A Democratic House lawmaker is calling on France not to sell advanced anti-tank weapons to Lebanon, out of fear they could fall into the hands of Hezbollah.
"As you know, Lebanon is in a precarious situation whereby Hezbollah is in a powerful position to usurp the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). If this were to occur, Israel would be in grave danger of having your anti-tank missile used against her," Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "I agree in principle that strengthening the LAF against Hezbollah is an important goal, but I believe that providing the LAF with anti-tank missiles is neither helpful nor necessary in that regard."
Rothman's letter is just the latest in a string of actions from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers questioning the wisdom of continued military assistance to the LAF from both the U.S. and other countries. In November, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and House Foreign Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) released their hold on $100 million of U.S. military assistance to the LAF after months of seeking assurances from the State Department that the materiel would not fall into Hezbollah hands.
Rothman is a member of the House Appropriations Defense -- as well as the State and Foreign Ops -- subcommittees.
Israel has opposed the sale of the HOT* anti-tank missile to the LAF since their 2006 war with Hezbollah and has continued its opposition after a border clash this past August resulted in five deaths. Following the border skirmish, the administration dispatched Frederic Hof, senior aide to Special Envoy George Mitchell, to warn the Lebanese government that U.S military assistance wasn't guaranteed and future Hezbollah mischief would push Congress over its tolerance limit.
U.S. military assistance to the LAF has focused mainly on small arms, munitions, training, and vehicles, such as Harley Davidson motorcycles. The administration believes strongly that the LAF does a good job of keeping control over its military equipment and that strengthening the LAF is the best way to keep it from slipping further toward Hezbollah's control.
"We remain determined to work with the Lebanese government to extend its authority over all of Lebanon, and to advance political and economic reforms that benefit the people of Lebanon," Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy said on a September trip to Beirut. "This commitment includes U.S. support to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is part of an international effort to help strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state and the ability of the Lebanese Government to exercise its sovereignty and authority over all of its territory."
The administration doesn't believe that Hezbollah is on the verge of "usurping" the LAF and doesn't believe that giving aid to Lebanon undermines Israel's "Qualitative Military Edge," a U.S. commitment to always make sure Israel is stronger than its neighbors.
While the Obama team is unlikely to publicly raise the issue of the HOT missile sales during Sarkozy's trip to Washington in January, officials could raise it privately, as did Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the issue of the French sale to Russia of the amphibious assault ship Mistral.
The United States has provided the LAF with over $700 million in assistance since 2007, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and is requesting $132 million more for fiscal 2011. But Congress is sure to ask whether that aid is really being used against the threat from Hezbollah or Israel.
"To the extent that U.S. security assistance is limited to training and items designed to improve Lebanese government capability to contain and potentially disarm Hezbollah and other internal threats, they may become incompatible with the evolving threat perceptions and political intentions of Lebanon's political leadership," wrote CRS. "Events continue to suggest that Lebanese leaders are prepared to seek security assistance and weapons from non-U.S. sources to meet their perceived needs."
*The HOT (Haut subsonique Optiquement Téléguidé Tiré d'un Tube) missile is a long-range, anti-tank weapon that can be mounted from a tank or a helicopter. It is manufactured by MBDA, a joint corporation of French and German defense firms. Its name, roughly translated, means "High Subsonic Optical Remote-Guided Fired from Tube."
MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have tried to tamp down the rhetoric against Iran in her speech Friday night here in Bahrain, but Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's speech Saturday morning was the same critical and defiant line his government has been taking for months.
Here at the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, the Clinton and Mottaki speeches were the most closely watched. Clinton's speech was well received; the Arab Gulf country representatives we spoke with all said they thought she projected an open and welcoming message. They noted that she made statements on Iran's right to nuclear energy while avoiding the usual U.S. criticisms of the regime many expected.
Mottaki's speech, however, was devoid of the kind of signals that might reassure Gulf or American diplomats that Iran was moving toward concessions or a warming of ties. The speech came only two days before Iran returns to the table to discuss its nuclear program with the P5+1 countries in Geneva.
Mottaki repeatedly disputed the idea that Arab countries were concerned and opposed to Iran's nuclear program, as was communicated to American diplomats and revealed in the disclosures of diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks.
"Muslims must be happy to see other Muslims becoming powerful," he said, rejecting the idea that Arab countries are suspicious of Iran. "Our power is your power," he told the Arab leaders assembled. "We must not allow the Western media to tell us what to think of each other."
He called the government of Israel a "counterfeit regime" and dismissed its establishment as an "excuse to provide a home for the victims of the second WorldWar."
Regarding the nuclear talks themselves, Mottaki questioned whether it would really be a dialogue or just a lecture from the United States. He declared that the U.S.-led international sanctions on Iran are having no effect, directly contradicting Clinton.
"If the other side believes they need more time to see the results of the sanctions, they can have more time. The sanctions have nothing to do with us and don't have an effect on our resolve," he said.
Mottaki pointed back to Iran's agreement with Turkey and Brazil for a fuel-swap arrangement but chastised Obama for rejecting that deal. He also said he saw no signs the Obama administration had done anything different in the Gulf region.
"We believe that the policies of President Obama are the same as President Bush's policies," he said. "We have two years of performance of President Obama in our region. Are we really seeing any kind of changes in the approaches of the Americans?"
In what some saw as a new concession by Iran, Mottaki explicitly endorsed the idea of an international fuel bank to manage and disperse nuclear fuel for civilian uses. But he had one heck of a caveat.
"We're in agreement with the creating of a fuel bank and we support that," he said. "And since we are a fuel producer and we have the technology for that, then in principle a branch of that bank will be established in the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Joshua Rogin / Foreign Policy
MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Bahrain today, getting ready to deliver the opening address at the IISS Manama Security Dialogue. But before she speaks, she'll attend a dinner along with her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
The two leaders cross paths just three days before Iran will meet with the Security Council's big powers in Geneva for the first multilateral discussions on Iran's nuclear program in more than a year. Dozens of governments from around the world are gathered here in Manama, all of them waiting to hear what Clinton and Mottaki will say.
Earlier today, Clinton sat down exclusively with The Cable to lay out her expectations for the Iran meeting and explain what will follow. She said that the Iranian regime is suffering under sanctions and is experiencing new problems with its nuclear program, which is why Tehran has come back to the table now. But the United States is not offering Iranian leaders an extended engagement, as in 2009. This time, they had better be serious about negotiating right away, she suggested.
"We have to see what attitude they bring," Clinton said about the Iranians. "I don't think we can put timetables on it. This is more of a day-by-day assessment. We know where we're headed, and that is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. We know we have the vast majority of the world with us on that. But I think we're going to have to take stock of where we are after Geneva... The pressure's not lifting because they're coming to the table in Geneva. And then we'll take it step by step."
She said that recent setbacks in the Iranian nuclear program have put the Iranians in a weaker position. "If they're having difficulties, maybe they'll be more responsive, but we won't know until we test it," Clinton said.
If Clinton does get a chance to speak with Mottaki tonight, she wants to convey to him that the administration is serious about this round of engagement and hopes there will be progress, but at the same time, the Obama team believes that Iran is probably coming to Geneva only because sanctions are taking their toll.
"I don't think they ever believed that we could put together the international coalition we did for sanctions," Clinton said. "And from all that we hear from people in this region and beyond, they're worried about the impact. And so they're returning to Geneva and we hope they are returning to negotiate."
But will Clinton actually talk to Mottaki before she leaves for Washington late tonight?
"If he comes to the dinner, I'll probably see him. But he doesn't talk to me," Clinton said.
In a separate interview with the BBC's Kim Ghattas, Clinton said that Iran could be permitted to maintain its own domestic uranium enrichment program, for civilian purposes, if and when it proves to the international community that it can be trusted to do so.
"We've told them that they are entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy, but they haven't yet restored the confidence of the international community to the extent where the international community would feel comfortable allowing them to enrich," Clinton told the BBC. "They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations."
Clinton told The Cable that progress with Iran was linked to the Iranian government's actions on other items on the U.S. agenda.
"We'll have to see how the Iranians respond on other things we've engaged them on, such as the two hikers who are still there in prison and [former FBI agent Robert] Levinson, who is also in Iran in our opinion. So let's see where it goes."
Internal divisions in Iran's government, however, may be complicating its ability to strike a deal, she suggested.
"You're dealing with a regime that has been badly shaken by the events of June 2009, the election, and the decision-making apparatus was knocked off kilter, which meant that trying to get any action step out of them was more difficult than it would have been prior to June 2009. So none of this is a static situation," she said.
DOHA, Qatar—Senior political and military leaders from around the world are flocking to Manama, Bahrain, Friday for what will be this year's largest and most star-studded meeting on regional security policy, the 2010 Manama Security Dialogue, hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Institute for International and Strategic Studies.
The U.S. delegation, one of the largest at the conference, is being led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is giving the opening address Friday evening. Other U.S. government delegates include Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary for Defense International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Central Command head Gen. James Mattis, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner, Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Daniel Feldman, and U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli.
Among the non-government delegates attending the conference is none other than your humble Cable guy, who is filing this story from a layover in Doha, Qatar, which just happens to be on the country that was just awarded the privilege of hosting the 2022 World Cup. We'll be reporting throughout the conference.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will give a speech Dec. 4, only two days before Iran will meet the "P5+1" countries -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States -- in Geneva for the first multilateral discussions about Iran's nuclear program in over a year.
"Last year, in response to a question, Mottaki presented what was known as the ‘Kish Island option' for the Tehran Research Reactor fuel swap," Andrew Parasiliti, executive director of IISS's U.S. office, told The Cable. "This idea didn't get far, but at the time, it signaled the fuel-swap was not dead in Tehran." Mottaki's proposal, which the Iranians had first made privately to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, was to transfer the first 400 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Kish, an Iranian resort island in the Persian Gulf, in exchange for 40-50 kilograms of fuel enriched to 20 percent.
"The presence of both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Mottaki, as well as ministerial delegations from the Gulf and worldwide, could provide an unusual opportunity for the US, Iran, Iraq, and the GCC states to present new initiatives for a Gulf regional security agenda," Parasiliti wrote Wednesday in an op-ed in the National.
Dozens of Arab leaders will also have their first chance to talk face to face with American diplomats about the WikiLeaks diplomatic cable disclosures, which have so far included embarrassing anecdotes about several governments who will be in Manama, including representatives from Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
Another focus of the event will be the future of Iraq. Iraq's Speaker of Parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi was among the latest additions to the list of speakers. The keynote address on Dec. 4 will be given by King Abdullah II of Jordan.
And never count out General Mattis when it comes to the ability to make news. At last year's dialogue, his predecessor Gen. David Petraeus stirred the pot when he stated that the United Arab Emirates' air force had the ability to take out Iran's air force in a head-to-head matchup.
"All of these issues will be discussed in ministerial plenary panels as well as in off-the-record sessions," Parasiliti said.
