Georgetown University successfully evacuated a group of students from the American University in Cairo due to the political unrest there, the university's president told the Georgetown community on Monday.
"After careful consideration, and following guidance from the U.S. State Department and American University of Cairo officials, Georgetown yesterday made the decision to get our students out of the country and began working to make appropriate arrangements," wrote Georgetown President John DeGioia in a letter to Georgetown students and faculty.
15 Georgetown students were just beginning their semester of studies in Cairo when the crisis broke out. They were all safely evacuated to Doha, Qatar, where Georgetown has a satellite campus, and will remain there for the next few days, DeGioia wrote. Where the students will complete the semester isn't yet decided.
DeGioia wrote that although the Georgetown students were safe, the situation on the ground was still volatile and he expressed concern for both Egyptians and foreigners who remain on the ground.
"As much as we are appreciative of the fact that our students are safe, we must also continue to be mindful of the ongoing unrest in Egypt. We pray for the safety and wellbeing of the many others who remain in the region, and we are seeking to understand these events," he wrote. "Our thoughts and prayers remain with those in the midst of the current conflict."
The National Security Staff discussed how the Obama administration might approach a future Egyptian government if President Hosni Mubarak steps down with a group of foreign policy experts in a White House meeting on Monday morning. But the Obama administration believes that Washington's fingerprints shouldn't be seen anywhere near what they increasing expect will be the end of Mubarak's rule.
The Cable spoke with three of the experts who attended Monday morning's session, which included Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, NSS Senior Director for Multilateral Engagement Samantha Power and NSS Senior Director Dan Shapiro. The experts inside the meeting represented a cross section of views in Washington and included several members of the bipartisan Egypt Working Group, a group that has been pushing for more administration clarity on Egypt policy over the recent months.
All three participants who spoke with The Cable said that the meeting was intense and constructive, that a real debate over the path forward for U.S. policy ensued, and that the White House staff leading the meeting indicated -- but did not say outright -- that they believed Mubarak was on his way out and that the administration was preparing for what comes next.
"We can't be seen as picking a winner. We can't be seen as telling a leader to go," said Rhodes, according to one of the expert participants. The Obama team has not told Mubarak either publicly or privately that he must step down, but has been constantly and consistently giving the embattled Egyptian leader direct and honest messages about what the U.S. expects, the White House staffers told the experts.
Multiple attendees said the White House staff expressed skepticism that newly minted Vice President Omar Soliman would emerge as the next leader of Egypt, but acknowledged that he would be influential during the transition process. "Transition" apparently is the new message word for the administration, allowing them to position themselves on the side of the protesters without throwing Mubarak completely under the bus.
The Carnegie Endowment's Michele Dunne, who attended the meeting, told The Cable that the administration officials first reviewed what the policy has been, traced the administration's activities as the crisis unfolded, and then repeated the official message that both sides should refrain from violence.
"The White House's position has improved on the issue but they're ducking the difficult question about whether they have to say anything publicly or privately about whether Mubarak needs to go," Dunne said.
She and others in the meeting argued for swifter and more forceful statements from the administration calling for Mubarak to step down, lest the U.S. be seen as having tried to prop up the regime in the eyes of the Egyptian people.
"What we were trying to tell them is that change is coming, the status quo is passing away, and the question is do we want to shape that change constructively or not," Dunne said. "For a long time, a lot of people have felt that question was just too hard."
Although the NSS staffers in the meeting held their cards close, another attendee said the impression was clear that the administration was now focusing on a post-Mubarak Egypt.
"There was no narrative of change or reform that can involve Mubarak," this attendee said. "They see Soliman as their guy for now, but there's also doubt about Soliman's ongoing legitimacy to be a caretaker for an orderly transition. There's also doubt about what an organized process would be."
The attendees reported that the White House staff did not indicate any specific entity or person they would back as the jockeying for power plays out. There's a realization that overt American support for any group could actually harm that group's standing. There's also a realization that the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have an increased role going forward and that the administration had better start thinking about how to handle that eventuality.
One of those potential leaders, Mohamed ElBaradei, has been calling on the Obama administration to publicly denounce Mubarak. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey was in contact with a range of officials and groups both inside and outside the Egyptian government. The White House declined to say if they were reaching out to specific opposition leaders, such as ElBaradei.
"As a matter of course, we engage with both the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people -- including many political leaders and activists from a variety of backgrounds," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. "We will continue to do so."
The new GOP leadership in the House is promising to aggressively confront the Obama administration on a full range of foreign policy issues. Now, it has reopened the debate over the performance and reform of the United Nations.
"Policy on the United Nations should based on three fundamental questions: Are we advancing the American interests? Are we upholding American values? Are we being responsible stewards for the American taxpayer dollars?" read the opening statement by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) at Tuesday's committee briefing on the U.N. "Unfortunately, right now, the answer to all three questions is no."
Ros-Lehtinen, who didn't attend the hearing because she was in Florida tending to her ill mother, criticized several instances of alleged poor performance or corruption at the U.N. in her statement. She railed against the Human Rights Council (HRC), a U.N. organization the Obama administration joined, as "a rogue's gallery dominated by human rights violators who use it to ignore real abuses and instead attack democratic Israel relentlessly."
She promised to introduce legislation that would withhold U.S. contributions to the U.N. until reforms bear fruit. A previous version of her bill would withhold all funding from the HRC and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which distributes aid to Palestinian refugees.
Former chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) largely agreed with Ros-Lehtinen on her assessment of the problems at the U.N., but disagreed with her on the solutions.
"The flaws, shortcomings and outrages of the United Nations, both past and present, are numerous and sometimes flagrant," he said, citing the HRC, the Oil for Food scandal; sexual violence perpetrated by U.N. peacekeepers in Africa, and problems at the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). But Berman argued that withholding contributions would only lessen U.S. influence there and hasn't worked in the past.
Berman also contended that, though the U.N. still has significant problems, real progress is being made. He argued that many of the reforms called for in a 2005 high level panel report by Newt Gingrich and George Mitchell have been at least partially realized, including the establishment of a U.N. ethics office and a independent audit advisory committee to look into the OIOS.
"We have a much greater chance of success if we work inside the U.N. with like-minded nations to achieve the goals that I think both sides on this committee and in our Congress share," he said.
The United States is responsible for 22 percent of the U.N.'s annual operating budget, which comes to about $516 million in fiscal 2011. Washington is also responsible for 27 percent of the U.N.'s peacekeeping budget, which comes to about $2.18 billion this year. The appropriations bills put forth by Congress last year fully funded these obligations, but since it was never enacted, the issue could come up as early as March, when Congress will need to pass a new continuing resolution to keep the government operating.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee briefing was dominated by witnesses critical of the U.N., who called for tougher reform pressures from both Congress and the Obama administration. "The U.N. may have five official languages, but the bottom line speaks loudest," said the Heritage Foundation's Brett Schaefer, who called for withholding U.S. contributions.
Claudia Rossett, a journalist-in-residence at the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the problems of corruption and mismanagement at the United Nations is the result of a lack of commitment to oversight and reform from top officials, including Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Next to speak at the hearing was Hillel Neuer, the director of an organization called U.N. Watch, which monitors U.N. action on human rights and Israel-related issues. He compared the HRC to "a jury that includes murderers and rapists, or a police force run in large part by suspected murderers and rapists who are determined to stymie investigation of their crimes," and said, "the council's machinery of fact-finding missions exists almost solely to attack Israel."
Neuer also drew attention to statements by the HRC Special Rapporteur Richard Falk alleging that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job done with the knowledge of the U.S. government, comments Ambassador Susan Rice called "so noxious that it should finally be plain to all that he should no longer continue in his position."
Finally, the hearing turned to Peter Yeo, Vice President for Public Policy at the U.N. Foundation, a non-governmental organization that advocates for the U.N., who pointed out that the U.N. is working hand-in-hand with the United States in many of the world's most dangerous hot spots, including Afghanistan, Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Haiti, and also was deeply involved in the latest round of sanctions against Iran.
He also pointed out that polls show most Americans support funding the U.N. and American firms receive U.N contracts greater than the sum total of U.S. taxpayer contributions.
"The U.N. is not a perfect institution, but it serves a near-perfect purpose: to bolster American interests from Africa to the Western Hemisphere and to allow our nation to share the burdens of promoting international peace and stability," he said.
Yeo's arguments were bolstered by Mark Quarterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who said that the U.N. needs support because it feeds millions of starving people across the globe, deploys peacekeepers in countries where the United States is not able or interested in sending manpower, and is able to talk to regimes that Washington can't access.
"U.S. leadership and influence in the U.N. results in part from its status as the largest contributor to the organization. We must not return to the days of withholding funds as some have suggested. Withholding funds hurts the U.N. and doesn't advance U.S. interests," he said.
A top State Department official in Tunis pledged full American support for the Tunisian drive to hold free elections on Wednesday, but also sought to distance the U.S. position on Tunisia from other mass protests in the region, such as the ongoing unrest in Egypt.
"What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian. That the events that took place here over the past few weeks derive from particularly Tunisian grievances, from Tunisian circumstances by the Tunisian people," Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said at a press conference.
He called for free and fair elections in Tunisia and pledged both American and international support to set them up.
"The United States stands with the people of Tunisia. This is an exciting and unprecedented moment in Tunisia's history with great challenges but also great opportunities for the Tunisian people to chart their own course," he said.
Feltman allowed that there are some fundamental similarities with regard to human rights.
"The challenges that are faced here are in some cases shared. And we think governments everywhere should be finding ways to permit peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the media in order to give people a say in how they are governed and to give them a stake in the future," he said.
