Iran's potential rehabilitation comes at an awkward time for OPEC, the elite club of petroleum-producing states that controls the flow of oil to the world market. The cartel's dominance is already threatened by a boom in oil extracted from shale in the United States, and now the potential return of millions of barrels of Iranian oil to the market looms over Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries as they meet in Vienna this week.
While the global power shift brought on by the U.S. shale boom threatens OPEC from the outside, member countries are threatening it from the inside. Iraq, and now Iran, both want to increase production at a time when global supply is already high, raising the specter that OPEC won't be able to marshal its members into line to control prices. The end result could be lower oil prices next year, according to many analysts.
"OPEC's relevance is waning in our view," said Eric Lee, an oil analyst with Citigroup. Lee said the increased supply from non-OPEC countries has created a disruptive shift in the oil markets that reduces the cartel's control of the market.
That includes the United States, where a boom in oil and gas extracted from shale rock has changed the dynamics of the international energy market. The innovations in extraction methods that led to the boom, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, are still under scrutiny for their effects on the environment, while U.S. domestic production continues to grow. The United States produced more crude oil than it imported in November for the first time since 1995. The shift means the United States is less reliant on oil from the Middle East, which could have wide-ranging effects on global politics and markets.
This week in Vienna, Iran is laying the groundwork for a potential increase in oil production, pushing other countries to make room for Iranian oil to come back to the market in the event that a long-term deal to lift U.S. sanctions can be negotiated.
"Other OPEC countries would have to cut to make room for Iran," said Trevor Houser, partner at Rhodium Group, an economic research firm.
But it's unclear whether other countries will want to reduce production in order to make way for Iran.
"This could be a difficult moment for OPEC, a difficult year," said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Iran is going to be very resentful of anyone saying they should hold back their increase," Clawson said.
That's the way a cartel works. When global oil production is up, the cartel imposes quotas so that an increase in supply doesn't cause the price of oil to drop. The 12 OPEC countries get together and decide to hold back some oil from the market. Each country takes the short-term setback in order to keep the price of oil up, which ultimately benefits all the countries in the club.
Though OPEC is not expected to change its policy this week in Vienna, the prospect of more Iranian oil coming into the market could mean that the cartel might have to move sooner than expected to lower quotas.
"There are two problems: Can you get agreement to reduce the quotas, and can you get countries to abide by the reduced quotas," said Houser. "I think both are going to be pretty challenging."
The struggle will be keeping everybody in line.
"The history of OPEC has been frustrated by sometimes formal agreements that never materialize in practice; many countries accept reducing their own production, but then continue to sell oil under the table," said Leonardo Maugeri, an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School and former executive of Italian oil company Eni. Maugeri said that he expects OPEC to meet again in early 2014 to settle on a new policy. If it can't, oil prices could collapse.
While some analysts have heralded the end of OPEC, others have warned that it could lead to greater volatility.
"Volatile oil prices are especially damaging because people have less ability to make decisions about what kind of car to buy and where to live based on how much oil will take up in their budget," said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy and a former senior advisor in the Obama administration.
OPEC helps dampen volatility. In addition to intervening when oil prices are falling, it also ramps up production when supply is suddenly cut, in an effort to keep prices from spiking.
"Over the last couple years the Gulf states have increased their production when there have been disruptions in, say, Libya," Richard Mallinson, a geopolitical analyst with energy markets consultancy Energy Aspects, said. Mallinson said OPEC has weathered many challenges and will likely survive this one as well.
And while Iran is warning OPEC countries this week that they may have to make room for Iranian oil, some experts think that is still wishful thinking on Iran's part.
"The Iranians have an interest in actually creating this kind of perception, and that is to lure oil companies, the big international companies, to see the potential in coming back to the Iranian market," said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for International Crisis Group. Since Iran doesn't have lobbyists in Washington, Vaez added, Tehran is hoping to convince international oil companies to argue that sanctions should be rolled back.
After reaching an interim deal this weekend to halt the development of Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials have gone to great pains to emphasize that the United States will continue to take a hard line on enforcing sanctions, most of which remain in place. But in at least in one area -- getting medicine to Iranians -- sanctions might have been too successful, discouraging companies and banks from engaging even in approved trade.
Though humanitarian products like food and medicine are already exempted from the sanctions, banks and companies that facilitate the transactions have been hesitant to get involved, for fear of ending up being sanctioned themselves. Companies also avoid doing even permitted business with Iran because it often requires a special license from the Treasury Department office that handles financial sanctions.
"Really this is tied to the medicine shortage in Iran and the fact that there were very few banking channels through which to sell medicine to Iran," said Jamal Abdi, the policy director for National Iranian American Council.
The United States agreed over the weekend to "establish a financial channel to facilitate humanitarian trade," but it isn't yet clear how it will work. Lawyers who work on trade deals for humanitarian products say it isn't yet clear whether the agreement will change the status quo.
"It's way too early to determine how successful this new financial channel will be in practice," said Doug Jacobson, a sanctions attorney in Washington, D.C. Jacobson said he expected the overall agreement's effect on sales for U.S. companies to be "extremely limited."
Humanitarian and trade groups have criticized the Obama administration over how the sanctions have affected the Iranians' access to medicine.
"Their handling of the humanitarian trade issue has been a disaster," said Bill Reinsch, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council. "They grant licenses, but no one can use them because they can't get financing, because they've gone around and intimidated the banks into not doing business."
In addition to fear of sanctions, companies could also avoid facilitating humanitarian trade because it's not worth risking the stigma attached to working with Iran. Public companies that do business with Iran have to file a public notice with their financial documents, sometimes even for approved humanitarian transactions.
The State Department is planning a new, sprawling embassy compound in Mexico City, but it has quietly scuttled how it was to select a construction firm for it.
The new complex will be erected on eight acres the U.S. purchased in the city's Nuevo Polanco neighborhood, and cost $400 million to $500 million, State Department officials said. The main building will be about 515,000 square feet, making it one of the U.S.'s largest embassies. There also will be a 281,150 square-foot parking garage with space for 665 vehicles, a 70,900 square-foot warehouse and maintenance facility, a 13,850 square-foot residence for Marine Corps embassy security guards, and an 11,300 square-foot facility to securely allow vehicles and pedestrians to enter.
The new embassy will be built in a country in which drug cartels have operated with "near impunity" in recent years, according to newly declassified U.S. documents. They suggest the U.S. is extremely concerned about drug violence, in which more than 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón vowed to take on the cartels.
U.S. personnel have come under fire in the process. In one example, two employees from the embassy in Mexico City were wounded about 35 miles south of the city in August 2012 after federal police opened fire on their vehicle. They were reportedly traveling to a Mexican navy base.
In June, the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations announced that it wanted construction firms to submit qualifications for the new Mexico City embassy in order to pre-qualify them to be involved in the project. It has quietly reversed course, saying its initial solicitation to industry is "cancelled in its entirety" because plans have been altered. The State Department did not explain why in its announcement, but said a new, future solicitation to industry for the project "is under acquisition review.
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Ever since ex-senator and Tea Party kingmaker Jim DeMint took over the Heritage Foundation earlier this year, mainstream Republicans have been fretting that he'd turn the prominent conservative think tank into a political proxy for the most extreme elements of the GOP. The debt-deniers and defund-Obamacare die-hards who propelled the government into a shutdown have found a political, if not quite intellectual center of gravity at Heritage. Now, hawkish Republicans who have long embraced strong national security authorities have reason to believe that Heritage is mounting an opposition on that front, too.
