White House advisor Dennis Ross, one of President Barack Obama's lead officials in handling the Middle East peace process and U.S. policy toward Iran, is leaving the administration and returning to the private sector.
"After nearly three years of serving in the administration, I am going to be leaving to return to private life," Ross said in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday. "I do so with mixed feelings. It has been an honor to work in the Obama Administration and to serve this President, particularly during a period of unprecedented change in the broader Middle East."
He will leave the administration is early December. No replacement has yet been announced.
Ross' official title was National Security Council (NSC) senior director for the "central region," which gave him authority over not just the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but also placed him in charge of NSC officials who worked on Iran, India, and other issues. He said in his statement that he promised his wife he would be in government for only two years.
"We both agreed it is time to act on my promise," Ross said.
Ross actually worked for the Obama administration for almost three years, and resigned two days after Obama was caught on a hot microphone discussing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy their mutual frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"I cannot stand him. He's a liar," Sarkozy told Obama in what the two leaders thought was a private conversation at the G-20 summit in Cannes.
"You're fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day," Obama responded.
Ross worked on Middle East issues for every administration since Jimmy Carter, except for that of former President George W. Bush, and was often seen as the Obama administration's main interlocutor with the Netanyahu team. He reportedly clashed with members of the administration who focused on other aspects of the administration's Middle East policy, such as former Special Envoy George Mitchell.
He had originally been appointed in February 2009 as special envoy to the Gulf and Southwest Asia, a job located at the State Department and focused on Iran, but was moved to his NSC position in June 2009. While there, he had been working primarily on the Middle East peace process and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney praised Ross in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday.
"Dennis Ross has an extraordinary record of public service and has been a critical member of the President's team for nearly three years," Carney said. "In light of the developments in the broader Middle East, the President appreciates his extending that by nearly a year and looks forward to being able to draw on his council periodically going forward."
A group of House lawmakers is making the case for continuing U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the Palestinian bid to seek full membership in the United Nations.
"Maintaining U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority is in the essential strategic interest of Israel and the United States," wrote 44 lawmakers, all Democrats, in a letter today to House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee heads Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY). The letter was spearheaded by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Peter Welch (D-VT).
Ever since the Palestinians began their statehood drive this summer, Congress has been attacking the $550 million of annual aid given to the PA by U.S. taxpayers. For fiscal 2011, Congress had already provided the Palestinians with about $150 million in direct budget support -- also known as cash -- but $200 million in security funding and about $200 million in humanitarian funding has been held up.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL ) released her hold on the security funding last week, but she and Granger are still holding up the non-security funding. Also, Congress is set to consider whether to allocate a whole new tranche of aid to the PA as part of the upcoming negotiations over the fiscal 2012 State and foreign ops spending bill. That bill could come up in the Senate this week or next, leading to a House-Senate conference behind closed doors to iron out a final compromise bill.
"We understand the developments that have led some to call for a suspension or termination of aid to the PA," the 44 lawmakers wrote. "However, these legitimate concerns must be weighed against the essential role that U.S. assistance to the PA plays in providing security and stability for Palestinians and Israelis as well as critical humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people - and the potential consequences if this assistance is terminated."
Currently, the House version of next year's foreign aid bill would terminate all aid to the PA unless the Palestinian government drops its statehood bid at the United Nations and enters into direct negotiations with Israel. The Senate version is less strict; it would only withdraw the funding if the Palestinians actually succeed in joining the United Nations, which isn't likely due to the U.S. veto power at the Security Council. The Senate bill would also give the president a waiver over cutting aid to the PA.
"The prospect of continued assistance depends on the actions of Palestinian leadership, which can choose to pursue a path of direct negotiations rather than a counterproductive and destabilizing push for statehood through the UN and affiliated agencies," Matthew Dennis, spokesperson for Lowey, told The Cable.
"The chairwoman takes the views of all members into consideration," said Matt Leffingwell, spokesman for Granger.
President Barack Obama's administration has been clear that it wants U.S. aid to the PA to continue, because the assistance impacts Israeli security. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, told The Cable last week that he agrees that aid to the PA is important but will fight to end it anyway because of the politics surrounding the issue.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Democratic lawmakers who are making the case for the aid, along with some non-governmental organizations such as J Street, want to make sure top appropriators know that there is some support for aid to the Palestinians in Congress.
"The Price-Welch letter puts down a marker that there is a difference of opinion on whether aid to the PA should continue in Congress," Dylan Williams, J Street's director of government affairs, told The Cable today.
Williams said that many of the letter's signers supported House Resolution 268, passed in June, which threatened to cut off aid to the PA if it continued to seek U.N. membership. But seeing as how the Palestinians were able to join UNESCO with overwhelming international support, forcing the United States to stop contributing to that organization, he said those threats no longer makes sense.
"The situation has changed since HRes 268 and the bid to keep the Palestinians away from the United Nations has failed," Williams said.
The top U.S. official at NATO said Monday that there is zero planning -- or even thinking -- going on about a military intervention in Syria.
"There has been no planning, no thought, and no discussion about any intervention into Syria. It just isn't part of the envelope of thinking, among individual countries and certainly among the 28 [full NATO members]," said Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO. "If things change, things change. But as of today, that's where the reality stands."
Daalder, speaking to an audience at the Atlantic Council, is in town along with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who will meet later today with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They will be discussing the NATO summit to be held in Chicago next May and taking a victory lap following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Daalder said that there were three overarching conditions that need to be met before the Obama administration would even consider any future military intervention such as occurred in Libya.
"The formula was that there needs to be a demonstrable need, regional support, and sound legal basis for action," said Daalder. "It's those three things we need to look for before we even think about the possibility of action. None of them apply in Syria."
Daalder also noted that there is not enough evidence that air strikes would be effective in Syria, that the opposition and the Arab League have not asked for intervention, and that the U.N. Security Council has refused to act.
Daalder said several times that the United States had not been "leading from behind" in Libya, and he offered his take on the Obama administration's foreign-policy philosophy, as implemented during the Libya intervention.
"The administration came to power with a particular view about how the world worked. And that was a view that in an age of globalization, security was no longer principally determined by geography, but developments anywhere in the world could have a major security impact at home, so as a result you had to find a way to work with others," he said. "The lynchpin of Obama foreign policy was rebuilding partnerships and alliances."
"As part of that analysis, there was also a belief that the era when the United States could decide, determine, and do everything by itself had also come to an end," he said.
The United States is conducting an exercise to examine the lessons learned during the Libya intervention. However, Daalder said that although the European countries ran short of key items such as precision missiles during the war, the United States was perfectly well-prepared and did everything basically right throughout the mission.
"I'm not sure there is a lesson we need to learn for the United States," Daalder said. "In terms of capabilities, we know where the shortfalls are, but they are European shortfalls.... We could have done this campaign by ourselves. But the wise decision was not to do something we could, because others could help too."
Daalder also acknowledged that NATO-Russia talks over missile defense cooperation are at an impasse over a dispute regarding Russian demands for written assurances that U.S. systems are incapable of being used against Russia. The United States has no intention of giving such assurances, according to Daalder.
"We have put on the table numerous proposals for cooperation, which in many ways take their proposals as the basis," he said.
"They want a written guarantee that is legally binding that says the system will be incapable and will never be directed against them," he said. "And we have said that a legal guarantee like that is not something we want nor something we could ratify."
Bahrain's government is under pressure -- not just from protesters in Manama, but also from parts of the Washington foreign policy community, who want to delay U.S. arms sales to the country. Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa has been in town for over a week meeting with officials and lawmakers to assuage U.S. concerns over the kingdom's domestic crackdown, and sat down for a lengthy interview with The Cable.
Khalifa's message was clear: The Bahraini government is sensitive to international concerns about its treatment of protesters, pledges to follow the recommendations of an upcoming commission report on its actions, and wants to reinforce that the international community should not lose sight of the broader security situation in the region, characterized by the Iranian threat.
"I'm here to see our friends in the administration and Congress to try to explain what's happening in Bahrain," he said. "We are just before the issuance of the commission of inquiry's report. I'm here to show our commitment to that, how we will accept it and do all that is necessary to implement it."
That report, being written by Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), was established by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and is chaired by human rights advocate and professor M. Cherif Bassiouni. It is expected to be released on Nov. 23. Bassiouni has faced some criticism for making statements that appear to be to conciliatory to the regime, but he recently promised his report will give the Bahraini government "some bitter pills to swallow."
After five U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month to protest the pending $53 million sale of armored Humvees and missiles to Bahrain, the State Department wrote a letter to Congress last week linking the arms sale directly to the BICI report.
Khalifa said his government has been alarmed by congressional opposition to the arms sale, but said that he trusts the Obama administration to judge the outcome of the commission's report fairly. He also argued that a delay in completing the arms sale would not be in the interest of regional security.
"What worries us is that we don't need to delay any requirement for the necessary architecture to protect the region. Bahrain is a cornerstone of that," he said. "That's what I'm talking about here and I'm finding very listening ears."
Of course, one component of that emerging regional security architecture is the Peninsula Shield Force, made up of dozens of tanks and approximately 40,000 troops that came to Bahrain via Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE during the height of the unrest in March. Those forces are still there but are "purely to deter external threats," Khalifa maintains.
Opposition groups claim that 30 protesters have been killed by the government during its domestic crackdown, and more than 1,000 have been arrested. Independent organizations such as Human Rights Watch have reported that the government has employed brutal tactics, including using masked thugs to sweep up lawyers and other activists in nighttime raids.
The Obama administration has several interests in Bahrain, the fact that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed there being chief among them. Bahrain is also a client state of Saudi Arabia and policymakers have voiced fears that a victory by the protest movement would strengthen Iranian influence in the country.
Khalifa didn't meet with any of the senators who signed the letter, but he did meet with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH).
Rubio, a strong supporter of the U.S.-Bahrain relationship, sent his own letter to Clinton arguing that the administration should delay the sale of the Humvees, but not the missiles. Rubio wrote that the administration should delay the sale of "any items within the proposed weapons package that could be used to disrupt peaceful dissent."
Khalifa told The Cable that no military hardware has been used against protestors. "Our soldiers did help the police under the banner of the police... but no military hardware was used," he said. Several videos have surfaced of armored troop carriers allegedly firing on protesters and journalists.
So what is the urgency of the U.S. arms sale? Khalifa said that if the United States wants to advance deepening security ties with the Arab Gulf states, any delays would only send the wrong signal to the region's adversaries, principally Iran.
"The claims of torture, that is in the hands of the commission of inquiry," Khalifa said. He said that all government police are clearing identified and sometimes they use overwhelming force during arrests because of the chaotic situation in some Bahraini towns. "If the arrest happens at night, some of the villages are not in a very orderly place. So maybe the arrest was to minimize chaos," he explained.
Khalifa said he didn't have any information on the specific case of Jaleela al-Saman, vice president of the Bahrain Teachers Association, who was reportedly arrested for the second time last week in a night-time raid. Khalifa said that any federal employee who was unfairly dismissed will be rehired.