Feltman's remarks echo Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's latest statement, which also calls on the Egyptian government to stop harassing protesters, but doesn't call on the Egyptian government to let them participate in a real election process.
"It is important that the government listens to the concerns of those demonstrating and respects rights of freedom of assembly and expression," she said. "Openness, transparency and political freedom are important tenets of stability. We urge the government and demonstrators to seek a peaceful way forward."
The Obama administration's support for Tunisians' right to self determination was on display during last night's State of the Union speech by President Obama, a speech in which he didn't mention Egypt at all.
"We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people," said Obama.
The White House issued a statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at about 11:30 PM, after the president's speech had concluded, expressing U.S. support of Egyptians right to peaceful assembly, but without any call for free and fair elections.
"The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals," the statement read.
During a Wednesday morning roundtable, State Department Policy Planning Director Anne Marie Slaughter explained the seeming disparity by noting that there was consistency in the sense that both stances include a respect for "universal values."
"That means we are strongly supportive of the Tunisians in the effort to achieve democracy, it also means we are not imposing our values on countries around the world," she said.
The New America Foundation's Steve Clemons said that the George W. Bush administration, despite that it outwardly advocated for democratic change in the Arab world, might have taken a similar stance as the Obama administration has on Egypt.
"The notion that we're somehow in the streets with every potential freedom movement would be a mistake in foreign policy," he said. "If this administration was out there calling for regime change in Egypt, I think that would be a huge mistake."
Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has a message for those in Congress who want to slash development and foreign-aid budgets: Cuts will undermine U.S. national security.
On the heels of a major speech on the coming reforms to America's premier development agency, Shah sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable to explain his vision for making USAID more responsible and accountable, an effort he said will require increased short-term investment in order to realize long-term savings.
But if Congress follows through on a massive defunding of USAID as the 165-member Republican Study Group recommended yesterday, it would not only put USAID's reforms in jeopardy, but have real and drastic negative implications for American power and the ongoing missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Shah.
"That first and foremost puts our national security in real jeopardy because we are working hand and glove with our military to keep us safe," said Shah, referring to USAID missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Central America, and responding directly to congressional calls for cuts in foreign aid and development.
The RSC plan calls for $1.39 billion in annual savings from USAID. The USAID operating budget for fiscal 2010 was approximately $1.65 billion. The RSC spending plan summary was not clear if all the cuts would come from operations or from USAID administered programs.
"That would have massive negative implications for our fundamental security," said Shah. "And as people start to engage in a discussion of what that would mean for protecting our border, for preventing terrorist safe havens and keeping our country safe from extremists' ideology … and what that would mean for literally taking children that we feed and keep alive through medicines or food and leaving them to starve. I think those are the types of things people will back away from."
The interests between the development community and U.S. national security objectives don't always align, and this tension is at the core of the debate on how to reinvigorate USAID. Short-term foreign-policy objectives sometimes don't match long-term development needs, and U.S. foreign-policy priorities are not made with development foremost in mind.
But Shah's ambitious drive to reform USAID seems to embrace the idea that development investments can be justified due to their linkage with national security. He is preparing to unveil next month USAID's first ever policy on combating violent extremism and executing counterinsurgency. He also plans to focus USAID's efforts on hot spots like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, while transitioning away from other countries that are faring well and downgrading the agency's presence in places like Paris, Rome, and Tokyo.
Shah pointed out that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus have all come out in strong support of increasing USAID's capacity to do foreign aid.
"In the military they call us a high-value, low-density partner because we are of high value to the national security mission but there aren't enough of us and we don't have enough capability," he said. "This is actually a much, much, much more efficient investment than sending in our troops, not even counting the tremendous risk to American lives when we have to do that."
For those less concerned with matters of national security, Shah also framed his argument for development aid in terms of increased domestic economic and job opportunities: If we want to export more, we need to help develop new markets that are U.S.-friendly.
"If we are going to be competitive as a country and create jobs at home, we cannot ignore the billions of people who are currently very low income but will in fact form a major new middle-class market in the next two decades," he said.
One of the main criticisms of USAID both on Capitol Hill and elsewhere is that the agency has been reduced over the years to not much more than a contracting outfit, disbursing billions of dollars around the world to organizations that have mixed performance records. In Shah's view, if Congress wants USAID to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, it has to increase the agency's operating budget and allow the agency to monitor contracts in-house.
"It was the Bush administration that helped launch the effort to reinvest in USAID's capabilities and hiring and people, and the reason they did that is they recognized you save a lot more money by being better managers of contracts," Shah said. "We have a choice. We have a critical need to make the smart investments in our own operations … which over time will save hundreds of millions of dollars, as opposed to trying to save a little bit now by cutting our capacity to do oversight and monitoring."
Shah wouldn't comment on the latest and greatest USAID contracting scandal, where the agency suspended contractor AED from receiving any new contracts amid allegations of widespread fraud. But he did say that his office would be personally reviewing large sole-source contracts from now on, requiring independent and public evaluations, and that more corrective actions are in the works.
"I suspect you'll see more instances of effective, proactive oversight that in fact saves American taxpayers significant resources," he said.
As the budget battle inside the Republican Party heats up, a large group of conservative House Republicans called Thursday for a drastic defunding of the U.S. Agency for International Development and a host of other programs.
The Republican Study Committee (RSC), a loose conglomeration of 165 self-identified conservative GOP House members, unveiled their plan Thursday that they argue could save $2.5 trillion in federal spending over ten years. The proposal is centered around legislation that would slash or eliminate federal funding for USAID, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the U.S. Trade Development Agency, the Woodrow Wilson Center, the USDA Sugar Program, economic assistance to Egypt, and many other programs.
The RSC plan calls for $1.39 billion in annual savings from USAID. The USAID operating budget for fiscal 2010 was approximately $1.65 billion. The RSC spending plan summary was not clear if all the cuts would come from operations or from USAID administered programs.
The bill is being led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the RSC chairman, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), chairman of the RSC Budget and Spending Task Force. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is expected to offer a Senate version of the legislation.
The RSC plan also calls for Republicans to fulfill their campaign promise to trim $100 billion from the budget this year by returning "non-security" discretionary spending to 2008 levels in the next funding bill for fiscal 2011, which is needed to keep the government running when the temporary funding bill expires March 4. It would also call for spending to be cut to 2006 levels and then remain flat for the next ten years.
"The current continuing resolution (CR) will expire on March 4th. Under your leadership during the campaign, House Republicans boldly pledged to cut federal spending by $100 billion by returning current spending back to FY2008 levels," read a letter circulated Jan 20 and addressed to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). "Despite the added challenge of being four months into the current fiscal year, we still must keep our $100 billion pledge to the American people."
The GOP plan to defund USAID goes even further than Majority Whip Eric Cantor's suggestion last October to halt foreign aid to countries that don't share U.S. interests, but Cantor gave a lukewarm endorsement to the RSC plan Thursday.
"I applaud the Republican Study Committee for proposing cuts in federal spending, and I look forward to the discussion on reducing spending that our country so desperately needs to have," Cantor said in a statement. "I look forward to these cuts and others being brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote during consideration of the CR, and I support that effort."
If the RSC plan was ever implemented, which is doubtful, the State Department would be in the firing line for huge cuts. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) announced, on her first day as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that she wanted to take an axe to the State Department and foreign aid budgets. Her appropriations counterpart, House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX) has made similar statements in the past.
Reached by The Cable Thursday, an aide to Granger said, "Everything is on the table for potential cuts. We appreciate the RSC's suggestions as a starting point and will consider their ideas going forward."
Of course, "everything" suggests that the defense budget, previously sacrosanct in the GOP, is now part of the debate over cuts. That's one key area where the divisions inside the GOP caucus will come to light, said Tom Donnelly, director of the American Enterprise Institute's Center for Defense Studies.
The House GOP leadership is caught between those in their caucus who want to slash and burn federal spending right now and those who want to have a more protracted debate over spending priorities to make sure key items like defense are protected, he said.
"The GOP House leaders have to take account of their new members. They also understand that the Tea Party impulse is not something they can manage, so they have to respond as well as lead and they can't dictate. It's not like 1994, where Newt Gingrich was a colossus who could dictate the landscape. This is a bottom up shift not a top down," Donnelly said.
The tensions inside the GOP caucus were on full display Wednesday evening, when freshman South Carolina Tea Party Rep. Tim Scott successfully added an amendment to the Republican's budget rule that removed flexibility in timing for the budget cuts. Scott was able to change the language from demanding a "transition" to 2008 levels to insisting that change be enacted right away, as was advocated by GOP Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).
The RSC plan is so drastic and extends its projected cuts so far out into the future that its chances for implementation are slim to none, Donnelly said. But the struggle inside the GOP on the issue is real.
"This debate will do a lot to define the nature of what conservatism is, going forward -- whether it's a more libertarian or Reaganite movement," he said. "The House Democrats are largely spectators at this point."
The common perception on Capitol Hill is that China is not doing its part to support the international community's drive to halt Iran's emerging nuclear program. Not so, two senior administration officials said on Wednesday, as they praised China's action on Iran in a conference call with reporters on President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington.
The Chinese have stopped new investments in Iran's energy sector, improved their controls over weapons technology exports to Iran, and Chinese state-owned corporations are not backfilling business opportunities left open by other countries that are leaving Iran, the senior administration officials said. The officials also explained that the Iran issue has been at the top of the agenda on the U.S.-China relationship and that's partly why Beijing's behavior on Iran has improved.
"In all the meetings between the president and President Hu and our high-level interactions, there was no issue that occupied as much time and attention as Iran. It was absolutely at the top of the agenda in pretty much every meeting," one of the senior administration officials said, explaining that recent Chinese action vis-à-vis Iran "demonstrates positive results of that focus."
