administration officials who were reportedly wary of the second- and third-degree effects of committing to a lengthy military mission in Libya. These officials included National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also opposed to attacking Libya and had said as much in several public statements.
Not all of these officials were in Tuesday night's meeting.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called into the meeting over the phone, a State Department official confirmed. She was traveling in the region to get a first-hand look at how the new U.S. Middle East strategy is being received across the Arab world. Denied a visit with Egyptian youth leaders on the same day she strolled through Tahir Square, Clinton may have been concerned that the United States was losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab youth at the heart of the revolution.
When Clinton met with the G8 foreign ministers on Monday, she didn't lay out whether the United States had a favored response to the unfolding crisis in Libya, leaving her European counterparts completely puzzled. She met Libyan opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril in Paris but declined to respond positively to his request for assistance. This all gave the impression that Clinton was resisting intervention. In fact, she supported intervention, State Department official said, but had to wait until the Tuesday night meeting so that she didn't get out ahead of U.S. policy.
At the end of the Tuesday night meeting, Obama gave U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice instructions to go the U.N. Security Council and push for a resolution that would give the international community authority to use force. Her instructions were to get a resolution that would give the international community broad authority to achieve Qaddafi's removal, including the use of force beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone.
Speaking before the U.N. Security Council following Thursday's 10-0 vote, Rice made the humanitarian argument that force was needed in Libya to prevent civilian suffering.
"Colonel Qaddafi and those who still stand by him continue to grossly and systematically abuse the most fundamental human rights of Libya's people," Rice said. "On March 12, the League of Arab States called on the Security Council to establish a no-fly zone and take other measures to protect civilians. Today's resolution is a powerful response to that call-and to the urgent needs on the ground."
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also said on Thursday that the justification for the use of force was based on humanitarian grounds, and referred to the principle known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), "a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community's failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."
"Resolution 1973 affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community's determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government," he said.
Inside the NSC, Power, Smith, and McFaul have been trying to figure out how the administration could implement R2P and what doing so would require of the White House going forward. Donilon and McDonough are charged with keeping America's core national interests more in mind. Obama ultimately sided with Clinton and those pushing R2P -- over the objections of Donilon and Gates.
Congress was not broadly consulted on the decision to intervene in Libya, except in a Thursday afternoon classified briefing where administration officials explained the diplomatic and military plan. Rice was already deep in negotiations in New York.
Obama's Tuesday night decision to push for armed intervention was not only a defining moment in his ever-evolving foreign policy, but also may have marked the end of the alliance between Clinton and Gates -- an alliance that has successfully influenced administration foreign policy decisions dating back to the 2009 Afghanistan strategy review.
"Gates is clearly not on board with what's going on and now the Defense Department may have an entirely another war on its hands that he's not into," said Clemons. "Clinton won the bureaucratic battle to use DOD resources to achieve what's essentially the State Department's objective... and Obama let it happen."
UPDATE: A previous version of this story stated that Vice President Joseph Biden pushed for the imposition of a no fly zone in Libya. Friday afternoon, a senior White House official told The Cable that, in fact, Biden shared the same concerns of Gates, Donilon and McDonough and that those concerns have been addressed by the policy announced by the president.
Republican proposals for cutting the international affairs budget would harm the U.S. ability to respond to the political changes and humanitarian crises throughout the Arab world, according to two top officials dealing with the issue.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Cairo on Tuesday, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. government official to visit the region since the tide of revolutions swept across the Arab world in January. She will also visit Tunisia and meet with leaders of the Libyan opposition. One senior official from State and one from USAID who just returned from the region are warning that now is the wrong time to slash funding for diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, and refugee assistance, as House Republicans are proposing.
"We have, around the world, ongoing humanitarian responses to protracted situations, situations that are not emergency but are protracted and require our engagement, and we have emergency situations, and we have accounts for both. And it is the future funding of both of those accounts that are so seriously imperiled by some of these proposals," said Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) Eric Schwartz at a Monday press conference.
The U.S. government has sent teams to the Tunisian and Egyptian borders of Libya to asses humanitarian needs and help coordinate the response. 140,000 migrant workers have streamed across the Libyan border with Tunisia, and about 110,000 people have headed east into Egypt, Schwartz said. The United States has also chartered flights to bring these migrants back to their homes, flying workers to third countries .
"We will do what is necessary," Schwartz said, explaining that $47 million has already been devoted to the effort. He said that, for now, State will come up with the money to support urgent needs, but the GOP spending plan would cut PRM's $2 billion budget in half for the rest of fiscal 2011. The legislation "would impact both these emergency accounts which have been put to use in this crisis as well as our regular accounts which also have been put to use in this crisis," Schwartz said.
On March 12, Schwartz co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post, in which he said that he was "deeply concerned by the prospect of U.S. humanitarian aid reductions of historic and devastating proportions."
On Capitol Hill, the negotiations about the remainder of the fiscal 2011 budget are a long way from over, and it is clear that Congress will have to pass yet another short-term extension when the current continuing resolution expires March 18. Negotiations over the fiscal 2012 budget have not yet begun.
In the meantime, several lawmakers are putting forth ideas for ways to speed some extra money to the region to support U.S. democracy promotion efforts.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) supports the creation of a "Middle East stability fund" that would appropriate money at the levels of the full fiscal 2011 request for Arab countries and Israel, in addition to the full year continuing resolution whenever it goes through.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) proposed an $80 million enterprise fund for Egypt and Tunisia last week, which would encourage economic development and foreign investment in those countries. His idea is supported by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
"These new enterprise funds will allow us to do what the people of Egypt and Tunisia are calling for - and that's to provide investment capital so their entrepreneurs and private businesses, so that their economies can stabilize, can prosper," said Kerry.
The wide-ranging sanctions law passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama last July calls for the administration to punish companies from third-party countries that are still doing business in Iran. However, U.S. senators still aren't sure whether the administration will follow through with this punishment, especially when it comes to companies in China.
A bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators, led by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-KY) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday to demand an update on the State Department's investigation into these companies' ongoing business with the Iranian regime. Their letter was subsequently obtained by The Cable. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg announced that State's investigation began on Sept. 29, which means that law requires the results to arrive by March 29, the senators wrote.
"It appears that Chinese firms in the energy and banking sectors have conducted significant activity in violation of U.S. law," the senators stated. "We cannot afford to create the impression that China will be given free rein to conduct economic activity in Iran when more responsible nations have chosen to follow the course we have asked of them. We are sure you agree."
The State Department's Bob Einhorn is briefing senators on Capitol Hill on this very issue on Friday, a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable.
In remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Wednesday, Einhorn addressed the issue directly, saying that "we continue to have concerns about the transfer of proliferation-sensitive equipment and materials to Iran by Chinese companies, there is substantial evidence that Beijing has taken a cautious, go-slow approach toward its energy cooperation with Iran."
That explanation won't be enough to satisfy the senators' demands for more active confrontation if Chinese companies are indeed flouting sanctions.
One of the main concerns on Capitol Hill is that as countries pull out from Iran, other countries will take over contracts, thereby nullifying the effect of the sanctions -- a practice known as "backfilling."
For example, the administration and Congress worked hard to convince Japan and South Korea to impose unilateral measures against Iran. However, there's particular concern that China firms will simply come in and take over those contracts.
Kyl and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to Clinton last October on this very issue, noting reports that China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) replaced the Japanese firm Inpex and agreed to invest around $2 billion to develop Iran's South Azadegan oil fields last year.
One week later, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that identified 16 companies that sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China, one in Singapore, and one in the UAE.
Other lawmakers who have pressed the administration to enforce Iran sanctions against China include Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA).
"Clearly, Congress -- on both sides of the aisle -- is losing patience and expects the administration to act," said Josh Block, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and former spokesman for AIPAC. "If not, what kind of message are we sending to these companies in China and Venezuela and Turkey and elsewhere -- and their governments -- that are helping Iran break international isolation?"
The U.S. intelligence community has been behind events throughout the Arab world for over a month and producing deficient work, the Senate's top leader on intelligence issues complained to the head of the CIA.
"Our intelligence, and I see it all, is way behind the times. It is inadequate. And this is a very serious problem," Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.
Feinstein criticized the U.S. government's intelligence products in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, saying that the intelligence community has given her "nothing that we didn't read in the newspapers" since January.
"The only one where there was good intelligence was Tunisia," she said, "but really no intelligence on any of the others, whether it was Yemen, or Bahrain, or Egypt... nothing."