Recently, Heritage refused to publish two papers about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs written by a prominent conservative attorney. Why? Because he concluded that the programs were legal and constitutional, according to sources familiar with the matter. It was a surprising move for a think tank that has supported extension of the Patriot Act -- which authorizes some of NSA's activities -- and has long been associated with right-of-center positions on national security and foreign policy.
But the paper's conclusions did not sit well with DeMint, the sources said, who worried about offending or alienating more libertarian lawmakers such Sen. Rand Paul, a DeMint ally and leading critic of NSA's collection of Americans' phone records, as well as Tea Partiers, who according to a recent poll think that government counterterrorism policies have gone "too far" in restricting civil liberties. It's those groups that brought DeMint his greatest influence as a lawmaker and made him a national political heavyweight.
Janet Napolitano is leaving the Department of Homeland Security. But she's not the only one who's gone. No less than 15 leadership positions across DHS are now vacant -- or soon will be. And there doesn't seem to be any hurry to fill them. Until two weeks ago, the President had not yet nominated a single official to serve at DHS in a Senate-confirmed position, and had only made one senior-level appointment to a position that does not require Senate confirmation - the selection of Julia Pierson to serve as the new director of the Secret Service.
Having a certain level of senior-level vacancies in a Cabinet department is normal, given the typical churn of confirmed and appointed officials. But if enough positions are open for a long enough period of time, it can lead to significant operational and management risks to that Department, and also diminishes its accountability to the U.S. Congress.
I am afraid that the Department of Homeland Security is now at the point where it is facing these risks. Given this, I think that it is critical that the White House prioritize nominations and appointment for the key positions listed below, and that when nominations are made, that the Senate act quickly on nominations for qualified candidates.
Below is a list of the Senate-confirmed positions that are currently unfilled (or will soon be unfilled) at DHS. This list was put together yesterday, so it doesn't include the biggest vacany of all -- Napolitano.
House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) plans to introduce legislation Friday that bans foreign government officials responsible for violating the due-process rights of imprisoned U.S. citizens abroad from traveling in the United States.
Smith announced the move during a subcommittee hearing Wednesday on Jacob Ostreicher, a Brooklyn native who has been held in Bolivia for alleged money laundering since June 2011.
"The United States cannot stand by and simply ‘monitor' the case when our citizens are being held hostage to international human rights standards," said Smith, who visited Ostreicher in June and described him as "extremely frail and weak."
Ostreicher, an entrepreneur, went to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in December 2010 to take over the management of a rice business he co-owns from a local manager after investors suspected she was embezzling money from the venture.
The manager had disappeared by the time Ostreicher arrived, but before leaving she had purchased land from alleged Brazilian drug kingpin Maximilliano Dorado, who briefly lived in Bolivia.
Bolivian authorities, upon realizing that Ostreicher's company was operating on his land, arrested the businessman on June 3, 2011. Since then, 22 hearings have been scheduled for Ostreicher's case, but each has been postponed due to the successful maneuvering of Bolivian government prosecutors, including demanding the recusal of judges. Ostreicher is being held in the notoriously corrupt Palmasola prison, where he has been denied access to a doctor. He has been on a hunger strike since April 13.
Smith lambasted the State Department, which declined to testify at the hearing, for failing to effectively take up Ostreicher's case.
"Although our own State Department officials are finally acknowledging that Mr. Ostreicher's due process rights are being violated, they continue to seem hesitant and uncertain about what action to take on his behalf," he said.
Former FBI special agent Steve Moore, who has also visited Ostreicher in prison, said in heated comments during the hearing that Smith's proposed legislation addresses a vast government blindspot.
"There are brave people in State, but there are cowards in State too," he said. "If Jacob Ostreicher dies in Palmasola prison, both the Bolivian government and the United States Department of State will have the same blood on their hands."
The State Department responded Wednesday that it continues to work hard on the issue, as U.S. officials have been in "frequent contact" with Bolivian officials to advocate for due process under Bolivian law.
"Mr. Ostreicher's guilt or innocence will be decided by the Bolivian judicial system," a State Department spokesman said.
"However, the Bolivian government should permit the judicial system to function properly and allow Mr. Ostreicher's motion be heard on its merits," spokesman Patrick Ventrell continued. "The Bolivian government's actions are deeply regrettable, and are resulting in unacceptable delays. We urge the Bolivian government to act swiftly to correct this situation by holding the bail hearing immediately and advancing the judicial process without delay."
Smith, on the other hand, says he is not convinced that Bolivian officials intend to take any action.
"While in Bolivia, I met with Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Juan Carlos Alurralde, Minister of Government Carlos Romero Bonifaz, and Minister of Justice Cecilia Ayllón Quinteros to advocate for Mr. Ostreicher's release," he said. "Each of them have made commitments with respect to this case but have not followed through."
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Yimmy Montano, one of Ostreicher's Bolivian attorneys, believes his client is "being used by Bolivia to get back at the U.S. after a Miami court last year sentenced Gen. Rene Sanabria, Bolivia's top-ranking antidrug official, to 14 years in jail for trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S."
Jerjes Justiniano, Ostreicher's second attorney, says there is no logical reason for his client's treatment.
"I do not understand how an American citizen can be treated this way, having invested in Bolivia and given jobs to indigenous Bolivians, reaching higher salaries than the government itself pays to the police," Justiniano said at Wednesday's hearing. "This approach demonstrates a clear interference by the executive on the judiciary."
Ostreicher's wife had harsh words for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which she says told her that he husband's situation is a symptom of a larger problem.
"The U.S. Embassy reported that it is the opinion of the UNCHR office in Bolivia that Jacob is not being persecuted or targeted by the government, but rather he is yet another victim of a brutally slow, inefficient, underfunded, and corrupt judicial system," the wife, Miriam Ungar, told the audience at the hearing. "As our Bolivian attorney will attest, the totality of what Jacob has experienced is not common."
Bolivia has had tense relations with the United States under the administration of President Evo Morales. In 2008, Morales accused U.S. antidrug officials of interfering in Bolivian politics and expelled them from the country.
Several individuals connected to the Morales administration have been convicted for cooperating with cartels in Bolivian and U.S. courts, the Eurasia Review reported in July. Morales himself has headed Bolivia's coca growers union since 1996. He was reelected chairman in July.
Deputy Secretary Bill Burns discussed the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship and opportunities for international cooperation with Mexican government officials Sunday in Mexico City. Today Burns is in Bogota, Colombia, to lead the U.S. delegation in the third round of the U.S.-Colombia High-Level Partnership Dialogue, where he will be joined by Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Affairs Carlos Pascual, and Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez. Discussions will cover democracy, human rights, energy, economic opportunities, climate change, culture and education, and science and technology.
Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon is traveling to Greece and Turkey until July 31. In Athens, he will discuss economic reforms and foreign policy issues with senior government officials, political party leaders, and members of the business and think tank communities. On July 29, he will arrive in Istanbul, where he will meet with senior Turkish government officials to discuss various bilateral and global issues.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak at the second annual Global Diaspora Forum in Washington, which will focus on how the U.S. government and diaspora communities are partnering to further investment and trade, philanthropy, volunteerism, and social innovation around the world. She will also meet with World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean Asselborn, and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Slovak Republic Miroslav Lajcak.
Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman is in New York for the final week of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty Conference, which ends Friday. Conventional arms trading is estimated to be worth more than $70 billion a year, and the conference is still behind schedule. According to AFP, discussions are still hindered by disagreements between the main powers and a "small but determined minority of states who oppose the treaty."
New York Times columnist David Brooks had some harsh words for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Tuesday.