On a February trip to the Middle East, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told Qatari leaders that the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria, that a Palestinian capital should be established in East Jerusalem as part of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and that he was "shocked" by what he saw on a visit to Gaza.
Kerry discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a visit to Qatar during separate meetings with Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani and the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, as revealed by the disclosure of diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks.
The emir told Kerry to focus on Syria as the path toward resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Kerry agreed with the emir that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a man who wants change but pointed out that his arming of Hezbollah and interference in Lebanese politics were unhelpful. Kerry said that Assad "needs to make a bolder move and take risks" for peace, and that he should be "more statesman-like." Kerry also agreed with the emir that the Golan Heights should be given back to Syria at some point.
"The Chairman added that Netanyahu also needs to compromise and work the return of the Golan Heights into a formula for peace," the diplomatic cable reported.
As for the peace process, Kerry defended the Obama administration's drive to use indirect proximity talks (which were only being discussed at that time) as a stepping stone to direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He said the two sides should first agree on the amount of land to be swapped and then work on borders, followed by settlements.
Kerry also said that final agreement would have to include a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
"Any negotiation has its limits, added Senator Kerry, and we know for the Palestinians that control of Al-Aqsa mosque and the establishment of some kind of capital for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not negotiable," the cable stated, summarizing the meeting with the emir. "For the Israelis, the Senator continued, Israel's character as a Jewish state is not open for negotiation. The non-militarization of an eventual Palestinian state and its borders can nonetheless be resolved through negotiation."
In a separate meeting the day before with the prime minister, Kerry resisted the Qatari leader's assertion that Hamas was ready to accept the existence of the State of Israel, but he agreed that urgent action was needed to rebuild Gaza.
According to the leaked diplomatic cable, the prime minister told Kerry, "We need to broker a quick reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and move forward quickly on rebuilding Gaza… Senator Kerry asserted that HBJ [Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani] was preaching to the converted and told the PM he was ‘shocked by what I saw in Gaza.'"
In a telling exchange at the end of his meeting with the emir, the Qatari ruler gave Kerry some advice for dealing with the Iranian government.
"The Amir closed the meeting by offering that based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100," the cable said.
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seven-hour marathon meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday in New York could signal a turning point in the effort to revive the stalled Middle East peace talks, as the administration works to resolve the dispute over Israeli settlement building by turning the focus to borders and security.
The Obama administration's latest strategy seems to have two main elements, according to a senior official's read out of the meeting and analysis by current and former officials on both sides. First, the Obama administration is offering Netanyahu as many security guarantees as possible in order to give the Israeli government increased confidence to move to a discussion of the borders that would delineate the two future states. Second, the administration wants to work toward an understanding on borders so that both sides can know where they can and can't build for the duration of the peace process.
"If there in fact is progress in the next several months, I'm confident people will look back at this meeting between Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu as the foundation of the progress. It was that important," former Congressman Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable.
Wexler said that President Obama had long been asking both the Israelis and the Palestinians for clarity on the territories they envisioned being part of their future states. The recent meeting, he said, could be an important step in that direction -- at least in clarifying Israel's position.
"I am hopeful that yesterday's meeting was the beginning of clarity in terms of Israel's visions about her own borders -- where does Israel want Israel's borders to be," said Wexler. "Because ultimately, we can't help our close friend until they share with us their own vision."
The meeting was the highest level interaction between the U.S. and Israeli governments since the last round of direct talks in September. Wexler said that while the two leaders didn't sit down with a map and draw lines around particular neighborhoods, the administration's switch to a focus on borders as a means of getting at the settlements problem was clear. "It's the only rational, sane way to proceed," he said. "Talking about borders and territories will by definition minimize the impact of the settlement issue."
Wexler said that by virtue of the fact that the meeting was seven hours, it's reasonable to assume that significant progress was made. "I think we're very close to creating that magic formula that satisfies both the Israelis and the Palestinians to come back to the table."
The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, wasn't so sure. He pointed to the boilerplate statement that Clinton and Netanyahu issued after the meeting as evidence that no real breakthrough was achieved.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary Clinton had a good discussion today, with a friendly and productive exchange of views on both sides. Secretary Clinton reiterated the United States' unshakable commitment to Israel's security and to peace in the region," the statement read.
But Areikat endorsed the idea of discussing borders ahead of the settlements issue, saying that's what the Palestinian side has been advocating all along.
"The conventional wisdom is that if we deal with the issue of the borders then we will be able, by default, to deal with the issue of settlements -- and if you can define the borders of the two states and agree on these borders, then each party can build in its own territory without being contested by the other party," Areikat told The Cable. "This is what everybody is aiming at.... Now whether the Americans are going to succeed in convincing the Israelis to do it, we have to wait and see."
Of course, the two sides disagree over the order of events even when discussing the border issue.
"The Palestinian position is that we need to agree on the borders, then we will discuss in parallel the security arrangements. The Israelis are saying no, we need to define first what the security arrangements are to project what the final borders will be," Areikat explained.
In what appears to be a recognition of the Israeli position, Clinton and her team apparently spent a good deal of their time with the Netanyahu team spelling out a long list of additional security guarantees the Obama administration is offering to Israel.
In a Friday morning conference call with Jewish community leaders, notes of which were provided to The Cable, the National Security Council's Dan Shapiro described several of the ways America has been advocating on behalf of Israel's security in recent months. They included increased U.S. diplomatic opposition to efforts to delegitimize Israel in international fora, continuing to block efforts to revive the Goldstone Report at the United Nations, promising to block condemnation of Israel at the United Nations for its raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, and defeating resolutions aimed to expose Israel's nuclear program at the IAEA, and increasing pressure on Iran and Syria to stop their nuclear and proliferation activities.
The U.S. position on settlements has not officially changed, Shapiro said. The United States still believes that the Israeli settlement moratorium should be extended, but that Palestinians should stay in peace talks even if it is not. He said that President Obama -- who said Monday that Israeli settlement construction was "never helpful" to peace talks Israel announced further construction plans in East Jerusalem -- wasn't trying to publicly criticize Netanyahu with his remarks. He simply answered a question put to him in a direct way, said Shapiro.
The Clinton-Netanyahu meeting was the culmination of several days of intensive, personal attention to the issue by Clinton herself. On Tuesday, she held a joint news conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to announce $150 million in new U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority. On Wednesday, she met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit and Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman to discuss the Middle East peace process.
But in the Washington press, the seven-hour conversation was somewhat overshadowed by Netanyahu's meeting with incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Unlike Clinton, Cantor publicly disclosed what he told Netanyahu.
"Eric stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington," read a statement from Cantor's office on the one-on-one meeting. "He made clear that the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other."
Wexler said he didn't see a problem with Cantor's remarks or stance. "It's a perfectly natural, appropriate meeting to have," said Wexler, who pointed out that Netanyahu also met with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). "I don't believe he intended to play the president, the prime minister, or anyone else against one another."
But Areikat saw Cantor's stance as extremely unhelpful.
"This amounts to undermining the efforts of the U.S. to achieve peace," he said. "People like Eric Cantor who blindly oppose the Palestinians, they think they are helping Israeli interests but he is hurting Israeli interests. By making these statements they are hardening Israeli positions."
UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect that Shapiro was describing a list of ways America was already working on behalf of Israel's security, not a new list of incentives discussed in the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting.
Top Obama administration officials Thursday lauded Iraq's latest efforts to form new government and defended their intensive efforts to help push through the deal, even though their proposal was very different from the agreement that it appears Iraqi leaders have reached.
"We've worked very hard in recent months with the Iraqis to achieve one basic result, and that's a government that's inclusive, that reflects the results of the elections, that includes all the major blocs representing Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups, and that does not exclude or marginalize anyone," a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon. "And that's exactly what the Iraqis seem to have agreed to do."
The White House and the State Department have been walking a very fine line when talking about their involvement in Iraqi political negotiations. The administration has often stated that it does not seek to impose any specific solution on the Iraqis, but at the same time has been working behind the scenes on behalf of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, which received the most seats in Iraq's March parliamentary elections, but not enough to form a government on its own.
The United States has a direct interest in maintaining whatever influence it can in Baghdad as U.S. troops leave Iraq, in a bid to counter Iranian attempts to push Iraqi politics toward a more Shiite and religious bent. That's a tricky balancing act for the White House, which wants to claim credit for its involvement while simultaneously appearing neutral and keeping the responsibility of deal making in the hands of Iraqi politicians. The still-evolving agreement between all of Iraq's major political players would keep Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani in their posts, while allotting Allawi's Iraqiya slate the position of Speaker of the Parliament and the chairmanship of a new National Council on Strategic Policies. Saleh al-Mutlak, one of Iraqiya's most prominent figures, is also being floated as a potential foreign minister in the new unity government.
The New York Times reported Thursday afternoon that Allawi's slate walked out of Thursday's parliamentary session after failing to score a vote on a series of demands. But if the Iraqi politicians are successful in ironing out the details and forming their government, the Obama administration stands ready to endorse the deal. However, it doesn't want the credit for brokering the agreement.
"The most important thing about what happened in Baghdad today is that this is a government that is made in Iraq," the official said. "It was not the result of the influence or work of any outside actor, any outside country. The decisions that the Iraqis reached, they reached themselves. They negotiated very difficult issues themselves, and they came to an agreement."
In fact, however, top administration officials were deeply involved in the negotiations, especially toward the very end. The official spoke of personal efforts by Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffries and others. In recent days, Obama spoke personally with Talabani, President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Allawi (but not al-Maliki, notably).
The Washington Times revealed that Obama personally asked both Talabani and Barzani to cede the presidency to Allawi, a request that the Kurdish leaders flatly rejected. "And for the United States to be leaning on us, as they are now, in effect handpicking the new leaders of Iraq, is not respectful of Iraq's parliamentary system and touches on all of the insecurities of the Kurds, that the United States will once again betray us," Qubad Talabani, Jalal's son and the KRG's representative in Washington, told the Washington Times.
The senior administration official confirmed that Obama had floated the idea to the Kurds, but said it was only one of the various permutations put forth in the hope of convincing Allawi to join the new government.
"In the case of Iraqiya and Dr. Allawi, one of the things they had been saying for some time was an interest in the presidency after they gave up on what they believed was their right to be prime minister, which was a significant compromise by them," the official said. "And so we've had conversations, many of us, with Iraqis, exploring all of these different options. And one of the options certainly was for the Kurds to think about taking a position other than the presidency, which would have opened the presidency for Dr. Allawi."
Iraq experts praised the administration's efforts in the last few months of the negotiations, but lamented that it didn't always take into account the red lines of the parties, such as the Kurds.
"The level of U.S. engagement was not satisfactory in the early months of government formation, there was a sense of a hands-off approach. But by late summer, there was a clear sense of a need for more senior involvement," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, managing director at the Institute for the Study of War.
"As the months went on, a number of Iraqis were requesting Washington take a larger role to help bring people together," she said. "I'm glad to see now that there does seem to be engagement at the most senior levels, although Biden's office has been engaged all along."