Feinstein said she recently raised her unhappiness over the intelligence community's work directly with CIA Director Leon Panetta, who promised to produce better information for lawmakers.
"It's going to be improved. Mr. Panetta is aware of this and is going to take action," she explained.
She attributed the shoddy work product to a lack of human intelligence assets on the ground in the Middle East as well as the intelligence community's failure to maximize the use of open source information, including social networks, which Feinstein said accounts for an increasing amount of raw intelligence.
"I'm not a big computer person but I just went up on one of these sites and all I had to do was look," Feinstein said.
Feinstein said that she has not spoken about the issue with the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Feinstein also joined the growing chorus of senior Democratic senators who oppose any type of military intervention in Libya, including arming rebel groups or imposing a no-fly zone.
"This is a civil war. It is not Qaddafi invading another country. I think [arming the rebels] is an act of war and particularly the no-fly zone is [an act of war]," she said.
The U.S. government shouldn't set a precedent for intervening in Arab civil wars, Feinstein said. She said that such a step could lead to more interventions by the U.S. military, which is already strained by the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Saudis -- Do you put a no fly zone up there if this happens there? Bahrain -- Do you put a no-fly zone up there? We've got our hands full," she said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) has repeatedly called on the administration to work with allies to set up a no-fly zone over Libya. But Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) is also against the idea for now.
"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before that option can be exercised," Levin told The Cable. "Not only what is the mission, what are the risks, but also who are the supporters of it. If there is no support in the Arab and Muslim world or neighboring countries, what it could result in would be a very negative outcome."
Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), an Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee member and former secretary of the Navy, also said on Tuesday that armed intervention in Libya on behalf of the rebels was not wise at this time.
"We all know that military commitments, however small, are easily begun and in this region particularly very difficult to end," said Webb. "I am of the opinion that it's not a good idea to give weapons and military support to people who you don't know."
Libyan Ambassador to the United States Ali Aujali, who joined the opposition in the early days of the crisis, issued an urgent plea for the United States to take more aggressive actions against the Libyan government in an interview with Foreign Policy today.
Aujali strongly supported the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya, calling it "a historic responsibility for the United States." He also criticized the arguments about the risks of no-fly zone, which have been made by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other military officials. "When we say, for example, that the no-fly zone will take a long time, that it is complicated -- please don't give this regime any time to crush the Libyan people," he said.
The ambassador, who began his diplomatic career four decades ago, raised the flag of the Libyan opposition over the ambassador's residence in Washington after resigning last week. He told Foreign Policy that he decided to resign following Saif al-Qaddafi's speech on Feb. 21, in which Qaddafi's favored son warned protesters of "rivers of blood" if they did not cease their demonstrations.
Aujali warned that further delay in organizing an international response raised the risk that Qaddafi would be able to reconstitute his strength. "Time means losing lives, time means that Qaddafi will regain control," he said. "He has weapons, he has rockets with about 450 kilometers' distance, and we have to protect the people. These mercenaries now are everywhere."
Aujali said that the Qaddafi regime's strategy was now to cut off the liberated Libyan cities from each other, in order to prevent them from uniting their forces and from sharing arms and supplies. With Qaddafi's forces gathered in the south of Libya and Tripoli, he said that the regime's strategy was now to mount a major strike on the northwestern cities of Misurata and Zawiyah, while also continuing the crackdown against protesters in the capital of Tripoli.
Soldiers and mercenaries loyal to Qaddafi have recently attacked Zawiya and the strategic oil town of Brega. Reports suggest that the anti-Qaddafi forces have managed to hold both towns, but have still been unable to mass a large enough force that could threaten Qaddafi's stronghold in Tripoli. Aujali referred to the possibility that Libya could be approaching a long-term stalemate as "the most dangerous thing" for the country. "We are one nation, we are one people, our capital is Tripoli, and we will fight for our unity," he said.
The Obama administration first appeared poised to cut off ties with Aujali following his resignation, after State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on March 1 that the ambassador "no longer represents Libya's interests in the United States." The State Department appeared to reverse that decision, however, as officials there told The Cable yesterday that Aujali was still regarded as their top interlocutor at the Libyan embassy.
Aujali said that he protested the initial decision, accusing the Obama administration of encouraging the Libyan people to rise up against Qaddafi but then maintaining relations with his government. However, he said he was encouraged by the State Department's subsequent affirmation of his position, as well as President Barack Obama's strong condemnation of Qaddafi yesterday.
The ambassador made the case that, with the Libyan opposition fully engaged in organizing the revolt against Qaddafi, Libyan diplomats who have broken with Qaddafi "have to be recognized as the legitimate representatives of the new Libya," or the movement will have no voice overseas.
The Libyan charge d'affaires is still loyal to Qaddafi and working out of the embassy. Aujali, meanwhile, is working out of his residence. However, he claimed that the embassy was "under my control." Aujali chalked up some staffers' unwillingness to break with Qaddafi to the fact that some still have family in areas controlled by the regime, but also said they "have to go back" to Libya if they are unwilling to adapt to the new political order. "Let them fight with Qaddafi if they are really sincere in what they are doing," he said.
Aujali, played an important role in guiding Libya's rapprochement with the West over the past decade, and said that he had hoped his efforts would help convince Qaddafi to allow more freedoms in the country. As relations with the United States began to normalize after 2003, Aujali said, "I thought maybe the man [Qaddafi] will change, he will feel more safe...then there will be a chance for reform in Libya."
However, just the opposite happened. Once Qaddafi was no longer under threat from the United States, Aujali said, he felt that he had a freer hand to crack down on his own people. "The way he treats his people, the way he punishes people, the way he kills his people -- it is only Mussolini and Hitler who have done that," he said.
David Kenner is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
A group of U.S. companies that do business in Libya is asking the Treasury Department to take measures to protect them despite wide-ranging sanctions announced by President Barack Obama last week.
National Foreign Trade Council President William Reinsch wrote a letter on March 1 to Adam Szubin, the head of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), asking for several clarifications on how the Libya sanctions will be implemented and whether U.S. companies will be able to protect their assets there and keep paying their local employees. In the letter, obtained by The Cable, Reinsch also said he represents the U.S.-Libya Business Association, which is composed of U.S. businesses dealing with the Libyan government.
"While U.S. companies have evacuated most or all of their expatriate employees from Libya, numerous Libyan nationals and others remain in Libya and continue to maintain the operations and facilities of the companies to the extent permissible," Reinsch wrote, noting that American companies "seek authorization to provide for the continued safety, welfare, and support of their employees and contractors by paying their salaries and for other routine taxes, fees, benefits, goods and services associated with their employment."
The companies want to be able to send money to their Libyan bank accounts, which would then be used to pay salaries, income taxes, social security taxes, telecommunications bills, residential lease payments, and many other day-to-day expenses that require giving money to the Libyan government, although not directly to the Qaddafi family.
"We request that OFAC consider issuing a general license authorizing transactions covering support for employees in Libya," he wrote.
The concerns outlined in the letter highlight the complexity of sanctioning the Qaddafi regime without hurting the Libyan people, as the administration has pledged to do.
"Will OFAC regulations distinguish between entities controlled by opposition forces and entities controlled by Qadhafi and other Libyans whose assets have been frozen?" Reinsch asked.
A Treasury Department spokesperson told The Cable that OFAC officials met Wednesday with members of the National Foreign Trade Council and U.S.-Libya Business Association.
"OFAC is studying the issues raised in their letter, and plans to act quickly to take appropriate action," the spokesperson said. "While OFAC considers these ideas for general licenses, these U.S. companies have the option of applying for OFAC authorization in the form of specific licenses."
Full text of the letter after the jump:
The calls are increasing in Washington for the Obama administration to take new, stronger measures to punish the Libyan government led by Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi for atrocities and to protect Libyan civilians.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) implored Obama on in a press conference to establish a no-fly zone in Libya, abandon its recognition of the Qaddafi government, transfer recognition to a transitional government formed by the rebels as soon as possible, and provide the opposition with support, including weapons.
"The government of Libya, epitomized by Muammar Qaddafi is massacring some of his people. There is very little doubt about Mr. Qaddafi's commitment to remaining in power no matter how much blood has to be shed," McCain said on behalf of both senators at a Friday press conference in Jerusalem.
"When a government massacres its own people, it loses its legitimacy. So, we should no longer recognize the existing government of Libya."
Lieberman added that the no-fly zone should be organized by NATO and he compared the ongoing killing of civilians in Libya to the genocide perpetrated by Serbia during the 1990s that eventually resulted in a NATO bombing campaign.