"Mitt Romney has been wandering around the country trying to find a place to disagree with Barack Obama," he said during a panel discussion at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition's annual conference. "He's desperately trying, and every time he does, he looks like an idiot, because he has to say something so far out there on Russia or whatever it is."
The former governor has certainly taken a tough and colorful approach to U.S.-Russia foreign policy issues. In March, Romney called Russia the United States' "No. 1 geopolitical foe" -- a questionable assertion -- and described President Obama's reset policy as an "abject failure" in June -- a far more defensible critique.
Former senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), the Romney campaign's foreign-policy surrogate at the conference, countered Brooks' rebuke with an outline of the Republican candidate's foreign-policy qualifications and goals.
"As president, Governor Romney will apply the full spectrum of hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict," he stated.
Coleman also emphasized Romney's commitment to international economic cooperation.
"A Romney administration would put expanded free trade back at the center of our foreign and economic policy," he said. "In his first hundred days he'll launch a campaign to promote economic opportunity in Latin America and.... create the Reagan economic zone, a partnership among countries committed to free enterprise and free trade."
The Palestine Liberation Organization has denied recent reports that the White House issued a notice threatening to cut all aid to the Palestinian Authority if it launches a renewed drive for recognition at the United Nations.
"This is absolutely not true," PLO representative to Washington Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable this week. "We do not know what they are saying. It's unfounded."
According to numerous online sources, Palestine National Council political chairman Khaled Mesmar, an Obama administration envoy issued the threat during a recent visit to Ramallah, and Areikat's comments come just days after senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that the Palestinian Authority plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize Palestine as an observer state. Last year's bid for statehood membership was blocked by the United States, and the top foreign aid leaders in the House of Representatives issued a similar threat in August 2011.
On Capitol Hill, the Palestinian Authority has faced increasing scrutiny since it sought U.N. recognition last September. House Foreign Relations Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has spearheaded congressional efforts to prevent federal budgetary allocations to the Palestinian Authority -- which have averaged nearly $600 million since Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 -- from being released, along with House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX). In March, Ros-Lehtinen agreed to release $88.6 million of $147 million slated for Palestinian development aid in the West Bank and Gaza that Republican lawmakers had placed on hold in August 2011, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton overruled the decision and notified Congress in April that the entire package would be disbursed.
"On the congressional level I think that what we are facing is a total ignorance and lack of understanding of the political dynamics and variables that are involved in U.S. assistance to the Palestinians," Areikat said in a short interview. "We are shocked to know that these members of Congress don't even have the minimum knowledge or understanding of Palestinian positions or the impact of U.S. assistance on improving the living, economic, and humanitarian positions of the Palestinian people. Resorting to this tool to try to influence Palestinian leaders into changing their political position is something that has proven in the past to be counterproductive, and it will not lead to a change in the Palestinian political position."
As Ros-Lehtinen continues to place holds on FY2012 funds, however, the Palestinian Authority is facing financial collapse. Saudi Arabia transferred $100 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority after Israel applied for a $100 million International Monetary Fund loan on its behalf and was refused, but the PA's budget deficit for the current year has already surpassed the $1 billion mark. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Monday that the PA is unable to pay about 150,000 of its employees.
The House's stance on foreign aid to the Palestinians has drawn the attention and ire of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"House Republicans want to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority," he said during a speech at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition's annual conference on Tuesday. "I can't imagine anything that would tumble the Middle East more rapidly into a radical tailspin."
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), a co-signatory of the Cohen-Yarmouth-Connolly letter, which stresses the importance of American leadership to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, agrees.
"No, I do not support cutting off funds to the Palestinian Authority," he said in an emailed statement Tuesday. "I oppose them unilaterally seeking statehood, the deal should be bilateral, but cutting them off would lead to more conflict not less."
Members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, worry increasingly about corruption within the Palestinian government, as a committee oversight hearing last week about the Palestinian Authority's "chronic kleptocracy" demonstrated.
"As a major political donor to the Palestinians, we need to be extremely concerned that our aid will be construed as support for a corrupt regime," House Foreign Relations Committee senior member Gary Ackerman (D-NY) said during the hearing. "If they unintentionally wind up enriching loathsome regime figures ... then we have a hard choice as our support for the people is outweighed by unintended, undesirable consequences of that flow."
Areikat dismissed the hearing as a politically motivated smear tactic.
"By holding these hearings all the time, the House Foreign Relations Committee is ignoring an important fundamental principle in the U.S. system, which is giving the other party the chance to present its case," he told The Cable. "They have been holding all these hearings on the Palestinian Authority while the Palestinian Authority and its representatives are absent, so it's only a charade. It's a politically motivated campaign that has nothing to do with transparency and accountability."
Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Rick Barton is in Central America through June 29, where he will travel to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to meet with embassy partners and key stakeholders about issues related to the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), such as violence, corruption, human rights, and criminal organizations. The U.S. has allocated $260 million to CARSI as the proliferation of narcotics, weapons, and gangs has destabilized the region's local and national governments.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Los Cabos, Mexico, with President Barack Obama for the G-20 summit, where she will participate in discussions focusing on the European economic crisis. Clinton is slated to hold a bilateral meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu this afternoon.
President Obama is expected meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit -- a meeting that could be tense after Clinton accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to the Syrian regime. Robert Hormats, Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, is accompanying the secretary and the president.
Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng's best friend in Congress, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), told The Cable on Tuesday that the Obama administration has failed to stand up for Chen's cause, the abuse of women under China's one-child policy.
In an interview in the Capitol building, Smith said he intends to hold another congressional hearing on May 15 on the Chen case -- to follow up on the hearing he held May 3, which Chen actually phoned into. Smith has invited Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and State Department Counselor Harold Koh to the hearing, but those officials have yet to RSVP.
"I don't think they want the hearing frankly. But we need to keep the focus on this," Smith said.
If and when administration officials do show up to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, Smith plans to press them on two things: The fight against forced abortion and forced sterilization that led to Chen's initial imprisonment and the plight of Chen's friends and extended family members who are undergoing government harassment in China.
"The administration has hermetically sealed his message, the man and why he was in trouble, from this incident," Smith told The Cable. "Have you heard anybody talk about that he was defending women from forced abortion? Hillary Clinton? Not a word. I Googled it."
Smith said that the administration has been avoiding any reference to the issue, which they haven't done for similar human-rights related cases in countries other than China.
"Can you imagine the president saying ‘no comment' on Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi? He would launch into what they stood for as well as their personal plight," Smith said. "They say his name but they don't talk about his message. It's more than troubling."
The State Department feels confident the Chinese government will honor its pledge to allow Chen study in the United States and bring his wife and son in tow. But Chen's mother, nephew, and several activists who supported him are still in legal limbo and facing increasingly violent retribution, Smith said.
Smith referred to the case of Jiang Tianyong, Chen's lawyer, who was arrested and beaten badly last week on the way to visit Chen in the hospital. Jiang remains under house arrest. Other figures in Chinese government hands include Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, and He Peirong, the woman who drove Chen to the embassy.
Smith said he can't get answers from the administration on what's being done to secure the safety of those individuals.
"I've conveyed that to everybody at the State Department. They know about it. But what are they doing about it? That's the question."
The departure of Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) from Congress will cause a reshuffle of foreign policy leadership in the GOP Senate caucus and could thrust Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) into a prominent role.