Sullivan criticized the tactic of asking the Kurds to give up the presidency, however, saying that the White House should have known that was a non-starter.
"By the time the White House asked Talabani to step down, the Kurds had already publicly stated they wanted to maintain the presidency and that made it impossible for Talabani to do what Obama wanted," she said.
Some analysts hailed the administration's attempt to retain as much influence in Baghdad as possible, contrasting it with the supposedly more laissez-faire approach of former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill.
"The Obama administration also deserves some props for finally getting down to business in Baghdad with a new ambassador focused on forming a government, eschewing the more hands-off posture of his predecessor," said Max Boot, writing on the website of Commentary magazine.
Twenty-nine leading human rights organizations wrote to President Obama on Friday to express their disappointment with his decision last week to waive sanctions against four countries the State Department has identified as using child soldiers.
The human rights and child advocacy community was not consulted before the White House announced its decision on Oct. 25 to waive penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which was supposed to go into effect last month, for violators Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen. The NGO leaders, along with officials on Capitol Hill, also expressed their unhappiness about the announcement, and their exclusion from the decision making process, in an Oct. 29 conference call with senior administration officials. Today, they backed up their complaints in writing and called on the administration to mitigate the consequences.
"We believe that your waiver undermines the intent of the law and sends an unfortunate message that the administration is not seriously committed to ending the use of child soldiers," the groups wrote to Obama. "By giving a blanket waiver, the administration has also given up the significant leverage that the law provides to influence the child recruitment practices of its military allies."
A secret administration justification memo spelled out the reasons that the White House ultimately decided to forgo the sanctions for each country, explaining why cooperation with these troubled militaries was in the U.S. national interest. But critics countered that these interests could have been maintained without gutting the law.
"We recognize that the United States has a complex set of national interests in each of these countries, including for example, counter-terrorism concerns in Yemen," they wrote. "However, the administration could have accommodated these concerns while also showing that it was taking the Child Soldiers Prevention Act seriously and using its leverage strategically to effectively end the use of child soldiers."
In the administration's conference call reported first on The Cable , the National Security Council senior director Samantha Power argued that staying engaged with these militaries while "naming and shaming" them was actually the most effective way to make progress on the child soldiers issue.
In their letter, the human rights groups rejected that argument. "This approach has been ineffective thus far," they noted. "Continuing existing programs -- as the U.S. has done for years -- without other changes in the approach is unlikely to yield change."
The groups had some specific recommendations for how the administration could mitigate the damage caused by waiving the sanctions. They want the administration to establish benchmarks to gauge whether these troubled militaries are actually making progress on demobilizing child soldiers, publicly commit to not transfer lethal materials to these armies, and start engaging the NGO community and congressional offices about these issues in an organized and transparent manner.
Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch, said the groups are also preparing some specific recommendations for the administration for each of the four countries.
So is the White House dealing well with the NGO groups involved, following last week's botched roll out? "They're certainly paying attention to this issue now," said Becker. "They say this is a priority and we would like to take them at their word."
The letter was signed by the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, the African Faith & Justice Network, the American Federation of Teachers, Amnesty International USA, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Caring for Kaela, Child Protection International, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, the 3D Security Initiative, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Foreign Policy in Focus , the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Human Rights First, Human Rights Program, the University of Minnesota, Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Rights Forum, International Justice Mission, Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, National Consumers League, the Open Society Policy Center, Oxfam America, Pax Christi USA, Physicians for Human Rights, Presbyterian Church USA, the Ramsay Merriam Fund, Refugees International, Resolve, the United Methodist Church, and the General Board of Church & Society.
Erin Thornton, one of Washington's top international development leaders, has moved from Bono's ONE campaign to take a role at Every Mother Counts, an organization focused on maternal health and created by supermodel Christy Turlington.
After helping ONE grow into a worldwide grassroots campaign with over 2 million members, Thornton is now seeking to replicate that success by working with Turlington's organization, which is still in its infancy. In an interview with The Cable, Thornton said that she wants to focus more attention on maternal mortality and maternal health, which she sees as a sometimes overlooked development issue.
"I've been with ONE for 8 years, it's still my family, and through those 8 years I've become more cognizant that women are crucial in development," she said. "I'm eager to really connect on a single issue that I care so much about and use some of the strategies I've learned at ONE."
Turlington and Thorton will be working to build both grassroots support and partnerships with larger organizations such as ONE and CARE. Turlington worked with CARE before starting her own organization. She became involved in maternal health and maternal mortality after suffering through a pregnancy with complications.
One of Thornton and Turlington's first projects will be to complete and release Turlington's documentary this spring. No Woman, No Cry is designed to raise awareness about the issue of maternal health by telling the story of at-risk pregnancies in four countries: Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala, and the United States.
Thornton is also planning to lobby both parties on Capitol Hill to build support for her issue. "We're both going to try to build a grassroots constituency while at the same time try to build some bipartisan support," she said.
Thornton argues that maternal health and pregnancy support is inextricable from all the other development goals that receive more widespread funding and attention. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has focused on women's health as one of the key U.N. Millennium Development Goals, has made a similar argument.
Thornton warns the problem is drastic and the solution will require years, if not decades, of work.
"1,000 women dying a day Is really just not acceptable," she said. "When it comes to giving birth and having basic services available we still have a long way to go."
The Obama administration quietly waived a key section of the law meant to combat the use of child soldiers for four toubled states on Monday, over the objections the State Department's democracy and human rights officials. Today, the White House tells The Cable that they intend to give these countries -- all of whose armed forces use underage troops -- one more year to improve before bringing any penalties to bear.
The NGO community was shocked by the announcement, reported Tuesday by The Cable, that President Obama authorized exemptions from all penalties set to go into effect this year under the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2008. The countries that received waivers were Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen.
The failure of the administration to consult or even warn those groups that had worked hard to pass the law caused unease and concern around the advocacy community Tuesday. Child protection advocates worried that the administration was abandoning the tactic of threatening to cut off military assistance as a means to pressure abusive regimes to stop forcibly recruiting troops under the age of 18.
"This took us totally by surprise and was a complete shock to people who are working in the field," said Jesse Eaves, policy advisor for children in crisis at World Vision, a children-focused humanitarian organization.
On Tuesday evening, a White House official explained to The Cable the reasons for the decision and the details of what it means for U.S. activity in the affected countries. Essentially, the administration decided that it could not ensure that the offending countries would be able to abide by the law in time -- the breach of which would have required Washington to pull funding. In the end, the administration's calculus weighed in favor of continuing to fund several ongoing assistance programs like military training and counterterrorism advising. They decided to give each country at least one more year to implement reforms before sanctions are brought to bear, according to the official.
"This is the first year that sanctions were to take effect and part of our thinking here has been to put countries on notice of these legal provisions that are taking effect for the first time and that progress is going to have to be made on these things if these countries are going to continue to receive assistance," the White House official said.
The official also noted that the Obama administration was keen to preserve their relationships with the governments in question and argued that engaging troubled militaries was the most effective way to encourage the reform the law was designed to bring about.
"We still think it's important to maintain a solid relationship with the governments there to ensure they provide protection to those folks," the official said. "One rationale for continuing the assistance is to help them address the very problem that is the source of the sanctions."
Inside the administration, however, The Cable has learned that there was a heated debate over whether to issue the waivers. Apparently, this debate was held inside the State Department, with the bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons arguing against blanket exemptions. The bureau of Political and Military Affairs (PM) argued for the exemptions. The PM bureau's argument won the day and the State Department submitted recommendations to the White House, which issued the waivers.
The 2008 Child Soldier Prevention Act was originally sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and wrapped into a larger bill sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden. Durbin's office was not able to comment by deadline and Biden's office deferred to the White House.
Leading human rights activists involved in the issue were skeptical that letting abusive governments evade sanctions would have the effect of producing reform faster.
"This is the first year it's being enacted, so to waive everyone right out of the gate sends exactly the wrong message," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch. "By providing a blanket waiver, the U.S. is really giving up all of its leverage to force them to change their approach to using child soldiers."
She also criticized the official's contention that the abusive countries needed more time to become aware of the law, which was signed in December 2008. It became operative in June 2009 but couldn't go into effect until violator countries were identified in the State Department's 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, which came out in June.
"If the State Department was doing its job, governments would have been well aware two years ago that this process was underway," said Becker.
The 2010 Trafficking in Persons report identified six countries that are systematically employing the use of child soldiers. In addition to the four that Obama waived sanctions on, Burma and Somalia are also implicated. But neither of those countries receive U.S. military assistance that could be cut off as a sanction, according to the law. Therefore, Obama's waivers have the effect of preventing the law from imposing any sanctions at all this year.
The White House official said when the next State Department report comes out in June 2011, there will be another assessment of whether to impose penalties on violator countries. He also hastened to underline that the waivers weren't issued to pave the way for new military sales to any of the countries found to be using child soldiers.
In Chad, the U.S. is engaged in counterterrorism activities but also is working with the government's armed forces to deal with the spillover of refugees from the crisis over the Sudanese border in Darfur. In the DRC, the U.S. is providing training of various types, military advisors, and also military vehicles and spare parts to the Congolese army. Over 33,000 child soldiers have been involved in the decade old civil war there and the country leads the world in the use of underage troops, according to UNICEF.
With regard to Sudan, other sanctions prevent the United States from helping the Khartoum government in the North, but the U.S. is giving military training assistance to the Southern People's Liberation Army, which could end up a national army if the South votes to separate in the January referendum. The SPLA has about 1,200 child soldiers, the official said, adding that cutting off such training would only undermine ongoing reform efforts.
Yemen is a recipient of significant direct U.S. military assistance, having received $155 million in fiscal 2010 with a possible $1.2 billion coming over the next five years. Yemen is also a much needed ally for counterterrorism operations. The government is engaged in a bloody fight with al Qaeda (among other separatist and terrorist groups), and estimates put the ratio of child soldiers among all the groups there at more than half. Nevertheless, "the president believes there are profound equities with Yemen in terms of counterterrorism that we need to continue to work on," the official told The Cable.
Several outside experts pointed out the existing law already contains an exemption that would permit the U.S. government to sanction abuser countries while still providing assistance that "will directly support professionalization of the military."
"This exception gives the U.S. government very wide berth to continue to provide assistance to bring these militaries more in line with the American image of what their military should look like," said Rachel Stohl, Associate Fellow at the Washington office of Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank. "The law allows for professionalization of these militaries, so these waivers are really disappointing and add insult to injury."
AFP / Getty images
Meetings between Afghan leadership and Taliban figures are ongoing, but the two sides are nowhere near a peace deal and in fact are not even to the point of negotiating one, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke said Sunday.
"I think the press has left the impression that negotiations of the type which ultimately ended the war in Vietnam in 1973 and ultimately ended the war in Bosnia in 1995 are somehow breaking out. That is just not the case," he said on CNN's GPS with Fareed Zakaria show Sunday morning.