One of the top concerns in Congress right now about the U.S.-China relationship is that Beijing is not enforcing international arms sanctions against Iran and that Chinese companies have not stopped doing business with Iran's energy sector. Last week, two leading senators wrote to President Barack Obama warning that if the administration doesn't enforce U.S. sanctions law on Chinese companies, Congress will act.
"In fact, in the last seven months since the passage of the resolution I'm not aware of any new Chinese investments in the energy sector," another senior administration official said, apparently not counting ongoing deals between China and Iran to develop gas fields as "new". "That's an important development and it's an important signal to Iran."
"You do not see the kind of backfilling that might undercut the sanctions regime," the first official said.
Regarding exports of missile technology to Iran, one of the officials said that China "essentially adhere[s] to the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime," which is meant to stop sensitive weapons transfers, despite the fact that China is not a member of that regime.
"China has done a great deal to improve its export control regime in order to try to block such exports," the official said. "There are gaps in China's enforcement. China's enforcement is still problematic... We don't see that as willful action by the Chinese government but as gaps in their system, which we urge them to correct."
In October, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials had given the Chinese government a list of Chinese companies believed to be breaking international sanctions on arms transfers, including by giving them technology to help their missile and nuclear programs.
Both officials also touted Chinese support for U.N. Security Council resolution 1929, which one official described as "much stronger sanctions than anyone anticipated would pass, or that China would sign on to."
The senators don't agree that the Chinese government is willingly moving to end those abuses and in their letter, they cited numerous reports that China is supplying crucial materials to aid Iran's nuclear and missile programs and alleged that Beijing continues to give monetary and material support to Iran's energy sector, including the delivery of refined petroleum products, which does not violate U.N. sanctions but could provoke penalties under U.S. laws passed by Congress, including the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act that Obama signed into law in July, 2010.
The senators specifically named the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC) as firms that could be subject to U.S. penalties.
"We urge you to warn President Hu that the U.S. will be forced to sanction these companies if they do not quickly suspend their ties with Iran," the senators wrote.
Last October, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report that identified 16 companies as having sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China, one in Singapore, and one in the UAE.
But the joint statement issued on Wednesday by Obama and Hu made no mention of the U.S. sanctions law that could result in congressionally imposed penalties on Chinese companies. Here's the totality of what it said on Iran:
On the Iranian nuclear issue, the United States and China reiterated their commitment to seeking a comprehensive and long-term solution that would restore international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. Both sides agreed that Iran has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and that Iran should fulfill its due international obligations under that treaty. Both sides called for full implementation of all relevant UN Security Council Resolutions. The United States and China welcomed and will actively participate in the P5+1 process with Iran, and stressed the importance of all parties - including Iran - committing to a constructive dialogue process.
UPDATE: A senior GOP Senate aide responds to the administration officials' comments with considerable skepticism:
"These senior Administration officials continue to obfuscate and misdirect. Chinese entities are clearly in violation of the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) and the Comprehensive Iran Sanction, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA)," the aide said. "If the administration doesn't act soon, it faces the loss of its waiver authority and investigatory discretion on these matters."
Just as President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao were trumpeting the strength and importance of the U.S.-China relationship on the White House's South Lawn, a bipartisan group of lawmakers were harshly criticizing the Chinese government from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
"As China's newest emperor has just landed in Washington and is at the front lawn of the White House, the pressing issues which separate our countries need to be urgently addressed," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the new head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at the beginning of Wednesday's hearing on China. "When the Cold War ended over two decades ago, many in the West assumed that the threat from communism had been buried with the rubble of the Berlin Wall. However, while America slept, an authoritarian China was on the rise."
She said China is led by "cynical leaders" who have rejected political reform, allowed sanctions- busting weapons transfers to Iran, unfairly claimed ownership of international waters, suppressed human rights for its ethnic minority citizens, and jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife.
Former committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) took a somewhat more balanced tone, calling China "neither an ally nor an enemy," but also focused his opening remarks on China's failure to adhere to sanctions against Iran, its refusal to pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear program, and its lack of respect for human rights.
"There is ample evidence that Chinese entities continue to invest in Iran's energy sector. This helps Tehran avoid the full impact of sanctions and facilitates Iran's continued development of a nuclear weapons capability which threatens the U.S., our allies in the Middle East and China, which is dependent on stable sources of oil from the Middle East," Berman said. "We must intensify our efforts to ensure China's full participation in the multilateral sanctions regime against Iran."
On Tuesday, Berman joined Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) to call on Chinese companies to halt their business with Iran's energy sector lest they be penalized under the recently-passed U.S. sanctions legislation signed into law by Obama last July.
The witnesses at the hearing were Larry Wortzel, commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Gordon Chang, a columnist at Forbes.com, Yang Jianli, the founder and president of the pro-democracy committee Initiatives for China who was previously imprisoned by the Chinese regime, and Robert Sutter, a professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
Each witness was prepared to criticize a different aspect of Chinese behavior. Wortzel focused on the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and called for the U.S. to sell advance fighter planes to Taiwan.
"China's national interests are global and the PLA is becoming a force capable of acting beyond China's periphery. A more capable military accompanies a more assertive Chinese foreign policy. This can be seen in China's recent provocative activities concerning its disputed territorial claims in the south and east China seas and in its exclusive economic zone," he said.
Chang argued that China's trade surplus vis-à-vis the United States and its massive holdings of U.S. debt do not represent a strategic advantage for Beijing.
"China's trade dependence on us gives us enormous leverage because China's not a free trader. China has accumulated its surpluses because of real clear violations of its obligations under the World Trade Organization," he explained.
Yang covered China's human rights violations, including its jailing of Liu and its persecution of ethnic Uighurs and Tibetans.
"In addition to the official prison system, it is practically public knowledge that in China there exist hundreds of black jails established and run by local governments of various levels. These prisons take in numerous innocent petitioners arbitrarily," Yang alleged.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the chairman-designate of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, concluded the proceedings with some ole' fashioned China bashing, calling Hu a murderer of children.
"This is wrong. We should not be granting monstrous regimes that are engaged with massive human rights abuses -- and in this case the world's worst human rights abuser is being welcomed to our White House with respect," Rohrabacher said.
"The people of China are America's greatest allies -- the people of China who want democracy, the people of China who want to respect human rights, and are looking forward to a more humane system at peace with the world. Those are our allies. What do we do to them when we welcome their oppressor, their murderer, the one who's murdering their children here to the United States with such respect?"
The leaders of the Senate Taiwan Caucus, a bipartisan group of senators in favor of strong U.S. support for the island's security needs, are preparing to send a letter to President Obama urging him to make clear to Chinese President Hu Jintao during next week's summit that the United States will continue to sell weapons to Taipei, despite Beijing's complaints.
The issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which led Beijing to cut off U.S.-China military-to-military ties in February 2010, is sure to come up next week due to reports that another U.S. weapons package to Taiwan may be in the works.
"As you prepare for the arrival of President Hu Jintao of the People's Republic of China (PRC), we urge you to remain mindful of the vital security interests of Taiwan. Taiwan is a strong democracy, a close trading partner, and an historic ally of the United States," reads the letter, led by caucus co-chairs Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and James Inhofe (R-OK).
"As faithful friends of Taiwan in the U.S. Senate, we ask that during President Hu's visit, you emphasize that the United States' position on Taiwan remains clear: the United States will support Taiwan's security, and continue to provide Taiwan with defensive arms."
A note circulated to Senate offices on Thursday said that the goal is to get all 100 senators to sign the letter. Hu has a meeting with congressional leaders in both parties scheduled for Jan. 20.
In Congress, caucuses are often loose groups of members who have decided they generally want to appear active on an issue they agree is important. The Congressional Taiwan Caucus was established in 2002 and has 141 members. The Senate Taiwan Caucus began in 2003 and has 24 members. The Senate group's most recent press release was put out in 2004.
But although the Taiwan caucus has been silent for years, it isn't missing the opportunity of Hu's final visit to Washington before stepping down as China's leader to signal congressional support for Taiwan. Menendez is the third-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Inhofe is the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"The PRC has engaged in a large scale military build-up over the past few years and has not abandoned the threat of force, with an estimated 1,000 active missiles pointed directly at Taiwan," the letter stated. "For these reasons, it is of utmost importance that President Hu understands the United States' unwavering commitment to providing Taiwan with the tools necessary for its self-defense."
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has announced that Jeff Gedmin will step down as the head of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Prague-based organization he has led since 2007.
Gedmin will move to London to become CEO and president of the Legatum Institute, a research organization focused on understanding free markets and promoting the issues of democracy and civil society. He starts in his new role March 1.
In an interview from Prague, Gedmin said that his decision to leave RFE/RL after working so hard on its expansion for the last four years was the toughest career decision he's ever made.
"The best time to leave a job you love is never, yet if you are genuinely committed to growth and personal development, you always have to mindful of what you're giving to the organization where you work as well as what your next step will be," Gedmin said.
"I decided it was the right time to move on because if I'm telling my people to step out of their comfort zone and be open to growth, I have to be able to take my own advice."
Gedmin's tenure at RFE/RL was marked by an expansion of the reporting resources there. He now manages a staff of over 550 people in Prague and RFE/RL has about 40 personnel in Washington, DC as well. Gedmin oversaw the launching of Radio Mashaal, a news service covering neglected regions of Pakistan, which will celebrate its one year anniversary this week.
RFE/RL under Gedmin's leadership has also expanded its reporting in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. Through the use of anti-censorship Internet technologies, the RFE/RL websites now log over 1 million visitors each month from inside Iran through a proxy server.