With Lugar losing his primary on Tuesday to Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the position of top Republican on SFRC is set be to be vacant. The next three senators in line for that spot are Corker, James Risch (R-ID), and Marco Rubio (R-FL), in that order. With the possibility that Republicans could retake the senate in November, Lugar's successor on the committee could become chairman. Either way, the new top Republican on the committee will fundamentally change the character of the panel.
Lugar was known for his statesman-like approach, his deep attention to several specific issues such as nuclear non-proliferation, and his willingness to work with the administration and Democrats, for example on big projects like the New START nuclear reduction treaty with Russia. Perhaps due to his bipartisan character when it came to foreign policy, he was somewhat marginalized toward the end of his tenure by a caucus leadership that was determined to take a more combative and partisan approach to dealing with the Obama administration.
"While Dick and I didn't always agree on everything, I found during my time in the Senate that he was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done," President Barack Obama said in a statement Tuesday evening.
As his primary campaign heated up, Lugar became distinctly more cautious on foreign policy matters, perhaps in recognition of the fact that his advocacy for New START, one of the administration's premier foreign policy projects, had hurt him politically inside the party. Lugar staunchly opposed the intervention in Libya last year and is firmly against the United States getting more deeply involved in the Syrian crisis now.
Behind the scenes, Lugar's staff is hugely active on a range of foreign policy issues. Not quite as bipartisan as Lugar himself, the GOP minority staff at SFRC butts heads with the majority staff at times. The personal relationship between Lugar and chairman John Kerry (D-MA) has always been cordial in public, although some say less cordial in private.
When Lugar leaves, the most likely choice to replace Lugar is Corker, a Tennessee businessman who like Lugar, opposed the war in Libya and opposes intervention in Syria. But Corker's foreign policy stance is even more wary of using U.S. power in foreign lands. He said earlier this year he doesn't even believe the Syrian revolution is about "democracy."
Corker was on the fence during much of the New START debate. He felt the treaty wasn't very significant in terms of nuclear reductions, and used the negotiations within Congress more as chance to secure funding for nuclear facilities, some of which are in his state. Corker is very effective at defending funds for nuclear modernization and stockpile maintenance.
Corker doesn't have a firm position on what to do in Afghanistan and he wasn't particularly vocal on the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. He's seen on Capitol Hill as someone would have a bit of a learning curve ahead of him were he to become SFRC chairman or ranking member.
Behind the scenes, Corker has a very active foreign policy staff that is said by Hill sources to not get along well with Lugar's staff. If Corker takes over as lead Republican on the committee, there could be a house cleaning on the staff side.
But Corker's accession is not assured. The Republican committee members have the power to vote for whomever they want. In fact, after the 2010 election, there was an effort to vote Lugar out of the ranking member's position, but Lugar prevailed by a slim margin.
For some Republicans both on and off Capitol Hill, Corker is seen as neither aggressive nor hawkish enough on key foreign policy issues.
"It's difficult to make the case that someone who doesn't even see the merits of the fall of Bashar al-Assad for American interests deserves to have the top Republican spot on the committee," said one GOP foreign policy pundit. "There are other Republicans, such as Sen. Rubio, who have advocated a much more coherent and thoughtful foreign policy vision that might make them more appealing replacements for Sen. Lugar."
Rubio has laid out a foreign policy vision that tracks more closely with hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). He is also seen as a rising star on foreign policy in the party and an SFRC chairmanship could bolster Rubio's national security bona fides ahead of a possible 2016 presidential run.
In the end, Corker might not even want the job. He is also currently in line to take over the top Republican spot on the banking committee, currently held by Richard Shelby (R-AL), who is barred by the rules from continuing on in that role due to committee term limits. If Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the ranking member on the finance committee loses his election, then Shelby's presumptive successor Mike Crapo (R-ID) would move over to take the top GOP spot on the finance committee, leaving Corker as the top Republican on banking.
Corker might prefer banking over SFRC -- and he can't chair both. Risch also has several possibilities for chairmanships that next year that could change the game on who gets moved up at SFRC.
In the end, some of Lugar's Senate colleagues said that his defeat showed the shrinking room for moderates in the Senate and the lowering national tolerance for those whose focus is beyond America's shores.
"There are people ideologically driven on the right and the left who want to pick up seats, look at what happened to Sen. Lieberman," said Graham in a short interview. "The lesson to be learned is vote your conscience and if you're an incumbent, you better not lose touch with home."
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird donned a New York Rangers hockey jersey Friday to fulfill the terms of a bet he made with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month over the playoff series between the Rangers and Baird's home team, the Ottawa Senators.
"The Ottawa Senators lost a heartbreaking Game 7 in their series against the New York Rangers on Thursday night," the Canadian Foreign Ministry said in a Friday statement.
Baird wore the Rangers Jersey in the foyer of the House of Commons. He also congratulated the Senators on their success this season in the House of Commons during Friday's question period, the ministry said.
The Canadian Foreign Ministry did not immediately return requests for comment on your humble Cable guy's contention that in fact, the Philadelphia Flyers, who beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in their first round playoff series in 6 games, are the best team in the NHL.
Canadian Foreign Ministry
Canada is upset that Washington special-interest groups are thwarting the Keystone XL pipeline, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told The Cable, forcing the country to move forward to find other customers for its oil.
"There's a great deal of frustration, less with the administration and more that the future prosperity of our country could lie in the hands of some radical environmentalists and special interests," Baird said in a Thursday interview in Washington. "That causes us great concern, so we want to look to diversify our markets, whether that be with Japan, Korea, or China, which has expressed a great interest."
U.S. President Barack Obama rejected TransCanada's permit application to build the pipeline in January after being compelled to issue a quick decision on the application by congressional legislation. He had received pressure from environmental groups, which had organized protests around the country opposing the construction of the pipeline.
No decision is expected on the pipeline this year, although Obama did announce last month that he intends to approve the southern piece of the pipeline soon. On Wednesday, Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill to re-launch a review of the pipeline route.
But Ottawa isn't waiting around for the United States to make a decision. The Canadia government is proceeding to build its "Northern Gateway" pipeline that would end in British Columbia, where the oil could be shipped directly to East Asia.
"It was certainly driven home to the energy sector in Canada that being captive to a special interest can have huge consequences on the future prosperity of our country. That's certainly known and accepted in a way that it wasn't last fall," Baird said.
Canada also knows how to deal with environmental groups, said Baird. The Canadian government has eliminated environmental impact studies for 90 percent of projects and has sped up the approval process, he said.
According to Baird, the United States is losing jobs due to the delay of the pipeline approval in Washington. But in a way, Canada stands to benefit from the impasse.
"Oil sands oil currently sells at a discount because we are a captive market, and if we could diversify that market, that discount could end," said Baird.
"If you look at all the oil around the world, there's precious little of it that is found in stable economies and stable democracies, and we want to share that resource with our closest partner," he said. "We're going to work hard to see the project approved, hopefully early next year."
Baird came to Washington for the G-8 foreign minister's meeting, which focused on the crises in Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Canada supports humanitarian and medical aid to the Syrian people but not arms for the Syrian opposition, Baird said. He also said there's no talk right now within NATO about establishing buffer zones inside Syria using NATO assets.
After Syrian troops fired over the Turkish border this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Turkey might invoke NATO Article 5, which provides for common defense of any threatened NATO country. Baird said the red line was if Syrian troops actually enter Turkey.
"There will be strong international support for Turkey if Syrian forces cross the border," he said. "Canada is a member of NATO, and if Syria wants to conduct military operations in a NATO country, they will get a strong reaction."
He didn't clarify what that strong reaction might entail.
Baird also shared news of a bet he made Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the NHL playoff series between the Ottawa Senators and the New York Rangers. If the Senators win, Clinton must wear their jersey. If the Rangers win, Baird will sport a Rangers sweater.