"What we've got here is an increasing number of Taliban at high levels saying, hey, we want to talk," Holbrooke explained. "I think this is a result, in large part, of the growing pressure they're under from General Petraeus and the ISAF command."
Holbrooke was adamant that -- whatever talks are taking place between the government of President Hamid Karzai and leaders of some of the insurgent groups -- it should not be called a "negotiation."
"I would not use that word," he said. "I know what a negotiation looks like... Let's not leave the viewers with the impression that some kind of secret negotiation like the famous secret negotiations on Vietnam, is taking place, because it's not."
Holbrooke warned that a peace agreement of the sort seen in past conflicts is unlikely because there is no titular head of the insurgency with whom to strike a deal.
"There's no Ho Chi Minh. There's no Slobodan Milosevic. There's no Palestinian Authority. There is a widely dispersed group of people that we roughly call the enemy," he said. "So the idea of peace talks, to use your phrase, or negotiations, to use another phrase, doesn't really add up to the way this thing is going to evolve."
Holbrooke said he had no personal information that the Pakistani military or intelligence services have been trying to thwart rapprochement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, as the New York Times has reported. He refused to publicly call for the Pakistani military to increase its effort against terrorist groups in North Waziristan, saying that Pakistan knew the Obama administration's position on the issue.
"I'm not here to defend the Pakistani military or to attack them," he said.
Overall, Holbrooke's take on the progress of the war effort was cautious, if not entirely bleak.
"It's certainly not another Vietnam, for reasons you and I discussed before. And it is certainly not hopeless. But anyone who doesn't recognize what a daunting task it is, is misleading," he said. "And the American public should understand that this is not going to be solved overnight. It is going to be a difficult struggle."
Holbrooke was not asked about the stunning admission by Karzai that his office received bags full of cash from Iran. Holbrooke did attend a meeting last week in Rome with dozens of Special Representatives from various countries dealing with the Afghan war where the Iranian government was also represented.
In a rousing 30-minute speech Wednesday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implored attendees at the annual gala for the American Task Force on Palestine not to give up on the struggling Middle East peace process, despite past, current, and future obstacles.
Hosted by ATFP President Ziad Asali, the event was packed with officials, experts, and influence makers involved with the region. The four honorees of the night were Retired Col. Peter Mansoor, renowned poet Naomi Shihab Nye, playwright Betty Shamieh, and Booz Allen Hamilton's Ghassan Salameh. Other notables figures in attendance included Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud and Sharif El-Gamal, the developer of the Park 51 Muslim Community Center. Palestinian-American comedienne Maysoon Zayid was also a hit.
All attendees we spoke to praised Clinton's speech as a fair and balanced (no pun intended) assessment of developments in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and an impassioned plea for both sides in the conflict to redouble their efforts to reach a negotiated and permanent end to the conflict. "She could have given the same exact speech to AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]," said one very satisfied attendee.
Of course, Clinton didn't get into the details of the ongoing negotiations to try to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay engaged in the direct talks they started last month. But she touched on almost every other issue related to the situation.
Here are some key excerpts:
On the current impasse in the peace talks:
We have no illusions about the difficulty of resolving the final status issues of borders and security, settlements and refugees, of Jerusalem and water. And it's no secret that we are in a difficult period. When President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu came to Washington last month to re-launch direct negotiations, we knew there would be setbacks and struggles.Our position on settlements is well-known and has not changed. And our determination to encourage the parties to continue talking has not wavered.
I cannot stand here tonight and tell you there is some magic formula that I have discovered that will break through the current impasse. But I can tell you we are working every day, sometimes every hour, to create the conditions for negotiations to continue and succeed. We are urging both sides to avoid any actions that would undermine trust or prejudice the outcomes of the talks. Senator Mitchell will soon return to the region for further consultations. We have not given up and neither have President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu.
On the value of the two state solution for Palestinians:
For Palestinians, a two-state solution would mean an independent, viable, and sovereign state of their and your own; the freedom to travel, to do business, and govern themselves. Palestinians would have the right to chart their own destinies at last. The indignity of occupation would end and a new era of opportunity, promise, and justice would begin... There is no substitute for face-to-face discussion and, ultimately, for an agreement that leads to a just and lasting peace. That is the only path that will lead to the fulfillment of the Palestinian national aspirations and the necessary outcome of two states for two peoples.
On what the two states should look like:
We remain convinced that if they persevere with negotiations, the parties can agree on an outcome that ends the conflict; reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps and Israel's goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israel's security requirements. This will resolve all the core issues and, as President Abbas said the other day, end all historical claims.
On seeing past the false choices of the conflict:
Being pro-Palestinian does not mean you must reject Israel's right to exist. And being pro-Israel does not mean you must deny the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. The path to security and dignity for both peoples lies in negotiations that result in two states living side by side in peace and prosperity, and a comprehensive peace in the entire region.+
On the need for more money for the Palestinian Authority:
The Palestinian Authority needs a larger, steadier, and more predictable source of financial support. The United States is proud to be the Palestinian Authority's largest donor. The European Union has stepped up as well. But the broader international community, including many Arab states, can and should provide more financial support. It takes far more than commitments and plans to support making the State of Palestine a reality. And in fact, as the Palestinian economy has increased, the need for future assistance has decreased, but there is still a gap and that gap has to be filled.
On her wish to increase economic activity in Gaza:
Now, we still need many more steps from Israel to enable more economic activity in Gaza, including exports that bolster legitimate business enterprises. Our goal is to support sustainable economic growth in Gaza, and it's a little-known fact that the Palestinian Authority is the principal financial supporter of Gaza. The people in Gaza are dependent upon the Palestinian Authority, which is another reason why the increase in economic activity in the West Bank is not only good for those who live in the West Bank, but those who live in Gaza as well.
On the Obama administration's commitment to seeing it through:
This is not easy. If it were, anybody could have done it already. We've had leaders who have given their lives to this work, and now we have a moment in time that we must seize. I urge you to help lead the way. And I promise you this: The Obama administration will not turn our backs on either the people of Palestine or Israel. We will continue working for and, God willing, achieving the just, lasting, and comprehensive peace that has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy for years.
Dozens of U.S. and Pakistani officials are meeting this week at the State Department in 13 different working groups spanning all elements of the U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue, but the real action is in a few, select side meetings, where participants tell The Cable that the Obama team is taking a markedly tougher tone with the Pakistanis than before.
One key meeting Wednesday afternoon was between National Security Advisor in-waiting Tom Donilon and what's known as the "core" group of Pakistani officials: Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, and Ambassador Husain Haqqani.
President Barack Obama dropped in on that meeting and stayed for 50 minutes, according to an official who was there, and personally delivered the tough love message that other top administration officials have been communicating since the Pakistani delegation arrived. Obama also expressed support for Pakistan's democracy and announced he would invite Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to the White House in the near future.
Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped in unannounced on another meeting between Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and Kayani. She delivered the message that Washington's patience is wearing thin with Pakistan's ongoing reluctance to take a more aggressive stance against militant groups operating from Pakistan over the Afghan border. A similar message was delivered to Kayani in another high-level side meeting Wednesday morning at the Pentagon, hosted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, two senior government sources said.
The message being delivered to Pakistan throughout the week by the Obama team is that its effort to convince Pakistan to more aggressively combat groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba will now consist of both carrots and sticks. But this means that the U.S. administration must find a way incentivize both the Pakistani civilian and military leadership, which have differing agendas and capabilities.
"The Obama side is calculating that Pakistan's military can deliver on subjects important to the U.S. but doesn't want to, while the civilian leadership in Pakistan wants to, but isn't able," said one high-level participant who spoke with The Cable in between sessions.
The carrots are clear. A State Department official confirmed to The Cable that the two sides will formally announce on Friday a new $2 billion military aid package for Pakistan, focusing mostly on items that can be used for counterterrorism. Unspecified amounts of new funding for the reconstruction effort related to the Pakistani flood disaster are also on the table. In exchange, the United States not only wants increased Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan and Baluchistan, but also increased operational flexibility for U.S. special forces operating inside Pakistan's borders.
The sticks are less clear. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad argued in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday that the Obama administration should threaten to take down terrorist havens in Pakistan, without Islamabad's consent if necessary. The Carnegie Endowment's Ashley Tellis wrote that the United States should condition aid to Pakistan on increased cooperation and even consider throwing more support toward India's role in Afghanistan, an idea the Pakistanis despise.
The timing of these op-eds and the change in the Obama administration's tone is not being seen by many as a coincidence.
The Pakistanis believe that their extensive efforts to expand military operations in South Waziristan don't get enough recognition in Washington. They also say privately that whatever incentives the United States is offering are not enough to compensate for the huge political and security risks that would come with a full-on assault on insurgent groups they have tacitly supported for decades.
Hanging over the whole discussion are reports that the United States is supporting and even providing escorts for the reconciliation talks in Kabul between the Afghan government, led by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and senior Taliban officials. The New York Times reported Wednesday that these talks were going on without the approval or involvement of the Pakistani government, ostensibly to prevent elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from moving to thwart them.
"Pakistan is still resisting [moving on groups in North Waziristan] because it still hasn't fully finished with its ongoing operations [in South Waziristan] and also because it doesn't know what will happen with the talks with the Taliban and would much rather not antagonize the Haqqani network at this juncture," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.
Nawaz noted that the Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan has now reached the third set of meetings, and that there is more pressure to show concrete results to validate the need for such a high-level format. "I hope there will be some clarity on what the objectives are on both sides and also some clarity on red lines so we don't have to relive this movie again and again," he said.
Nawaz also predicted that another point of contention will permeate the chatter in the hallways between Pakistani and American interlocutors -- Pakistan's desire to have Obama visit sometime soon.
"The big underlying issue that won't be on the agenda but will probably be discussed is President Obama's upcoming visit to India and that he won't be coming to Pakistan," he said. "It will point to the imbalance in the relationship."
In a read out, the White House said that Obama has committed to visit Pakistan some time in 2011.
Qureshi, Holbrooke, and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will talk about all these issues at a joint Brookings/ Asia Society event Wednesday evening.
The increasingly bitter Illinois Senate campaign between Republican Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) and the Democratic contender, Alexi Giannoulias, spilled over into foreign policy this week, as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman (D-CA) accused Kirk of exaggerating his role in crafting the Iran sanctions law. But who's really spinning the history of the bill for political gain?
Alluding to Kirk's previous misrepresentations about his military service, the Chicago Sun Times broke the story Monday with an article entitled, "Another Mark Kirk 'exaggeration'?" complete with a video of Kirk claiming credit for being a driving force behind what eventually became the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, which President Obama signed into law in July.
"The Iran Sanctions Bill, it was originally Kirk-Andrews, but if you were going to move it, that means you need to adjust to the power of the House. This legislation eventually became Howard Berman's legislation," Kirk told the Sun Times.
The article then quoted Berman saying that his bill calling for petroleum sanctions against Iran had nothing to do with Kirk's previous bill calling for the exact same thing. "We didn't even look at his legislation at the time. Our bill did so much more and went so far beyond his bill, I would have to put it in the context of an exaggeration," Berman said.