Multiple staff members told The Cable that Gedmin's departure would leave a huge void at RFE/RL, but they nevertheless wished him well.
"He's immensely popular in the building with the staff. He's completely revamped this [organization] into a 21st century media operation. He's really put it on the map. Everybody is really disappointing that he's leaving," said one employee.
Another reporter for RFE/RL in Prague noted how Gedmin transitioned the organization's focus "away from the traditional places, toward the Caucasus, toward Central Asia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran. Those are the hotbeds today where accurate, reliable information is in need the way it was in Eastern Europe during the cold war."
Gedmin's departure comes just after the installation of the BBG's new chairman, Walter Isaacson, former head of CNN and Time magazine.
"Jeff's passion for the power of the truth has been a great inspiration for all of us involved in international broadcasting," Isaacson said in statement. "The Board looks forward to Jeff serving as a valuable adviser in the future."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today for a trip to the Gulf, where she will meet with senior Arab leaders and civic groups. Middle East peace, Iraq, and Iran will be at the top of her agenda.
Clinton travels to New York tonight to pay a visit to Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who has been in New York since November for surgery on his back. She'll also meet tonight with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in New York, before embarking on a six-day trip that will take her to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar.
"She is going to want to talk about Iraq," a senior State Department official said about the trip. "We obviously want to encourage [regional leaders in the Gulf] to be as supportive as possible to the new Iraqi government."
"On the peace process, I think it's time once again for the secretary to take stock on what is happening in the region," the official said. "She will want to talk a bit about where the Arab peace initiative is and she will want to get a better sense of how the region sees the situation on the ground both in terms of both the Palestinian Authority and also in terms of the talks... We are very eager to see progress made but it's an uphill battle."
Clinton will also sound out the Gulf rulers on their opinions toward Iran's recent actions, said the official. With the "P5+1" countries scheduled to hold another round of talks with Iran in Istanbul, it is an important moment to attempt to "unknot this problem that we find ourselves in with the Iranians and their nuclear ambitions," the official said. "She'll also want to take stock of where we are on the sanctions regime."
Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior leaders in all three countries. In the UAE, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince, and his brother Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister.
This will be Clinton's first visit to Dubai, where she will meet with ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She will also go to Abu Dhabi and visit the "green city" of Masdar, the futuristic neighborhood being built to run completely carbon neutral and waste free.
In Oman, Clinton will help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who the State Department official described as "a long time friend of the United States and a valued partner who has made enormous changes on the ground in his country over the last 40 years. "
In Qatar, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir, and participate in the Forum for the Future, a meeting of government, civil society, and business leaders from around the region. There she will participate in a panel with a foreign minister, a civil society representative, and a business leader from the region.
The State Department is billing the trip as "an opportunity to showcase these other dimensions of U.S. engagement in the Middle East and the Gulf, particularly the emphasis we've placed on building partnerships beyond the government to government level, reaching out to civil society, reaching out to the private sector," said another senior State Department official. "That's really the key goal for everything that she's doing on the trip."
A full year has passed since a bipartisan group of senators began calling for the sacking of Arnie Fields, the embattled Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), and those senators are as frustrated as ever that the White House refuses to address the situation.
Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Susan Collins (R-ME), have been pressing the White House to fire Fields since December 2009, following complaints about both the conduct and the work product of the SIGAR office, which is charged with overseeing tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan reconstruction contracts managed by both the State and Defense Departments. Last July, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), which is meant to oversee the overseers, issued a scathing report on SIGAR, which only fueled the fire of lawmakers calling for Fields' removal.
McCaskill and Coburn continued to press the case, but as the congressional session ended last week, McCaskill said she had still not gotten any substantive response from the White House to her many letters and calls for Fields' sacking.
"I visited with people in the White House about Arnie Fields last week and I continue to push as hard as I know how for his removal," McCaskill told The Cable in an exclusive interview Dec. 20. "I have not gotten a satisfactory answer other than ‘we are working on it' and that is not satisfactory."
"I'm frustrated. It's not going as quickly as it should. I've been trying to move this person out of the position for over a year now," McCaskill told The Cable in October. "The White House needs to act. That's where the buck stops. It is way past the time when they should have removed him."
In her capacity as chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, McCaskill called Fields to testify on Nov. 18.
"I would say that it's a pleasure but I would be telling a lie if I were to say so," Fields told the lawmakers, who grilled Fields on his office's work, which McCaskill said failed to meet the standards set forth by the law that set up the SIGAR office.
McCaskill pointed out that the taxpayers have given $46.2 million to SIGAR but their investigations have only resulted in collections of $8.2 million.
The hearing also examined General Fields' decision to award a $96,000 sole-source contract for tracking SIGAR's efforts to improve itself to Joseph Schmitz, the former Defense Department inspector general, who resigned in 2005 amid allegations of ethical misconduct and misleading Congress.
So why is Fields still around? The back story is one of bureaucratic inaction and what many on Capitol Hill see as the National Security Staff's failure to deal with the SIGAR problem due to a lack of clarity over whose responsibility it is to make a decision about Fields.
SIGAR is meant to oversee both State and Defense Department (DOD) contracts in Afghanistan. It was created in 2008 due to a realization that neither of these agencies had the capacity to oversee their own contracts in the warzone. But when the NSS first got the request to review SIGAR, they sent the request to the State and Defense Departments' Inspector General's (IG) offices for them to review, multiple Senate aides said.
But this made little sense, as the entire purpose of SIGAR was to do the job that the State and Pentagon IG offices weren't capable of doing. That's when the NSS tasked the review to CIGIE, which issued its harsh verdict on July 16.
The congressional calls for Fields' head only increased after that, which led to an interagency meeting at the White House in the fall to decide what to do about Fields. A State Department official confirmed that both the Pentagon and the State Department were asked to weigh in on the SIGAR situation.
Both the State Department and the Pentagon declined to give a position on Fields at the meeting, noting that it was not their proper role. "We declined to give an opinion on the situation and we remain neutral," a State Department official close to the issue said.
On Capitol Hill, McCaskill said the NSS's decision to seek consensus from State and DOD was a delaying tactic and inappropriate. She said it's not the State or Defense Department's job to act on replacing Fields as the head of SIGAR.
"That's why the White House should just do this," McCaskill said.
The SIGAR can't be evaluated by the two agencies he is tasked to oversee because it's a clear conflict of interest, said one Senate aide close to the discussions.
"The problem is that the whole thing is perfectly ripe for inaction," the aide said. "If the NSS is waiting for consensus from State and DOD that Fields should go, they aren't likely to get it. From State and DOD's perspective it might be good to have a weak SIGAR over there... This is why you don't ask the agency under review whether or not the IG should go. They can't answer."
But lawmakers such as McCaskill and Coburn also know their power to get rid of Fields is limited. He can only be fired by the president. Congress's has the option to defund his office, but that would have the effect of weakening the oversight of contracts in Afghanistan further.
Fields is seeking a budget of $35.6 million in 2011 and wants to hire about 60 more employees to better track reconstruction spending in Afghanistan.
The United States has committed $51 billion to Afghanistan reconstruction since 2001, and that endowment will reach $71 billion by the end of 2011, according to the AP.
Steve Radelet, who joined the State Department last January to be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's top advisor on development, is moving over to USAID to be their first Chief Economist since the 1990s.
Radelet left his post as a senior fellow the Center for Global Development to help Clinton during the development of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which was unveiled earlier this month. While at State he co-led the QDDR task force on aid effectiveness and helped stand up the Feed the Future Initiative, a huge program that will be transferred to USAID as part of the QDDR implementation. The Chief Economist job at USAID is new.
"The new position of Chief Economist (CE) will help establish USAID as a global leader for innovative policy analysis, research, and implementation," read an internal USAID email about Radelet's move, obtained by The Cable. Radelet will be part of the senior management team and report director to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.
According to the email, the job will have four functions:
1. Building USAID's capacity to conduct
rigorous economic analysis, especially macroeconomic analysis,
2. Developing a network of leading economic researchers and development economists,
3. Cultivating a new generation of economists and research analysts at the Agency, and
4. Providing strategic and analytical support to USAID's work in priority countries, and implementation of Presidential Initiatives and the Presidential Policy Directive.
Before working at CGD, Radelet was a founding co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Africa, the Middle East, and Asia from 2000 to 2002.
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.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Incoming House Foreign Affairs chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) defeated a bill Thursday evening that would have committed the United States to combating forced child marriages abroad, by invoking concerns about the legislation's cost and that funds could be used to promote abortion. The episode highlights the tough road that the Obama administration will face in advancing its women's rights and foreign aid agenda during the next Congressional session.
Non-governmental organizations, women's rights advocates, and lawmakers from both parties spent years developing and lobbying for the "International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010," which the House failed to pass in a vote Thursday. The bill failed even though 241 Congressmen voted for it and only 166 voted against, because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) brought it up under "suspension of the rules." This procedure has the advantage of not allowing any amendments or changes to the bill, but carries the disadvantage of requiring two-thirds of the votes for passage.
Even still, supporters in both parties fully expected the bill to garner the 290 votes needed -- right up until the bill failed. After all, it passed the Senate unanimously Dec. 1 with the co-sponsorship of several Republicans, including Appropriations Committee ranking Republican Thad Cochran (R-MS), Foreign Relations Committee member Roger Wicker (R-MS), and human rights advocate Sam Brownback (R-KS).