"After the Ottawa Senators win, she'll look great in red," he said, noting that in Canada, unlike in the United States, red is the liberal color.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
If the international community gave the Syrian rebels arms, communications equipment, and intelligence, that would help speed President Bashar al-Assad's removal from power, the top U.S. military official in Europe said Thursday.
Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, told the Senate Armed Services that NATO is not doing any "detailed planning" for ways to aid the Syrian opposition or protect Syrian civilians. But under intense questioning from the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Stavridis admitted he believed that giving material aid to the rebels would help them get better organized and push forward the process of getting the Assad to step down.
"Yesterday the secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, told The Cable, quote, ‘We haven't had any discussions about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance,'" McCain said, referring directly to our Feb. 29 exclusive interview with Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"Is it true that NATO is doing no contingency planning of any kind with respect to Syria, including for the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance?" McCain asked Stavridis.
"We're not doing any detailed contingency planning at this point, senator, and there's a reason for that. Within the NATO command structure, there has to be an authorization from the North Atlantic Council before we can conduct detailed planning," Stavridis said. The North Atlantic Council is the body charged with making NATO policy decisions.
After getting Stavridis to confirm he believes the Syrian crisis is now an armed conflict between government and opposition forces, McCain then asked Stavridis if the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence would help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power.
"I would think it would. Yes, sir," Stavridis replied.
McCain contrasted NATO's reluctance to intervene in Syria with previous NATO missions to halt massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) seconded that comparison at the hearing.
"This does remind me of experiences we had in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s," Lieberman said. "It actually took quite a while for us to build the political will, both here and in Europe, to get involved there. And while we were doing that, a lot of people got killed, and the same is happening in Syria now. I hope it doesn't take us so long."
Just down the hall from the SASC hearing, two top State Department officials were giving an entirely different take on the efficacy of arming the rebels. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration just doesn't think that arming the Syria rebels is a good idea.
"We've been very hesitant about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set," Feltman testified Thursday. "So we're very cautious about this whole area of questioning and that's why we have worked with this international consensus on political tracks, on economic tracks, on diplomatic tracks, in order to get to the tipping point we were talking about earlier."
As Ben Smith in Politico reported Thursday, the Syria issue has divided Congress on traditional party and ideological lines -- lines that were muddled during the debate over intervention in Libya because of internal Republican disagreement. Most GOP senators and leading congressmen, along with all the GOP presidential candidates, are urging the Obama administration to begin directly aiding the Syrian rebels now.
Leading congressional Democrats, to the extent they have commented on the issue, have been more reluctant to get more involved in the Syria crisis. House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told reporters Thursday, "If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try. Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
"It is critical that we all proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open," SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said at the Thursday hearing. "There are serious questions to be answered about the Free Syrian Army, but it is not too soon to think about how the international community could shape its thinking or encourage restraint."
The debate in Congress over aiding the Syrian rebels will ramp up next week, with a March 6 SASC hearing with Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and a March 7 SASC hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In private phones calls this week, a top State Department official has been sending the message that the Egyptian military leadership is not behind the recent raids on NGO organizations and the prosecutions of aid workers, including American citizens.
According to three NGO officials with knowledge of the conversations, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns has been calling around to various stakeholders to keep them informed on the ever-worsening saga involving charges against 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, who stand accused of fomenting anti-government protests in Cairo. Part of Burns's message has been that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took executive power last February after ousting President Hosni Mubarak, may not ultimately be behind the raids or necessarily in favor of the prosecutions that resulted.
"We are keeping the affected NGOs apprised of our efforts to resolve this situation," a State Department official told The Cable. "There is a vacuum of authority. We have been directly pressing the authorities in Cairo, including the SCAF, although they may not be the driving force behind this."
The American Embassy in Cairo has claimed in similar discussions that the SCAF was surprised by the Dec. 29 raids on several NGOs, including the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House, the NGO officials said. The raids were reportedly conducted by Interior Ministry forces, not army soldiers.
The Obama administration has an interest in drawing a distinction between the actions of the SCAF, with which the United States has maintained a multi-decade alliance, and other parts of the Egyptian government, including the judiciary and the Ministry of International Cooperation, run by Fayza Abul-Naga, a longtime Mubarak loyalist suspected to be driving the effort to prosecute the aid workers.
For the NGO officials, the distinction is less important because they believe that the SCAF should exert more influence over Abul-Naga to stop the prosecutions and harassment of NGO groups, even if military leaders are not personally responsible for them.
"The SCAF is running the country, and whether they knew about the raids or not is beside the point. They bear ultimate responsibility for what is going on," one NGO official said. "She's the public face of this campaign and if they want to they can put pressure on her."
The United States' annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt is now under intense scrutiny in Washington. Many in the NGO community and on Capitol Hill believe the State Department is trying to defend the aid as a means of preserving what's left of the U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship, which has been a linchpin in maintaining U.S. influence in the region and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman was dispatched to Cairo to confront the Egyptian government about the raids. He told the Egyptian media during that trip, "The administration has continued to make a very strong case for our assistance to Egypt."
That was before the Egyptian judiciary refused to let aid workers leave Cairo and decided to charge them with criminal offenses, including Sam Lahood, the Cairo head of IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jake Walles led a classified briefing for lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday, after which senators who participated complained that they had heard no real plan to end the crisis. Those same lawmakers said the administration was working valiantly on the issue, but with no measurable success.
Lawmakers could propose legislation to immediately cut off assistance to the SCAF, rather than wait until the administration is required to certify that Egypt has met new, more stringent conditions placed on the annual aid package, but Congress isn't quite there yet.
"The Egyptians ought to know what they're doing charging and detaining Americans on what I believe are trumped-up charges is endangering the aid we are giving them," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable Tuesday. "We have a real interest in having good relations with Egypt because they have a central role in the region. On the other hand we can't just sit back and let them do what they're doing with the NGOs."
In a stream of statements Tuesday, a drumbeat of top lawmakers threatened to support withholding aid to Egypt if the NGO situation isn't resolved. "Congressional support for Egypt -- including continued financial assistance -- is in jeopardy," Lieberman said in a press statement along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte and John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the board of IRI.
"Yesterday's prosecutions are frankly a slap in the face to Americans who have supported Egypt for decades and to Egyptian individuals and NGOs who have put their futures on the line for a more democratic Egypt," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Tuesday.
"This is not the way an ally should be treated. I believe that we should re-evaluate the status of our bilateral relationship during this transition period," said SFRC member Ben Cardin (D-MD).
"The Egyptian government's actions cannot be taken lightly and warrant punitive actions against certain Egyptian officials, and consideration of a cutoff of U.S. assistance to Egypt," said House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
"Continuing down this path will make it increasingly difficult for Congress to provide military and economic assistance to Egypt and for the Administration to certify legal requirements necessary for aid to move forward," said House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY).
For its part, the Egyptian government is projecting calm. In a news conference Wednesday, Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri said that the prosecutions will go forward. "Egypt will apply the law... in the case of NGOs and will not back down because of aid or other reasons," he said.
If the State Department truly believes that the judiciary and international cooperation ministries are solely to blame for the NGO crisis in Egypt, it's possible U.S. diplomats got that information directly from the Egyptian government.
At last weekend's meeting of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr professed that the executive branch in Egypt had no role and no influence over the NGO cases. "We are doing our best to contain this but…we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation," he said, eliciting scoffs of disbelief from the audience.