Khalifa acknowledged that dozens of Shiite mosques and other religious structures have been destroyed by the government in recent months, a step that President Barack Obama condemned in his May 19 speech on the Arab uprisings. However, he said that the structures were demolished for violating building codes or infringing on property that didn't belong to them, not as part of a crackdown on protestors.
"What wasn't helpful was the timing of that happening," he said. "Why were those structures targeted during the national safety situation? That's a serious question. It was ill-timing. It should not have happened in association with restoring law and order in Bahrain."
He added that some Sunni religious structures were also destroyed, and he pledged that the government will pay for the cost of rebuilding structures if they are in adherence with laws and codes, and that "will start soon."
It's too early to tell if Khalifa's charm offensive has had any impact. Rubio spoke with The Cable after meeting with the foreign minister, and said he hadn't changed his view on the arms sales package ... yet.
"We have a special obligation to our allies to encourage them on the road to democracy. I don't expect them to get there overnight," Rubio said. "Bahrain is a country that is friendly and helpful to us, but I believe that their status quo politically is unsustainable and in the long term undermines their ability to resist the pressures put on them not just internally, but also from Iran."
The Obama administration, meanwhile, continues to point to the BICI report as a key element that will inform the next steps in its relations with the kingdom. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated that mantra today following Khalifa's meeting at the State Department with Clinton.
"This investigation, we hope, will speak not only to individual incidents, but also to systemic changes that can be made to prevent future such abuses," Nuland said. "And we will look not only for a full, transparent, independent report, but also for the government to take steps to redress shortcomings that are found."
Khalifa struck a confident note that, in the end, it will all work out between the United States and Bahrain.
"We're allies, we're friends. If your friends don't give you advice, what kind of friends are they?" he said. "I think definitely, with commitment, we will sail through this."
When President Barack Obama and senior administration officials proudly announced that all U.S. troops in Iraq would leave by the end of the year, there was no mention of the millions of Iraqis who were forced to flee their homes by the U.S. invasion or the thousands who risked their lives by working directly for the U.S. military.
"It is wonderful that American troops will finally be able to come home, but we must remember that for the nearly three million Iraqis displaced by the war, returning home is still not an option," said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center.
The U.S. neglect of Iraqi refugees -- especially those who can no longer live in safety in Iraq due to their work with the U.S. military -- is not a new phenomenon. Your humble Cable guy has met dozens of Iraqi refugees over the years, mostly women, who had somehow managed to secure a rare special visa to enter the United States, but this status has been offered to only a fraction of those who helped the U.S. military by working as guides or translators.
Most of those refugees were living in the United States without jobs, permanent residences, or any financial support from the U.S. government. Many were wholly dependent on the kindness of the soldiers they had worked with in Iraq, who felt an obligation to aid them. Some even married those soldiers.
As early as 2007, The New Yorker and other outlets were reporting about the herculean efforts U.S. soldiers had gone to in order to help their Iraqi staffers flee to safety, even creating an "underground railroad" to bring Iraqis to the U.S. embassy in Amman, Jordan, because the Baghdad embassy would not process their visa requests.
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) took up the issue of Iraqi refugees, introducing a resolution to expand the available number of visas and pressing the State Department to streamline the process for those who sacrificed on behalf of the U.S. effort. He had some success, but died before finishing the work.
Four years later, advocates are still pressing the administration to issue all the visas it can to help Iraqis resettle in the United States and then help them get on with their new lives.
"The United States failed to honor its commitment to Iraqi refugees this year, admitting less than half of the 17,000 refugees we had promised to help. This includes thousands of Iraqis whose lives are at risk, or family members have been killed, as a direct result of their work as interpreters and drivers with U.S. forces in Iraq," Heller said. "The U.S. must continue to honor its obligations to the Iraqis for whom withdrawal is not an option."
Tonight, when Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad comes to Washington to speak at the annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), he will be endorsing an organization that is punching well above its weight in the U.S. policy debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
ATFP, a non-profit, moderate pro-Palestinian organization that has been in existence since 2003, has only five permanent staff members in its downtown D.C. office, but has managed to vault itself to the fore of the Washington foreign policy discussion over the Middle East peace process. "They've been critical in getting sustained and high levels of support from both Republican and Democratic administrations," an administration official told The Cable. "They have pretty high access, they can pass messages, they can work quietly with the Hill, they're not media attention seekers, they are trusted and they try to work behind the scenes."
ATFP's willingness to play the Washington game, on Washington's terms, has earned it both praise and scorn, but there is no doubt that it has given the organization a prominence in the Israeli-Palestinian debate that other pro-Palestinian groups have failed to achieve over the years.
The group is led by president and founder Dr. Ziad J. Asali, Ghaith Al-Omari, a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Senior Fellow Hussein Ibish. The trio has managed to attract high-level administration favor (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton keynoted their gala last year) and praise from the pro-Israel community. The downside of their strategy, however, has been a notable absence of grassroots Palestinian support and a recent backlash from parts of the Palestinian establishment, including a break in relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington.
"We have chosen to work within the establishment," Omari said in an interview with The Cable. "Basically we believe the two-state solution is in the U.S. national interest. When we came up with this mission nine years ago it was groundbreaking. Now it is policy."
Omari noted that ATFP has framed its policies in terms of the U.S. national interest and its willingness to engage with parts of the Washington establishment that other pro-Palestinian groups have neglected.
"What we have discovered, much to our surprise, is that we were knocking on open doors," Omari said. He coined the strategy as one of "mainstreaming Palestine."
Some media reports have compared the group to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) because of ATFP's lobbying tenacity on Capitol Hill and its interwoven relationships with administration officials and Washington interest groups on all sides of the political divide. But Omari rejects that comparison.
"We are very different from AIPAC. We're not lobbyists, we're a non-profit organization," he said. "I wish we had the Palestinian-American community as such an organized political presence."
ATFP's policy positions often deviate from the orthodoxy within the Palestinian community. The group's board narrowly voted to stay neutral on the issue of Abbas's bid to seek member state status for Palestine at the United Nations (a bid Fayyad was rumored to oppose). It also doesn't currently support the idea of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Omari said.
But can ATFP help defend against congressional cuts in U.S. funding for Palestinian institutions? That's the main mission of the group right now, he said.
"There are tons of pro-Israel organizations in Washington that engage in the debate; in the pro-Palestinian community I could argue we are the only one," he said. "There is a hunger in this town for a voice that understands the Palestinians and can speak about their interests in a way that takes into account the way that Washington operates."
ATFP's clash with the Palestinian establishment has come into public view in recent weeks. Board member Daoud Kuttab broke ties with the group after it refused to endorse Abbas's U.N. strategy.
"The paternalistic attitude that Americans including American Palestinians know what is best for Palestinians and their leadership is an arrogant attitude that I can't agree to be part of," he wrote. "Whenever a lobbying organization reaches the position that it has to worry about its own existence and how the local powers consider it, that is the day that such an organization has lost its mission statement."
Then, last week, Politico reported that the PLO mission in Washington led by Maen Rashid Areikat had sent a letter to ATFP announcing that the mission was severing all ties to the group.
In an interview, Ibish confirmed the existence of the letter but said it didn't make sense to him because ATFP never had formal ties to the PLO mission in the first place.
"Why the PLO sent us this cryptic letter and gives no context whatsoever is really something that I can't explain," Ibish said.
Like Omari, Ibish rejected the comparison to AIPAC. "It's in a sense flattering. I think if we had the kind of resources they do, we'd probably look more like WINEP [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] than AIPAC."
Ibish said that the majority of ATFP's funding comes from Arab sources, but he acknowledged that the organization has Jewish donors as well, who are welcome to give as long as they support ATFP's goal of a two-state solution.
Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC, said that ATFP is respected in Washington policy-making circles, including the pro-Israel community, "because they are seen as serious players with ideas and access -- on the Hill, with the White House, and in the region."
"One of the things that distinguishes them from the other actors in the Arab pro-Palestinian camp is their willingness to challenge corruption, condemn terrorism without equivocation and meet with other stakeholders without precondition," he said. "Credibility in Washington is hard to come by, and Ziad Asali has certainly earned it."
Even Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who would have attended tonight's gala if not for the fact that he was observing the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, had kind words for the group.
"We interact very frequently and on a friendly basis with the ATFP," he said. "We view them as partners and as friends."
And if you are at the gala tonight, stop by and say hello to your humble Cable guy. I'm usually seated somewhere near the back of the room.
The Israeli government is proud of the agreement it struck that led to the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit today after five years of imprisonment, but don't expect any change in its approach to Hamas, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren told The Cable today.
"Hamas remains a terrorist organization. It doesn't meet any of the Quartet's criteria for negotiating. Its charter still calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and the annihilation of the Jewish people worldwide. It's a genocidal organization," Oren said in an interview. "Hamas itself is not saying it's a partner for peace talks. That's not in the bargain."
The deal to trade Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners was mediated by the Egyptian government and German mediators; no further deals or indirect interactions between the Israeli government and Hamas are in the works.
Those prisoners included Nasser Yateima, who was imprisoned for his role in a 2002 suicide bombing at an Israeli hotel on Passover, Walid Abdel-Hadi, who was involved in several attacks including a 2002 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem cafe that killed 11, and Ahlam Tamimi, who participated in bombing of a Sbarro's restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001 where 16 died.
Oren said the reason that the Israeli government took the risk of releasing so many dangerous prisoners was due to the unwritten social contract between the state and the people that Israel will do everything in its power to recover captured citizens.
"This deal goes to the very heart of the relationship between the State of Israel and the army of Israel. At the end of the day, yes, there's a heavy price to pay here, but as a result of Gilad Shalit's release, are we more motivated to go out and defend our country? Unquestionably, yes," he said. "That's the true strategic value, not just the humanitarian value, of what we've done."
But why did Hamas make the deal, in Oren's view?
"I think they're weak, weakened by the situation in Syria. They have been weakened by the situation in Gaza, where there's been a complete implosion of support for them in Gaza, where the economic situation is deplorable," he said.
Oren said that this weakened position led to a steady decline in Hamas' demands over the past two and a half years, which created a situation that made the terms of the deal amenable to Israel. Oren argued that the success of the deal does not strengthen Hamas, either in Gaza or with regard to their competition with the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
"They may celebrate for a few hours, but the people in Gaza are going to wake up tomorrow in the same position that were in today, and that's not a very favorable position at all," Oren said. "There's no obscuring that fact.... It's not a victory for them."
Despite some criticism inside Israel against the government for striking the deal, Oren said that the takeaway lesson of today's events is that the current Israeli government is capable of making hard and painful decisions -- and can deliver if there's a fair deal on the table. He also said that the reaction of the Palestinians to the deal highlights a fundamental difference between the two peoples.
"Today's events really showed a gap between Israeli society and Palestinian society. We celebrated life. They celebrated death," Oren said. "They celebrated the release of people who have killed dozens of men, women, and children. And it's a huge ethical difference."
The Obama administration is scrambling right now to find a way around the fact that existing U.S. law could force the United States to stop participating in the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO if the Palestinians are given member state status, setting a precedent that could repeat itself in a host of other U.N. organizations.