If passed, the bill would have authorized the president to provide assistance "to prevent the incidence of child marriage in developing countries through the promotion of educational, health, economic, social, and legal empowerment of girls and women." It would have also mandated that the administration develop a multi-year strategy on the issue and that the State Department include the incidence of forced child marriage during its annual evaluation of countries' human rights practices.
So what happened? Ros-Lehtinen first argued that the bill was simply unaffordable. In a Dec. 16 "Dear Colleague" letter, she objected to the cost of the bill, which would be $108 million over five years, and criticized it for not providing an accounting of how much the U.S. was already spending on this effort. The actual CBO estimate (PDF) said the bill would authorize $108 million, but would only require $67 million in outlays from fiscal years 2011 to 2015.
Ros-Lehtinen introduced her own version of the bill, which she said would only cost $1 million. But in a fact sheet (PDF), organizations supporting the original legislation said that Ros-Lehtinen's bill removed the implementation procedures that gave the legislation teeth. "Without such activities, the bill becomes merely a strategy with no actual implementation. And without implementation of a strategy, the bill will have an extraordinarily limited impact," they wrote.
Regardless, the supporters still thought the bill would pass because House Republican leadership had not come out against it. But about one hour before the vote, every Republican House office received a message on the bill from GOP leadership, known as a Whip Alert, saying that leadership would vote "no" on the bill and encouraging all Republicans do the same. The last line on the alert particularly shocked the bill's supporters.
"There are also concerns that funding will be directed to NGOs that promote and perform abortion and efforts to combat child marriage could be usurped as a way to overturn pro-life laws," the alert read.
The bill doesn't contain any funding for abortion activities and federal funding for abortion activities is already prohibited by what's known as the "Helms Amendment," which has been boiler plate language in appropriations bills since 1973.
Invoking the abortion issue sent the bill's supporters reeling. They believed that it was little more than a stunt, considering that Republican pro-life senators had carefully reviewed the legislation and concluded it would not have an impact on the abortion issue.
Rep. Stephen LaTourrette (R-OH) called out the Republican leadership for invoking the abortion issue to defeat the forced child marriage act in a floor speech Friday morning.
"Yesterday I was on the floor and I was a co-sponsor with [on] a piece of legislation with [Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)] that would have moved money, no new money, would have moved money so that societies that are coercing young girls into marriage... we could make sure that they stay in school so they're not forced into marriage at the age of 12 and 13," LaTourette said. "All of a sudden there was a fiscal argument. When that didn't work people had to add an abortion element to it. This is a partisan place. I'm a Republican. I'm glad we beat their butt in the election, but there comes a time when enough is enough."
But it was too late for LaTourette and other Republicans who had fought hard for the bill, including Aaron Schock (R-IL). The bill is even less likely to pass next year, when the GOP will control the House and Ros-Lehtinen will control the Foreign Affairs committee.
The main author of the bill was Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), who was incensed when the bill failed in the House.
"The action on the House floor stopping the Child Marriage bill tonight will endanger the lives of millions of women and girls around the world," Durbin said in a Thursday statement. "These young girls, enslaved in marriage, will be brutalized and many will die when their young bodies are torn apart while giving birth. Those who voted to continue this barbaric practice brought shame to Capitol Hill."
For the NGO and women's advocacy community, the implications of this defeat extend much further than just this bill. They also saw Republicans invoke the abortion issue when objecting to the International Violence Against Women Act and expect the new Congress to push for reinstatement of the "Mexico City Policy," which would prevent federal funding for any organizations that even discuss abortion.
"Any time a health bill that has to do with women and girls comes to the House floor, we're going to see a debate like the one we just saw," said one advocacy leader who supported the bill. "It's hard to imagine how any development bills are going to pass in this environment."
The protection of women and girls is a major focus of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who promised to elevate the issue Thursday when rolling out the State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She has said that forced child marriage is "a clear and unacceptable violation of human rights", and that "the Department of State categorically denounces all cases of child marriage as child abuse".
State's Ambassador at Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer has worked hard on the issue behind the scenes. But at the eleventh hour, when the going got tough, the bill's supporters said that the administration was nowhere to be found. In October, the White House decided to waive all penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, another Durbin led bill that the NGO community supports.
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 60 million girls in developing countries now between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they reached 18. The Population Council, a group focused on reproductive and child health, estimates that the number will increase by 100 million over the next decade if current trends continue.
Several non-governmental organizations praised the State Department's first- ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which was released on Wednesday, while others pointed out what they see as the shortcomings of the document and worried about whether it could ever be implemented.
One huge issue is whether Congress, where power in the House is about to shift from Democratic to Republican hands, will properly fund the initiatives in the QDDR. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke extensively on Wednesday about how she sees the QDDR as a document that can justify funding for diplomacy and development next year, while also rebuilding the capacity of USAID and reforming the way the State Department does business both at home and abroad.
"Through the QDDR, Secretary Clinton and [USAID] Administrator [Rajiv] Shah have demonstrated their commitment to changing the way we do business and increasing the effectiveness, efficiency and accountability of our foreign affairs agencies," said outgoing House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA). "I look forward to working with them, along with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, to institutionalize durable reforms that protect national security, advance global prosperity and promote shared values."
The new incoming chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), didn't have an immediate reaction to the report, but pledged earlier this month to use her perch to reduce funding for both the State Department and foreign operations.
"It's all about implementation," said Gordon Adams, former head of national security budgeting for the Clinton White House. "As the Secretary said, the budget environment is tight. So getting some of this funded is going to be hard, especially when the Republicans are gunning for foreign aid."
Adams, who also teaches at American University and works on budget issues at the Stimson Center, released a scorecard on Wednesday pointing out the successes and shortcomings of the review. For example, it said that the QDDR does a good job of laying out the major goals and challenges facing American diplomatic efforts but fails to "prioritize roles and missions and provide metrics for success."
Similarly, the QDDR succeeds at outlining the need for more budgetary planning and coordination but lacks sufficient detail about the process to link budget decisions to personnel and management changes, Adams' scorecard noted.
Various development organizations praised the report on Wednesday, and pledged to keep a close eye on the changes as the implementation process moves forward.
For example, the ONE Campaign, an organization dedicated to combating extreme poverty, praised the decision to give big development initiatives to USAID.
"ONE applauds the move to focus leadership of the Administration's two signature development initiatives - Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative," said CEO David Lane. "We will now look to USAID to demonstrate its ability to deliver on the admirable and critical outcomes promised by these two initiatives."
Several praised the Clinton team for completing the review, but noted that its success or failure will be determined by actions, not the words on the page.
"I have seen many exhaustive reviews during my time in both Congress and the Cabinet, and while no one may ever remember the acronym, the QDDR will have a tremendous impact in ensuring our civilian programs are more effective and efficient," said U.S. Global Leadership Coalition Chairman Dan Glickman.
Paul O'Brien, vice president of policy and advocacy campaigns for Oxfam America, noted that while the QDDR clearly puts ambassadors and chiefs of missions at the head of country teams as the so-call "CEOs" of American diplomacy, it doesn't tackle how the inevitable conflicts between short-term foreign policy objectives and longer-term development goals are resolved.
"The QDDR is an important step in reaffirming the efforts to modernize USAID and further elevate it as ‘the world's premier development agency. But the document leaves open the question of how the United States will resolve situations where diplomacy and development will require different approaches and tradeoffs," he said.
David Beckmann and George Ingram, co-chairs of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), called for the reforms in the QDDR to be codified in law through corresponding congressional action.
"These reforms would pay major dividends in terms of lives saved and improved around the world -- and they would make sure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are getting into the hands of people who need them. But they will only have lasting impact if the Administration and bipartisan Members of Congress work together to develop and pass legislation that establishes them in law," they said in a statement.
Clinton acknowledged most of these concerns in her town hall meeting in Foggy Bottom on Wednesday morning and promised that the QDDR release will be the beginning, not the end, of the reform process.
"I'm determined that this report will not merely gather dust, as did so many before it," she said, adding with a smile, "I'm looking forward to the many challenges of implementation."
We know we've said this before, but the State Department promises that it is really, truly, honestly preparing to roll out its first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review next week, probably on Dec. 15.
When we last spoke to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, in October, he said the release would come that month. The release date was then pushed back until Nov. 15, then Dec. 1, then Dec. 15. The final interagency approval is still pending, but the State Department is committed to getting it done and releasing the document next week, multiple State Department sources confirmed to The Cable today.
Some in the development community were confused this week after invitations for a Dec. 16 QDDR rollout event were sent out on the afternoon of Dec. 9, and then subsequently the event was put on hold the morning of Dec. 10. The Dec.16 event was to feature speeches by State Department Policy Planning chief Anne-Marie Slaughter (who is leaving Washington soon to return to Princeton University) and USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg (yes, both State and USAID have a deputy named Steinberg).
The rollout will come next week, but the USIP invite simply jumped the gun, our sources report. We'll believe it when we see it. For a sneak peak at a draft of the QDDR sent around last month, click here.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he had discussed holding a vote on the New START treaty with Russia this year with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and that he expected this to happen.
"I confident that we are going to be able to get the START treaty on the floor, debated and completed before we break for the holidays," Obama said after his bilateral meeting today with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski. "That's not linked to taxes; that's something that on its own merits is supposed to get done, needs to get done."
As of last Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told The Cable that a deal with Republicans to move the treaty this month was close at hand. But if the Senate GOP leader on this issue, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), is close to striking a deal, he is keeping that information to himself.
"There's a lot going on," Kyl told reporters after a meeting Wednesday with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). "We're trying to make sure that there is adequate time for each of the things that have to be done. And senators don't want to feel like they're being cheated of that adequacy of time. They don't want to be jammed."