Former National Security Advisor Jim Jones called today for quick action on the Keystone XL pipeline construction, directly opposing the White House he worked for only a few months ago.
Jones, who rarely speaks in public and almost never contradicts his former boss President Barack Obama, lashed out against the administration in a press call and warned of grave consequences to U.S. national security if the project to build the pipeline doesn't move forward immediately. The call was sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute and Jones was joined on the call by API President and CEO Jack Gerard.
"In a tightly contested global economy, where securing energy resources is a national must, we should be able to act with speed and agility. And any threat to this project, by delay or otherwise, would constitute a significant setback," said Jones. "The failure to [move forward with the project] will prolong the risk to our economy and our energy security" and "send the wrong message to job creators."
The comments come at the worst possible moment for the Obama administration, which is trying to beat back an effort from congressional Republicans to attach language that would force a decision on the pipeline to legislation that extends unemployment insurance and the payroll tax holiday for middle class Americans.
Obama has promised to veto any bill that comes to his desk with the Keystone XL pipeline language, and the State Department has said that if it is forced to come to a quick decision on the pipeline, that decision would be no because there has not been enough time to properly evaluate environmental and logistical considerations.
The Cable asked Jones if he was getting paid by API for supporting its cause. Jones said he was not getting paid, and was speaking out because he believed in the pipeline cause.
"I've known Jack Gerard for a number of years... and when he called me a few days ago and asked me if I was willing to participate in this because of my interest in energy issues, I agreed to do so," Jones said.
Jones said the project was an important piece of the U.S.-Canada relationship and that if the United States doesn't act, Canada may decide to cancel the project and give its energy resources to the Chinese. He also said if they United States doesn't move forward with the pipeline, that would be another signal of fading U.S. leadership in the world.
"If we get to a point where the nation cannot bring itself to do, for whatever reason, those things that we all know is in our national interest... then we are definitely in a period of decline in terms of our global leadership and in terms of our ability to compete in the 21st century," said Jones.
Jones said that he was not in touch with the administration directly on this issue, but that he told Obama personally just before resigning that Obama had a chance to be the "energy president," but was failing to distinguish himself on the issue.
"I do not think the United States has a comprehensive strategy for energy writ large and that's a critical shortfall. Nor do I think we are properly organized," Jones said. "In my last few days I communicated that to the president."
UPDATE: A reader passes on this 2008 article from ThinkProgress that points out Jones was the Institute for 21st Century Energy, a organization closely affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to the article, Jones' Transition Plan at the Institute "calls for billions of dollars in subsidies for the nuclear and coal industry, a dramatic expansion in domestic oil and natural gas drilling into protected areas, and massive new energy industry tax breaks and loopholes."
Fresh off his war of words with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russia's once-and-future President Vladimir Putin is calling out another senior U.S. politician: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
Unlike Clinton, who doesn't actually want to be trading insults with Putin in the press, McCain relishes these types of confrontations. In fact, McCain might have even started it when he tweeted on Dec. 6, "Dear Vlad, The ArabSpring is coming to a neighborhood near you."
That was a reference to the anti-Putin rallies in Moscow to protest Russia's parliamentary elections, which Clinton called "not free and fair."
On Thursday, Putin insulted McCain during a TV call-in show.
"He has the blood of peaceful civilians on his hands, and he can't live without the kind of disgusting, repulsive scenes like the killing of Qaddafi," Putin said.
Putin then took his insults one step further, accusing McCain of losing his marbles when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"Mr. McCain was captured and they kept him not just in prison, but in a pit for several years," said Putin. "Anyone [in his place] would go nuts."
McCain responded Thursday morning on Twitter, writing, "Dear Vlad, is it something I said?"
Putin didn't even address McCain's comments at the Foreign Policy Initiative Forum on Tuesday in Washington, when he accused the entire Russian government of corruption.
"I think this a corrupt system -- an oligarchy.... This is a kleptocracy. It's certainly not a representative government," McCain told the forum.
Thirty-seven Republican senators have co-sponsored a new bill aimed at forcing the Obama administration to move forward with the Keystone XL U.S.-Canada oil pipeline project.
"Jobs will be created right away and billions of dollars in investment will be unleashed through legislation introduced to permit the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, the largest infrastructure project ready in the United States, to commence construction," said Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), the lead sponsor of the "North American Energy Security Act," introduced Wednesday, in a release. "This is no time for delay."
Lugar is leading the drive to move the project forward along with Sens. John Hoeven (R-ND) and David Vitter (R-LA).
The White House announced a delay in moving forward with the project on Nov. 10, saying that it needed time to explore alternative routes for the pipeline, which would bring crude oil from Canadian oil sands deposits to refineries in the southern United States. The delay announcement came right in the middle of the State Department's own review of the project. In a statement, State said it was particularly sensitive to concerns about running the pipeline through the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska.
The main builder of the pipeline, TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, LP, applied for a permit to build the pipeline in 2008. The State Department is in charge of doing the Environmental Impact Study on the project, but has been criticized for outsourcing that work to a company called Cardno Entrix, which has deep financial ties to TransCanada.
Despite that, the pipeline's environmental impact review is ongoing, and the 37 GOP senators want the permit issued within the next 60 days. They are accusing the White House of delaying the project for political reasons.
"President Obama has the opportunity of creating 20,000 new jobs NOW. Incredibly, he has delayed a decision until after the 2012 election apparently in fear of offending a part of his political base and even risking the ire of construction unions who support the pipeline," Lugar said.
Specifically, the bill would require the Secretary of State to issue the permit within 60 days unless the president determines it is not in the national interest. The legislation would also require the permit to contain provisions for environmental protection and would specify that the state of Nebraska would have the right to make sure the pipeline route does not impact the Sands Hills area.
Lugar is promising to press for quick consideration of the bill in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The other sponsors are: Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Mike Johanns (R-NE), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Pat Roberts (R-KS), John Barrasso (R-WY), Dan Coats (R-IN), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Jerry Moran (R-KS), John Thune (R-SD), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Jim Risch (R-ID), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Burr (R-NC), Richard Shelby (R-AL), John Boozman (R-AR), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Mike Lee (R-UT), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Dean Heller (R-NV), and Bob Corker (R-TN).
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has delayed consideration of Michael McFaul to become the next U.S. ambassador to Russia due to objections by U.S. senators that aren't related to his personal qualifications for the position.
Two Senate sources confirmed to The Cable that the committee decided Monday not to consider the nomination of McFaul, the current National Security Council senior director for Russia, at today's committee business meeting as had been planned. In fact, early Tuesday afternoon the entire meeting was cancelled due to the McFaul objection as well as separate objections on the nominations of Roberta Jacobson to become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador. A planned resolution giving the sense of the Senate on Libya also faced criticism, our two Senate sources said.
"Today's business meeting has been postponed due to last-minute requests to holdover several of the agenda items," SFRC spokeswoman Jennifer Berlin told The Cable.
For McFaul, two staffers have confirmed that the objection is coming from Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). Corker isn't objecting to McFaul's personal qualifications for the position, but is using the nomination to press for administration assurances that the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee will be fully funded for fiscal year 2012. Corker also wants assurances over funding for nuclear warhead life-extension programs, which were part of the deal the administration struck with Congress during the debate over the New START nuclear reductions agreement with Russia.
Other GOP senators want to use the McFaul nomination to press the administration on a host of issues, including the current U.S.-Russia talks over missile defense cooperation, Russia's poor record on human rights, its continued occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and a perceived lack of Russian cooperation on key international issues, such as confronting the Iranian nuclear threat.