The administration is contending with a 1994 law (P.L. 103-236, Title IV), which would bar U.S. contributions "to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood."
Another law (P.L. 101-246, Title IV), from 1990, states that, "No funds authorized to be appropriated by this act or any other act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states."
The Palestinians cleared a hurdle this week when the UNESCO executive board approved their bid to join the organization, sending the matter to a vote by UNESCO's 193-nation General Conference. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized UNESCO on Wednesday for taking up the issue.
"I think that that is a very odd procedure indeed and would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote," Clinton told reporters in the Dominican Republic.
She acknowledged the "strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition."
The U.S. has not yet paid their bills on UNESCO for 2011, about $80 million, which is 22 percent of UNESCO's budget. If the law is triggered and the U.S. does not pay in 2012, the U.S. would lose its vote in the organization. Plus, UNESCO officials have told the U.S. that if U.S. funds are not expected over the next two years, they may have to initiate massive layoffs beginning in January to account for the shortfall in funds.
Palestinian membership in UNESCO would also grant them immediate membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The U.S. would have to stop contributing to WIPO but America is not a member of UNIDO.
We're told that the State Department is currently having their attorneys draft a legal opinion on how U.S. laws would affect U.S. participations in U.N. bodies that grant the Palestinians member state status. Their ruling will have ramifications not only for UNESCO, but for all other U.N. specialized agencies that the PLO is expected to submit their application to, such as the IAEA, WTO, WHO, World Bank, and others.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the administration was "still working" on what the legislative triggers regarding funding would mean. But a State Department official said that the administration has not been able to find a way around the law.
"We have a suicide vest padlocked around our torso and the Palestinians have the remote control," the State Department official said. "They get to decide whether they blow us up or not. It's 100 percent up to them."
Meanwhile, Congress is ratcheting up its own involvement on the issue. Later today, 10 House appropriators will call on UNESCO not to move forward with consideration of Palestinian membership, in a letter to UNESCO Executive Director Irina Bokova obtained by The Cable.
"We... respectfully request that you do everything in your power to ensure that the Palestine Liberation Organization's application to become a Member State does not come before the UNESCO General Conference," states the letter, prepared by the office of Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ). "Any recognition of Palestine as a Member State would not only jeopardize the hope for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but would endanger the United States' contribution to UNESCO."
Signatories of the letter include the heads of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), Jerry Lewis (R-CA), Tom Cole (R-OK), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Steve Austria (R-IL), Charles Dent (R-PA), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), and Adam Schiff (D-CA).
One senior Republican staffer pointed out the irony that it was President George W. Bush who brought the United States back into UNESCO, and now the United States might be forced to leave the organization by Obama -- a president who came to office promising to reverse what he argued was Bush's tendency to ignore the international community.
"Remember, we joined UNESCO in part because we needed them to help de-radicalize textbooks particularly in the Muslim world after 9/11 and as a platform to counter expanding anti-American attitudes in academia," the staffer said "And now, by de-funding UNESCO, we lose all the leverage we had gained."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford confirmed to The Cable widely held suspicions that the Syrian government is arresting and torturing Syrians whose family members have spoken out against the regime here in the United States.
The FBI is investigating claims that the Syrian embassy staff in Washington has been collecting information on Syrian-Americans in and around Washington, especially those who dare to protest against the regime. That embassy is led by Ambassador Imad Moustapha, who has updated his blog only intermittently since the outbreak of violence in Syria.
Ford did not directly accuse Moustapha of spying on American citizens and transmitting that information back to the regime, to be used to punish family members as part of an organized campaign of fear and intimidation. But he said that those families are being tortured.
"We know of families here in Syria who have been arrested, who have been beaten, whose homes have been broken into, because of activities against the Syrian government - participation in marches, for example - by family members in the United States," Ford said in a phone call from his post in Damascus.
Ford said he couldn't comment on the Moustapha investigation specifically, but confirmed that the State Department is tracking these cases and has evidence of multiple instances of retribution against Syrian-Americans by the Assad regime.
"We know of at least three instances of that. How does the Syrian government know about [the Syrian-Americans' activities]? You and I can speculate," Ford said. "We do know of families that were attacked here. It's really serious."
Without directly accusing the Syrian embassy in Washington of spying, Ford said, "It is entirely unacceptable for any foreign embassy in the United States to facilitate the harassment of American citizens."
The Wall Street Journal has reported on several claims by activists of retribution brought down on their Syrian-based family members. Ford's comments represent the highest level public acknowledgment of these activities to date.
At Ford's confirmation hearing in August, Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) spoke about how the regime treats those Syrians who try to maintain contacts in the United States.
"The terrible reach of this regime has directly affected constituents in my home state of Pennsylvania," said Casey, who told the story of Sakher Hallak, a Syrian who traveled to the United States to attend a medical conference with his brother Hazem Hallak, a Syrian-American living near Philadelphia.
"Upon his return to Syria, Sakher was missing. His wife contacted the authority to confirm that he was in their custody but would be released shortly," Casey said. "Two days later, his body was discovered in a village 20 miles south of Aleppo. The authorities then denied that he was ever in their custody and claimed that they found his body in a ditch, by the side of the road."
"Sakher's body was subjected to brutal torture. His bones were broken and his body was mutilated in unspeakable ways," said Casey. "Sakher was not a political activist. He was not involved in the demonstrations. His sole offense appears to be his visit to the medical conference and his visit with his brother in the United States of America."
If the Syrian regime's intention was to intimidate Hazem Hallak, their strategy surely backfired. He became an outspoken and fierce critic of the regime in response to his brother's death.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded again Sunday to charges that he was responsible for failures in the peace process leveled against him by former President Bill Clinton in remarks reported exclusively on The Cable.
Netanyahu, who first responded to Clinton on Friday evening on ABC News, was again confronted with the former president's accusations on Sunday morning on NBC's Meet the Press. Host David Gregory drew Netanyahu's attention to this passage in our story:
Clinton affirmed that the United States should veto the Palestinian resolution at the U.N. Security Council for member-state status, because the Israelis need security guarantees before agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state. But the Netanyahu government has moved away from the consensus for peace, making a final status agreement more difficult, Clinton said.
"That's what happened. Every American needs to know this. That's how we got to where we are," Clinton said. "The real cynics believe that the Netanyahu's government's continued call for negotiations over borders and such means that he's just not going to give up the West Bank."
Here's how Netanyahu responded:
You know, I regretfully and respectfully disagree with former President Clinton. He should know, more than anyone else, that in the peace conference he presided in at Camp David in 2000 with [Yasir] Arafat and former Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak, it was the Palestinian side who walked away from his own parameters. And in 2008, President Bush can tell you how the Palestinian side led by President Abbas walked away, just would not close in on another prime minister's suggestions.
In the two-and-a-half years since then, anybody conversant with the facts knows that I made these offers again and again, called for two states for two peoples, froze the settlements -- nobody did that, ever -- for nearly a year. They didn't come. They don't want to come. And they go around to the U.N. I disagree with that.
Gregory asked Netanyahu whether it's true he will never give up the West Bank.
"No, we could arrive at an arrangement that takes care of Israel's security needs and gives the Palestinians a life of dignity for themselves," Netanyahu said. "But they have to have leaders who are prepared to do that. You know what? I hope they do, not just for our sake but for their sake too."
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Netanyahu was so mad about Clinton's remarks that, "he asked his aides to request that the White House issue a statement distancing itself from Clinton's statements."
The White House declined to say whether they had received a formal or informal complaint about Clinton's remarks from Netanyahu's staff. Asked for a response to Clinton's remarks by The Cable, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor sent along this statement, which just repeated the administrations standard talking points.
"President Obama expressed his views clearly Wednesday at the outset of his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he said that peace must be negotiated and cannot be imposed on the parties," Vietor said. "Actions at the United Nations will achieve neither statehood nor self-determination for the Palestinians. The Israelis and Palestinians must negotiate through these very difficult issues that have kept the parties apart for decades to achieve the ultimate goal of two states, side by side, living in peace and security."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded tonight to criticisms leveled on Thursday by former President Bill Clinton, who blamed Netanyahu for creating obstacles to a Middle East peace deal.
"The two great tragedies in modern Middle Eastern politics, which make you wonder if God wants Middle East peace or not, were [Yitzhak] Rabin's assassination and [Ariel] Sharon's stroke," Clinton said on Thursday, in remarks reported exclusively on The Cable.
Clinton said that Netanyahu moved the goalposts and made reaching a comprehensive peace deal more difficult upon taking office.
"The Israelis always wanted two things that once it turned out they had, it didn't seem so appealing to Mr. Netanyahu," Clinton said, referring to what he called fair offers from the Palestinian government and the other Arab nations. "Now that they have those things, they don't seem so important to this current Israeli government."
Clinton also said that the Palestinians have offered Netanyahu the same deal the two sides almost agreed to in 2000 at Camp David, but Netanyahu refuses now to accept it.
Netanyahu shot back at Clinton when asked about the remarks in an interview with ABC News.
"I respectfully disagree," Netanyahu said. "The Palestinians are basically trying to shortcut this. They're trying to get a state without giving us peace, without giving us security."
"President Clinton knows very well [that] in 2000 at Camp David ... who really made the generous offer and the Palestinians refused to come," he said. "I'm sure that President Bush can tell you what happened at Camp David a few years later, when another Israeli prime minister made a generous offer, and the Palestinians refused to come."
When asked if he had moved the goalposts, Netanyahu said, "Not at all."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late on Thursday praised a new statement issued by the Middle East Quartet calling for new negotiations, a statement neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have endorsed.
"The Quartet proposal represents the firm conviction of the international community that a just and lasting peace can only come through negotiations between the parties," she said. "Therefore, we urge both parties to take advantage of this opportunity to get back to talks, and the United States pledges our support as the parties themselves take the important next steps for a two-state solution, which is what all of us are hoping to achieve."
Who's to blame for the continued failure of the Middle East peace process? Former President Bill Clinton said today that it is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- whose government moved the goalposts upon taking power, and whose rise represents a key reason there has been no Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Clinton, in a roundtable with bloggers today on the sidelines of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, gave an extensive recounting of the deterioration in the Middle East peace process since he pressed both parties to agree to a final settlement at Camp David in 2000. He said there are two main reasons for the lack of a comprehensive peace today: the reluctance of the Netanyahu administration to accept the terms of the Camp David deal and a demographic shift in Israel that is making the Israeli public less amenable to peace.
"The two great tragedies in modern Middle Eastern politics, which make you wonder if God wants Middle East peace or not, were [Yitzhak] Rabin's assassination and [Ariel] Sharon's stroke," Clinton said.
Sharon had decided he needed to build a new centrist coalition, so he created the Kadima party and gained the support of leaders like Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert. He was working toward a consensus for a peace deal before he fell ill, Clinton said. But that effort was scuttled when the Likud party returned to power.
"The Israelis always wanted two things that once it turned out they had, it didn't seem so appealing to Mr. Netanyahu. They wanted to believe they had a partner for peace in a Palestinian government, and there's no question -- and the Netanyahu government has said -- that this is the finest Palestinian government they've ever had in the West Bank," Clinton said.