Giannoulias, who enjoys Berman's support, called Kirk's claim that his bill was the framework for Berman's bill "egregious" and demanded an explanation.
But according to lawmakers, Congressional staffers, and outside groups who worked closely on the legislation, Kirk was in fact a key advocate for over four years of using gasoline and refined petroleum restrictions to pressure Iran to make concessions regarding its nuclear program.
In fact, Berman worked so closely with Kirk and others on the idea that media reports at the time acknowledged that Berman's Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, introduced in April 2009, borrowed language from related legislation introduced earlier by Kirk and Rep. Brad Sherman.
Even Democratic Congressional staffers gave Kirk credit for leading on the idea of petroleum sanction for Iran. They said that Berman's bill was clearly built off of Kirk's work, and criticized Berman for politicizing such a sensitive foreign policy issue.
"On this particular issue, Kirk has been a leader, if not the leader. When you talk about Iran petroleum sanctions, you talk about Mark Kirk," said one Democratic Hill staffer who worked on the bill.
"I'm all for a Democrat winning that seat, but this is not the way to do it," the staffer said. "It hurts our standing as Democrats in the pro-Israel community, because when you go to the pro-Israel community and say to them that Kirk didn't play a leading role, it just makes it hard to believe the next statement that comes out of our mouths."
Others who followed the progression of the Iran sanctions legislation closely also credited Kirk with a long history of leadership on this issue.
"There's no question that Mark Kirk was one of the first, if not the first member of Congress to advocate restricting the flow of gasoline to Iran as a way of pressuring Iran on its nuclear program," said Josh Block, who was the chief spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which was intimately involved in the bill's legislative journey.
Block, who now runs a strategic communications firm with Democratic consultant Lanny Davis, said that, after years of building momentum on various versions of Kirk's proposal, the decision was made to transfer ownership of the bill to Berman in order to allow it to garner a vote and pass with leadership support.
"There was a progression of bills that all did virtually identical things," Block said, explaining that this is a normal and commonplace legislative strategy and that Berman does deserve credit for aiding in the final push.
Kirk started his formal advocacy for the petroleum sanctions idea in 2005, when he founded the Iran Working Group, a congressional group that gathered information on sanctions options. In June 2005, he and Rep. Rob Andrews first introduced a resolution calling for restrictions of gasoline to Iran (H.Con.Res.177). In June 2006, they introduced that resolution again (H.Con.Res.425).
In June 2007, Kirk and Andrews introduced a more comprehensive bill, called the Iran Sanctions Enhancement Act, which included restrictions on the importation of refined petroleum (H.R. 2880). In April 2009, after Obama took office, Andrews got cold feet so Kirk moved forward with Sherman and introduced the Iran Diplomatic Enhancement Act (H.R. 1985).
When Berman introduced his Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act at the end of April 2009, its original cosponsors included Kirk, as well as Andrews, Sherman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others. When the bill passed the House in December 2009, Berman didn't object when Kirk said on the House floor that he and Andrews were "the two grandfathers of this bill and its policy."
Kirk's staffers point out that Berman has a history of cooperating well with Kirk in non-election years and then turning on him when the campaign starts. For example, Berman stumped for Kirk's opponent when Kirk first ran for an open seat in 2000 and then again endorsed his opponent in 2008. Still, they lament that years of cooperation on Iran have been reduced to a war of words over who gets credit.
"This is a desperate move by a desperate candidate with no foreign policy chops of his own," Kirk spokesman Richard Goldberg said about Giannoulias' efforts to make an issue of the Iran bill. "With no record to stand on, Alexi Giannoulias recruited someone with a history of hyper-partisan behavior just before an election to contradict his own previous statements when the legislation passed and level untruths against a well-established leader on the issue of Iran sanctions."
Berman's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, who laid down a marker by arguing in Thursday's New York Times that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state now, met with a host of Arab American leaders the night before to explain recent Israeli decisions regarding the peace process and assure them of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to the end goal.
Hosted by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is led by rumored future U.S. ambassador to Israel, Robert Wexler, Oren responded to questions from a range of groups, including the American Task Force on Palestine, the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, the Palestinian Business Committee for Peace and Reform, AMIDEAST, the American Task Force on Lebanon, the El-Bireh Palestine Society, and others.
Here are some excerpts of what Oren said:
On the Israeli attitude to the peace process:
To understand [the Israeli] perspective you need to understand that first of all Israel, and Israelis, have been through a great deal over the course of the last decade, since 2000, certainly... What is extraordinary, I believe, is that in spite of all this upheaval and violence and trauma, that a significant majority of Israelis still support a two-state solution... That's the good news. The less-than-good news is that as a result of all these disappointments and setbacks in violence, many Israelis, a significant majority, almost the same majority that supports a two-state solution, is skeptical about the ability to achieve that solution; skeptical of the Palestinian leadership's willingness to step up and make that historical peace; skeptical of the willingness of the Palestinian people specifically, and of the broader Arab world to accept a permanent and Jewish state in the Middle East; skeptical about an end of violence.
On the current status of the talks:
I won't dissemble the fact, I don't think I could dissemble the fact, that we are at an impasse tonight. We are each in our own corner -- the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Arab League, I think the administration also -- and we're looking for the right bell that will get us out of these corners and get us to the middle but not swinging, talking. And I would be misleading you to indicate in any way that I have the magic formula, that anybody has the magic formula for this. I can only assure you, again, that this government and the Prime Minister are deeply and unequivocally committed to this process.
On Netanyahu's offer to extend the settlement freeze only if Palestinians accept Israel as a "Jewish state":
The situation was created where there was a complete impasse in the talks. The PM felt that with the level of skepticism - that some measure had to be given by the Palestinians that would reassure the Israeli public, the Israeli public that feels they have made concession after concession whether it is recognition of the two state solution, the support from the bottom up, the security in the West Bank-they needed to hear something from the Palestinians that the Palestinians were serious about peace. And the Prime Minister felt that if he had that from the Palestinians-and once again this was only created by the end of the moratorium issue-that he could go to the government and try to persuade them on the extension. He did not.
On the right of return for Palestinian refugees:
We also understand that here is a final status issue, a classic one that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state means that Palestinian refugees will not be resettled there. They will be resettled in the Palestinian state and not in the Jewish statme or in any other state but not in the Jewish state. The demographic integrity of Israel will be preserved. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is not a tactical issue for us. It is the most fundamental issue for us. It's the absolute core of the conflict. It's what created the conflict to begin with.
On the idea of an American plan for Middle East peace:
I don't want to in any way imply that they can quickly reach this without bridging proposals by the U.S. There is a big difference between a bridging proposal and an overarching comprehensive agreement. And our fears relating to an overarching comprehensive agreement -- "this is our American version of peace" -- is that it will not meet our vital security needs, as we were talking about here earlier. And secondly that it could lead to an imposed solution. Because once it's on that table you don't know where it goes or how the tables are going to find itself. It could find itself in an international organization that could say that if the two parties do not accept this proposal they could sanctioned. That's a real fear. And in which that would put us in a very adversarial position.
On why Israel doesn't want to discuss settlements now:
Settlements -- from our perspective -- is a final status issue. It is way down the list of final status issues because settlements from our perspective are a subcategory of borders which are a subcategory of security. And so we are a long way from discussing settlements. By putting them up front, it creates a difficultly -- a political difficulty. And it further augments the skepticism that many Israelis feel about the seriousness of a Palestinian interlocutor if they're making the issue of settlements -- something that the government cannot do right now.
On the Arab Peace Initiative:
The Israeli government welcomes the Arab Peace Initiative. We welcome it as a positive contribution to the peace process. We think it's a single component of a future possible peace. We feel that it's not enough. And that the promise of normalization for withdrawal to the '67 borders would have far greater wave, and have far greater persuasive powers in the Israeli public, if the Arab world was willing to take even the minutest steps towards normalization... Israelis are generally not aware of what is in the Arab Peace Initiative. But they are aware that the Arab world is not taking any steps, even symbolic steps towards normalization. And those steps would have immense impact on Israeli public opinion.
Hady Amr, the founding director of the Brookings Institution Doha Center, will join the United States Agency for International Development, The Cable has confirmed.
Amr has been appointed as deputy assistant administrator in USAID's Middle East bureau. That bureau is currently led by George A. Laudato, who serves as special assistant to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah on the Middle East. No one has been nominated for the assistant administrator position in the Middle East bureau, a post that requires Senate confirmation. Politico reported that Special Envoy George Mitchell's chief of staff, Mara Rudman, was slated to move to a top USAID post related to the Middle East, which could mean that she will be nominated as assistant administrator.
Over his long career as an author and analyst on Middle East diplomacy, Amr has managed projects sponsored by the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, the United Nations, USAID, and others, according to his bio on the site of his consulting firm, Amr Group. During the Clinton administration, he helped establish the Near East and South Asia center at the National Defense University. In 2004 he authored "The Need to Communicate: How to Improve U.S. Public Diplomacy with the Islamic World."
You can follow him on Twitter here.
An Israeli government official sends along this photo that he contends shows the only "humanitarian" goods found aboard the Irene, a ship of Jewish activists who tried to break the Gaza blockage.
The photo and others like it show four small backpacks with assorted toys for young children, such as coloring books, painting kits, and small dolls. The Israeli official points to the items as evidence the sole purpose of the mission was a desire to create a confrontation with the Israeli forces that are enforcing the blockade of Gaza.
"The photos show that his was another example of an unnecessary provocation that has nothing to do with helping the people of Gaza or supplying them with humanitarian aid," the official said.
The Israel Defense Forces boarded the Irene Tuesday. The IDF said the interception was peaceful, but some of the activists claimed that Israeli troops employed violence, including the use of tasers. The ship set sail from Famagusta, Cyprus, and had 10 activists on board: 5 Israelis, 3 Brits, 1 German, and 1 American, all of whom were Jewish.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's decision not to sell advanced weaponry to Iran is being hailed as a dividend of the Obama administration's "reset" policy with Russia. And although the administration didn't expressly offer the Kremlin a quid pro quo for the reversal, Moscow will expect moves by Washington in return as it cautiously moves to grasp Obama's outstretched hand.
Both the Obama and Bush administrations implored the Kremlin not to follow through with their 2006 signed agreement to sell almost $1 billion worth of S-300 air defense systems to Iran, and on Wednesday, Medvedev formally announced the sale will not go through.
Top Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian Natan Sharansky, reacted with disappointment Wednesday to comments by former President Bill Clinton casting Israel's Russian immigrant population as an obstacle to the Middle East peace process. Sharansky even accused Clinton of inappropriately trafficking in ethnic stereotypes about Israelis.