"Objections have been raised by enough Republicans to warrant holding [McFaul] over until the next business meeting. Likely, strong concerns over administration negotiations with Moscow over missile defense play a large role in taking him off the business meeting agenda," one Senate Republican committee staffer said. "It may be the case Mr. McFaul is not confirmed, given the weight of these concerns."
Another staffer for a committee member said today that further objections to McFaul's nomination would probably come during floor consideration, because they would be raised by Republicans not on the committee. The objections have little to do with McFaul himself, who is generally liked and well-respected by the GOP, in part due to his decades of activism on democracy and human rights.
"He's about as good of a nominee as Republicans can expect from this administration, but there is a huge gap between the administration and the GOP about how the ‘reset' with Russia is going," said this staffer. "Republicans will use his nomination to air their concerns about a range of issues. That's just how it is."
The committee will likely have only one more business meeting this year, and it is unclear whether the administration will get McFaul a hearing on the next agenda.
Meanwhile, the State Department, aware of the potential problems with the McFaul nomination, sent around a fact sheet yesterday to Senate offices, which was obtained by The Cable, seeking to assuage senators' concerns about U.S.-Russia missile defense cooperation discussions. One GOP Senate aide reacted to the fact sheet by telling The Cable, "If the administration thinks this is what constitutes giving Congress access to information about the negotiations, they are sorely mistaken."
Some GOP offices also wanted Kerry to add a bill to penalize Russia for its treatment of human rights lawyers and activists to today's business meeting agenda. The legislation, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors, as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."
Republicans want passage of the Magnitsky bill to be the cost of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which currently prevents Russia from getting Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status. Without PNTR, U.S. businesses will be disadvantaged when Russia joins the WTO later this year. The administration is avoiding linking Magnitsky to this trade status, and is proposing a fund to support a new democracy and human rights foundation in Russia instead. Republicans are cool on that idea.
Meanwhile, we've confirmed that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is objecting to the Jacobson nomination, and we're told that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is holding up the Aponte nomination.
The Obama administration is taking a lot of criticism for its as yet unannounced decision to sell Taiwan a new arms package that does not include new F-16 fighter planes, and a senior administration official used some verbal gymnastics to offer a defense of the decision without actually confirming it.
"This is with regard to Taiwan and the question of a U.S. decision one way or the other, which as you know, has not yet been formally notified to Congress with regard to the sale of F-16s," a senior administration official told reporters at the Waldolf Astoria hotel in New York on Monday evening. "Our view is that something has gotten lost in translation in the last couple of days on this issue."
The official couldn't acknowledge that reports of the sale were true, because Congress has to be notified before officials talk about foreign military sales to the press. So the official defended the decision by temporarily "assuming" the news reports were accurate.
"I will base my comments on those assuming that those leaks are true. But of course, I can't confirm them until after formal congressional notification this week," the official said.
"Assuming the reports leaked about the proposal to refurbish F-16s are true and that obviously can't be confirmed even on background until a formal congressional notification later this week -- weapons sales to Taiwan since 2009 will be greater than in the previous four years, and they will be double the sales that occurred between 2004 and 2008."
The official then defended the offer to Taiwan of upgrades for its aging fleet of F-16 A/B fighters and the rejection of Taiwan's request for 66 new F-16 C/D fighters, again without confirming that's the administration's decision.
"Assuming the decision is to upgrade F-16 A/B, they will provide essentially the same quality as new F-16 C/D aircraft at a far cheaper price. And Taiwan would stand to get 145 A/Bs versus only 66 C/Ds. And we're obviously prepared to consider further sales in the future," the official said.
The official then argued that the Obama administration has been active on strengthening relations with Taiwan.
"In addition, the administration has taken strong steps to deepen relations with Taiwan in concrete ways beyond this dossier, including Visa Waiver Program, education initiatives, trade and energy initiatives, and helping Taiwan to have more access to international fora like the World Health Organization."
The actual announcement of the Taiwan arms sales decision and its actual defense are expected later this week.
UPDATE: Earlier today Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) filed his bill to require the administration to sell at least 66 new F-16 C/D multirole fighter jets to Taiwan as an amendment to the Generalized System of Preferences bill that is currently on the Senate floor, which is a vehicle for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA).
The new Libyan government won't hand over the man convicted for planning the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, but the Justice Department plans to keep hunting down the perpetrators, with or without him.
Senior lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates said last week that the top priority of the new Libyan government should be the rearrest and extradition of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was sentenced in Scotland for the bombing, but then released in 2009 on compassionate grounds because he was supposedly dying of cancer.
CNN's Nic Robertson actually found Megrahi and visited him in his Tripoli home yesterday, where he appeared to be comatose and near death. But Mohammed al-Alagi, the justice minister in Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC), said yesterday that the senators' request had "no meaning" and that the NTC had no intention of extraditing Megrahi to the United States or anywhere else.
"We will not hand over any Libyan citizen. It was Qaddafi who handed over Libyan citizens," Alagi said. He also criticized Qaddafi for handing over Megrahi to the Scots in the first place.
Pressed on the issue at today's briefing, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland would only say that the Obama administration was in touch with the NTC on the issue and that White House officials didn't think the NTC had made any final decisions on what to do about Megrahi.
"We need to let them get their feet under themselves as a governing authority, and then they have agreed that they will look at this … and I don't think we're there yet," she said, adding that the Justice Department had the lead on the issue.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd told The Cable that even if Megrahi is not rearrested or if he dies, the DOJ will continue to hunt down the remaining culprits of the attack.
"We remain firmly committed to bringing to justice everyone who may have been involved in the Pan Am 103 bombing," he said. "The Justice Department investigation into the Pan Am 103 bombing that was initiated on December 21, 1988, remains open and active."
He declined to comment on what exactly DOJ is doing in the Lockerbie investigation, nor did he give any reaction to the NTC's comments on the issue.
There's no consensus on what to do with Megrahi, even among those in Washington calling for his rearrest. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wants him brought to the United States. Mitt Romney suggested that he be brought to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In an interview with The Cable, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said he thinks Megrahi should be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. "There were a lot of people besides Americans who were killed in that bombing," he said.
"I think this guy should see justice, but I also understand that the Libyans want to handle it themselves," McCain said. "Let's see how they handle it. As long as we can ensure justice was done, I think the families of the victims would be OK with that."
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) doesn't believe that Megrahi is near death, and he is angry at the NTC for refusing to hand him over.
"This wouldn't be the first time that Libyan officials claimed al-Megrahi was on his deathbed. We're going to need a lot more verification than the word of local Libyan officials," Schumer said. "There is no justifiable basis for the rebels' decision to shield this convicted terrorist."
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) was a fierce advocate for military intervention in Libya right up until the Obama administration decided to attack the country, after which she became one of the war's fiercest critics.
"The United States and all responsible nations should show in both word and deed that we condemn the Libyan regime's actions and that we will not tolerate such blatant disregard for human life and basic freedoms," she said in a Feb. 22 press release, shortly after protests broke out across the country.
"Additional U.S. and international measures should include the establishment and enforcement of a no-fly zone, a comprehensive arms embargo, a travel ban on regime officials, immediate suspension of all contracts and assistance which benefit the regime, and the imposition of restrictions on foreign investment in Libya, including in Libya's oil sector," she said in another press release four days later.
On March 15, President Barack Obama decided to support military intervention in Libya, and successfully pressed for a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the no-fly zone as well as any additional measures necessary to protect civilians. The resolution passed 10-0 on March 17; the following day, the attacks on Libya's air defenses began, setting the stage for the no-fly zone.