"I think in that sense it is very important that we not just make statements about the massacre that is occurring in Libya but that we lead an international coalition to do something," Lieberman said. "What is happening in Libya today reminds me what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. We in the United States decided that we could not simply stand by and watch a government massacre its people."
Back in Washington, Vice President Joseph Biden lamented on Thursday that NATO intervention in the Balkans didn't come sooner, when it could have saved more lives.
"It's amazing how in the Balkans it took so long," Biden told an audience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. "First, we must recognize early indicators of potential atrocities and respond accordingly, rather than waiting until we are confronted by massacres like those in Rwanda or in Srebrenica."
Former State Department Policy Planning Chief Anne-Marie Slaughter also compared the violence in Libya to the Balkans and the 1994 Rwandan genocide in a Thursday tweet.
"The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted," Slaughter tweeted.
Also on Friday, a bipartisan group of senior mostly-Republican foreign policy experts penned an open letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to make good on his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, when he said, "Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later."
The experts asked Obama to call on NATO to urgently develop plans to establish an air and naval presence in Libya, freeze all Libyan government assets in the U.S. and Europe, consider halting Libyan oil imports, pledge to hold Qaddafi responsible for any atrocities, and speed humanitarian aid to the Libyan people.
"With violence spiraling to new heights, and with the apparent willingness of the Qaddafi regime to use all weapons at its disposal against the Libyan people, we may be on the threshold of a moral and humanitarian catastrophe," the experts wrote. "Inaction, or slow and inadequate measures, may not only fail to stop the slaughter in Libya but will cast doubt on the commitment of the United States and Europe to basic principles of human rights and freedoms."
The letter was signed by several senior GOP former officials, including Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, Eric Edelman, Eliot Cohen, Jamie Fly and Scott Carpenter, human rights activities David Kramer and Neil Hicks, and Clinton administration official John Shattuck.
"The United States and our European allies have a moral interest in both an end to the violence and an end to the murderous Libyan regime. There is no time for delay and indecisiveness," they wrote. "The people of Libya, the people of the Middle East, and the world require clear U.S. leadership in this time of opportunity and peril."
Full text of the letter after the jump:
The State Department is evacuating U.S. citizens from Libya on Wednesday using a chartered ferry, with the assistance of the Libyan government.
The U.S. government's chartered ferry is expected to depart the As-shahab Port in central Tripoli en route for Valletta, Malta, on Wednesday, the State Department said. Those onboard are required to have their travel documents in order in advance and are allowed one suitcase and one carry-on item. Pets are only allowed if they met stringent European Union requirements and will probably be quarantined for six weeks upon arrival in Malta.
"U.S. citizens seeking evacuation should be prepared to wait several hours. Travelers are advised to bring food, water, diapers and other necessary toiletries with them to the pier," the State Department advisory warned.
U.S. citizens are required to sign an agreement to reimburse the U.S. government for the cost of the ferry trip at a later date. They will also enjoy no further travel assistance once they reach Malta. Prospective evacuees with questions can contact the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli at LibyaEmergencyUSC@state.gov or by calling +1-202-501-4444.
The State Department ordered all embassy family members and non-emergency personnel to leave Libya on Monday. The U.S. government was also preparing to send chartered planes to Tripoli's airport -- which is still in service -- if the commercial carriers operating there are unable to evacuate all the American citizens there. However, Libyan permission for the U.S. government to bring in chartered planes has not been granted.
There are about 6,000 American citizens in Libya, many of whom have dual nationalities, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Tuesday. 35 U.S. Embassy employees and their families were affected by the order for non-emergency personnel to depart and are reportedly on the ferry due to leave on Wednesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented on the situation in Libya on Tuesday afternoon.
"Now, as always, the safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority, and we are in touch with many Libyan officials directly and indirectly and with other governments in the region to try to influence what is going on inside Libya," she said.
"As we gain a greater understanding of what actually is happening … we will take appropriate steps in line with our policies, our values, and our laws. But we're going to have to work in concert with the international community."
There's a raging debate on Capitol Hill surrounding huge cuts to foreign aid funding proposed in the House Republicans' latest spending bill. But several senators are looking to add a generous foreign aid package for Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern countries when the bill comes over from the House.
"A [continuing resolution] that had full year funding for the troops plus an Egypt, Israel, and Middle East stability package of full year funding would send the right signal from the United States," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable in an exclusive interview.
The current version of the continuing resolution, which is needed to keep the government running past March 4, is being debated in the House now. It proposes significant cuts in the State Department and foreign assistance budgets below what the president requested for fiscal 2011, which began last October.
Kirk said several senators on both sides of the aisle supported the new Middle East Stability funding package, which would fully fund foreign aid accounts for a host of countries in the region at the level requested by the president and pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.
"There's not a need to fund the full foreign assistance program but there is a need for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan related programs to receive full funding for fiscal 2011 right now. This is being discussed and I strongly support it," Kirk said.
Back in the House, there is plenty of support for funding Israel aid, which totals about $3 billion per year, but some Republicans are looking to restrict aid to other Middle East countries, such as Egypt. House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has argued that further funding should be withheld from Egypt unless they exclude Islamist groups such as the the Muslim Brotherhood, from participating in the new government.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable in an exclusive interview that new funding for Egypt was needed to bolster secular and moderate political groups that have been marginalized over the past decades under the old Egyptian regime.
Berman supports increased funding for U.S.-based organizations that promote civil society in Egypt, such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
"We need to educate [moderate Egyptian political groups] on how to communicate, how to build a political party, how to organize. There's a way to do that without choosing who you want but giving the secular parties some skills and some resources to get going," Berman said.
Berman said that increased aid to Egypt now should not be held up due to concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood, which he argued is not going to be particularly interested in NDI or IRI programs anyway.
"America can't decide who participates, we shouldn't, and to the extent we try to too clumsily, we are going to hurt the cause we all share," Berman said. "Mubarak is the one who drew the line, ‘it's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood.' Our job is to create an alternative."
If groups have a chance to organize, the vast majority of the Egyptian population will not be receptive to the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda, Berman said. That doesn't mean, however, that he takes the threat posed by Islamist groups in Egypt lightly."Am I concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood? You betcha," he said.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an exclusive interview with The Cable, credited the Bush administration's Freedom Agenda with setting the stage for the current wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. But he also warned that Egypt and the other countries in the region could easily slip into the hands of repressive groups that have been lying in wait.
"That region does not have a long proud history of free political institutions, free economic institutions, and democracy," Rumsfeld said. "What President Bush has done in Iraq and Afghanistan is to give the people in those countries a chance to have freer political systems and freer economic systems. There's no question that the example is helpful in the region."
But now, several years later, nominally pro-Western movements throughout the Middle East have been defeated by repressive and authoritarian organizations -- a situation that could very well repeat itself in Egypt with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Rumsfeld said, because those groups tend to be better organized and more vicious.
"So while what's happening is hopeful, all of us have to be realistic and hope the process is one, that unlike Lebanon, unlike Gaza, and unlike Iran, does not end up bringing people's hopes up and then dashed with a repressive regime," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld criticized the Obama administration's mixed messaging during the Egypt crisis, specifically referencing the State Department's decision to send Frank Wisner as an unofficial envoy to Cairo. The Obama administration was subsequently forced to distance itself from Wisner when he publicly called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to stay in power only days later.
"I think it's unfortunate that they appointed Frank Wisner and then within a matter of hours got cross waves between the Department of State, the White House, and their special envoy. Clearly that weakens our voice to have mixed signals," Rumsfeld said.
Regarding the role of the Egyptian military, which now has effective control of the government in Cairo, Rumsfeld said that it may or may not turn out to be a responsible steward of power and the transition to free and fair elections.
"If one had to put some money down, you would want odds, but I would take the odds favoring that [the Egyptian military] would behave in a positive and constructive way," Rumsfeld said. "One has to say that managing this process is not going to be easy."
Rumsfeld said that he believes the tidal wave of change sweeping the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to increase its support for the opposition movement in Iran.
"I hope there are a variety of things taking place in our government, in some instances appropriately public but in some instances private ... and that the examples that we are seeing elsewhere in the region, I would hope we would encourage in Iran," he said.
Rumsfeld has over 40 years of experience dealing with Egypt and the Arab world. In his new memoir Known and Unknown, he recounts the first time he met then Vice President Mubarak, in June 1975. At the time, Rumsfeld was serving as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford. "On a personal level, I found him animated, even ebullient," Rumsfeld wrote.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The Obama administration was caught by surprise on Thursday night when President Hosni Mubarak spoke to the Egyptian people and initially declined to step down as leader of the country. Following the speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen quickly phoned their counterparts in the Egyptian military.