"If the reports of President Clinton's comments are accurate, I am particularly disappointed by the president's casual use of inappropriate stereotypes about Israelis, dividing their views on peace based on ethnic origins. I must add that these are uncharacteristic comments from a man who has always been a sensitive and thoughtful listener and conversation partner," said Sharansky, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
As reported first by The Cable, Clinton identified the Russian community as the ethnic group inside Israel least amenable to a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. The former president, speaking in a roundtable with reporters Monday in New York, also suggested that because Russian and settlers' offspring comprised an increasing proportion of the Israel Defense Forces, forcibly removing settlers from the West Bank as part of a peace deal might be more difficult.
"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also reacted strongly Wednesday, calling Clinton's comments "distressing," according to the Israeli news wire Ynet.
"As a friend of Israel, Clinton should know that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have contributed and are making a great contribution to the advancement, development and strengthening of the IDF and the State of Israel. Only a strong Israel can establish solid and safe peace," Netanyahu reportedly said.
Sharansky also denied that he participated in a conversation with Clinton years ago where he used his Russian identity as a reason to oppose a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
On Monday, Clinton recalled a conversation, telling reporters that Sharansky said, "I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you."
Sharanksy responded Wednesday: "I was never at Camp David and never had the opportunity to discuss the negotiations there with President Clinton. It may be that he had in mind our conversations at Wye Plantation years before, where I expressed my serious doubts, given the dictatorial nature of the PA regime, whether Mr. Arafat would be willing to bring freedom to his people, an essential element of a sustainable peace," said Sharansky. "History has shown that these concerns were justified."
The Cable reported that Clinton was referring to Sharansky's opposition to the 2000 Camp David accords but, after reviewing the transcript, it was clear that Clinton was referring to discussions he had with Sharansky during negotiations over the 1998 Wye River Memorandum.
Yisrael Beitenu, an Israeli political party whose supporters are made up of mostly Russian immigrants, called Clinton's comments "crude generalizations." Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, one of the leaders of the party, said that nobody should attempt to divide Israeli groups in such a way.
"The immigrants of Russia contributed to the development of the state of Israel in every field, including science, culture, sports, economy and defense. This year, the entire country is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Russian aliyah. This shows that the Israeli people are united," the Jerusalem Post reported her saying.
Not all Israeli leaders were upset. Coalition Chairman and Russian immigrant Zeev Elken praised Clinton's remarks. "I am proud of former President Clinton's distinctions. He made the right distinction that the Russian speakers and settlers have been carrying the Zionism banner in the State of Israel in recent years," he told Ynet.
Clinton's staff did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
President Obama will unveil his administration's new overarching strategy on global development Wednesday in a speech at the United Nations.
"Today, I am announcing our new U.S. Global Development Policy -- the first of its kind by an American administration," Obama will say, according to prepared remarks. "It's rooted in America's enduring commitment to the dignity and potential of every human being. And it outlines our new approach and the new thinking that will guide our overall development efforts."
The president's speech will place global development in the context of his National Security Strategy released in May, which emphasizes the interconnected relationship of security, economics, trade, and health.
"My national security strategy recognizes development as not only a moral imperative, but a strategic and economic imperative," Obama will say. "We've reengaged with multilateral development institutions. And we're rebuilding the United States Agency for International Development as the world's premier development agency. In short, we're making sure that the United States will be a global leader in international development in the 21st century."
The White House was busy laying the groundwork in advance of the president's speech, touting the highlights of what it calls the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development (PPD). A fact sheet provided to reporters laid out the basic ideas of the U.S. strategy, which includes a focus on sustainable outcomes, placing a premium on economic growth, using technological advances to their maximum advantage, being more selective about where to focus efforts, and holding all projects accountable for results.
The White House will not release the full text of this initiative, which was previously known as the Presidential Study Directive on Global Development (PSD-7).
On some specific items of contention, the White House has decided that USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will not have a permanent seat on the National Security Council, as many in the development community wanted. However, he will be invited to attend its meetings when issues affecting his work are being discussed.
An executive-level Development Policy Committee will be created to oversee all interagency development policy efforts, as was outlined in a leaked copy of a previous draft of the new policy. There will also be a mandated once-every-four-years review of global development strategy, which will be sent to the president.
Obama announced the new policy during the U.N.'s conference on the Millennium Development Goals. "The real significance here is the fact that the President chose to unveil this at the U.N. and in the context of the MDGs," said Peter Yeo, vice president for public policy at the U.N. Foundation. "[I]t shows how closely the administration wants to work with the U.N. and U.N. agencies in implementing them."
Development community leaders reacted to the new policy with cautious optimism and a hope that implementation would go as planned.
"President Obama has delivered a big victory for the world's poor, our national interests, and the movement to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective," said George Ingram, a former senior official at USAID and current co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. "Now the tough task of implementation begins, and we are ready to work with the Administration to ensure that key reform principles are applied and codified in law, because that is the real way to make this policy one of the President's great legacies."
Deputy National Security Advisor for international economics Michael Froman, in a Friday conference call with reporters, defended the White House's decision not to release the entire PPD. "It's general policy that we can release a detailed summary of it, but as I understand it the policy is not to release the PPD themselves," he said.
Development community leaders were nonetheless disappointed.
"We understand that NSC documents like this aren't normally released in full, but there are pitfalls in this approach," said Greg Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam America. "The Administration should make sure that enough gets out to not only provide the American people with a clear rationale for the new approach, but also make sure that our partners around the world understand how we plan to change the way we work with them."
On a Thursday conference call with development community leaders to preview the release, one senior administration official mentioned your humble Cable guy while requesting anonymity and asking the participants to hold the information close.
"I know that with this group it's a little unusual to do calls on background and embargoed... not that I think anybody on this line has ever talked to Josh Rogin," the official said.
A bipartisan group of senators are circulating a new letter urging President Obama to speak out publicly to pressure the Palestinian leadership not to abandon the Middle East peace talks.
The new initiative comes ahead of the Sept. 26 deadline expiration of Israel's 10-month settlement construction moratorium, which presents the first obstacle to the direct peace talks being spearheaded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly stated that he will withdraw from the negotiations if settlement construction resumes, but Israeli leaders have been equally adamant that they will not extend the moratorium.
President Obama has told Jewish leaders to ignore negative public statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, calling it all part of the diplomatic game. But the administration has publicly called on Israel to extend the freeze, at least in part.
Lawmakers, who have also bristled at the administration's public pressure on Netanyahu, are now calling on Obama to make it clear to Abbas that even if the freeze isn't extended, he should stay at the table.
"Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started," the group of senators wrote in the letter (PDF) dated for release Sept. 24, obtained by The Cable.
The initial draft is signed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Richard Burr (R-NC), but they circulated a "dear colleague" letter (PDF) Monday calling on more lawmakers to join.
The senators praised Netanyahu for staying at the table even though the beginning of the process was marred by violence.
"Following the brutal murder of four innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas militants at the start of the negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not abandon the talks," the senators wrote. "We also agree with you that it is critical that all sides stay at the table."
Administration officials have indicated that a compromise may be in the works. Former President Bill Clinton said Monday, "I believe there is a fix they can both live with."
Experts said the letter was a gentle push for the Obama administration to sharpen his stance toward Abbas as the end of the freeze rapidly approaches.
"Obviously this is a direct message to President Abbas, and President Obama, that many in Congress...want the Palestinian leadership to stop making what they see as threats and to put public pressure on the Palestinian Authority to move their position," said one Capitol Hill insider who had seen the letter.
"Many Capitol Hill office see Abbas quitting the talks over the settlements as him using the same issue he was clinging to when trying to set preconditions for the talks in the first place."
(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")
Russian immigrants to Israel have emerged as a central obstacle to achieving a Middle East peace deal, according to former President Bill Clinton. He voiced fears that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which increasingly consists of soldiers hailing from this community, might not be fully willing to oppose Israeli settlers as a result.
In a roundtable with reporters during his Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, Clinton made his most extensive remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is spearheading.
"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said. "It's a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian."
According to Clinton, the Russian immigrant population in Israel is the group least interested in striking a peace deal with the Palestinians. "They've just got there, it's their country, they've made a commitment to the future there," Clinton said. "They can't imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it."
To illustrate his view on the Russian immigrant community, Clinton related a conversation he had with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian, who he said was the only Israeli minister to reject the comprehensive peace agreement Clinton proposed at the Camp David Summit in 2000. The proposal was eventually rejected by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
"I said, ‘Natan, what is the deal [about not supporting the peace deal],'" Clinton recalled. "He said, ‘I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you.'"
Clinton responded, "Don't give me this, you came here from a jail cell. It's a lot bigger than your jail cell."
Clinton used the anecdote to explain the Russian immigrant population's attitude toward a land-for- peace deal with the Palestinians. "[Sharansky] was nice about it, a lot of them aren't," Clinton said.
Clinton then ranked the Israeli sub-national groups in order of his perception of their willingness to accept a peace deal. The "most pro-peace Jewish Israelis" are the Sabras, who he described as native-born Israelis whose roots there date back millennia, because they have the benefit of historical context. "They can imagine sharing a future."
Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe and have been in Israel for one or more generations are the next most supportive of a peace deal, Clinton said.
The "swing voters" are what Clinton called the "Moroccans": North African Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s. He described them as right-of-center citizens who nevertheless want normal, stable lives.
"When they think peace is possible, they vote peace. When they think it's not, they vote for the toughest guys on the block," Clinton said.
Regarding the settlers, Clinton said that their numbers had grown so much since 2000 that their longstanding opposition to giving up their homes in exchange for peace might be more entrenched and therefore a bigger challenge than before.
"In 2000, you could get 97 percent of the settlers on 3 percent of the land. Today, you have to give almost 6 percent of the land to get 80 percent of the settlers," said Clinton. "There were 7,000 settlers in Gaza and it took 55,000 Israeli forces people to move. Somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 settlers will have to be moved out of the West Bank."
Clinton spoke extensively about the positives and negatives he sees in the ongoing direct peace talks launched by the Obama administration.
"I'd say their chances are at least 50-50," Clinton said optimistically.
The Palestinians' internal divisions, specifically the lack of Palestinian control over the Gaza Strip, present another problem, but one that a peace deal could help solve, he suggested.
"That makes it more difficult for Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to make a deal and to wonder what a deal means," he said. But if there's a deal on the table, that would create enough pressure for an election in Gaza that President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party would win, Clinton argued.
"I believe if there were an election in Gaza today, Fatah would win because of the greater prosperity and the greater security produced under Abbas and Fayyad," Clinton said, adding that Fatah only lost in Gaza elections because of intra-party faction fighting that saw many candidates run against others in their own party.
There are some factors that point to improved conditions for making a peace deal as compared to 2000, said Clinton. He pointed to the fact that two-thirds of Israelis trust Netanyahu to make a peace deal, more than when Ehud Barak was negotiating, according to Clinton. Also, he said that he has faith that the current Palestinian Authority leadership is serious about reaching a settlement.
"They won't do what Arafat did, they won't get up to the deal and lose their nerve. They know what the future looks like."
In the long term, Israelis will face increased pressures, Clinton said. Because of the high Palestinian birth rate, Israel will become a Palestinian-majority state sometime in the next 30 years, if it does not give up the West Bank.