On March 19, Ros-Lehtinen criticized the intervention in an interview with CBS Miami.
"The bottom line is you've gotta ask what is the U.S. security interest in getting involved in Libya," said Ros-Lehtinen. "Because there's unrest everywhere. Today it's Libya, tomorrow it will be somewhere else."
Two days later, she told Reuters, "Deferring to the United Nations and calling on our military personnel to enforce the 'writ of the international community' sets a dangerous precedent."
Ros-Lehtinen's office said that she was upset with the Obama administration for its handling of the drive toward war in Libya, not the basic idea of a no-fly zone that she had supported.
"Suggesting a no-fly zone as part of a range of options is not an endorsement of military action without a clearly defined mission and plan, without congressional consultation, and without a clear explanation of the national security interests at stake," her spokesman Brad Goehner told The Cable. "This is the president's policy, and he needs to explain it to the American people and to Congress."
Ros-Lehtinen has backed up her demand for an explanation of the administration's policy by calling for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to testify before her committee.
Still, her public statements call into question the pledge she made in a March 18 interview with Congressional Quarterly to support the administration's Libya approach.
"Whatever the president decides, I will support what the president wants to do. I'm not going to Monday-morning-quarterback him," she said.
South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint repeated today his claim that "millions of Americans" are "outraged" that Congress would dare work on major legislation, namely New START, this close to Christmas. He previously called it "sacrilegious."
"Don't tell me about Christmas. I understand Christmas," Vice President Joe Biden responded in a Dec. 16 interview. "There's 10 days between now and Christmas. I hope I don't get in the way of your Christmas shopping, but this is the nation's business. National security's at stake. Act."
Less than a week later, DeMint is back at it again. "It's clear with this treaty that [the administration is] trying to cram something down the throats of the American people under the cover of Christmas," DeMint said in a press conference on Tuesday. "They're not looking at politics right now, they're celebrating their holy Christmas holiday, and the fact that we're doing this under the cover of Christmas...is something to be outraged about."
Here at the Capitol building, there's some confusion about exactly how long before Dec. 25 Congress should stop working on major bills (so as not to offend the "millions" of outraged Christians DeMint is standing up for), and why only Christian holidays should be protected from major legislation.
In an exclusive interview with The Cable, DeMint explained what commentators have coined his drive to combat the "war on Christmas vacation." Here's the transcript:
JR: Senator DeMint, exactly how long before Christmas Day is the period during which the American people don't want Congress to work on major legislation, in your view?
JD: It has nothing to do with us not being willing to work. For the [continuing resolution] I'm willing to work right through New Year's. It's just, trying to do [New START] under the cover of people being distracted. We've worked with a lot of people on the outside and around the country who feel this is a bad way to do a bad treaty. People are distracted.
JR: How long are people distracted before Christmas? Is it the entire month of December, or what?
JD: The whole lame duck [session] to me is an illegitimate process and the intent to do whatever is the nation's business that has to be done, such as fund the government. But to pass major legislation during the lame duck is not the intent. People who are here, the voters have changed a lot of them. Doing it during Christmas is just one piece of it. The big issue is using the lame duck of unaccountable senators to ram through a major arms control treaty. That's the issue.
JR: Why invoke only the Christian holidays? Congress works on major legislation during Jewish holidays, Muslim holidays. You never said anything about that, right? Aren't Jews distracted during Hannukah?
JD: Sure, we normally take off for Jewish holidays. It's more of the distraction of the end of the year. I'm not trying to make it just an issue of Christmas. But it is obvious that Americans do not expect their unelected officials to come in and make major decisions when we're not supposed to be here and they're not paying attention.
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Congress may not be in charge of making foreign policy, but it sure can influence its implementation. Since taking office in January 2009, members of Congress -- drawn primarily but not exclusively from the ranks of the GOP -- have slowed the Obama administration's efforts to advance its strategy when dealing with Russia, Syria, Israel, Cuba, and a host of other relationships. And the midterm elections won't be making things any easier for President Barack Obama.
GOP lawmakers stand to play a huge role in the upcoming debates next year over the promised July 2011 drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, whether to maintain or increase U.S. foreign assistance packages, and how strongly to press countries such as Russia and China to implement new sanctions against Iran.
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Jim Jones was preparing to leave his job as national security advisor in early 2011, according to Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars. Ironically, controversy erupting from that very same book may have contributed to Jones speeding up that schedule by several months; President Obama will announce his departure today, and that his replacement will be his deputy, Tom Donilon.
Immediate reaction within the administration to Jones's resignation was consistent with the long-held view that Jones was never able to be effective as national security advisor because he was outside of Obama's inner circle and was intellectually and sometimes physically cut out of major foreign policy discussions.
"Jones always carried an ‘emeritus' air about him and appeared removed and distant from the day-to-day operations," one administration official told The Cable. "In six months, you will be hard pressed to find anyone in the administration who notices that Jones is no longer there."
In fact, Jones's distance from key White House staff was reported as early as May 2009. But the Woodward book, which included several salacious quotes that allegedly came from Jones, vividly described his tenure as one that was rocky from the start and only continued to deteriorate as he became more and more frustrated with all of the White House staff he was supposed to be working with.
Jones apparently didn't get along with most of the White House political advisors, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, senior advisor David Axelrod, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and NSC staffers Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert. Woodward reported that Jones called them the "water bugs," the "Politburo," the "Mafia" and the "campaign set." Jones almost quit once when one of the "water bugs" denied him access to Obama during an overseas trip to Europe.
The book revealed that Jones confronted Emanuel for dealing with Donilon instead of him, telling him once, "I'm the national security advisor. When you come down there, come see me."
Jones chose Donilon as his deputy at the insistence of Emanuel, despite having no personal connection to him, and later came to regret the choice. Woodward reported that Jones also worked to oust Lippert, whom he accused of leaking information about him to the media.
According to Woodward, Jones was shocked to be selected for the NSA post in the first place because he had no prior relationship whatsoever with Obama. But the president saw Jones as someone who could help him navigate the military, and perhaps even provide a counterweight to the Pentagon leadership due to his experience as Marine Corps commandant and head of NATO.
But if Obama wanted Jones to help him deal with the military, that also didn't bear out. Woodward details several instances where Jones finds himself in open conflict with the military brass, led by Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen. In the administration's debates over increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, Jones often raised the prospect of sending far fewer troops than the 40,000 requested by Mullen and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, arguing that the military hadn't proven its need for so many new troops.
The last salvo against Jones from Woodward came during the author's Oct. 5 interview with Charlie Rose, where he said that Jones had failed in his fundamental duty to give frank advice to the president because he held back on his assessment that only 20,000 additional troops were needed in Afghanistan.
Woodward heaped praise on Donilon, saying that he ran at 100 miles per hour compared to Jones' 35 mph. But not all of the characters in his book agreed. Woodward quotes Defense Secretary Bob Gates as saying that Donilon would be a "disaster" as national security advisor.
According to all accounts, Donilon has been the machine running the NSC for some time, chairing the crucial deputies committee meetings and making the trains run on time throughout the NSC. But Donilon is not viewed as a strategic thinker along the lines of someone like former NSA Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski.
"Donilon will represent continuity and I can't see any major shifts in policy stemming from the changeover," one administration source said.
On one major issue, Jones and Donilon seemed to agree. Donilon is skeptical about the prospects for success in Afghanistan, for reasons similar to Jones's. Just after Obama announced the decision to add 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Donilon said to the NSC's Gen. Doug Lute, "My god, what have we got this guy into?," according to Woodward.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.