Today, the military assumed control of the Egyptian government and Vice President Omar Suleiman announced in a recorded statement that Mubarak had stepped down from the presidency. "Secretary Gates spoke with [Defense Minister] Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi again last night," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell confirmed to The Cable.
"It was his fifth phone conversation with the Egyptian defense minister since the situation in Egypt began."
Captain John Kirby, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs, confirmed to The Cable that Mullen called Egyptian Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan following the Mubarak speech. Mullen and Anan have spoken four times since Jan. 25, and the last call before Thursday night was on Saturday, Feb. 5, Kirby said.
Both Morrell and Kirby declined to give details on the substance of the calls.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday morning that President Barack Obama did not call Mubarak after the speech. The last reported call between Vice President Joseph Biden and Suleiman was Feb. 8, when Biden pressed Suleiman to expand his dialogue with opposition groups.
The Gates and Mullen phone calls are emblematic of the sustained but quiet engagement with their military counterparts that the Pentagon has been undertaking throughout the crisis. That effort has been especially important in recent days, as the military's role has increased and its allegiances have come under closer scrutiny.
The Pentagon even sent out a quiet request to scores of U.S. military officers last week, asking them to contact any Egyptian military members they might know through past associations at American military colleges, the Washington Post reported.
The officers weren't told to deliver any specific messages. The outreach has been rather about collecting information from the Egyptian military and making sure that the military-to-military relationship remained intact, a Pentagon official said, adding that similar outreach has occurred between the Pentagon and its interlocutors in other countries, including Israel.
The White House and the State Department have disagreed on how much pressure to place on Mubarak and Suleiman. The Pentagon has sided mostly with State, arguing for more support of existing Egyptian institutions of power, especially the military. Some observers see the Pentagon as inclined to favor supporting the Egyptian military due its own interests and natural institutional biases.
"The Pentagon is simply so used to letting the Egyptian military have what they want," said one former U.S. official who dealt with the Pentagon on Egypt. "The Pentagon has wanted to keep their involvement at a strictly military-to-military level. So they are reluctant to be part of diplomacy at the top level, but insistent in being engaged in their own diplomacy for their own interest."
Regardless, the direct intervention of top Pentagon and U.S. military officials at key times throughout the crisis may have influenced the Egyptian military's behavior at key junctures, such as when the Egyptian military was implicated in the crackdown of journalists and human rights activists last weekend. Pentagon officials believe their outreach contributed to the relative restraint of the Egyptian Army.
It's unclear whether Gates and Mullen's telephone diplomacy last night actually influenced the events that unfolded only hours later. But the Pentagon's relationships with the Egyptian military are now among the most crucial avenues of communication and influence for U.S. policy toward Egypt going forward.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence holds its first public hearing today, ushering in what new Republican chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) calls a new era of bipartisan, apolitical, and aggressive oversight by a committee that had lost its way over the past few years.
The first hearing will cover "World Wide Threats" and will feature testimony from a host of top administration intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director Leon Panetta, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, Philip Goldberg.
Rogers sat down for an exclusive interview prior to the hearing with The Cable, during which he promised to reinvigorate the committee's oversight and investigation activities, and use its panel to work with the intelligence community to trim budgets and focus on new threats. He also said that while he seeks harmony with the vast bureaucracy he's charged with overseeing, he has some ideas of his own about how intelligence policy should change
Josh Rogin: What is your overall vision for how the committee should be set up, what it should focus on, and what its attitude should be?
Mike Rogers: One of the main goals is to get the committee back to its original roots. The partisan era of national security should be the rare exception. Over the last few years, the committee has really diminished in the eyes of the intelligence community as the place for national security issues to be discussed, solved, and to conduct proper oversight.... We want to be knowledgeable, we want to be responsive, we need to ask hard questions, and it's ok to conduct thorough oversight. And if we get back to doing that in a bipartisan or non-partisan way, we'll be doing the intelligence community a real service.
JR: Where did the committee go wrong and what were the consequences?
MR: I saw this in the Bush administration. When the political rhetoric exceeded the bounds of the committee it had a negative impact on the committee's ability to do its proper oversight. It became not about true oversight of 17 intelligence agencies...it was the political flavor on national security of the day. When that started, the committee stopped looking as hard as it should have, even at the Bush administration.... It wasn't helpful because it stopped us from asking hard questions.
JR: What are the trends in intelligence threats that you see the committee focusing on?
MR: We have everything from a growing radicalization here at home to a more integrated al Qaeda around the world. Finances have merged, training events have merged, radicalization efforts have merged. Our liaison partners have been damaged through public discourse of things better left unsaid between nations.
WikiLeaks is a great example. We're going to have work hard to regain the trust of our liaison partners overseas.... Cyber is huge. We are going to come up with a policy or law on cybersecurity that will put us in a much better place.... [House Speaker] John Boehner has made that commitment.
JR: How are you going to deal with the intelligence budget and the intelligence authorization process?
MR: The military intelligence budget has not been scrutinized the way it needs to be. I'm going to call it a scrub...in a way that's not been done before. We haven't had an authorization bill in six years. That's not going to happen anymore.... The [fiscal 2011] budget has to get done...that's going to be clean of any policies. When we look at the policies, we're either going to influence the policies by working with the intelligence communities at senior levels, or we will legislate it: it may be a stand-alone bill, it may be part of the defense bill; we'll do it that way.
JR: Are you looking to cut the intelligence budget?
MR: I've told the community that I will be the most ardent protector of mission-essential funds. The last thing we want to do is get to the same place we did in the 1990s where they cut mission-essential funds so they actually couldn't perform at the level they should have been performing at. I'm not going to let that happen. But that doesn't mean we can't find efficiencies and savings in the intelligence budget. We're going to do that in cooperation with the intelligence community.
JR: You've called for the intelligence bureaucracy to be "rattled." What do you want to see happen to that bureaucracy?
MR: I think they have gotten the message. For years this whole town was fighting against [the Office of the Director of National Intelligence] from getting bigger. Director Clapper has gone through it and now says ‘I have a plan and help me work through this plan to make the DNI more effective.' At the end of the day I think that will reduce the bureaucracy that we saw in the past.... It's not just about giving him the first crack at this, he laid out a good plan and we're going to be his partner.... It makes the mission more efficient, and when you make it more efficient I think you'll see the bureaucracy get smaller.
JR: Do you plan to use the committee to investigate the policies that led to the WikiLeaks disclosures?
MR: I think we would be irresponsible if we didn't take a look at the policies that we engage in for information sharing. I've found the happy medium [between the need to know and the need to share], it is ‘the need to know with whom to share.'
JR: Do you still plan to try to get rid of the High Value Interrogation Group as established by the Obama administration?
MR: I'm still a skeptic of the High Value Interrogation Group. In the past, we haven't gotten all the information we need. I'm not sure it's the best use of money and investment in people and we'll make that determination in the next couple of months.
JR: Should laws that govern how the government can collect private information, like the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), be expanded to include email and Facebook?
MR: The way we communicate is changing. As long as it is consistent with due process, and I believe CALEA is, we have to do it. We know bad guys are communicating through Facebook and online video games. It's foolish for America not to keep pace with the changing way the world communicates.
JR: Who do you think is really running intelligence policy in the Obama administration? John Brenner? James Clapper? Leon Panetta? Someone else?
MR: We want to better understand that question. We are going to ask questions and we are going to try to come to the conclusion in how it is structured, how decisions are being made -- and at the end of the day does the structure they have created keep us more safe or less safe? If it's more safe, we're going to be with [the administration], if we come to the conclusion that it's not keeping us as safe as another way, we're going to seek some changes.
The White House and the State Department have been sending out different messages over the past few days regarding the U.S. position on Egypt. The seeming disparity between the focus and tone of remarks by officials from each part of the government has the Washington community wondering if there's a rift between Pennsylvania Avenue and Foggy Bottom and who's really in charge.
Internal disagreements on how closely to align the United States with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman and his self-interested reform process emerged into public view last weekend, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Munich Security Conference that the U.S. is calling on the international community to support the process initiated by Suleiman. Clinton also had to distance herself from the comments of the State Department's chosen "envoy" Frank Wisner, who called for Mubarak to stay in power when he spoke at the conference in Munich.