Kyl had linked the New START vote to a resolution of the tax debate last week, saying that debate on New START can't go forward until the tax issue was resolved. Kyl has also said that the Senate needs at least two weeks to work on the treaty and address GOP senators' concerns about nuclear modernization, missile defense, and verification.
Meanwhile, virtually everybody who hasn't yet weighed in on the treaty is now chiming in. A group of GOP House members (who can't vote on the pact) sent a letter on Tuesday calling for the treaty to be delayed until next year.
Now, The Cable has learned that House Democrats, led by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), have sent their own letter calling for swift ratification.
Former President George H.W. Bush issued a one line statement Wednesday in support of the treaty. But he declined to say that the treaty should be ratified this year, similar to the stance former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took Tuesday.
"I urge the United States Senate to ratify the START treaty," Bush 41's statement read.
Ever since President Barack Obama took office, his administration has refused to sell military equipment to Georgia. In a newly released WikiLeaks cable, the U.S. ambassador to Russia made the argument that U.S. military support to Georgia is unwise because it would upset the U.S.-Russian "reset."
"A decision to move towards a more robust military relationship with Georgia will imperil our efforts to re-start relations with Russia," read a June 2009 cable signed by U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle. "Our assessment is that if we say ‘yes' to a significant military relationship with Tbilisi, Russia will say ‘no' to any medium-term diminution in tensions, and feel less constrained absent reverting to more active opposition to critical U.S. strategic interests."
The U.S.-Russia reset policy is not as important to Russia as its "absolute" priority of expanding its influence in Eurasia, Beyrle wrote. He said that sending military supplies to Georgia would cause Russia to backtrack on other areas of U.S.-Russia cooperation, including joint action to pressure Iran.
Besides, the Russians don't think that the United States possesses the power to force a resolution to the situation in the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has occupied since the end of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Beyrle explained in the leaked cable.
The Obama administration hasn't actually set forth a policy banning weapons sales to Georgia. They simply haven't sold weapons to Georgia and don't plan on doing so. That de facto ban on arms sales has riled some in Washington, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"The United States, under substantial Russian diplomatic pressure, has paused the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia, and no U.S. assistance since the war has been directly provided to the Georgian Ministry of Defense," Lugar's staff wrote in a December 2009 report. "Consequently, Georgia lacks basic capacity for territorial defense."
Contradicting Lugar, the Beyrle cable argues that arms sales would actually be harmful for Georgian national security, because it increases the likelihood of sparking another war that Georgia would surely lose.
"From our vantage point, a burgeoning military supply relationship with Georgia is more of a liability for Georgia than a benefit," Beyrle wrote. "We recognize that our suggested approach would be deeply dissatisfying to Saakashvili, but we see ... no way to neutralize the advantages of geography, size, and capabilities enjoyed by Russia."
Samual Charap, associate director for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center of for American Progress, agreed. "Instead of the argument of whether we can fulfill this desire of the Georgian government, we have to step back and say ‘what is the U.S. interest here,'" he said. "There's no such thing as a military balance or a military deterrent in this case."
More broadly, Charap and top administration officials argue that the reset policy with Russia is actually good for Georgia, even if it means that the United States won't sell it weapons.
"I guess the question is: Is Georgia and is the rest of Europe more secure today than they were -- than Europe was when we first got here? And I think our answer is yes," Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, said in June.
"The reset protects Georgia because Russia now has a whole lot more to lose," added Charap. "Before, nobody in Moscow was going to think ‘what will they think in Washington,' because they didn't care. Now they care."
Other experts said that while the Beyrle cable reflects just one man's opinion, it fits into a broader pattern of an Obama administration that has ignored Georgia and other parts of central Asia due to a focus on improving U.S.-Russian ties.
"Having a reset policy is fine, but what the administration has not done is create a simultaneous comprehensive policy for the central Asian states," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Right now 100 percent of our Georgia policy is about Russia, where it should be about 25 percent."
Petersen agreed that selling arms to Georgia is not a panacea, but should be combined with other types of assistance, including civil institution building, which is mentioned in Beyrle's cable.
"The Georgians love banging the table and saying give us lots of arms, but they are just as myopic as this cable was," Petersen said. "If you're going to do arms sales, you have to do 10 other things relating to bolstering Georgia."
The cable, by alluding to Russian corruption and heavy handedness in the disputed territories, fits into the larger picture of State Department reporting, as revealed by WikiLeaks, which privately emphasizes Russian misbehavior in Georgia. These cables, including reports on Russian military and intelligence attacks inside Georgia dating back to 2004, go well beyond what U.S. diplomats commented on in public.
Although Beyrle's cable does not represent U.S. official policy, some experts see a White House keen to adopt its candid recommendations.
"As the U.S. ambassador to Russia, naturally he is going to a focus on a better relationship with Russia, so you can't say this necessarily this trickles up to the Obama administration's policy," said Petersen. "But a senior official at State is clearly saying we should throw Georgia under the bus."
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
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
The U.S.-Russian "reset," meant to repair relations between the two former rivals, has been led by U.S. President Barack Obama and his counterpart, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The White House sees the reset, along with its key deliverable, the New START nuclear reductions treaty, as part of its effort to strengthen Medvedev's credibility within the Russian system, as opposed to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Vice President Joseph Biden spoke of how New START fits into the administration's drive to empower Medvedev at a small roundtable on Nov. 20 with a group of foreign affairs columnists, including your humble Cable guy.
"I do believe that there is a play here," he said. "Medvedev has rested everything on this notion of a reset. Who knows what Putin would do? My guess is he would not have gone there [in terms of committing to the reset], but maybe."
Russia experts aren't so sure that passing New START would strengthen Medvedev's position vis a vis Putin. Most of them believe that Putin was, is, and will likely remain the more powerful of the two Russian leaders.
Biden acknowledged that nobody in Washington, including himself, really knows what's going on inside the Kremlin between Medvedev and Putin, but he truly believes that a stronger "reset" policy, which includes ratifying New START, is good for Medvedev -- and a stronger Medvedev is good for U.S.-Russia relations.
"The centerpiece of where Medvedev is, is this reset. And [START] is the crown jewel inside that reset, because it wasn't Putin pushing this, it was Medvedev," Biden explained. "I'm not suggesting that if START fails, all of the sudden we're back in a Cold War with Russia. But I am saying that the things in the margins that make a big difference right now might be different."
Biden pointed to what he characterized as "unprecedented" Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran as areas where the reset policy has advanced U.S. interests, and which could be jeopardized if New START fails.
But Russia experts from the left and right agreed that the idea of a rift on foreign policy between Medvedev and Putin is often exaggerated in Washington, and that Medvedev isn't likely to have pursued the reset without Putin's agreement. But they also agreed that Putin's likely return to the presidency in 2012 spells trouble for the U.S.-Russia relationship.
"We have a tendency in Washington to see a mortal struggle over the strategic direction of Russia between Medvedev and Putin that simply doesn't exist in reality," said Samuel Charap, fellow at the Center for American Progress. "However, the implications of a return to the presidency for Putin are serious and significant in a negative way for the U.S."
As president, Putin did engage in arms control agreements with the Bush administration, including signing the 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), known as the Moscow Treaty, which would be nullified by New START. But Putin also left office with a bad taste in his mouth regarding arms control deals with Washington, after the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty..
Charap said it's wise to have a "healthy skepticism" about Biden's notion that there are real differences on strategic questions between Medvedev and Putin. "I cannot imagine that major strategic decisions of national import are taken by Medvedev without the consultation of Putin," he said.
Whether or not Putin would be more or less amenable to New START, the Obama administration shouldn't be trying to play the murky game of internal Russian politics, other experts said.
"It's a dangerous path to go down to try to split Medvedev and Putin," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Although focusing on Medvedev seems to have produced some dividends, we should not be under the illusion that we can elevate Medvedev to be the principal decision maker, because he will never be as long as Putin is around."
"I don't see any evidence to show that there's a split between Medvedev and Putin on this issue," Petersen said. "They actually agree on this issue, which is that they are willing to cooperate now but they will take any opportunity to get out of their responsibilities while holding the U.S. to their side of the agreement."
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Russia's former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who served under President Putin, described the Medvedev-Putin relationship as that between "a boss and senior assistant who temporarily occupies the position of president of the country."
When asked if he thinks Putin will run for president in 2012, Kasyanov said, "I wouldn't say ‘run,' just step in."
As the White House scrambles to secure enough GOP Senate votes to ratify the New START treaty with Russia, there's a lot of overt political grandstanding -- and a lot of horse trading going on behind the scenes.
In a long floor speech on Wednesday Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) declared, "I am deeply concerned the New START treaty may once again undermine the confidence of our friends and allies in Central and Eastern Europe." Then, quietly, he offered his support to the Obama administration in exchange for waiving visa requirements for Polish citizens.
Various GOP senators have submitted demands in exchange for their support of the treaty, but they are usually related to concerns over the treaty itself. For example, the administration has offered Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) over $84 billion for nuclear modernization, under the premise that shoring up the safety of the stockpile is needed to ensure national security.
But admitting Poland into the State Department's Visa Waiver Program, a longstanding aim for the Polish government, is pretty tough to tie to the New START treaty. Here's how Voinovich's office linked the issues in a statement given Thursday to The Cable.
"Senator Voinovich is eager to strengthen the United States' relations with our allies in Eastern Europe to allay their concerns stemming from President Obama's pursuit of the ‘Reset Policy,' and the expansion of the existing Visa Waiver Program does just that," said Voinovich's press secretary Rebecca Neal.
Neal said that Voinovich requested an expansion of the Visa Waiver Program following a Sept. 9 phone conversation with Vice President Joseph Biden.