"Then they will have to decide either to be a Jewish state or a democracy, but they cannot be both. They don't want to face that. They don't want to face not only the international legitimacy question but also the internal identity crisis."
Moreover, Clinton said, Hamas militants will soon have military technology that will allow their relatively low-damage attacks on Israeli population centers to have greater accuracy and lethality.
"It's just a matter of time before the rockets have a GPS system on ‘em and a few rockets will kill a whole lot of people. Netanyahu understands that," said Clinton.
He also said that Arab leaders were on board with Middle East peace now more than ever, partly because they now have Iran as a boogeyman to deflect attention from their unpopular policies.
"They think they've got a real enemy in Iran now, so they don't need a faux enemy in Israel to keep people in the street directed at somebody besides them."
Before pontificating on the peace process, Clinton seemed to realize he was stepping into some sensitive territory, but decided to proceed nonetheless.
"I wouldn't say too much about this if Hillary weren't Secretary of State and in charge of these negotiations, so I'm darned sure not going to say too much now," he said, before going in depth on the issue for over 10 minutes.
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad paid millions to a government contractor for meals and snacks that nobody ate, according to a new internal State Department report.
The State Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the embassy overpaid by over $2 million, including over $1 million in snacks alone. The funds went to contractor KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton that runs food service for the over 1,500 employees of the world's largest embassy complex.
"KBR's headcount records from meals consumed do not match dining facility account records, and OIG was unable to reconcile the difference. These discrepancies suggest that in FY 2009 there were $2.23 million in unsupported food costs," the report stated.
A significant part of the discrepancy was due to how people are counted when they stop by what's called the "Grab-n-Go" snack stands at the embassy. This resulted in $970,000 dollars paid to KBR it didn't deserve, the report explained.
Partial blame lies with the embassy, according to the OIG. For example, the embassy staff encouraged employees to sign in every time they stopped by the snack areas, even if they were just picking up a cup of coffee or going back for an apple. As a result, "it was not uncommon to see 6-8 scans per individual for the same meal period. One person scanned his card 25 times in two days."
The embassy management office even put up signs around the embassy last year that read, "More scans = more goodies."
This practice resulted in inflated numbers being sent back to the contractor. The contractor would then prepare more food based on those numbers, resulting in higher overall costs to the embassy and the taxpayer.
The OIG criticized the embassy staff for encouraging this type of behavior. "OIG calculates the current embassy policy inflates the reported plate cost by 16 percent," the report said.
But the OIG did not entirely exonerate KBR of blame. Its report said that, while KBR provides a lot of data to the Defense Department, it isn't in a form the Pentagon can use. Therefore, there's no way to tell if contractor staffing levels are correct and finding instances of waste and fraud are more difficult.
The embassy responded to the OIG by saying that its description of how the Grab-n-Go stands work was "not completely accurate" and that the money paid to KBR is based on the amount of food eaten, not the number of scans. Responding to another of the OIG's criticisms -- that many non-authorized personnel were eating at the facilities -- the embassy said that it would not refuse a meal to any military or U.S. government employee.
President Obama, in a private conference call Wednesday, told an audience of Jewish leaders to discount non-constructive statements made by Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Middle East peace talks move forward, saying that such remarks are all part of the negotiating game.
The groups represented on the call were from across the Jewish religious spectrum: They included the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, the reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
Obama implored the rabbis on the call to publicly support the talks, and to try to rally their own people to support the negotiations. The call was timed in advance of the start of the Jewish high holy days, when the Rabbis see the largest turnout of the year among their congregants. Along those lines, he asked them to discount statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they say things in public that make the talks seem doomed. That's mainly for the local television cameras, Obama said.
"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."
He emphasized that he would give the same message to Arab groups, regarding statements by the Israeli government they might find objectionable.
"What you're going to see over the next several months is that at any given moment, either President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu may end up saying certain things for domestic consumption, for their constituencies and so forth, that may not be as reflective of that spirit of compromise we would like to see. Well, that's the nature of these talks," Obama said.
Obama referred directly to statements made by both leaders this week that seemed to show an unbridgeable gap over whether Israel must extend its 10-month partial settlement construction freeze, which expires on Sept. 26. The next round of the talks, to be held in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem next week, will be the last official round before the deadline.
"There is going to be an immediate set of difficulties surrounding the existing moratorium on settlements," Obama admitted, pointing out the public positions of the two leaders.
"On one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu saying ‘there's no way I can extend it.' There's President Abbas saying ‘this has to be extended for these talks to be effective," Obama said. He maintained that there was a compromise to be struck.
"I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to make this work and both sides are going to be willing to make some difficult concessions," Obama said. He did not specify what a potential compromise would look like.
Overall, Obama told the rabbis that he believed both Netanyahu and Abbas were serious about peace and said the first round of talks last week in Washington exceeded his expectations.
"I am stunned at how cordial and constructive the talks were," he said.
But Obama's main message on the call was a plea to the rabbis to actively support the talks, or at least not to actively undermine them.
He asked the religious leaders to help him promote the talks among Jewish communities both in American and Israel, and "to give these talks a chance and not look for a reason why they won't succeed."
Regarding interfaith relations in the United States and the treatment of Muslim Americans in particular, Obama again asked the rabbis for help. "It is very important for leaders in the Jewish [community] to speak from a deep moral authority in making sure that those Muslim-Americans trying to practice their faith in this country can do so without fear or intimidation," he said.
He did not mention the Park 51 Community Center project by name.
On Iran, Obama argued that the sanctions announced by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and others were having an effect on the regime in Tehran.
"Every assessment that we've seen so far is that the degree of international coordination that's being implied in enforcing these sanctions is unprecedented and the Iranian regime has been shocked by our success," Obama said. He said the Israeli assessment matched his own.
While the peace talks and the Iran threat are not necessarily linked, Obama told the rabbis that resolving Israel's disputes with its neighboring Arab states would increase Iran's isolation.
Obama also delivered a message of urgency regarding the peace talks. "If that window closes, it's going to be hard to reopen for years to come," he said. "We're not going to get that many more opportunities."Obama wished all the rabbis "L'shana Tovah," which means Happy New Year in Hebrew, and "Todah Rabah," which means thank you.
"With you I hope and pray this year will be a year of health and happiness, joy and justice, and ultimately perhaps a year of peace," he said.
The South Korean government announced a series of sanctions against Iran on Tuesday after intensive lobbying from the Obama administration.
The new measures, which target Iran's energy and banking sectors as well as specific Iranian bad actors, follow similar moves by Japan last week. They are also in line with measures imposed by the European Union last month, though not quite as extensive as the administration had proposed to Seoul.
Regardless, the administration and members of Congress who are pushing for countries to put more pressure on Iran hailed the announcement, noting that South Korea moved forward despite the potential cost to its domestic industries.
"I know that this was not an easy or cost-free decision for the ROK government, either politically or economically. But it is precisely Seoul's willingness to shoulder rather than shirk its international responsibilities that confirms the Republic of Korea's emergence as a global leader," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, in a statement.
Japan has the third largest economy in the world, South Korea ranks as the eleventh largest, and both countries have major business interests in Iran -- especially in the energy sector. The new measures would prevent the initiation of any new joint business ventures but allow existing projects to continue.
For the administration and its allies in Congress, the South Korean and Japanese sanctions announcements reaffirm their strategy of using the U.N. Security Council resolution against Iran, which was passed on June 9, as a framework for taking additional steps aimed at convincing Iran to address the international community's concerns about its nuclear program.
The coordination is a positive sign of cooperation between Washington and its two most important East Asian allies. At the same time, Iran watchers note that Beijing stands to profit if Chinese companies move to fill the demand gap created by the South Korean and Japanese sanctions.
Lieberman is warning that if Beijing undermines the new sanctions, Congress will move to enforce sanctions against Chinese companies using authorities provided in the recent U.S. sanctions legislation.
"Chinese companies have unfortunately in the past been allowed by their government to pursue their commercial self-interest in Iran, exploiting the restraint of other countries," Lieberman said. "If this trend continues, China will isolate itself from the responsible international community in Asia and around the world."
Behind the scenes, State Department and Treasury officials had been working hard to encourage the South Korean and Japanese governments to adoptthe strongest measures possible. This effort has been led by Stuart Levey, the under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, and Robert Einhorn, the State Department's special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control.
Einhorn and the NSC's Daniel Glaser traveled to Tokyo and Seoul last month, and a Congressional staff delegation visiting Seoul and Tokyo last week also was partially focused on the push for strong sanctions language.
National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers, the NSC's Tom Donilon, Asia Senior Director Jeffrey Bader, and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell were in Beijing last weekend and the topic of Iran sanctions was also on their agenda.
The main hub of Iranian financial activity in South Korea is the Seoul branch of Bank Mellat, a Tehran-based bank that has already been targeted by both the United States and the European Union. South Korea only agreed to a 60-day suspension of Korean dealings with Bank Mellat Seoul, with a promise to reevaluate after. Washington had wanted a total freeze.
Iran watchers on Capitol Hill said the temporary suspension would have the desired effect by making it clear to investors they should not do business with Bank Mellat in Seoul.
"The fact is they are taking action against Bank Mellat and they are embedding this action within a broad framework of other actions," said one GOP Senate aide. "It's very possible that everybody and their brother is going to run for the exits... that bank is going to be kryptonite."
Levey and Einhorn have also been working hard on the recently announced new U.S. sanctions on North Korea, a topic in which both Japan and South Korea have a vital interest. Aides said that, while the two efforts weren't directly linked, there are indirect links in that Iran and North Korea are involved in some of the same illicit activities.
"There is a tie in the sense that North Korea and Iran actively cooperate on a range of illicit proliferation-related activities," said one Congressional staffer close to the issue. "That's a linkage that both the Koreans and the Japanese recognize and appreciate."
UPDATE: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also praised the new sanctions and saw them as a message to China. He tweeted, "Korea adopted strong new sanctions on Iran today. Japan did the same last week. China should follow their good example of global leadership."
A Florida group's plan to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11 could hurt the international mission in Afghanistan and put allied troops at risk, the head of NATO said Tuesday.
"I strongly condemn that. I think it's a disrespectful action and in general I really urge people to respect other people's faith and behave respectfully. I think such actions are in strong contradiction with all the values we stand for and fight for," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "Of course, there is a risk that it may also have a negative impact on the security for our troops."
Rasmussen's comments came just one day after Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus issued a statement criticizing the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which plans to burn copies of Islam's holy book for 10 reasons they explain on their website.
"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan," Petraeus said.
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, told CNN that the issue was already a hot topic of discussion among Afghans and said, "We very much feel that this can jeopardize the safety of our men and women that are serving over here in the country."
The Associated Press reported that hundreds of Muslims in Kabul have already rioted in protest of the planned Koran burning.
Rasmussen is in Washington to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House Tuesday afternoon. Topping the agenda are metrics for assessing progress in Afghanistan, as well as preparations for the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon in November.