Then, three days later, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke with Suleiman and gave him a list of further steps the U.S. wants him to take to open up the process, clearly expressing the official administration position that Suleiman's process is not acceptable in its current form.
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, the NSC's Ben Rhodes said that the White House and the State Department have been "very closely aligned" and said that the difference between what Clinton said in Munich and what Biden told Suleiman three days later was a reflection of the changing circumstances on the ground.
"[Clinton] was just stating [in Munich] the matter of fact that Vice President Suleiman is the person conducting these negotiations for the government... Our response on Monday and Tuesday was in reaction to [Suleiman's] statements and it was to say that those statements alone were insufficient because they didn't constitute concrete action," Rhodes said. "I think it's entirely consistent to again state support for a process of negotiation... but to then hold the government accountable in terms of identifying the kinds of steps that we believe need to take place and that the Egyptian people are calling for."
Clinton's deputy chief of staff and new director for policy planning, Jake Sullivan, argued that the White House and the State Department have been aligned on the three core principles the U.S. government has been advocating for throughout the crisis: non-violence, respect for universal rights, and the need for political change.
"The theory of the case has remained consistent...and it's something on which the Secretary, the president and all of the other national security team members have been aligned on. And that's been true in the true public messaging. It's been true in the private messaging as well, " Sullivan said. "The situation is changing day by day even as we maintain the same basic core to our approach."
Experts close to the administration agreed with that to some degree, but said that mixed messaging from State and the White House was muddying communication of those core principles. The biases are based in institutional cultures, they said, and the gaps between the two camps are real.
"You had a similar dynamic in the later years of the Bush administration. There was President Bush and [NSC senior director] Elliott Abrams at the White House still trying to push the freedom agenda and Condoleezza Rice at the State Department very much trying to play it down," said Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The messages out of the administration have been extremely confusing and I think they realize that."
Abrams told The Cable that there are probably divisions in both places. "Where the State Department came out of its internal debate is in one place, where the White House has come out is in a different place," he said. "In the end it's about winning the hearts and minds, not of the Egyptian people, but of Obama, Biden, Clinton and Gates."
Deeper down in the administration, several official are playing influential roles in how the policy is being formed on each side. On the White House side, NSC Director Dan Shapiro, NSC Senior Director Samantha Power, and Rhodes have been leading the White House's outreach with the foreign policy expert community and held their latest meeting with experts on Tuesday.
Attendees reportedly included Dunne, Abrams, WINEP's Scott Carpenter, New America's Steve Clemons, CSIS's Jon Alterman, USIP's Dan Brumberg, Johns Hopkins' Fouad Ajami, and Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski.
Inside the State Department, Clinton is being advised on Egypt by several officials who have deep experience with Egypt, including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, who had suggested Wisner be sent to Cairo to deal with Mubarak, and Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, among others.
"The people whispering in her ears are people like Bill Burns, who is preoccupied with most often trying to save us from ourselves," Carpenter told The Cable. "Burns is legitimately concerned with how this all unfolds, but his interest is in preserving as much of the status quo with the current government of Egypt as possible. Meanwhile, the White House is saying that it's in our interest to build a new relationship because if we don't it's going to lead to something worse when the next government comes. So that leads them to conclude that they have to save State from themselves."
Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon, is increasingly seen as someone who understands the wider risks to U.S. foreign policy of being tougher on Suleiman and President Hosni Mubarak but is nevertheless looking for creative ways to square that circle.
"Some people on the inside say ‘Thank God for Feltman,'" because he's trying to prepare State for a changed relationship with Egypt after Mubarak leaves and trying to look over the horizon, Carpenter said.
On the specific policy toward Egypt, the difference between the current thinking at the White House as opposed to at the State Department surrounds exactly how much leeway Suleiman should have in setting up the committees that will negotiate and then oversee the political reform process leading up the elections.
On his blog the Washington Note, Clemons wrote that a senior White House official told him they want to see the emerging transitional process look like a "potluck dinner," where everyone brings their own ideas and has real power off the bat, rather than a hosted "dinner party" where Suleiman decides the guest list, the agenda, and thereby the results.
"The State Department is advocating a hosted dinner, where the power still resides with the incumbents," Clemons told The Cable. "That's not good enough for the White House."
Contractors working for U.S. embassies throughout the Arab world have been abusing foreign workers through unsanitary living conditions, coercive hiring practices, and a host of other indignities, according to a new State Department report released Monday.
The State Department's Office of the Inspector General looked into six contracts at the U.S. embassies in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and at two consulates general in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. It found what it referred to as indicators of coercion (confiscation of documents at the work destination), indicators of exploitation (bad living conditions and payment issues), and indicators of abuse of vulnerability (absence of language education and general abuse of a lack of information).
The six contracts examined -- for the employment of janitors, gardeners, and guards at these diplomatic posts -- totaled about $18 million.
"More than 70 percent of foreign contract workers live in overcrowded, unsafe, or unsanitary conditions, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.," the report stated. "In Riyadh, the embassy's 19 gardeners share a dilapidated apartment building with numerous fire and safety hazards."
Janitors in Abu Dhabi get an average of 24 square feet of living space. (By way of comparison, federal prisoners in the U.S. typically get between 45 and 60 square feet.) In Abu Dhabi, 8 to 10 workers bunk in a 12 by 18-foot room; there are only 15 to 20 bathrooms in a camp there that houses over 450 people. According to the report, the contractor in charge of those workers led the OIG investigators on a wild goose chase, first taking them to a building that was not actually where the workers lived.
What's more, workers of different nationalities often received different wages for doing the same jobs. For example, a Bangladeshi janitor at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh gets paid $4.44 a day. A worker of Indian origin doing the same job makes double, $8.89 a day, the report found. At the U.A.E. embassy, most guards make $22.71 a day, equal to the minimum wage. But the Ethiopian guards there make only $13.62 per day, well below the legal minimum.
Workers at the U.S. embassy in Kuwait weren't aware they are entitled to two weeks of vacation per year, leading one employee to work eight straight years without taking any time off whatsoever.
The report said there was no "severe" abuse, defined as conduct that clearly violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which would include sex trafficking or illicit activities related to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery. But since there's no clear monitoring system for trafficking violations, the OIG ultimately couldn't say if trafficking violations were occurring.
Seventy-seven percent of workers interviewed said they had to pay a recruitment fee to get their jobs at the embassies and over 50 percent of those said their fee was greater than six months salary. Every contractor examined by the OIG confiscated the passports of their workers. Inappropriate garnishing of workers' wages was rampant, and most workers were forced to seek extra, often-illegal second jobs to supplement their salaries.
The OIG set forth seven recommendations for better protecting contract workers. These include the suggestion that embassies discuss local labor laws with contractors, monitor compliance and even require certification of contractors, and require that contractors explain labor laws to their workers. It also recommended that the State Department's Bureau of Administration should increase its training on the issue.
Most of the embassies investigated agreed with the OIG's report, but the Bureau of Administration's Office of the Procurement Executive (A/OPE) disagreed with all seven of the OIG's recommendations. The U.S. embassy in Riyadh provided no comments on the report whatsoever.
The OIG called A/OPE's explanations for why it disagreed with the recommendations "unclear and unresponsive to the intent of the recommendations."
Uber-diplomat Frank Wisner won't be making any public remarks on the crisis in Egypt anytime soon; the Obama administration has directed him to steer clear of the press following his command performance in Munich, where he went off the reservation of the Obama administration's policy and forced the administration to distance itself from him and his remarks.
Wisner is back in New York at his day job at Patton Boggs, the lobbying law firm where he has worked since February 2009. He had a busy week, which began Jan. 31 with being dispatched by the Obama administration to deliver a direct message to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He reportedly delivered Obama's tough message that Mubarak must start the transition of power "now." The week ended with him telling the entire Munich Security Conference, which included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the audience, that Mubarak must stay in power to oversee changes in government.
"I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical -- it's his chance to write his own legacy," Wisner told the conference.
The remarks were so far off of the administration's message, which at this moment is that it's not the U.S. government's place to weigh in on Mubarak's future, that Clinton was forced to clarify on the plane ride home that Wisner was a private citizen and in no way spoke on behalf of the U.S. government.
But was the State Department even aware of what Wisner was going to say in Munich? "He did not give us a heads-up," a State Department official told The Cable.
Wisner was suggested for the "envoy" assignment to talk with Mubarak by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, two administration officials confirmed. Burns is the highest-ranking Foreign Service officer at State and has known Wisner for decades.