"During the call, Vice President Biden asked what the administration could do to address Senator Voinovich's concerns regarding the treaty, as well as other matters of importance to the senator," said Neal. "The vice president's offer was not limited to items already in the treaty."
Voinovich drove home his advocacy for the Poles in a long floor speech Wednesday about New START that was seen by some as an indication he wasn't ready to support the treaty.
"The president's stated goal of a world without nuclear weapons is noble, but I believe the Senate's consideration of the New START treaty must be considered through a wider lens that includes the treaty's implications for our friends and allies in the former captive nations," said Voinovich.
Voinovich even went so far as to circulate a proposed amendment to the Senate's resolution for ratification for New START, obtained by The Cable, that would prevent the treaty from going into force unless the Visa Waiver Program was opened up to Poland.
A Polish diplomat told The Cable that Warsaw has been working with Voinovich for years on this issue."We knew about this initiative, we support it, and we like it. We have cooperated with Senator Voinovich for years over the issue," the diplomat said. "Maybe with the help of Senator Voinovich we can achieve this in the next months."
But Voinovich may also have interests at home informing his amendment: Large parts of Ohio were settled by Polish immigrants, and second- and-third generation Poles are extremely influential in Ohio government.
The diplomat said that for Poles, and their relatives all over Ohio, the issues is one of fairness -- not related to U.S.-Russian relations in any way.
"We don't fear the ‘reset' with Russia, but the main issue is that we are suffering an injustice right now by being excluded from the program."
Biden's office declined to comment.
Update: Pawel Maciag, press attaché for Embassy of Poland in Washington, wrote in to The Cable, "Quotes from a Polish diplomat published in this article may have mistakenly suggested that Poland takes a position regarding linkage between ratification of the New START and Visa Waiver Program. We do not. We are very sorry for the misunderstanding."
Meanwhile, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski published an article Friday that said, "It is important to make clear: my government supports the ratification of New START, because we believe it will bolster our country’s security, and that of Europe as a whole."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the key Republican vote in the drive to ratify the New START treaty, said Tuesday he doesn't believe the treaty should be voted on this year.
"When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," Kyl said in a statement. "I appreciate the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Kerry, DOD, and DOE officials." ?
Kyl spoke with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about it last week. A possible meeting between Kyl, Biden, Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the works and could happen on Wednesday. The treaty was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 14 to 4 on Sept. 16, and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
The Washington Post reported that the White House is offering an additional $4.1 billion for nuclear facilities. This latest offer comes on top of the other promises related to nuclear modernization, which have a price tag totaling over $80 billion, that the administration has offered in an effort to win over Senate Republicans.
A senior administration official, speaking to the Financial Times, warned if the treaty isn't ratified this year, all that money for the nuclear complex could go away. "There is a risk that not moving ahead [in the Senate now] could shatter the fragile consensus on modernizing the nuclear complex," the official said.
But a senior GOP aide tells The Cable on Tuesday that the GOP senators haven't actually received the new offer of money for the nuclear labs, nor have they received an updated version of a classified report on the nation's nuclear complex, known as the "1251 report."
"There was no offer of $4 billion for modernization. The administration hasn't even delivered the new 1251 plan yet," the aide said. When asked what this means for START ratification during the lame duck session, the aide said, "The administration's eleventh hour bid is coming two hours too late."
Administration officials say privately that they are becoming increasingly frustrated with Kyl, and increasingly skeptical that he is negotiating in good faith. They even sent a team to Arizona to present him with the administration's response to his requests, including the broad outlines of the additional $4 billion offer for modernization, one official said.
According to this administration official, Kyl asked the administration to secure the full 2011 budget request for modernization, to expedite the budget process for 2012, to show him the 2012 budget request before the Senate vote on New START, and to update the long-term plan that was submitted to Congress in May on modernization.
"They asked us for certain things, we worked through the process to give it to them," the administration source said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is waiting for the administration to strike a deal with Kyl before scheduling the debate and vote on New START. Reid's spokesman Jim Manley told The Hill, "Now that the election is over, hopefully the White House and Senate Republicans can reach an agreement that will allow us to ratify the treaty by the end of the year."
Meanwhile, senior administration officials keep driving home their message that New START must be done during the lame duck.
"Before this session of Congress ends, we urge senators to approve an arms control treaty that would again allow U.S. inspectors access to Russian strategic sites and reduce the number of nuclear weapons held by both nations to a level not seen since the 1950s," wrote Gates and Clinton in a Washington Post op-ed Monday. "Time is running out for this Congress."
President Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week that he was committed to ratifying the treaty during the lame duck session, calling it his "top foreign policy priority" for the rest of the year.
Some top Democrats are also calling for the treaty to be postponed until next year.
"I'm a firm yes vote, but the lame duck session should focus on jobs, the economy, and reducing the debt," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) told The Cable. "We can take care of the START treaty after the first of the year."
President Obama's 10-day trip to Asia kicked off with a three-day stay in India - and that's no accident. The administration has been expanding its cooperation with India on a range of issues outside the South Asian subcontinent since this spring, when it began a high-level dialogue led by the State Department regarding how the two countries could collaborate in East Asia.
The effort, led jointly by the State Department's East Asia and Pacific (EAP) and South and Central Asia (SCA) affairs bureaus, has involved two high-level meetings between U.S. and Indian officials. The first meeting, held in New Delhi last spring, was led by Assistant Secretary of State for EAP Kurt Campbell but also included Derek Chollet, deputy director for policy planning, and SCA's Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Owens. The second round, which took place in Washington in September, also included Assistant Secretary of State for SCA Robert Blake. Defense Department and National Security Council officials participated as well.
The U.S.-India dialogue on East Asia is the first of a series of new consultations between the United States and India. Two State Department officials tell The Cable that similarly structured dialogues are planned for coordinating U.S. and Indian policy on Afghanistan, Africa, and elsewhere. But the East Asia-focused dialogue is the first and the only one that has had formal meetings so far.
"One of the reasons the president went to India is to consecrate this notion of India as a global power," one State Department official said. "Asia is one of the key areas where we see India increasing its role and its influence and its engagements overall."
Along with Obama's endorsement of India for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, the joint statement issued by Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh codified the idea that the U.S.-India relationship was expanding to tackle global problems, specifically those in East Asia.
"The two leaders agreed to deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia, and decided to expand and intensify their strategic consultations to cover regional and global issues of mutual interest, including Central and West Asia," the statement read.
The officials made it clear that the U.S.-India dialogue on East Asia is not meant solely to devise strategies for combating China's political and military rise.
"Both the Indians and the U.S. would 100 percent agree with the idea that the most important thing we have to do is we have to get China right. But this is not some conspiracy theory on containing China," one official said. But he did say that "India's role can become very important when it comes to managing a variety of shifts that are taking place in the Asia-Pacific."
So far, the discussions have centered around how the U.S. and Indian approach to regional organizations like the East Asia Summit, and how the two countries can cooperate on issues like climate change, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response.
Many East Asia experts, however, suspect that the dialogue's primary purpose is ultimately related to China's growing power.
"It all comes down to China," said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. "China is right now an absolute ascendant power, even to the point where people are over projecting China's rise. If you can deny China its two ocean strategy, you have the potential to enlarge the chess pieces."
The move is part of an overall administration effort to develop a more cohesive U.S. strategy in Asia, Cronin said.
"What the State Department has done is break down the previous geographical barrier that was raised between East and South Asia," said Cronin. "India just gives you so much more maneuvering room. State is trying to take advantage of that, deliberately so and wisely so."
He warned that the Indians might not be able to move toward such seamless coordination as quickly as those in the United States might want them to.
"There's a massive hedging going on in Asia both for and against the U.S. and China. The Indians don't want to be drawn into a tight alignment against China. They want to play it both ways," Cronin said.
Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that the dialogue represented "a significant change" in the countries' cooperation in East Asia.
"India not only wants to be part of that game, they want to make sure the United States is. The United States is very interested in having India being part of that game," she said. "This is a shift of emphasis for both countries."
A joint letter demanding more information about the Obama administration's proposed $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia was sent to top administration officials on Friday with the signatures of 198 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
The letter, first reported on The Cable, was coordinated jointly by outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and incoming chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, it spells out a long list of concerns lawmakers have about the sale and demands answers to several questions about how the deal fits into U.S. national security strategy. The lawmakers question whether Saudi Arabia is acting in conjunction with U.S. interests and whether the deal has enough checks and balances to ensure U.S. as well as Israeli interests.
"We are writing to raise concerns and pose a number of strategic questions about the impact such sales would have on the national security interests of the United States and our allies," the lawmakers wrote. The deal would be the largest arms sale in U.S. history and another $30 billion sale of Naval technology to the Kingdom is also said to be in the works.
The Obama administration defends the deal as vital, and Israel has raised few objections. But although lawmakers haven't said they will move to kill the sale, they aren't forswearing that course of action, either.
"There are a lot of questions to be answered on this," a GOP House aide told The Cable. "If Israel doesn't strongly object that doesn't mean it's not problematic."
Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro, whose office was key in negotiating the deal, told reporters on Oct. 20 that he did not anticipate strong resistance to the deal on Capitol Hill.
"Congress is a big place and there are a lot of members, and there may be differing opinions about the sale. But we feel comfortable that we have done adequate pre-consultations with members of Congress that there will not be a barrier to completing this sale," Shapiro said.
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.
On the same day he visited his boyhood home of Indonesia, President Obama nominated David Carden, a securities lawyer and top fundraiser from his presidential campaign, to be the United States' first ever resident ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But to Washington's Asia policy community, Carden is a complete unknown.