"[Palestinian leaders] have explicitly said on more than one occasion that if [Netanyahu] put up the deal that was offered to them before -- my deal -- that they would take it," Clinton said, referring to the 2000 Camp David deal that Yasser Arafat rejected.
But the Israeli government has drifted a long way from the Ehud Barak-led government that came so close to peace in 2000, Clinton said, and any new negotiations with the Netanyahu government are now on starkly different terms -- terms that the Palestinians are unlikely to accept.
"For reasons that even after all these years I still don't know for sure, Arafat turned down the deal I put together that Barak accepted," he said. "But they also had an Israeli government that was willing to give them East Jerusalem as the capital of the new state of Palestine."
Israel also wants a normalization of relations with its Arab neighbors to accompany a peace deal. Clinton said that the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative put forth in 2002 represented an answer to that Israeli demand.
"The King of Saudi Arabia started lining up all the Arab countries to say to the Israelis, ‘if you work it out with the Palestinians ... we will give you immediately not only recognition but a political, economic, and security partnership,'" Clinton said. "This is huge.... It's a heck of a deal."
The Netanyahu government has received all of the assurances previous Israeli governments said they wanted but now won't accept those terms to make peace, Clinton said.
"Now that they have those things, they don't seem so important to this current Israeli government, partly because it's a different country," said Clinton. "In the interim, you've had all these immigrants coming in from the former Soviet Union, and they have no history in Israel proper, so the traditional claims of the Palestinians have less weight with them."
Clinton then repeated his assertions made at last year's conference that Israeli society can be divided into demographic groups that have various levels of enthusiasm for making peace.
"The most pro-peace Israelis are the Arabs; second the Sabras, the Jewish Israelis that were born there; third, the Ashkenazi of long-standing, the European Jews who came there around the time of Israel's founding," Clinton said. "The most anti-peace are the ultra-religious, who believe they're supposed to keep Judea and Samaria, and the settler groups, and what you might call the territorialists, the people who just showed up lately and they're not encumbered by the historical record."
Clinton affirmed that the United States should veto the Palestinian resolution at the U.N. Security Council for member-state status, because the Israelis need security guarantees before agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state. But the Netanyahu government has moved away from the consensus for peace, making a final status agreement more difficult, Clinton said.
"That's what happened. Every American needs to know this. That's how we got to where we are," Clinton said. "The real cynics believe that the Netanyahu's government's continued call for negotiations over borders and such means that he's just not going to give up the West Bank."
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Top Obama administration officials here in New York are working hard with Quartet members, including Russia, to come up with language for a new statement on the Middle East Peace Process, one that would be viable no matter what happens with the Palestinian drive to seek member-state status at the U.N. this week.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday evening on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly and the Palestinian U.N. gambit was a major part of their conversation. Following the meeting, State Department officials said that Clinton was focused on the longer-term diplomatic picture.
"Both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Clinton agreed that the Quartet envoys should continue working to find a way forward among the Quartet in the form of a statement that can help establish a pathway back to negotiations over time," a senior State Department official told reporters in a read out of the meeting.
But when pressed, the official could not note any progress or agreement between the U.S. and Russia on the contents of the statement. The official said, however, that the meeting was only the first of what will be several U.S.-Russian interactions on this issue this week.
"They talked about what the purpose or nature of a Quartet statement and product would look like and the desire by both of them to have the Quartet play a constructive role in producing a pathway that could lead back towards negotiations," the official said. "And they also talked about what some of the elements might look like in a statement that could provide a useful framework or context for negotiations between the two sides. And then they agreed that the envoys should continue working."
The Cable reported last week that among the issues under consideration within the discussions over a Quartet statement were two specific items: modified language to acknowledge the Jewish identity of the State of Israel and a U.S.-proposed timeline for resuming direct negotiations within four to six weeks.
But Clinton and Lavrov didn't get to that level of details on Monday evening. "Their conversation tonight was at more of a strategic level than at a level of text," the official said, adding that Clinton affirmed the U.S. position opposing the Palestinians move at the U.N., a move the Russian government is publicly supporting.
The official's briefing seemed to signal that the Obama administration has somewhat resigned itself to the fact that the Palestinians plan to move forward at the U.N. this week and that the administration is now looking over the horizon to minimize the damage to the peace process and focus on what happens after all parties leave New York.
"And so the question is: How do you deal with all the elements that are at play in the discussions here in New York in a way that can produce a pathway when people leave New York back to negotiations and then have those negotiations ultimately yield the two-state solution that everybody wants," the official said.
The reporters at the briefing repeatedly noted the administration change of emphasis away from criticizing the Palestinian U.N. activity and toward a diplomatic path that would begin after the General Assembly ends.
The official acknowledged that in Clinton's meeting with Lavrov, she didn't spend a lot of time trying to convince the Russians not to support the Palestinian statehood bid.
"I think she laid out her position on why she believes that action at the United Nations is not the best way forward, and she spent the bulk of her time encouraging the foreign minister to work with her on finding a way forward that would get the two parties back into negotiations."
GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry hosted a pro-Israel rally in New York on Tuesday morning during which he repeatedly accused President Barack Obama of "appeasement" of the Palestinians and of bungling three years of Middle East diplomacy.
"I hope you will tell the people of Israel that help is on the way," Perry told an assembled audience of Jewish organization leaders and journalists at the W Hotel on Union Square.
He called for the closing of the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington and the cutting off of U.S. aid to the Palestinian leadership as punishment for their drive to seek member-state status at the United Nations.
The Obama administration had treated Palestinian and Israel concerns with equal regard, which has led to the diplomatic crisis brewing in Turtle Bay, according to Perry.
"Simply put, we would not be here today at this precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn't naive, arrogant, misguided, and dangerous," Perry said. "The Obama policy of moral equivalency, which gives equal standing to the grievances of Israelis and Palestinians, including the orchestrators of terrorism, is a very dangerous insult."
Perry criticized the Palestinians several times for "violating the spirit" of the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, by seeking recognition of statehood at the United Nations. He also said the Israelis should be allowed to keep building settlements.
Perry's specific criticisms of Obama's approach to Israel were threefold: He said that, by beginning with indirect talks between the parties, Obama had encouraged the Palestinians to shun direct negotiations. He said Obama's May 19 announcement that negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders with agreed-upon land swaps, which was made the day before a U.S.-Israel summit, was an insult to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Perry also said that calling on Israel to halt settlement activity as a prerequisite to negotiations left Israel with no room to negotiate.
"We see the American administration having a willingness to isolate a close ally and to do so in a manner that is both insulting and naïve," said Perry.
Perry corrected a mistake he made on Sept. 15, when he called on the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel's right to exist. Today, he called on the Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
He then went on to say that Obama failed to support the Iranian democracy movement and wrongly pursued engagement with the governments of Iran and Syria.
"Who knows what the leadership of Iran would look like today if America had done everything within our power to provide both the diplomatic and moral support to encourage the growing movement of dissidents that sought freedom," he said. "Our actions in recent years have destabilized the region."
Also speaking at the event were Rep. Bob Turner (R-NY), who just won a special election to replace Anthony Weiner in Congress, and Danny Danon, the deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset and the chairman of World Likud.
"[The Palestinians] cannot come to the U.N. without paying the price...and the price will be that the U.S. will stop immediately the funding for the PA if there will be a vote in the U.N. bodies next week," Danon said. "When we see a lack of leadership coming from the White House, that will make [the Palestinians] more determined to attack Israel the way they do."
The vast majority of the mostly Orthodox Jewish leaders at the event supported Perry's tough stance, and some even advocated stronger measures to punish the Palestinians for their U.N. gambit. But some in the audience criticized Danon, who does not support a two-state solution, for censuring the Obama administration while the president and his team met with world leaders to defend Israel's position only blocks away.
"Whether as openly as Danon did this morning, or more surreptitiously as Netanyahu and others practice it, right-wing politicians from Israel and the U.S. keep a very blurred line of separation between their respective national interests, constituencies, and fundraising," one Jewish organization leader at the event told The Cable.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford keeps putting himself in harm's way. This Sunday, he attended the funeral of a Syrian activist shortly before it was attacked by Syrian security forces.
"US amb. Robert Ford shows up at the wake of slain #syria activist Giyath Matar. An hour later the funeral tent is trashed by security forces," tweeted Washington Post foreign correspondent Liz Sly Tuesday afternoon.
We found a video that shows Ford at the funeral, which took place on Sept. 11. The State Department today confirmed to The Cable that he was in attendance. We also found a video (warning: graphic) of Matar's tortured and mutilated body, posted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been meticulously documenting cases of alleged abuse against domestic protesters by the Syrian security forces.
"Security forces corpse [sic] submitted his corpse to his family and told them that you can make from his body a ‘Shawerma' sandwich!!!" the human rights organization reported.
Ford, who was installed as the U.S. envoy to Damascus in a recess appointment, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. But unless he can overcome a tough confirmation fight on the Senate floor, he will be forced to return to Washington at the end of the year.
The group also posted a video of the body of Ahmad Sulaiman Ayrut, who they allege was killed in the government attack on Matar's funeral.
The State Department condemned Matar's killing at a Monday press briefing, but only later confirmed to The Cable Ford's attendance at the funeral. So far, State has not commented on the violence at the funeral.
"This was a very high-profile human rights activist in Syria, apparently arrested on September 6th and died in custody -- again, further evidence of this regime's brutality, indiscriminate force, and absolute disregard for human life and for the human rights of its citizens," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
There was no mention of Ford's attendance on the U.S. embassy of Damascus's Facebook page. The last Facebook posting by Ford came on Sept. 8, where he references threats being made on his life by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"[Commenter] Mujtaba Xr warns me that I will face being killed if I continue my criticism of the repression in Syria. I take his post to be a perfectly good example of the kind of intolerance that has provoked such discontent in Syria," Ford wrote. "Remember that I am one of the few international observers here on the ground; if only the Syrian government would allow international media to move around the country freely like we did in Iraq!"
Ford's close call comes only two weeks after he was physically assaulted by a regime supporter while standing outside an anti-government sit-in by some lawyers at the Syrian Bar Association. The State Department didn't say anything about that incident either, until it was reported by The Cable.
Of course, it's possible that Ford is actually trying to get himself kicked out of Syria by the Assad regime. That would allow the Obama administration to spotlight Assad's intolerance and allow the State Department to avoid a fight over Ford's Senate confirmation.
The State Department has opened a brand-new office to manage U.S. policy toward countries attempting democratic transitions in the Middle East.
William Taylor, senior vice president for conflict management at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has moved over to Foggy Bottom to lead the new office, called the Middle East Transitions office, which began operations this week. His deputy is Tamara Cofman Wittes, who is now dual hatted, also continuing on deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. Taylor's chief of staff is Karen Volker, who until August was director of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is now directed by Tom Vajda. MEPI also falls under Wittes' portfolio. Taylor reports up to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.