Inside the administration's policy process on Egypt, Burns is a key player, having been U.S. ambassador to Jordan and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. He wrote a book called Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, published in 1985, just before Wisner was named ambassador to Cairo.
But Wisner's embrace of Mubarak goes even further than Burns's position. "The implication that Bill agrees with [Wisner's] public statements since [Wisner's trip to Cairo] … is just plain wrong," an administration official told The Cable.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Monday that the administration knew about Wisner's work for the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which does business in Egypt, and that his long relationship with Mubarak was an asset, not a detraction.
"We're aware of his employer.… And we felt that he was uniquely positioned to have the kind of conversation that we felt needed to be done in Egypt," Crowley said.
A spokesman for Patton Boggs told the New York Times that Patton Boggs was not doing significant work on behalf of the Egyptian government and that Wisner "has no involvement and has not had any involvement in Egyptian business while at the firm."
The White House on Monday argued that Wisner dutifully completed his assigned task in Cairo, which was "to deliver a specific, one-time message to President Mubarak," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
"He is not and was not a U.S. envoy. He was not sent to negotiate. He is an individual who has a long history with President Mubarak and thus could deliver a clear message. He spoke to President Mubarak once, reported on his conversation, and then came home," Vietor said.
Nevertheless, don't expect the Obama administration to send any more one-off, high-level envoys anytime soon.
"We are completely confident in our ability to communicate directly with the government of Egypt at the White House, State Department, Pentagon and through our embassy," Vietor said.
CORRECTED: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Patton Boggs was part of the PLM Group, a lobbying entity comprising firms led by Tony Podesta, Bob Livingston, and Toby Moffet. Patton Boggs is not part of the PLM group, which has lobbied extensively on behalf of the Egyptian government.
Top Obama administration officials pressed the Egyptian military on Thursday to intervene on behalf of the activists, journalists, and protesters being attacked by groups of thugs supporting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as concerns grew in Washington about the military's role and agenda.
Vice President Joseph Biden placed responsibility for restoring calm in the streets of Cairo squarely in the hands of Vice President Omar Suleiman, who is also chief of the country's intelligence apparatus, when the two leaders spoke over the phone on Thursday afternoon.
"[Biden] stressed that the Egyptian government is responsible for ensuring that peaceful demonstrations don't lead to violence and intimidation and for allowing journalists and human rights advocates to conduct their important work, including immediately releasing those who have been detained," stated a White House readout of the conversation.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton specifically called on the Egyptian military, which had been staying neutral during the crisis, to take on a greater role.
"There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the Army, to protect those threatened and hold accountable those responsible for these attacks," she said on Thursday. "The Egyptian government must demonstrate its willingness to ensure journalists' ability to report on these events to the people of Egypt and to the world."
There are conflicting reports about the Egyptian military's role in the crackdown on journalists and activists. The Cable reported earlier on Thursday that Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams was arrested on Thursday morning in a raid conducted by police as well as military personnel.
The reportedly direct involvement of the Egyptian military in the raids is unsettling because until yesterday the military had been viewed as largely neutral in the clashes between the pro-Mubarak and anti-regime groups.
Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski said that based on today's events, the military's neutrality is no longer intact.
"I think neutrality for the Egyptian military is really impossible in this situation. If they do nothing, that's not neutrality; that tips the balance toward the ruling party," he said. Malinowski is also a member of the bipartisan Egypt Working Group, which issued a new statement on Thursday calling on the White House to make clear that military aid to Egypt will be suspended if the military fails to protect peaceful protests.
The Obama administration is working hard behind the scenes, especially through senior defense officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to impress upon the Egyptian military the need to protect protesters and support a peaceful government transition. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen spoke on Wednesday with Egyptian Army Lt. Gen. Sami Enan about the clashes and the military's role.
"Broadly speaking, the military has played a very important and constructive role in being a stabilizing force on the ground, particularly relative to what the situation looked like prior to the weekend," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Thursday. "We are very impressed with the posture and the professionalism displayed by the Egyptian military."
Around Washington, the Obama administration's increasing dependence on the Egyptian military is becoming a cause of concern.
"There are reliable sources telling us that the current professional assessment in the Administration is that hoping for a military coup to kick out Mubarak is the best short-term outcome," Chris Nelson wrote in his insider Washington newsletter, the Nelson Report. "A sense coming from professionals at [the State Department is] that for all the angry rhetoric being directed at the leadership of the military, the primary emotions now at the leadership level are ambivalence and conflicting interests."
In an article on the Foreign Policy website on Wednesday, Naval Postgraduate School professor Robert Springborg argued that the military's game all along has been to feign neutrality and protect itself as a guarantor of stability as a plot to ultimately protect the regime and thwart the drive for real democracy.
"The president and the military, have, in sum, outsmarted the opposition and, for that matter, the Obama administration," Springborg wrote. "They skillfully retained the acceptability and even popularity of the Army, while instilling widespread fear and anxiety in the population and an accompanying longing for a return to normalcy."
For now, the State Department is not yet blaming the Egyptian military for the violence perpetrated against journalists and activists on the streets of Cairo, but did acknowledge that Interior Ministry personnel have been involved.
"There are very strong indications that this is part of a concerted effort," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Thursday. "I can't tell you who is directing it, but with the increasing number of instances of people roughed up, journalists' cars attacked, offices broken into, journalists detained, these do not seem to be random events."
The true test of could come Friday, when more protests, raids, and clashes are expected.
"We are bracing for significant increase in the number of demonstrators on the streets, and with that, given yesterday's events, the real prospect of a confrontation," Crowley said.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
When the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo was raided by state security forces on Thursday, Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams was swept up in the arrests. But before he was carted off to prison, Williams had the presence of mind to call a friend in Cairo and leave his cell phone line open, to broadcast the raid as it unfolded.
The Law Center is a hub and meeting space for various human rights and civil society groups in Egypt and has been amazingly active since the protests began Jan. 25. On Thursday morning, a joint squad of police and military personnel in their respective uniforms raided the Center, interrogated all inside, and forcibly transported dozens of Egyptians and foreigners alike to an unknown detention facility, where Williams remains now.
Before his cell phone was confiscated, the person on the other end of the line, who must remain anonymous for his own safety, heard the violent details of the incident. Police and army personnel were heard ordering the activists up against the wall, started yelling at them, and then claimed they were there to protect them from the pro-regime thugs who were assembled and chanting just outside the doors and who harassed the activists as they were escorted from the building.
"We could let you go out in the crowd and they will kill you or you can come with us," the police and army personnel said, according to Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski, who has been working furiously to try to free Williams and the others arrested in Thursday's crackdown by coordinating efforts with administration officials and human rights groups in Washington and Cairo.
Following the on-site interrogations, the police and army personnel accused all the Egyptians working at the Law Center of being affiliated with Hamas and accused all the foreigners at the Center of being affiliated with Israeli intelligence service Mossad.
"So it's a Hamas-Mossad conspiracy apparently," Malinowski told The Cable with a sigh.
Meanwhile, human rights groups in Washington have been working closely though a stream of emails and phone call with the Obama administration to share information, coordinate action, and press the Mubarak regime to halt the arrests and release the imprisoned activists and journalists.
Primarily, this effort by the administration is run out of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, where Ambassador Margaret Scobey has taken the lead on maintaining ties to Egyptian non-governmental organizations and political opposition groups, instructing her staff to reach out to them to make sure they are safe and sharing information about what's going on. There are also officials in the State Department and the National Security Council who have longstanding ties with these groups and are working the phones on a constant basis, an administration official said, declining to provide details of those interactions.
"The Obama administration has raised with the Egyptian government the need to release people who have been detained for peaceful activism or journalism," Malinowski said. The list of foreign journalists reported to be under arrest is changing moment to moment.
For those in the human rights community who have been watching the crisis in Egypt descend into violence, the regime is clearly responsible.
"What we've seen in the last 24 hours is a counter attack by the ruling party and security apparatus of Egypt, which may be willing to concede Mubarak but isn't willing to concede the dictatorship," said Malinowski. "These thugs are part of the ruling party's army, they deploy it routinely on election days to intimidate voters and they deployed it yesterday as well."
The reported direct involvement of the Egyptian military in the raids is unsettling because until yesterday, the military had been largely neutral in the clashes between the pro-Mubarak and anti-regime groups. But it's not known if they are totally complicit in the crackdown or if they are participating in order to prevent the police from becoming too brutal.
The Obama administration is working hard behind the scenes, especially through senior defense officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to impress upon the Egyptian military the need to protect protestors and support a peaceful government transition. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen spoke Wednesday with Egyptian Army Lt. Gen. Sami Enan about the clashes and the military's role.