Carden, who chairs the securities litigation and SEC enforcement practice at the law firm Jones Day, partnered with his wife Rebecca Riley to raise at least $500,000 for Obama's campaign. The campaign didn't disclose exact fundraising figures for their biggest bundlers, but Carden and Riley were among Obama's top 35 fundraisers.
Obama's presidential campaign raised at least $76.5 million from "bundling," a means by which supporters who have exceeded their personal contribution limits round up contributions from friends, family, and associates and present them to the campaign in one big bundle.
Carden's selection is another example of the White House's tendency to give diplomatic posts to those who filled its campaign coffers, rather than regional experts or seasoned diplomats. Other examples of the phenomenon include the appointment of investment banker Louis Susman as ambassador to Britain, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Daniel Rooney as ambassador to Ireland, entertainment mogul Charles Rivkin as Ambassador to France, and California lawyer John Roos as ambassador to Japan.
The appointment comes at a crucial time for the Obama administration, which is actively attempting to deepen its engagement with Asian nations. The success or failure of that effort will, in large part, be linked to the performance of America's first envoy to ASEAN who will live in Jakarta and work on this issue full time. ASEAN is also a key avenue through which the U.S. is addressing the rise of China and ASEAN countries are looking to Washington to match the increased pressure and influence being brought to bear on the region by Beijing.
The choice of Carden, who has limited diplomatic or regional expertise, came as a surprise to many in the Asia community that he will now be working with on a daily basis.
"We don't know him," said Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He doesn't have a lot of experience in Southeast Asia as far as I can tell. I still don't know the rationale for matching him up with this job."
As an international securities litigation attorney, Carden has dealt with cases involving Asian clients, including in Indonesia, Singapore, China. He's also dealt with clients from England, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and many other countries, according to the Jones Day website. He has represented several major financial firms, including Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch. (The latter three no longer exist).
If confirmed by the Senate, Carden would be the second U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, but the first to actually live in the region. Scot Marciel, who did the job from Washington while being dual-hatted as the deputy assistant secretary of state for southeast Asia, is now the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. The U.S. Embassy in Indonesia, which Marciel heads, will serve as the location for Carden's new staff.
Carden's job will be to work with the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, prepare for big ASEAN meetings and visits, and build up an institutional foundation for U.S. interaction with ASEAN particularly on issues related to business, trade, and investment.
"David Carden has been working and developing investment opportunities in Asia since the early 1990s -- a market that he, like the president, long ago identified as critical to increasing U.S. exports and trade," a White House official told The Cable. "As the first resident ambassador to ASEAN, Mr. Carden will work to implement the president's plan to double exports over the next five years, as well as ASEAN's mission to accelerate economic growth in the region, strengthen ties between the ASEAN nations and the United States, and promote regional peace and stability."
Bower said that Carden's appointment probably signals the end of the notion that the U.S. ambassador to ASEAN might also be named the Special Envoy to Burma, as some, such as Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), have advocated.
"He would really be out of his depth to do both jobs, and you would risk putting ASEAN back in the Burma box again," Bower said, referring to previous American tendencies toward avoiding full engagement with ASEAN because the brutal Burmese regime is a member.
The uncertainty surrounding this new position is exactly why some Asia experts think Carden's selection was a risky choice.
"Given that it's a new position, the very fact that there are no rules for what the U.S. resident ambassador does, I would prefer to have someone with extensive diplomatic experience," said Michael Auslin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Someone with a diplomatic background is more preferable because you're not just dealing with one country you can bone up on, you're dealing with 10 countries."
Not that bringing in a new face is necessarily bad, Auslin noted. For example, Obama's selection of campaign fundraiser John Roos to be U.S. ambassador to Japan at first worried Tokyo, but seems to be working out now.
But the ASEAN post is also unique because there are so many details that have yet to be ironed out regarding how Carden would interact with Marciel, the other nine U.S. ambassadors to ASEAN, the State Department, etc.
"We already have ambassadors to all of these nations, now we are going to have someone on top of that structure. We just don't know how much of this has been thought out," Auslin said.
Carden's Senate confirmation hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, will offer a glimpse into how much he knows about the region he would be moving to, and how much he has thought through his role as America's top envoy to Southeast Asia. But some see his selection as an indication that the White House is not happy with its system of appointing powerful envoys with broad mandates to run specific regions or issues.
"Either they want somebody like Holbrooke to come in and lead or they are just giving out titles and the real policymaking will still be centered back here in Washington," Auslin said. "We just don't know how this is going to work out."
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Wednesday that he still believes the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia can be ratified during the lame duck session of Congress, despite calls from several Republican senators for more time to consider the agreement.
"I'm very hopeful. My expectation is that we're going to try to move to the START treaty and get the START treaty done, because it's a matter of national security," Kerry said on a conference call. "I would think [December] is likely, just given the overall schedule and the Thanksgiving break."
Kerry was calling from Israel, the last leg of his overseas trip that included stops in Sudan, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. He said he spoke Wednesday to the committee's ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN), Vice President Joseph Biden, and that he put in a call to Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the key GOP leader on New START.
In remarks last week, Lugar wondered aloud whether there would be enough time to complete work on the treaty during the lame duck session and stated that some GOP senators would be opposed to taking up the treaty this year. Last week, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who voted for the treay in the committee, told The Cable he would prefer if the debate and vote were delayed until the next session of Congress.
But Kerry said Lugar's only concern was about whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) would set aside enough floor time to properly vet the treaty. "[Lugar] is committed to doing it provided that Harry Reid is committed to putting it on the floor and giving it the time," Kerry said. Kerry and President Obama both have spoken to Reid about this. "[Reid] wants to get this done," Kerry said.
Reid's spokesman Jim Manley told The Hill, "Now that the election is over, hopefully the White House and Senate Republicans can reach an agreement that will allow us to ratify the treaty by the end of the year."
Manley is referring to the package of incentives Biden is putting together for Kyl in addition to the $80 billion the administration already pledged for nuclear modernization and nuclear stockpile maintenance. Biden has been working the phones with GOP senators and spoke with Kyl very recently, Kerry said.
Meanwhile, GOP fence-sitters John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said this week at the Halifax National Security Forum that they want to see the New START treaty issue resolved, but they just don't know if it will happen.
"I'd like for us to resolve the START treaty issue, whether we will or not is just not clear to me," McCain said, without indicating whether he wanted to resolve it by passing it or voting it down.
Graham seemed to indicate he was for the treaty.
"I certainly am leaning towards, I definitely want a treaty because if you can reduce the number of launch vehicles and the number of warheads and still have a nuclear deterrent, that's a good move because it reduces your cost," he said. "So the trade I'm looking for is with the administration, that we'll negotiate a treaty with good numbers as long as you modernize the force that's left... I don't know if there's momentum for that in the lame duck or not."
The bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released its proposal Wednesday to slash $200 billion from the federal budget by 2015, including $100 billion in cuts to the defense budget.
"We have a patriotic duty to come together on a plan that will make America better off tomorrow than it is today," wrote the co-chairs, former GOP Senator Alan Simpson and Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, in their draft proposal. "America cannot be great if we go broke. Our economy will not grow and our country will not be able to compete without a plan to get this crushing debt burden off our back."
$100 billion is exactly the amount Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed in August to save through cost-cutting initiatives over the next five years. But Gates' proposal is meant to incentivize services to find savings by letting them "keep what they catch," and was actually a move to defend the administration's call for ongoing 1 percent real growth in the defense budget going forward.
Simpson and Bowles want that $100 billion to be applied directly to deficit reduction, which they calculate would save $28 billion in 2015. But they don't stop there. The heads of the commission also proposed freezing military pay for three years, reducing procurement by 15 percent, reducing overseas basing personnel by one third, doubling Gates' promise to cut contractors by 10 percent, reducing research funding by 10 percent, and modernizing the military's healthcare system known as Tricare, the costs of which have been spiraling out of control.
In their "illustrative list" of proposed defense cuts, the commission co-chairs identified a host of Pentagon programs that they feel should be scaled back or eliminated. They recommended ending procurement of the V-22 Osprey, cancelling the Marines Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and its version of the F-35 fighter, replacing half of the planned Navy F-35 fighters with F-16s and F18s, cancelling the Navy's "sea-basing" plan, and scuttling the Army's Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), Ground Combat Vehicle, and Joint Tactical Radio.
Wired journalist Spencer Ackerman points out that this is just one more salvo in the ongoing battle over whether it's time to start cutting the defense budget in order to address the nation's deteriorating fiscal situation.
"None of this is binding. It'll take the support of 14 out of 18 commission members to even get Congress to consider Simpson and Bowles' proposals, something congressional leaders have pledged to do. The full commission has until December 1 to vote on the plan, and as David Kurtz writes, the commissioners don't seem pleased with what Simpson and Bowles are offering," Ackerman writes. "Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called the national debt the single greatest threat to national security. Now to see what resistance develops to Bowles and Simpson's effort at confronting it."
Nevertheless, those in the defense community who have been calling for cuts, such as the members of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, are praising the recommendations as a step in the right direction.
"Even though this appears to be a good start, the devil in the details," said Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives. "For example, the cuts may double-count to some extent by claiming Gates' proposed saving as a subtraction from currently proposed deficits. Still, defense is cut close to its proportion of spending - which is a good place to start."
The White House is trying to stay out of the fray, for now.
"The president will wait until the bipartisan fiscal commission finishes its work before commenting," White House spokesperson Bill Burton said in a statement. "He respects the challenging task that the co-chairs and the commissioners are undertaking and wants to give them space to work on it. These ideas, however, are only a step in the process towards coming up with a set of recommendations and the President looks forward to reviewing their final product early next month."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.