In a Monday interview with The Cable, Taylor said his office will begin by leading State Department coordination on policy toward Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the three Middle East countries that are trying to make the shift from dictatorship to democracy.
"The idea is we want to focus energy and policy attention on how we support these three transition countries," he said. "The idea is to be sure this gets top-level attention in the department."
Taylor's office will have about 10 to 12 people, and he said he hopes to soon add a resident senior advisor from both USAID and the Pentagon. The office is meant to be permanent, and would expand its operations to cover countries like Syria and Yemen -- if and when those countries attempt a democratic transition.
Taylor's first job will be to lead an effort to develop support strategies for Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Then, his office will go about trying to implement those strategies by working within State, around the interagency process, and then with international financial institutions, non-governmental organizations, and stakeholders on the ground. Taylor said he will attend National Security Council meetings on issues related to his brief.
In President Barack Obama's May 19 speech on the Middle East, he promised to work on establishing enterprise funds for Egypt and Tunisia, which are accounts meant to support start up programs and activities abroad, and said that U.S. support for democracy will "be based on ensuring financial stability; promoting reform; and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy -- starting with Tunisia and Egypt."
Taylor said that the administration was still eager to pursue enterprise funds for these countries, but that legislation would be needed to get it done.
"We're looking at the possibly of enterprise funds model as a possible model for these transition countries but we're going to need a lot of support from Congress," he said, adding that State would also ask Congress for authorizations and appropriations to support the new transitions initiative at State. New funding for diplomatic initiatives is a tough sell in this tight fiscal environment, but transition funding does have some support in both parties.
Taylor was chosen for the job in part because he played a key role in a similar diplomatic effort following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, the State Department put together the Freedom Support Act Office, which managed relations with former members of the Soviet bloc.
That office was run by Ambassador Richard Armitage and reported up to Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Taylor worked for Armitage in that office and eventually became its director, a position he held until 2001. The Freedom Support Act Office was combined with the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) office and still exists today.
Taylor was U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, and before that served as Washington's envoy to the Mideast Quartet. In 2004 and 2005, he directed the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office in Baghdad, and from 2002 to 2003 he served in Kabul as coordinator of U.S. government and international assistance to Afghanistan.
It's generally expected that the United States will veto the Palestinian bid for full member status at the United Nations Security Council next month, but the Palestinian government thinks it has an ace up its sleeve -- a workaround option that would bypass the U.S. veto and allow it to secure U.N. recognition, says the PLO's top representative in Washington.
"The plan as of now is to go the United Nations to seek full member-state status for the State of Palestine," said Maen Rashid Areikat, PLO representative to the United States and head of the PLO mission in Washington, in a Tuesday interview with The Cable. That means submitting a request to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who will then turn that request over to the U.N. Security Council for a vote.
But the Security Council doesn't actually vote on the statehood question, only whether to refer the matter to the U.N. General Assembly. If and when the United States vetoes the idea of referring the Palestinian request to the General Assembly, that request dies. But the Palestinians aren't planning to stop there.
"We hope the United States will reconsider its position and not use its veto power against the Palestinian move at the United Nations," he said. "What happens after a veto? There are so many other options."
Areikat said one option under serious consideration was to invoke U.N. General Assembly Resolution 377, known as "Uniting for Peace," which was put forth by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1950 as a means of getting around an obstructionist Security Council, which at the time was unable to authorize a response to North Korea's attacks on South Korea because the Soviet Union was rejecting all related Security Council resolutions. Resolution 377 is meant to bypass the Security Council if it "fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression."
"What we could do is go to the Security Council and say that a member state of the Security Council, in this case the United States, has blocked our request and therefore we are seeking Security Council support to take the issue to the U.N. General Assembly, invoking Resolution 377," he said. "If that effort succeeds, we will be a non-member state at the United States, not a member state. That's the difference between the two."
Under Resolution 377, the Palestinians would only need nine out of 15 Security Council votes to refer their statehood request to the General Assembly, which can then address the matter immediately (if in session) or can call an emergency special session, as has been done 10 times since 1950, most recently in 1997, when it was convened to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The other option is for the Palestinian government to submit their request for full member status to the Security Council again, forcing the U.S. to veto it over and over.
"We can keep on going back to the Security Council again and again," Areikat said.
The Obama administration has been working hard to try to convince the Palestinians not to move forward at the United Nations. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's briefing that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today. Also, the NSC's Dennis Ross and Acting Special Envoy David Hale were in the Middle East and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today. Hale, but not Ross, will meet with Abbas Wednesday.
The Clinton call was "to urge President Abbas to receive them and hear them with open ears and to continue to work hard with us to avoid a negative scenario in New York at the end of the month," Nuland said. "We will continue to oppose any one-sided actions at the U.N. And we're making that clear to both sides."
"We respect their position, we expect them to respect our position. It's not a secret that they are asking us not to go the United Nations. It's not a secret that we are telling them we have to go to the United Nations," Areikat said.
But he said the Palestinian leadership no longer had faith in the United States or the international community to set forth a process for peace negotiations that both the Israeli and Palestinian sides could agree to. It's been a year since President Barack Obama established Sept. 2011 as the deadline for setting forth a framework for a final settlement, but "nothing has really happened," Areikat said.
"We have been waiting for over a year for the international community and the United States to create a formula that will constitute a basis for resuming negotiations and what we've seen is a total rejection on the part of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government to engage."
Prompted by The Cable, Areikat also responded to comments made in our interview with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren last week, who said that if the Palestinians move forward with their statehood drive, all bilateral agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians could be at risk, including the Oslo Accords.
"The agreement that Oren is accusing the Palestinians of violating is an agreement that Israel has rendered obsolete in the first place," he said, referring to the Oslo Accord specifically. "It's really shocking to hear that he is threatening to abandon the agreements with the PLO, which also provided certain stability to Israel and Israelis. I don't see how by abandoning the Oslo accords Israeli will be serving its own interests."
The State Department last week urged both sides to honor their existing agreements, despite the new diplomatic tussle. Areikat warned that the scuttling of standing agreements could have repercussions for Israel as well.
"If the Israelis want to take an action, there will be a reaction. If they want to throw away an agreement, it will also have an impact on them," he said.
Areikat also criticized leaders of the U.S. Congress, who is threatening to cut some or all of the $550 million in annual aid to the Palestinian government if it moves forward with the statehood push at the U.N., calling such an action "unwise and unconstructive."
"We definitely hope the U.S. Congress understands the fact that any steps taken to put pressure on the Palestinians is going to adversely affect U.S. interests and even the interests of Israel in the region," he said. "I hate to see members of Congress threatening to use financial support to try to influence Palestinian positions on this issue."
UPDATE: A State Department official confirms that Ross did end up meeting with Abbas Wednesday, along with Hale.
The ongoing war of words between the Obama administration and the Bashar al-Assad regime is quickly descending into a nasty exchange of personal insults and invectives between officials that have borne grudges against each other for years.
Both the U.S. and the Syrian governments have recently taken cheap shots at each other's officials. For instance, the Syrian national television station has called U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford a "dog" and said he must have been "shitting his pants with diarrhea" when he heard the fireworks that were being set off in a downtown square.
This week, the State Department unloaded on Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. On Tuesday, after the Treasury Department announced new sanctions on three Syrian officials, the State Department sent around some additional quotes to reporters about Muallem, to be attributed as coming from a "senior administration official."
"Walid Muallem has played a key role in trying to insulate the regime from the implications of its own brutality. By devoting himself to strenuously trying to hide Syrian government culpability in the murder and torture of Syrian citizens, Muallem bears some responsibility for the crimes committee. He has intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action," the senior administration official said.
Then came the kicker: "Muallem remains an unapologetic, shameless tool and mouthpiece of Bashar al-Assad," the senior administration said.
At Wednesday's State Department briefing, reporters pressed spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on whether she would repeat these insults on the record, and whether she thought it was constructive to publicly demean the Syrian foreign minister.
Nuland's answer was yes on both accounts.
"He has played a key role in trying to insulate the Assad regime from the implications of its own brutality by devoting himself strenuously to trying to hide the Assad regime's capability and the murder and torture of Syrian citizens. Muallem bears personal responsibility as well for the crimes committed. He's intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action," she said.
"You know, we saw people in the Qaddafi circle demonstrate a clear understanding of right and wrong when the tide began to turn there. They chose to defect. That has not yet happened with senior members of the Bashar Assad regime. Muallem remains unapologetic. He remains as a shameless tool and a mouthpiece of Assad and his regime."
And Nuland had more Muallem bashing quotes in her briefing book:
"Not done. Not done. More Muallem," she said. "He has also served as one of the key links between Damascus and Tehran, and he's strengthened Assad's reliance on Iranian equipment and advice in his relentless crackdown on the Syrian people."
Muallem is one of the key interlocutors between the Obama administration and the Assad regime, and the public sniping doesn't bode well for future contact. It could also be awkward when Muallem comes to New York next week for the U.N. General Assembly, but apparently the State Department no longer cares about playing nice.
Some reports have suggested that the personal nature of the insults is based on long-standing grudges between some members of the Obama administration and the Syrian officials. This Associated Press article links the new rhetoric to Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who survived an assassination attempt, presumably planned by Syria, when he was ambassador to Lebanon during the George W. Bush administration.
"The Assad regime is probably at the top of the suspect list," in terms of who tried to kill Feltman, said Andrew Tabler, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a new book about the U.S.-Syria relationship, In the Lion's Den, although Tabler doesn't think the war of words is based solely on personal grudges.
"Engagement is over, we are now essentially in a policy of confrontation. It's certainly a sign of the incredibly bad state of relations between the two countries," he said. "And it is getting nasty."
If the Palestinians go forward with their drive to seek recognition as a state at the U.N. General Assembly next month, all agreements governing Israeli-Palestinian and U.S.-Palestinian cooperation could become null and void, according to Israel's ambassador to the United States.
"We have a lot of agreements with the Palestinian Authority, we have no agreements with a ‘Government of Palestine,'" Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, told The Cable in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. "It's just a fact, we have no agreements with a ‘Government of Palestine.' It puts us in a different realm."
Oren said that agreements covering all sorts of fields, such as import-export, water sharing, and Israel-Palestinian security forces cooperation, would become invalid if the Palestinians declare statehood unilaterally, based on a vote at the U.N. -- rather than by negotiating statehood with the government of Israel via the stalled peace process.
"It's not just our agreements with the Palestinian Authority, it's America's agreements with the Palestinian Authority (that are at risk)," Oren said. "America is a cosignatory to the Oslo Accord and this would seriously undermine it.... Unilateral steps would have legal, economic, and political ramifications for us and for America as a cosignatory."
The current strategy by the Obama administration is to continue to push the Middle East Quartet -- the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia -- to agree on a statement that would affirm the 1967 borders with agreed swaps and recognize Israel's identity as a Jewish state as the basis for moving forward with negotiations. The "Jewish state" clause was the roadblock that prevented the Quartet from agreeing to a statement during their meeting last month in Washington. But Oren said that effort won't solve the problem.