"He assures me that they're very focused on this, and they will continue to be a stabilizing influence within their country," Mullen said after the call. "So far, the Egyptian military have handled themselves exceptionally well."
But in light of the raid on the Law Center, human rights activists are no longer sure the military is neutral.
"The military's stance toward yesterday's counterattack is ambiguous," Malinowski said. "But as bad as things are, they would be worse if not for the pressure the administration has been putting on the military."
Meanwhile, the Egypt Working Group, a bipartisan team of experts that has been advising the administration, issued a new statement on Thursday calling on the White House to make clear that military aid to Egypt will be suspended if the military fails to protect peaceful protests and the transition doesn't start promptly -- as the administration has demanded.
For those who are working to secure the safety of activists like Williams, how the Egyptian military acts during these crackdowns will expose what their true motivations are going forward.
"This is an important part of the larger picture that the administration is looking at. It's one test of whether the regime, which includes the military, is in fact heeding President Obama's call for transition to orderly democracy."
President Barack Obama's pseudo-envoy to Egypt Frank Wisner is on his way back to Washington after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and new Vice President Omar Suleiman, but he has so far failed to convince the Egyptian leadership to start an immediate transition to a new form of government.
Top officials in the Obama administration continue to urge the Mubarak regime's leaders, who are still their primary interlocutors, to begin the transition of power, despite violence against protesters by pro-Mubarak groups and increasing signs that the Egyptian president has no intention of stepping aside any time soon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke over the phone with Suleiman on Wednesday.
"She emphasized again our condemnation of the violence that occurred today, encouraged the government to hold those responsible fully accountable for this violence. We don't know at this point who did it," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "And she continued to stress to the -- to Vice President Suleiman that the transition has to start now."
Obama has insisted that Mubarak begin the transition "now" in a phone call with his Egyptian counterpart on Tuesday night. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs doubled down on that position on Wednesday, saying, "now means yesterday."
Crowley spelled out exactly what the administration's message was on the path forward for a transition. "There needs to be a national dialogue, a serious conversation among a variety of players, and a clear process," he said.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry explicitly rejected calls for the transition to begin immediately, accusing Washington of inciting the protesters. Crowley responded by saying, "These demonstrators are not going away. You know, this is gathering momentum.... These steps [by Mubarak] have to be broader. They have to be more visible."
Meanwhile, a host of senior U.S. officials have been working the phones to maintain close contact with their interlocutors in the Egyptian government, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, Undersecretary of State Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, and others. Ambassador Margaret Scobey has been meeting with Egyptian officials at all levels in Cairo, as well as with opposition leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei. But Crowley said no one in the administration has met with the Muslim Brotherhood
The administration acknowledges that they've had to change their stance on the crisis several times and that some of their decisions, such as sending Wisner to Cairo, have not worked out as planned. ABC News reported that Obama pulled Wisner back from Cairo because his effectiveness was diluted following the leaking of his conversations to the media.
A senior administration official told ABC that the administration was being forced to change its strategy "every twelve hours."
"First it was ‘negotiate with the opposition,' then events overtook that, then it was ‘orderly transition,' and events overtook that, then it was ‘You and your son can't run,' and events overtook that, and now it's ‘the process has to begin now,'" the official said. "It's been crawl-walk-run -- we had to increase the pace as events required."
Many experts see the administration as stuck with an ineffective middle-of-the-road policy that is angering both the regime and the protesters.
"The administration people are really struggling," said George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch. "They want Mubarak to go but they don't know how to make him leave."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
A top State Department official in Tunis pledged full American support for the Tunisian drive to hold free elections on Wednesday, but also sought to distance the U.S. position on Tunisia from other mass protests in the region, such as the ongoing unrest in Egypt.
"What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian. That the events that took place here over the past few weeks derive from particularly Tunisian grievances, from Tunisian circumstances by the Tunisian people," Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said at a press conference.
He called for free and fair elections in Tunisia and pledged both American and international support to set them up.
"The United States stands with the people of Tunisia. This is an exciting and unprecedented moment in Tunisia's history with great challenges but also great opportunities for the Tunisian people to chart their own course," he said.
Feltman allowed that there are some fundamental similarities with regard to human rights.
"The challenges that are faced here are in some cases shared. And we think governments everywhere should be finding ways to permit peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the media in order to give people a say in how they are governed and to give them a stake in the future," he said.
Feltman's remarks echo Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's latest statement, which also calls on the Egyptian government to stop harassing protesters, but doesn't call on the Egyptian government to let them participate in a real election process.
"It is important that the government listens to the concerns of those demonstrating and respects rights of freedom of assembly and expression," she said. "Openness, transparency and political freedom are important tenets of stability. We urge the government and demonstrators to seek a peaceful way forward."
The Obama administration's support for Tunisians' right to self determination was on display during last night's State of the Union speech by President Obama, a speech in which he didn't mention Egypt at all.
"We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people," said Obama.
The White House issued a statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at about 11:30 PM, after the president's speech had concluded, expressing U.S. support of Egyptians right to peaceful assembly, but without any call for free and fair elections.
"The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals," the statement read.
During a Wednesday morning roundtable, State Department Policy Planning Director Anne Marie Slaughter explained the seeming disparity by noting that there was consistency in the sense that both stances include a respect for "universal values."
"That means we are strongly supportive of the Tunisians in the effort to achieve democracy, it also means we are not imposing our values on countries around the world," she said.
The New America Foundation's Steve Clemons said that the George W. Bush administration, despite that it outwardly advocated for democratic change in the Arab world, might have taken a similar stance as the Obama administration has on Egypt.
"The notion that we're somehow in the streets with every potential freedom movement would be a mistake in foreign policy," he said. "If this administration was out there calling for regime change in Egypt, I think that would be a huge mistake."
The Palestine Liberation Organization, no longer willing to follow the Obama administration's diplomatic lead, is gambling that its latest drive for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements will put more pressure on both the Israeli government and the Obama administration.
The U.S. administration, caught between its desire to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and its reluctance to abandon Israel at the United Nations, has not officially decided what it will do if and when the Palestinian resolution ever comes up for a Security Council vote.
"I'm not going to speculate on how we might vote, but we've made very clear both our policy on settlements as well as our belief that action in the United Nations or any other forum is not particularly helpful," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
The resolution itself, which has 122 co-sponsors and the support of Security Council members Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Gabon, India, Nigeria and South Africa, is undergoing several rounds of revision in New York. The Cable has obtained a version of the resolution circulated among U.N. diplomats Jan. 18, which can be found here. Under this draft, the Security Council:
1. Reaffirms that the Israeli settlements established in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace;
2. Reiterates its demand that Israel, the occupying Power, immediately and completely ceases all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard;
3. Calls upon both parties to act on the basis of international law and their previous agreements and obligations, including under the Roadmap, aimed, inter alia, at improving the situation on the ground, building confidence and creating the conditions necessary for promoting the peace process;
4. Calls upon all parties to continue, in the interest of the promotion of peace and security, with their negotiations on the final status issues in the Middle East peace process according to its agreed terms of reference and within the timeframe specified by the Quartet in its statement of 21 September 2010;
5. Urges in this regard the intensification of international and regional diplomatic efforts to support and invigorate the peace process towards the achievement of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.
The State Department tried and failed to convince the PLO to not bring up the resolution. U.S. officials asked Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to delay bringing the resolution forward during his trip to Washington last week, the PLO's representative in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, told The Cable in an interview. Areikat said the Palestinians hope the United States will eventually come around to support the resolution, but that the PLO had no choice but to proceed.
"The Obama administration cannot tell us not to resort to the U.N. when the international community has failed to stop the illegal settlement activity by Israel which is changing things on the ground," Areikat said. "How long are we supposed to stand by with no results? [The administration] has to tell us what it is they intend to do to move towards a solution to this problem."
Areikat indicated that the Feb. 5 meeting in Munich of the Quartet, which is composed of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia, could be an opportunity to head off a confrontation at the Security Council. However, he didn't say outright that the Palestinians would wait that long before calling for further action.
"They're in no particular rush. They want to see if this can be used as leverage so the U.S. can come in with some other compromise," said Steve Clemons, foreign policy head of the New America Foundation.
But the Obama administration isn't yet ready to come out with a plan for revitalizing the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Clemons said.
"The administration has been working really hard to move Netanyahu on the settlements and to try to push Abbas into a position to sit down regardless of what was happening on settlements. But there seems to be complete gridlock," he said.