In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters, Rasmussen expressed guarded optimism about the progress of the war in Afghanistan, where about 40,000 NATO troops are fighting alongside American soldiers and marines.
Rasmussen said he agreed with President Obama's decision to begin the transition of authority over security matters from allied forces to the Afghan government, including troop withdrawals, in July 2011. He said the pace of withdrawals were to be determined by conditions on the ground, and that the goal was to complete the transition by the end of 2014.
"I can tell you when it will begin, I can tell you when it would be completed, but I can't tell you exactly what will be the time differences between these two points," he said about the transition, predicting an announcement regarding the beginning of the transition at the Lisbon conference.
He acknowledged that there is an ongoing process to identify which provinces to transition to Afghan control first, and what metrics to use in judging progress on goals. He said it was premature, however, to say which provinces might be ready first or what specific metrics might be used.
"We will not leave until we have finished our job... A handover doesn't mean an exit," he said. NATO forces will have an ongoing role, which will include the presence of a base in Kabul that will allow them to continue to provide support at some level in perpetuity, he said.
On the ever-puzzling issue about what to do regarding Afghan government corruption, Rasmussen said that the international community must keep up political pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai but said that he believes Karzai is sincere about cooperating with the NATO-led coalition on this issue.
"He realizes that it is a prerequisite for gaining the trust of his own people that he and his government fight corruption determinedly," he said. "I really do believe he will do what it takes."
Rasmussen said the Lisbon conference will address a host of issues, including tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, NATO cooperation on missile defense, and cyber warfare. He also endorsed a NATO missile defense shield and extended an offer to Russia to participate. (Russia has shown little enthusiasm for missile-defense cooperation.)
On nuclear weapons, Rasmussen said that while he shared Obama's goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, for the time being nukes will remain in Europe as part of NATO's posture. He said the conference will not come out with specific numbers for the reductions of nuclear weapons based in Europe.
"We will not give up nuclear capabilities as a central part of our deterrence policy," he said.
Your humble Cable guy is on vacation, but sending along this briefing skipper, in which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Thursday's briefing by Special Envoy George Mitchell:
Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to publicly denounce the impending trial of a journalist and blogger facing execution at the hands of the Iranian regime.
The journalist, Shiva Nazar Ahari, who has been imprisoned in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since December, goes on trial Sept. 4 for crimes such as "anti-regime propaganda," "acts contrary to national security through participation in gatherings," and "enmity against God." The last charge can carry a death sentence.
Her activism and defense of political prisoners, which included acting as the spokesman for the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, has raised the ire of the Iranian government for years. Conservative writers have been calling on President Obama to personally call for her release.
"I am urging you and President Obama to press the Iranian regime for the immediate release of Ms. Ahari ... It is crucial for the United States to advocate for brave Iranian citizens like Ms. Ahari, and I hope you will do all you can to secure her release." Brownback wrote to Clinton Aug. 31. "Obviously, time is of the essence."
According to the State Department's 2009 Human Rights Report on Iran, authorities arrested Ahari and two of her colleagues from the Committee for Human Rights Reporters on Dec. 20 as they were headed to Qom for the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had been one of the leading spiritual figures behind Iran's reform movement.
"According to human rights organizations, authorities arrested seven of the nine leaders of the organization during the year and pressured the group to close its Web site," the report said.
Clinton did call for Ahari's release in June, on the one year anniversary of the highly disputed Iranian presidential election that sparked a wave of violence and suppression. She also called on Iran to release human rights defenders Narges Mohammadi, Emad Baghi, Kouhyar Goudarzi, Bahareh Hedayat, Milad Asadi, and Mahboubeh Karami, as well as the three American hikers who have been detained without charge for over a year and a missing former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007.
The State Department has been stepping up its public advocacy on behalf of imprisoned Iranians lately. Clinton gave her first public condemnation of the detention of Baha'i faith leaders last month. None of the political prisoners or hikers has, as of yet, been released.
The head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Washington office is accusing Yale University of supporting "anti-Arab extremism and hate mongering" at a recent academic conference -- a charge the conference's organizer flatly denies.
The controversy surrounds a conference held last week titled, "Global Antisemitism - A Crisis of Modernity," which was organized by the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA). The three-day conference featured papers and speeches from more than 100 scholars from universities throughout the world. But as far as the PLO's Washington office is concerned, some of the attendees were beyond the pale.
The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat¸ wrote a letter Tuesday (pdf) to Yale President Richard C. Levin demanding that the university disassociate itself from the conference. Areikat accused three speakers in particular of spreading anti-Arab propaganda: Retired Israeli Col. Jonathan Fighel, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Anne Herzberg, legal advisor to the group NGO Monitor, and Itamar Marcus, who heads the Palestinian Media Watch website and lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.
"It's shocking that a respected institution like Yale would give a platform to these right-wing extremists and their odious views, and it is deeply ironic that a conference on anti-Semitism that is ostensibly intended to combat hatred and discrimination against Semites would demonize Arabs - who are Semites themselves," wrote Areikat.
Charles Asher Small, the organizer of the conference and head of YIISA, told The Cable in an interview he was surprised and dismayed by Areikat's letter. He said that scholars and academics from across the political and ideological spectrum and hailing from 18 countries participated in the conference.
Small also said that one of the results of the conference was the formation of a professional association, called the International Association for the Study of Antisemitism (IASA), dedicated to fulfilling the program's stated mission of combating hatred and discrimination in all its forms. "The IASA is to function to represent scholars and intellectuals everywhere, regardless of their school of thought, scientific approaches, academic discipline, or ideological opinion," he said.
Furthermore, Small said that while his work focuses on hatred toward Jews, anti-Semitism is a phenomenon closely related to discrimination against other groups.
"We know from history that anti-Semitism unleashes a virulent form of hatred. It begins with Jews but it does not end with Jews," he said. "We see that moderate Muslims, women, gays, Copts, Bahais, Buddhists, Christians, and others, also become victims, as the basic notions of democracy and citizenship come under assault in too many societies."
With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks set to begin in Washington this week, some in the pro-Israel community saw Areikat's letter as an ill-timed political cheap shot.
"If the Palestinian Authority and the PLO spent as much effort fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Israel incitement, rather than try to intimidate and silence those who expose it, the cause of peace would greatly benefit," said an official with a pro-Israel organization in Washington.
There's a battle going on among the standard-bearers of the Tea Party over their foreign policy message. But at the rank-and-file level, Tea Partiers have no unified view on major foreign policy issues. They are all over the map.
Sarah Palin, who spoke at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on the Mall Saturday, would like the Tea Party to endorse her quasi-neoconservative approach to national security policy. She advocates aggressive unilateralism, ever-rising defense budgets, unfailing support of Israel, and a skeptical eye toward China, Russia, and any other possible competitor to the United States.
Ron Paul, a founding leader of the Tea Party who has seen the movement slip away from him somewhat, wants the movement's focus on thrift to extend to foreign policy, resulting in an almost isolationist approach that sets limits on the use of American power and its presence abroad.
In over a dozen interviews with self-identified Tea Party members at Saturday's rally, your humble Cable guy discovered that, when it comes to foreign policy, attendees rarely subscribed wholeheartedly to either Palin or Paul's world view. Despite claiming to share the same principles that informed their views, Tea Partiers often reached very different conclusions about pressing issues in U.S. foreign policy today.
Understandably, most Tea Party members at the rally viewed foreign policy through the prism of domestic problems such as the poor economy and the movement of jobs overseas. Almost all interviewees expressed support for U.S. troops abroad and a connection to Christianity they said informed their world view.
But that's where the similarities ended. Some attendees sounded like reliable neocons arguing for more troops abroad. Others sounded like antiwar liberals, lamenting the loss of life in any war for any reason. Still others sounded like inside the beltway realists, carefully considering the costs and benefits of a given policy option based on American national security interests.
For example, The Cable interviewed Danny Koss, a former Marine from Grove City, PA, who was measured when it came to talking about the war in Afghanistan.
"If we are going to stay, I suggest we really win," he said. "I'm not convinced that some of our leadership is ready for that. I know our generals are."
Koss, sounding like a realist, said that he saw China as a near-term economic threat but not a near-term military threat. A strike against Iran was not a good option, he argued, although he said it was wise of President Barack Obama to publicly state that all options are on the table.
When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, however, Koss seamlessly switched to a religious frame.
"You've got to go back and read the Bible, see who had it first. If you believe the Bible and who God gave it to, the rest is history," he said.
Later, we ran into Cecilia Goodow from Hartford, NY, who said that her foreign policy views were determined exclusively by her faith. This led her to regret the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.
"It sounded so reasonable at the time. But Holy Father John Paul II was against the war; he said it would just be an awful thing and many people would be killed," she said. "I always supported the troops, but we know history and we know that wars are sometimes perpetrated by evil people for evil reasons that the average person doesn't even know about or understand, so I can't wait for it all to stop."
Goodow said she wants Obama to stand up for America more and fight the forces of evil, which include Iran, but she doesn't support military intervention, even in Afghanistan.
"Sometimes that's cloudy -- why are we there? Barack Obama ran on the promise that he was going to bring everybody home. That's what we all sat around the table talking about. Maybe if there's a new presidential policy maybe we can have peace again, maybe we can bring our kids home," she said. "War begets more war."
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we found Larry Maxwell of Patterson, NY. Dressed in full Revolutionary War regalia and holding a huge American flag, he was as much historian as activist, engaging passersby in debates about America's past.
While he supported the decision to go war in Iraq and largely believes claims that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Maxwell lamented the cost of the Iraq war and the danger of bolstering Iranian influence in the region.
But while Maxwell was concerned about the tensions surrounding Iran and its nuclear program, he didn't believe that a military strike is the best option.
"Are we the world's police? We're having a lot of trouble here and a lot of problems here. I'm not sure where our role comes over there," he said. "The United Nations would be the place for that ... but nobody listens to them."
Maxwell, like Koss, also referenced the Bible to support Israel's right to the land it now occupies. "The Bible says in the last days, that the Middle East, that's going to be the center of activity," he said. "If you go back to the Bible, it says there's going to be an army of 200 million men coming out of the East to the Middle East, as part of that whole Armageddon and ‘end of days' thing."
But not all Tea Partiers reflexively took Israel's side. Brandon Malator from Washington, DC, who dressed in U.S. Army fatigues and donned a cowboy hat with a Lipton tea bag dangling from the brim, was a stalwart supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not of Israel.
"[We should] stay longer. We've never left any other country and we shouldn't leave Iraq," he said, adding that the U.S. is engaged in a 100-year-war that would include a coming war with Iran and eventually a war with China, which he called "World War III." He praised Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan. "I think we're doing what we need to do as Americans. I think if the rest of the world doesn't like it, then that's tough luck."
But when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Malatore's was downright dovish. "I hope that Israel and Palestine can come to an agreement, share the land, and do whatever they need to do to stop fighting all the time. I hope that war ends; that's been going on too long."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.