"There is no guarantee that even if the Quartet members succeed in putting out a common position on negotiations that that will in any way divert the Palestinians from their intention of declaring a Palestinian state unilaterally," Oren said.
Oren said that the U.S. and Israeli governments are coordinating on the issue in a "daily and intensive manner" and "we see very much eye to eye."
In fact, the Obama administration has said often that it opposes the Palestinian drive for a U.N. vote on statehood and sees no alternative to direct negotiations. The question is whether the Obama administration is doing everything it can to convince other countries not to support the U.N. vote.
"I think they understand what needs to be done," Oren said. "We're working for similar goals."
But when pressed Oren didn't say whether or not the Obama administration is doing everything it can on the diplomatic front.
Some pro-Israel supporters in Washington think the administration needs to do more. "The United States must begin a vigorous public effort to lobby other countries, large and small, to oppose the Palestinian effort and join President Barack Obama in pressuring the PA to call it off," former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block wrote in a recent op-ed.
Oren said the PA is planning to use the statehood declaration to prosecute never-ending "lawfare" against Israel in international forums, which will lessen the chances for a negotiated solution.
"We want to be able to negotiate but we won't be able to negotiate if they are attacking our legitimacy in every international court. We're not going to negotiate under fire and it's a mistake for the Palestinians to think that we would," Oren said.
The Israeli government is publicly supporting the creation of a Palestinian state, the Palestinian economy is growing steadily, and Israel is cooperating logistically every day with Palestinian security forces, Oren said, but that could all be lost.
"The Palestinians have achieved a tremendous amount over the last 18 years and all of that could be at risk," Oren said. "The Palestinians risk all that has been achieved if they go forward with this ... and that would be a great tragedy."
Hundreds of supporters of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) movement converged on the State Department on Friday to hear former U.S. congressmen and senior officials call for the U.S. government to take the MEK off its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) emceed the rally in front of the State Department headquarters. The event also featured speeches by former Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA), former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano.
"One of the greatest moments was when my uncle, President [John F.] Kennedy, stood in Berlin and uttered the immortal words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,'" Kennedy exclaimed. "Today, I'm honored to repeat my uncle's words, by saying [translated from Farsi] ‘I am an Iranian,' ‘I am an Ashrafi."
The crowd erupted in cheers and applause and began chanting, "MEK yes, mullahs no! They are terrorists, they must go!"
Kennedy advocated taking the MEK off the terrorist list, which it has been on since 1997, and accused the Iraqi government of committing war crimes by killing innocent members of the MEK at Camp Ashraf. 3,400 MEK members live in the desert camp in Iraq under restrictive conditions.
"To my friends in the State Department behind us, who continue to hold fast to an old policy that is supported by Tehran, you are on the wrong side of history," Kennedy shouted. "To [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki, your brutal and deadly assault on Camp Ashraf will land you in the International Criminal Court, where you will be held accountable."
"I love you," Kennedy told the crowd. "If you take the MEK off the list, you will unshackle a group that will help take out the mullahs in Iran."
Next up was Rendell, who called on the international community to militarily intervene in Camp Ashraf, comparing it to Muammar al-Qaddafi's assault on Benghazi earlier this year.
"The international community conducted a military intervention in Libya to protect innocent civilians. We should do the same thing to protect the innocent people in Camp Ashraf," Rendell said.
MEK leader Maryam Rajavi, who lives in Paris with her husband Massoud Rajavi (who hasn't been seen in public since 2003), is banned from traveling to the United States. But she spoke to the rally via a video message on a big screen, and accused the State Department of giving implicit permission to the Iranian and Iraqi governments to kill children.
"The terror listing in the U.S. is openly used as a justification to legitimize such bloodletting, by both the cruel mullahs as well as their proxy government in Iraqi," she said. "Therefore, the Iranian people are asking the United States, ‘Why are you not annulling the license to kill our children?'"
The Cable's informal headcount put the number of attendees at about 1,000 to 1,500, with long lines of young Iranian-Americans wearing shirts with photos of dead MEK members imprinted on them. Some attendees had photos of the Rajavis on their shirts. Add to that flags, confetti, and a full drum line.
We asked Kennedy if he had been paid for his appearance at the rally, but he refused to answer. Ali Safavi, president of a pro-MEK group Near East Policy Research, said the speakers were paid through a speakers bureau, which receives money from wealthy Iranian-Americans in the United States. He also said those Iranian-Americans work with the law firm DLA Piper, but he denied the allegation that DLA and these individuals help funnel money from the MEK to the former U.S. officials.
In a crowd made up of people who were mostly of Middle Eastern origin, a group of African-American attendees wearing MEK gear stood out. One man, who would only identify himself as "The Great Lonnell," was holding a "Delist the MEK" banner while wearing a shirt that said, "Behold the Great Beast."
"We are here representing on behalf of the Iranian community. This vicious dictator who is calling himself a president is murdering these people, he's slaying them, and nothing is getting done," the Great Lonnell said. "And they are here rallying to get the attention of a government that has deaf ears."
The Great Lonnell came to Washington from Staten Island, NY -- along with 200 people from a church he attends -- to support the MEK's struggle for human rights. He and his group have been attending MEK rallies for several months, he said.
The Great Lonnell then pulled your humble Cable guy aside and asked to pitch Foreign Policy another story.
"Do you want to write my own story?" he asked. "I am the Beast that will come to the earth, from Revelations in the Old Testament. I am that person."
The Cable was not able to confirm that The Great Lonnell was in fact the Beast from Revelations.
UPDATE: Zaid Jilani and Ali Gharib from ThinkProgress interviewed attendees at the rally, many who had tenuous if any links to the MEK and little understanding of why there were there. Many had traveled from far away on fully funded trips. Some appeared to be homeless. Watch the video here:
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
This week's toppling of the Qaddafi regime in Libya shows that the Obama administration's multilateral and light-footprint approach to regime change is more effective than the troop-heavy occupation-style approach used by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, a top White House official told Foreign Policy today in a wide-ranging interview.
"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with FP. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."
Despite criticism from Congress and elsewhere, President Barack Obama's strategy for the military intervention in Libya will not only result in a better outcome in Libya but also will form the basis of Obama's preferred model for any future military interventions, Rhodes said.
"There are two principles that the president stressed at the outset [of the Libya intervention] that have borne out in our approach. The first is that we believe that it's far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers," said Rhodes. "Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. wasn't bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions."
Rhodes said that the United States is not going to be able to replicate the exact same approach to intervention in other countries, but identified the two core principles of relying on indigenous forces and burden sharing as "characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention."
Rhodes also weighed in on several other aspects of the Libya saga:
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford went on another trip outside Damascus to view the anti-government protests on Tuesday, this time in direct violation of travel restrictions placed on him by the Assad regime.
"Ambassador Ford went down to Jassem, which is about 70 kilometers south of Damascus, to see for himself what was up there," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's press briefing. "This has been another town that has been engaged in peaceful protest. He was there for about four hours. He had a chance there to talk to a number of Syrians, including those in the opposition, and then he drove back to Damascus."
Sounds like a nice little trip: another example of Ford's commitment to justify his continued presence in Damascus -- against the opposition of many congressmen and foreign policy pundits -- and a useful means of engaging with the Syrian opposition.
But after Ford's trip to the city of Hama last month to observe the unrest there, the Syrian government slapped travel restrictions on the U.S. envoy and his team, barring them from leaving Damascus. The State Department in turn retaliated with similar restrictions barring Syrian diplomats from leaving the Washington area.
Of course, Ford could have requested permission to leave Damascus, but instead he chose to tell the Syrian government about his trip only after he returned to the U.S. embassy.
"In this case, he informed the Syrian Foreign Ministry after the visit, and he made clear to them that the reason that he didn't inform them before the visit was because they haven't been approving any visits by anybody, anywhere," Nuland said. She explained that Ford had requested permission three times over the last six weeks to go to the city of Aleppo, but was denied in all three cases.
"So is he trying to get expelled from the country?" one member of the State Department press corps asked Nuland.
"He is trying to do his job, which is to be able to maintain broad contacts with a broad cross section of Syrians and to make sure that they know where the United States stands," she responded. She added that Ford had received the support of State Department leadership in advance of the trip.
Meanwhile, Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha, who has been neglecting his blog lately, has returned to Washington after spending some time back home. Moustapha is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly using Syrian embassy resources to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington with the aim of intimidating them and threatening their families back in Syria.
How would the State Department feel if Moustapha just ignored the U.S. government and began hopping around the United States without permission? Nuland said that he would be granted permission if he requested to travel somewhere, and that some Syrian officials had recently been granted permission to travel to California.
After the briefing, a State Department official held a little gaggle with reporters on a background basis, as is the post-briefing custom. One reporter pressed the official to acknowledge that, if the tables had been turned and a foreign ambassador didn't follow rules laid out by the U.S. government, he would be expelled.
All the official would say is, "In this case, after he was turned down three times, we just felt he needed to do his job."
Ford's expulsion from Damascus would actually solve a tricky problem for the State Department, which is facing a tough confirmation fight for him this fall. Ford was sent to Damascus last year under a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year. The only way for Ford to stay in Damascus longer than that is for the Senate to confirm him.
Though Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) reversed himself and now supports keeping Ford in place as ambassador, there are still multiple GOP senators who have no intention of letting Ford's nomination get through the Senate.
Given these dynamics, Ford's unauthorized visit to Jassem represents a win-win scenario for the State Department. On the one hand, it bolsters the State Department's case that Ford is a crucial link to the Syrian revolution. And if he gets thrown out of Syria, State can avoid a messy confirmation fight they are almost sure to lose.
The Bahraini government and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) will not hold what would have been the 8th annual Manama Security Dialogue this year because of the social upheaval and subsequent government crackdown in the country.
"We have decided not to convene the Manama Dialogue in December 2011," IISS CEO and President John Chipman told The Cable. "Instead, we have decided to hold two ‘Sherpa Meetings', one in January 2012, one in May 2012, involving high level officials from all the states that normally participate in the Manama Dialogue, to prepare for the intended resumption of the Manama Dialogue summit in December 2012."
The Manama Dialogue is the region's largest annual meeting of influential national security officials and experts. Chipman said that the Sherpa meetings are meant "to sustain the momentum" of the dialogue, as well as to build support for high-level government participation for the event in December 2012.
IISS notified government officials about the change in an information note last month.
"These Sherpa meetings will involve senior government officials from those states who normally participate in the Manama Dialogue," reads a note on the Sherpa meetings provided to The Cable by IISS. There will be about 65 officials from 20 countries at each meeting, which will be off the record and held at IISS's Manama office.
The most recent Manama Dialogue featured attendance by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, and your humble Cable guy. It's the Middle East counterpart to IISS's annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which we also attended.
The Manama Dialogue is not the only international event in Bahrain that has been delayed this year for political reasons. The Bahrain Grand Prix Formula 1 racing event was postponed from March 2011 to October and then cancelled outright. The next F1 racing event in Bahrain is scheduled for November 2012.
President Barack Obama said yesterday that he wants to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down from office, and promised to implement more sanctions on the Syrian regime. But conservatives in Washington have several additional ideas for how to up the pressure on Assad.