Clemons has been leading a drive among foreign policy professionals in Washington to convince the Obama administration not to veto the resolution.
"If the proposed resolution is consistent with existing and established US policies, then deploying a veto would severely undermine US credibility and interests, placing us firmly outside of the international consensus, and further diminishing our ability to mediate this conflict," read his letter to President Obama, which was signed by several other foreign policy professionals.
Daniel Levy, the co-director of the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force, explained that Abbas is under intense pressure domestically to show strength vis-à-vis Israel, and absent a more aggressive plan from Washington, has no choice but to pursue international support for the Palestinian cause.
Meanwhile, the Israelis have no plans to stop settlement activity, regardless of what happens with the Security Council resolution. But like the Palestinians, they are also looking to Washington to chart the road ahead for the peace process.
"We're all in a kind of wait and see mode to see what the U.S. administration is planning to do," an Israel official said.
Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has a message for those in Congress who want to slash development and foreign-aid budgets: Cuts will undermine U.S. national security.
On the heels of a major speech on the coming reforms to America's premier development agency, Shah sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable to explain his vision for making USAID more responsible and accountable, an effort he said will require increased short-term investment in order to realize long-term savings.
But if Congress follows through on a massive defunding of USAID as the 165-member Republican Study Group recommended yesterday, it would not only put USAID's reforms in jeopardy, but have real and drastic negative implications for American power and the ongoing missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Shah.
"That first and foremost puts our national security in real jeopardy because we are working hand and glove with our military to keep us safe," said Shah, referring to USAID missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Central America, and responding directly to congressional calls for cuts in foreign aid and development.
The RSC plan calls for $1.39 billion in annual savings from USAID. The USAID operating budget for fiscal 2010 was approximately $1.65 billion. The RSC spending plan summary was not clear if all the cuts would come from operations or from USAID administered programs.
"That would have massive negative implications for our fundamental security," said Shah. "And as people start to engage in a discussion of what that would mean for protecting our border, for preventing terrorist safe havens and keeping our country safe from extremists' ideology … and what that would mean for literally taking children that we feed and keep alive through medicines or food and leaving them to starve. I think those are the types of things people will back away from."
The interests between the development community and U.S. national security objectives don't always align, and this tension is at the core of the debate on how to reinvigorate USAID. Short-term foreign-policy objectives sometimes don't match long-term development needs, and U.S. foreign-policy priorities are not made with development foremost in mind.
But Shah's ambitious drive to reform USAID seems to embrace the idea that development investments can be justified due to their linkage with national security. He is preparing to unveil next month USAID's first ever policy on combating violent extremism and executing counterinsurgency. He also plans to focus USAID's efforts on hot spots like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, while transitioning away from other countries that are faring well and downgrading the agency's presence in places like Paris, Rome, and Tokyo.
Shah pointed out that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus have all come out in strong support of increasing USAID's capacity to do foreign aid.
"In the military they call us a high-value, low-density partner because we are of high value to the national security mission but there aren't enough of us and we don't have enough capability," he said. "This is actually a much, much, much more efficient investment than sending in our troops, not even counting the tremendous risk to American lives when we have to do that."
For those less concerned with matters of national security, Shah also framed his argument for development aid in terms of increased domestic economic and job opportunities: If we want to export more, we need to help develop new markets that are U.S.-friendly.
"If we are going to be competitive as a country and create jobs at home, we cannot ignore the billions of people who are currently very low income but will in fact form a major new middle-class market in the next two decades," he said.
One of the main criticisms of USAID both on Capitol Hill and elsewhere is that the agency has been reduced over the years to not much more than a contracting outfit, disbursing billions of dollars around the world to organizations that have mixed performance records. In Shah's view, if Congress wants USAID to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, it has to increase the agency's operating budget and allow the agency to monitor contracts in-house.
"It was the Bush administration that helped launch the effort to reinvest in USAID's capabilities and hiring and people, and the reason they did that is they recognized you save a lot more money by being better managers of contracts," Shah said. "We have a choice. We have a critical need to make the smart investments in our own operations … which over time will save hundreds of millions of dollars, as opposed to trying to save a little bit now by cutting our capacity to do oversight and monitoring."
Shah wouldn't comment on the latest and greatest USAID contracting scandal, where the agency suspended contractor AED from receiving any new contracts amid allegations of widespread fraud. But he did say that his office would be personally reviewing large sole-source contracts from now on, requiring independent and public evaluations, and that more corrective actions are in the works.
"I suspect you'll see more instances of effective, proactive oversight that in fact saves American taxpayers significant resources," he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today for a trip to the Gulf, where she will meet with senior Arab leaders and civic groups. Middle East peace, Iraq, and Iran will be at the top of her agenda.
Clinton travels to New York tonight to pay a visit to Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who has been in New York since November for surgery on his back. She'll also meet tonight with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in New York, before embarking on a six-day trip that will take her to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar.
"She is going to want to talk about Iraq," a senior State Department official said about the trip. "We obviously want to encourage [regional leaders in the Gulf] to be as supportive as possible to the new Iraqi government."
"On the peace process, I think it's time once again for the secretary to take stock on what is happening in the region," the official said. "She will want to talk a bit about where the Arab peace initiative is and she will want to get a better sense of how the region sees the situation on the ground both in terms of both the Palestinian Authority and also in terms of the talks... We are very eager to see progress made but it's an uphill battle."
Clinton will also sound out the Gulf rulers on their opinions toward Iran's recent actions, said the official. With the "P5+1" countries scheduled to hold another round of talks with Iran in Istanbul, it is an important moment to attempt to "unknot this problem that we find ourselves in with the Iranians and their nuclear ambitions," the official said. "She'll also want to take stock of where we are on the sanctions regime."
Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior leaders in all three countries. In the UAE, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince, and his brother Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister.
This will be Clinton's first visit to Dubai, where she will meet with ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She will also go to Abu Dhabi and visit the "green city" of Masdar, the futuristic neighborhood being built to run completely carbon neutral and waste free.
In Oman, Clinton will help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who the State Department official described as "a long time friend of the United States and a valued partner who has made enormous changes on the ground in his country over the last 40 years. "
In Qatar, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir, and participate in the Forum for the Future, a meeting of government, civil society, and business leaders from around the region. There she will participate in a panel with a foreign minister, a civil society representative, and a business leader from the region.
The State Department is billing the trip as "an opportunity to showcase these other dimensions of U.S. engagement in the Middle East and the Gulf, particularly the emphasis we've placed on building partnerships beyond the government to government level, reaching out to civil society, reaching out to the private sector," said another senior State Department official. "That's really the key goal for everything that she's doing on the trip."
Tom Countryman, currently a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs has been selected to fill the vacant post of assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN), multiple administration sources confirmed to The Cable.
Countryman's pending nomination, which is still going through the final stages of State Department and White House approval, fills a void in the office of arms control and international security (T), led by Undersecretary Ellen Tauscher. The vacancy at the top of the ISN bureau has hampered Tauscher's plan to reorganize the T family, the State Department's arms control bureaucracy. Even Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) has noted that this will be more difficult without an assistant secretary at the helm.
"The ISN bureau has been languishing for the last two years," said one State Department source. "Getting a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary in place will go a long ways toward restoring morale and elevating this bureau's profile within the Department."
Inside the State Department, Countryman is seen as an able manager who knows how to navigate the bureaucracy and get things done. He's not a nonproliferation specialist by any means, but insiders believe his stature and skill can compensate for his lack of subject matter expertise. ISN also got a new deputy assistant secretary last month, Tauscher's former chief of staff Simon Limage.
Acting Assistant Secretary Vann Van Diepen has been in charge of ISN, but Van Diepen was never nominated to take on the position permanently. He was deemed un-confirmable due to lingering GOP complaints regarding his role in crafting a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program.
Van Diepen was one of three principal authors of the report, which concluded, "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
In a little-noticed congressional hearing in late March, Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) pressed Van Diepen on the issue. Van Diepen defended the NIE, saying, "by ‘nuclear weapons program' we mean Iran's nuclear weapon design and weaponization work.... We do not mean Iran's...uranium conversion and enrichment."
Countryman, a career diplomat with tours in Yugoslavia and Egypt, was previously principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Political and Military Affairs but moved over to the European bureau at the personal request of Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg to give added attention to the Balkans. During the Clinton administration, he worked in the State Department's counterterrorism office, advised U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright on Middle Eastern affairs, and then moved to the position of director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.