Thirty-two mostly conservative national security experts wrote a letter to Obama today on the letterhead of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies commending him for calling on Assad to step down and urging him to quickly ramp up the pressure on his regime. "We are concerned... that unless urgent actions are taken by the United States and its allies, the Assad regime's use of force against the Syrian people will only increase and the already significant death toll will mount," the letter said.
The signatories want Obama to push hard for multilateral energy sector sanctions and to advocate for the passage of new Syria sanctions legislation, which was introduced in Congress earlier this month. They also think the administration should encourage Germany, Italy, and France to stop buying Syrian oil, forcefully urge energy trading firms from Switzerland, Holland, and elsewhere to stop selling Syria refined petroleum products, and sanction any person involved in Syrian pipeline construction, including insurance firms, shipping companies, financing entities, and ports managers.
They also want harsher sanctions on Syria's central bank, punishment for anybody who buys Syrian debt, additional U.N. sanctions based on Syria's record of weapons and nuclear proliferation, and the recalling of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford.
The letter reminded the president that the fall of the Assad regime would not only be a boon for the Syrian people, but also have "game-changing implications" for the balance of power in the Middle East. "It would deny Iran the use of its major ally as a proxy for terrorism, stem the flow of Syrian arms to Hezbollah, reduce instability in Lebanon, and lessen tensions on Israel's northern border," the signatories wrote.
The group commended Obama's new executive order that requires the immediate freeze of all Syrian government assets that fall under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibits U.S. citizens from doing any business with the Syrian government. The new sanctions also ban the import of Syrian petroleum products into the United States, and ban Americans from doing business with Syrian petroleum companies.
The signers include former NSC Middle East official Elliott Abrams, the Council on Foreign Relations' Max Boot, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, AEI's Fred Kagan, the Brookings Institution's Bob Kagan, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, former CIA Director James Woolsey, top GOP consultant Randy Scheunemann, and former NSC official Jamie Fly, now executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.
The calls for Ford's recall have been echoed in both the House and Senate. House Foreign Relations Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) yesterday praised the administration's move but reiterated her call for Ford for come back to Washington.
Several nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have recalled their ambassadors from Damascus but the Obama administration argues that Ford's activities on the ground, including a recent visit to protests in Hama, are helping the opposition. Ros-Lehtinen disagrees.
"It is also important that the administration take the next step in ending its engagement policy and reverse its mistake of sending a U.S. ambassador to Syria," she said in a statement. "The continued presence of an ambassador in Damascus sends a mixed message to the Syrian regime and gives legitimacy to Assad and his cronies."
Full text of the letter after the jump:
As the Obama administration tightened sanctions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Congress is warming to the idea of confirming U.S. envoy to Damascus Robert Ford.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) came out this morning in support of the confirmation of Ford, who was sent to Damascus via a recess appointment last year. Several senators, including Lieberman, objected at the time to the United States sending an ambassador to Damascus, arguing that it would amount to a reward for Syrian bad behavior. Now, just as several countries, including Saudi Arabia, are pulling out their ambassadors, Lieberman is arguing that Ford must stay.
"This time, I believe the Senate should quickly vote to confirm Mr. Ford as our top diplomat in Damascus," Lieberman wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday. "While the Obama administration originally envisioned Amb. Ford's primary purpose as engagement with the Syrian regime, that is no longer the case. Rather than being an envoy to Assad, Mr. Ford is now first and foremost our ambassador to the Syrian people and a bridge to the democratic transition they demand."
Lieberman's about face, which was largely due to Ford's trip to the restive city of Hama last month to observe the anti-regime protests there, removes one obstacle to his confirmation. Other senators who were opposed to confirming him in the past include Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL). Neither Kyl nor Kirk has said whether they will continue to oppose Ford's nomination this time around.
Some on Capitol Hill don't like the optics of the United States confirming an ambassador to Syria while other countries withdraw their envoys as a means of registering their opposition to Assad's crackdown, which has increased in brutality over the past 10 days.
"Senator Lieberman is one of the great national security leaders of this generation, and Robert Ford is a skilled diplomat, but it makes no sense to have an American ambassador in Damascus now," one senior GOP congressional aide told The Cable. "It's a sad day when the Saudi king has greater moral clarity than the president of the United States."
Regardless, the gap between the Obama administration's stance on Syria and Congress's demands for action is narrowing. Administration officials have been hinting that the White House will officially call for Assad to step down this week, perhaps on Thursday, signaling the end of the administration's two-year effort to engage the Syrian government.
The State Department was also heavily invested in the visit to Syria yesterday of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, even sending Fred Hof to Ankara coordinate pressures and messaging with the Turks. The Davutoglu visit doesn't seem to have given protesters a respite from the Syrian regime's crackdown, though: Troops loyal to Assad reportedly killed at least 35 people today.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland previewed the administration's coming change in rhetoric at Tuesday's briefing. "In the case of Syria, the message from 2009 was, if you are prepared to open Syria politically, if you are prepared to be a reformer, if you are prepared to work with us on Middle East peace and other issues we share, we can have a new and different kind of partnership," she said. "And that is not the path that Assad chose."
Today, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, and Syriatel, the largest mobile phone operator in Syria.
"By exposing Syria's largest commercial bank as an agent for designated Syrian and North Korean proliferators, and by targeting Syria's largest mobile phone operator for being controlled by one of the regime's most corrupt insiders, we are taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to Assad and his regime's illicit activities," Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement.
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration action is in part a recognition of the facts on the ground in Syria and in part an attempt to stay ahead of Congress, which is preparing to move forward with a new Syria sanctions bill when congressmen return to work in September.
The bill, authored by Lieberman, Kirk, and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would authorize President Barack Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.
Whether or not Ford gets confirmed will be a key test of whether Congress can get on board with the administration's approach.
"We need to have someone who is meeting with the opposition and people who want to interact with the U.S. in the future," said Tabler. "Unfortunately in this town, its either peace process or isolation. We need a more creative policy."
As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, lawmakers and activists are stepping up their efforts to convince the White House to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power.
The U.N. Security Council issued a presidential statement on Wednesday afternoon condemning the violence in Syria and calling for those responsible for human rights violation to be held accountable. The statement did not call for an international investigation into the crimes, as some members had wanted, and does not carry the force of a Security Council resolution, which was ultimately unattainable.
"It is clear that President al-Assad is not committed to pursuing the reforms that would meet these goals. As such, the United States and the international community must hold the regime accountable, and pressure them to change course," 68 U.S. senators wrote in a new letter to President Barack Obama today. "Implementing additional sanctions would show the Syrian people that we stand with them in their struggle for human rights and a more representative government, while also making it clear to the Syrian regime that it will pay an increasing cost for its outrageous repression."
The senators are calling on the administration to prohibit U.S. businesses from operating or investing in Syria, impose stringent sanctions on Syria's banking sector, restrict the travel of Syrian diplomats within the United States, and block property transactions in which the Syrian government has an interest. In addition, the senators are calling on Obama to engage with European allies on ending purchases of Syrian oil, and cutting off investments in Syria's oil and gas sectors.
The letter comes only one day after Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced a bill that would authorize Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.
Obama's Syria team, which is centered at the State Department, has been increasing its rhetoric and activity against the Assad regime, having now made the internal calculation that Assad will have to leave sooner or later. "We've definitely been very clear that we don't see Assad in Syria's future," a senior administration official told Foreign Policy this week.
Another administration official who does not work directly on sanctions predicted that new designations of Syrian officials for targeted sanctions could be coming in "days, not weeks." Still that movement is not enough for the administration's critics.
"I don't understand their Syria policy," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a SFRC member who is calling for a tougher administration stance. "I wish there was a little more clarity on it, I'm sorry there isn't."
Other observers beg to differ. "The administration has been criticized as muddled, I think this is no longer the case," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Now the idea has crystallized inside the administration that the Assad regime is on its way out and all options are on the table, short of military action."
At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said that, additional U.S. unilateral sanctions "probably aren't going to have that big of an impact," because "the big companies working in the energy sector in Syria are from Europe or Syria's neighbors."
But the administration isn't opposed to the new congressional legislation, Tabler said. Ford was simply acknowledging the fact that the United States doesn't have much leverage in Syria and therefore must work through other countries to increase pressure on Assad.
"[T]he point that Ford was trying to make was that in order to get the change on the ground, you have to get the European countries to join in," Tabler said. "The question is whether this congressional action will lead to more European action or not."
"It's foreign companies, in particular those based in the EU, that the U.S. needs to persuade to pull out of Syria. Ford is absolutely right about that," said a senior Senate aide who works on Syria. "In fact, that's precisely why the congressional sanctions introduced yesterday don't target U.S. companies. They target the foreign energy companies that are doing business with Syria."
Regardless, the administration still has yet to issue an outright call for Assad to step down now, as it did with Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Qaddafi. That's one of the main requests of Syrian opposition activists, several of whom met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department on Tuesday. They want Obama to be more public in his support of the Syrian opposition.
"The president had remarks on Egypt and Libya, but no speech on Syria," said Radwan Ziadeh, a George Washington University professor who was part of the group. "Also we need the United States to lead international action on Syria at the United Nations Security Council level."
Ziadeh said that Clinton promised to throw her support behind the condemnation of Syria just passed at the United Nations, but did not pledge that the administration would do the other things the activists are requesting, including leading a drive for Syrian officials to be charged with war crimes at the International Criminal Court.
The one hour meeting was also attended by Syria activists Marah Bukai and Mohammad Alabdalla, as well as Ford, Special Advisor Fred Hof, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tamara Wittes, and a deputy of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner.
The activists had been requesting a meeting with Clinton for over a month, Ziadeh said. They have seen greater senior administration attention on Syria in recent days, which they view as positive, but are waiting for that attention to be translated into a more bold and public stance, he noted.
"She said that they want a transition in Syria to start as soon as possible," said Ziadeh. "It's important to see how much Secretary Clinton is personally involved. But now we need to push the White House to have a speech by President Obama very soon."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the single senator that attended his confirmation hearing today that while the administration's sanctions on the Syrian regime are working, newly proposed congressional sanctions probably won't do much good.
Ford, who was sent to Damascus under a recess appointment because he could not be confirmed last year, was back in Washington for one more confirmation push before his recess appointment expires on Dec. 31. The U.S. envoy was expected to face harsh criticism from a number of GOP senators who believe the Obama administration has not been tough enough on regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But after the debt ceiling vote was done, most lawmakers patted themselves on the back and immediately skipped town. Only Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) was left by the time Ford's hearing begun.
Ford played it cautiously for most of Casey's questioning, repeating administration calls for a transition to democratic rule in Syria, condemning the brutality of the regime against its people, and praising the Syrian opposition while being clear-eyed about the challenges that the opposition faces.
"It's a diverse group, they're not very well organized. That's not surprising," Ford testified, explaining that he meets with opposition representatives constantly. "It's important for the Syrian opposition to develop their ideas, Syrian ideas, for their democratic transition."
Ford also joined the meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Syrian activists earlier today at the State Department.
"It's really important now to give these Syrians an ear and to amplify their voices," he said at the hearing. "My job is to help establish the space for Syrian activists ... to develop and organize the political transition that must occur if Syria is to be stable again."
When asked about the prospect of new congressional sanctions, Ford indicated that the bill introduced today by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), might not be the best way to put pressure on the Assad regime. Their bill would authorize President Barack Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.
"Unilaterally, additional American measures probably aren't going to have that big of an impact," said Ford. "The big companies working in the energy sector in Syria are from Europe or Syria's neighbors."
"We would look to find ways to with our partners to enhance our [existing] sanctions," he added, adding that those discussions are underway. "The challenge is getting targeting that works and really has an impact."
However, Ford did make a point to emphasize that the administration's Syria sanctions, which have designated several Syrian regime officials as targets for asset freezes, are effective. More such designations are expected in the coming days.
"The [administration's] sanctions do bite. We do see more business people slowly shifting sides, and that's important," he said. "So we do think sanctions are having an impact."
Clearly, the senators who sponsored the bill disagree with Ford's assessment that additional sanctions will not have an impact.
"The United States should impose crippling sanctions in response to the murder of civilians by troops under the orders of Syrian President Assad," Kirk said in a release. "The Arab Spring will sweep away this dictatorship, hopefully with the help of American sanctions similar to those leveled against the Iranian regime."
Kirk and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) have been among the most critical senators of the administration's approach to Syria. Both argue that Ford's presence there represents an unwise concession to the government. The Cable caught up with Kyl in the Senate hallways on Tuesday and asked him if he will try to thwart Ford's nomination.
"I don't have any plans with regard to his nomination," Kyl said.
We predicted that the senators on the committee might not show up for the hearing, so we caught some SFRC members earlier in the day to see where they stood on the administration's strategy of slowly but surely increasing pressure on the Assad regime.
"I think we do should everything we can to ratchet up our pressure on Syria," said SFRC member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). "The administration has made a series of good movements seeking to tighten the noose economically and anything we can do to enhance that will have my support."
"I don't understand their Syria policy," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a SFRC member who is calling for a tougher administration stance. "I wish there was a little more clarity on it, I'm sorry there isn't."
At the hearing, Casey praised Ford and recounted reports of the Syrian authorities torturing children. He said that Assad "must step down" and that more can be done to pressure Syria in international bodies.
"Ambassador Ford's recent trip to Hama was a testament to his commitment to represent the values of the United States," Casey said.
Ford speculated that the members of the U.N. Security Council were now more ready than before to take action on Syria. He also said that while Hezbollah continues to support the Syrian government, the group has been silent recently due to the anger their pro-Assad statements aroused among the Syrian people.
On the core issue of whether Assad should go, Ford stuck with the administration's position that Assad has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people, but stopped short of calling for him to step down now.
"Our conclusion is that this regime is unwilling or unable to lead the democratic transition the Syrian people are demanding," he said. "And there's really no difference between unwilling or unable as far as we're concerned."
Before Ford's hearing, half a dozen senators showed up for the confirmation hearings of two more sitting ambassadors who have to go through the process again because they received recess appointments: Ambassador to Turkey Frank Ricciardone and Ambassador to the Czech Republic Norm Eisen.
Wednesday's scheduled hearing for Wendy Sherman to become undersecretary of State for political affairs was outright cancelled because no senators were going to be there.
Ricciardone no longer has to worry about the complaints of now-retired Sen. Sam Brownback, but he still faces potential opposition from Kirk and Menendez. Kirk doesn't want the administration to make a missile defense deal with Turkey and Menendez wants the administration to refer to the destruction of the Armenian population during and after World War I as "genocide."
Eisen, who left his post as White House ethics czar in August 2010, was held up last year by Finance Committee ranking Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) over alleged actions and misrepresentations related to the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Eisen said that representing the United States in the Czech Republic had special meaning for him, because his mother was born there but was forced to flee due to Nazi persecution. Lieberman, who is not on the committee, showed up to introduce Eisen and commended those in attendance for not being part of the "the herd of senators who fled town after the vote."
DOHA, Qatar - As Bashar al-Assad's shock troops storm cities and towns across Syria, leaving a death toll in the triple digits that has only stoked the fires of rebellion even hotter, Barack Obama's administration is stepping up measures aimed at fatally weakening the Syrian dictator's regime.
Critics of the U.S. president's policy, particularly on the right, have long charged his administration with being soft on Assad. But the United States is now unequivocally committed to his ouster, having lost whatever little faith it had in the Syrian leader's willingness to reform. "He is illegitimate," a senior administration official says flatly. "We've definitely been very clear that we don't see Assad in Syria's future."
To that end, the administration is working closely with its European allies and Turkey, seeking to steadily ratchet up the pressure on a regime that analysts, including within the government, increasingly see as doomed. "All of the factors that keep the regime in power are trending downward," the senior official says, pointing to a swiftly collapsing economy and worsening "cohesion" within the regime. "Assad is in on every decision, without a doubt, but as time goes on there's more infighting."
Read the rest here.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is set to mark up a fiscal 2012 State Department and foreign assistance authorization bill July 20, which proposes sweeping changes to the security assistance provided to several governments that have rocky relationships with the United States.
The draft version of the bill, obtained by The Cable, would prevent the allocation of any funds that fall under the State Department's jurisdiction to the government of Pakistan until the administration can reassure Congress that Pakistan is assisting with the investigation into who helped hide Osama bin Laden, a step that will include making bin Laden's relatives available to the U.S. government. Islamabad must also demonstrate that it is not holding up visas for U.S. personnel who are set to go to Pakistan and not diverting U.S.-provided weapons for purposes other than fighting terrorists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
That would effectively defund the Kerry-Lugar aid program, which allocated $1.5 billion in fiscal 2012 and another $400 million in foreign military financing. $800 million in U.S. aid was also suspended earlier this month -- but those funds came from the Pentagon's coffers, not the State Department.
The bill would also prohibit the use of any State Department funding to assist the government of Lebanon until the White House certifies to Congress that no member of Hezbollah or any other terrorist group serves in a policy position in the Lebanese government -- a step that would currently be impossible, because Hezbollah is a major coalition partner in the current government. The Obama administration would also need to certify that Lebanon's security services are free from Hezbollah members, that all Lebanese government ministries are financially transparent, and that the Lebanese government is dismantling all foreign terrorist organizations, which includes Hezbollah
In other words, no foreign military financing or international military education and training (IMET) funding for Lebanon would be permitted if this bill, authored by HFAC Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), were to become law.
Similar restrictions on funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA) make it equally unlikely that any State Department assistance to the Palestinian Authority would be allowed. The bill would condition the aid on the president certifying that the PA is doing several things, including that they have "halted all anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian Authority-controlled electronic and print media and in schools, mosques, and other institutions it controls, and is replacing these materials, including textbooks, with materials that promote tolerance, peace, and coexistence with Israel."
Funding for Yemen would also face a series of difficult restrictions, including the stipulation that the president must certify that the Yemeni government "is not complicit in human rights abuses." Hundreds of protesters have been killed since the 5-month old uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is still recovering in Saudi Arabia.
Ros-Lehtinen's bill doesn't stop at restricting foreign assistance to countries that have fraught relations with the United States. The bill would also set into law that it "shall be the policy of the United States to uphold and act in accordance with all of the reassurances provided by the President in an April 14, 2004, letter to the Prime Minister of Israel."
That's a direct swipe at Obama's May 19 declaration that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations should be based on 1967 borders with agreed swaps. The bill would also require the State Department to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
On China, Ros-Lehtinen's bill would call for a U.S. consulate in Tibet and a Tibet interest section in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. It would also eliminate the East-West Center in Hawaii, a think tank studying U.S.-China relations, and prohibit funding for the U.S.-China Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security that the two countries agreed to establish in January.
The bill also includes language on reinstating the "Mexico City Gag Rule," which would prevent funding for any non-governmental organization that discusses abortion. Republican members of HFAC are also expected to introduce amendments on everything from the United Nations to Libya.
Of course, the bill could change before Wednesday's markup. In fact, this is only the latest of several drafts that have been provided to The Cable over the last couple of weeks. We're told that this draft is close to what the final version that will be presented to the committee.
But that doesn't mean the bill will become law any time soon. Assuming the House leadership gives the bill floor time, it would still have to be reconciled with a version being drafted by the Senate. And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by John Kerry (D-MA), isn't about to put forward a bill that contains such dramatic limits on the Obama administration's foreign policy.
HFAC staffers insist that they want to devise a strategy for their bill to become law by working with the Senate.
The last time a State Department authorization bill actually became law was 2005, although the House did pass one in 2009. Regardless, insiders see the bill as guidance for House appropriators, who plan to mark up the State Department and foreign assistance appropriations bill July 27. That bill could actually become law if Congress ever resolves the current budget crisis and tackles government funding levels for next year.
For those readers out there who aren't budget geeks, the authorization bill simply sets out policy and is not binding when it comes to dollar amounts. The appropriations bill sets funding, and as such actually places money in the State Department's coffers.
The top Republican and Democrat foreign aid leaders in the House of Representatives are warning the Palestinian Authority (PA) that U.S. aid will be withheld if the Palestinians seek recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September.
"We write to reiterate our serious concerns about your intentions to pursue recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations," reads a July 11 letter sent to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas by the leaders of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), obtained by The Cable.
"It has been the longstanding belief of the United States government that the path to a true and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis will come only as a result of direct negotiations. We write to reaffirm that belief and warn of the severe consequences of abandoning it."
The Obama administration has been clear that it doesn't support the Palestinian plan to seek a vote on statehood at the United Nations in September, but it so far hasn't spelled out any consequences for the Palestinians if they should choose to do so. Congress, on the other hand, is doing a lot to make those consequences known. On July 7, the House passed a resolution opposing the statehood plan by a 407-6 vote. The Senate passed the same resolution unanimously.
In May, 29 senators promised to cut off all U.S. assistance to the PA if it formed a unity government with Hamas. The United States gave the PA about $550 million in aid in fiscal 2011, a mixture of project funding and direct cash to the government.
The head of the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, told The Cable in May that the plan to seek recognition at the United Nations was not final and could be scuttled if negotiations resume. He also said that the unity government would not change its policies regarding the peace process at least until Palestinian legislative and presidential elections, which are tentatively scheduled for May 2012.
The House plans to mark up its fiscal 2012 appropriations bill on July 27, and several foreign aid accounts are under scrutiny. And following the apparently fruitless meeting this week of the Quartet members here in Washington, the path back to direct negotiations remains unclear -- a fact that will only further endanger U.S. assistance to the PA.
Already, Congress has been taking a harder look at funding for the Palestinian territories. Multiple Hill sources said that a recent routine request for program funding for USAID staffers vetting Palestinian aid projects was held up by the House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) for weeks before finally getting approval.
"American assistance has always been predicated upon Palestinian leaders' commitment to resolve all outstanding issues through direct negotiations," the congresswomen wrote. "Current and future aid will be jeopardized if you abandon direct negotiations and continue your current efforts."
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.